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Do you know your ‘red buttons’?

A couple of years ago, I was doing a management training provided by the hospital I worked for back then. One of the topics was team work and the trainer asked us to think about a specific coworker or employee we had trouble working with because they irritated us for some reason.

Someone came to my mind immediately: an experienced nurse whom I respected very much, but who frustrated me to no end. The trainer then explained the concept of ‘red buttons’: certain behavior or even certain words that trigger an excessive, overly emotional response in you.

I immediately knew the trainer was onto something and after some analyzing, I could figure out what went wrong with that nurse. She was patronizing me. She had over 30 years experience as a nurse and she made me feel it. I liked her as a person and I valued her as a nurse, but every time we interacted she pushed that red button with her attitude (though I’m sure she didn’t even mean it like that).

I understood something that I had not seen before. My reaction to her was disproportionate. Yes, she was patronizing, but I could handle other negative behavior (like gossiping about me or challenging my authority) far more easily than what she was doing. Obviously, being patronized was a red button.

We did an exercise later that day in which an actor or actress played the part of the person we had trouble dealing with. I described the nurse to the actress including some of her specific remarks. Then I was told to do a realistic conversation with her. The incredible thing was that I knew it wasn’t her, I knew it was an actress, but she kept pushing that red button and it went all red before my eyes. I felt, really physically felt, my anger burn in me. I had to break off the exercise for being too emotional.

It was an incredible experience to be confronted with my own weaknesses that way. But it taught me something I’ve never forgotten. The first was the power of self-knowledge. Knowing what was happening, taking the time to figure it all out made it possible for me to step back and analyze, rationally seeing that my response was excessive.

red button

The second thing I learned was of even more value. I never, ever got so intensely angry again with that nurse or with anyone else who pushed that red button. The exercise in which the actress pushed my red buttons without stopping was the peak of my emotions. Because I was forced to feel what was happening and to label it as anger, I learned to identify it and recognize it. Ever since, I’ve been able to identify an excessive response to patronizing behavior and ‘switch’ to a more rational mode.

Do you know your red buttons? Do you know which behavior or which words trigger an excessive emotional response in you? If you have trouble working with someone who is otherwise nice, this might be the clue you need to find out why it doesn’t work. When you feel yourself getting irritated, frustrated, or angry, take a step back and try to identify what happened. Do you detect a pattern? If so, take the time to analyze it and work though it. Conquering your red buttons will help you become far more effective as a leader.

Do you recognize the concept of red buttons? What drives you crazy?

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