The ABC’s of Dealing with Conflict and Triggers

Relationships require effort. Whether that relationship be with ourselves or an external individual, they are something we need to constantly invest energy in, with obviously a great payback. Sometimes, however, people get stuck in this pursuit. Conflict and triggers are difficult moments to navigate and can feel overwhelming even to the most open and eager of individuals. In this article I outline a three step approach using the good ol’ ABC’s to help you navigate through moments of conflict, emotional overwhelm, and triggering. The great thing about this platform is that it can be used when you are struggling in a relationship, as well as when the struggle is internal.

First of all, I want to clarify what I mean by ‘triggering.’ This has become a term used very loosely and sometimes comedically in North American society and, because of that, has lost some of its seriousness and resonance for people. Triggering from a biological and therapeutic standpoint is when the primal parts of our brain are cued to respond. A trigger may mean an event, word, song, memory, smell, or anything that brings about a reaction. The brain is activated into a different state as a result of this triggering. This may prompt action from the amygdala which results in a ‘fight, flight, freeze, or fawn,’ response. This trigger may prompt action in the reward circuitry of the brain and drive cravings for a substance, person, or behaviour. Whatever system is activated, the consequences can be debilitating and devastating as people find themselves acting in ways they otherwise would not. Therefore, this is a serious emotional state to be in that people need to learn how to navigate through. We may not be able to avoid getting wet from the tidal wave, but we can grab a raft and get out of there before we get completely overwhelmed.

In external relationships, conflict is inevitable. If you need to read that again, that is okay. I’ll repeat it: Conflict is inevitable. No matter what type of relationship (friendship, romantic, parent-child, collegial), there will be moments of disagreement leading to varying degrees of conflict. Learning about healthy communication techniques (including assertiveness, empathy, and active listening) in addition to the ABC approach supports effective navigation of conflict and promotes greater intimacy and quality of relationship.

The ABC approach:
A: Acknowledge. The first step in the effective navigation of conflict and triggers is to acknowledge what is happening, including your feelings. Internal acknowledgement is essential, external acknowledgement is not always necessary but is recommended (using healthy, assertive, non-blaming language). An external acknowledgment lets the other person know that you are entering a zone where you may not be able to effectively engage with them and sets the stage for B.

What is the value of an internal acknowledgement? I find that many people stay in uncomfortable, dysfunctional, or unproductive situations too long and part of this is because they are ignoring their own feelings and experience. If we can acknowledge how we are feeling, then there is the opportunity to take action. For example, if I recognize I am starting to get very angry, then I can remind myself that continuing to talk would not be helpful. If I am feeling shame, I can hear that, acknowledge it, perhaps that will lessen it and allow me to hear the conversation more honestly rather than through my shame filter.

I recommend people develop their own internal rating scale of feelings intensity. This can be a 1-10 scale or any ratings of your choosing. The value of rating is that this can also guide action. I might recognize that, for me, when I am 7/10 or greater emotional intensity that I am not able to engage in a productive dialogue so I can cope accordingly. I can also identify 4-7/10 as a higher risk zone where I may need to take steps to self-regulate to try and bring down my emotional level.

The acknowledgement can set the stage for step B.

B: Take a break. Sometimes the only reasonable thing to do when we are in conflict or feeling activated is to take a break. Breaks allow us to step away from the situation, self-regulate, and be able to return to the situation with clarity and grounding. Nothing productive happens when we are triggered so to try and convince ourselves to stay and come to reasonable solutions in this state just does not work.

Now, some key tips for taking a break successfully (yes, there are missteps that can be made when taking a break, believe it or not):
Communicate this clearly. If you are around other people, it is important to let them know that you are taking a break to look after yourself. Otherwise, this action can be misinterpreted as stonewalling, avoidance, or ‘ghosting’ someone which can prompt an attack. Have you ever been in a tense situation, you tried to step away without saying anything only to have the other person follow you? This is what communication can help prevent. Speaking up clarifies intention.

Have a plan for your break. Have a predeveloped list of tools and strategies that helps you calm down. This might include physical objects (stress balls, aromatherapy oils, crystals, rocks, self-care cards) and/or strategies (meditation, music, mild body movement, stretches, supports to reach out to, journaling) to be used in a place that is private and safe.

Quantify the break. Leaving without communicating and no plan (even if the triggering is happening when you are on your own) increases the chance for the break to veer into avoidance rather than a healthy boundary. Depending on the level of activation and the person, a break of 10 minutes may be sufficient whereas at other times a break of 24 hours may be needed. A general recommendation is to try and take Step C within 48 hours of a triggering event or conflict. If the time frame goes beyond that, you are more likely to fall into avoidance and not come back.

C: Come back. I was going to write that this is the most important step in this whole process but then I refrained because, let’s face it, they are all critical steps in effectively dealing with conflict and triggers. However, to ensure these actions are motivated by healthy boundaries rather than avoidance, this is the most important step. Leaving, even if there’s been acknowledgement, without any come back when calm to look at the lessons, opportunities and potential for resolution moves the situation into avoidance. Avoidance builds feelings and stress and puts stress on the system, typically resulting in a future explosion (whether external or internal).

How can you set the stage for the come back? When determining that you need to take a break, you can say (to yourself and/or others), “I am feeling quite activated right now and recognize that I need to take a break. However, I recognize this is an important moment so I would like to revisit it. I am going to step away for _______ (however much time you think you need to start). Can we come back to this at that point?” If it is with yourself, clarify your commitment rather than asking for consent. “I am going to come back in _______ (amount of time) and reflect/journal/talk about this with someone after I have taken a break to take care of myself.”

Initially you will need to refocus your attention onto something else during the break to prevent being continuously triggered. Once there has been a physiological and mental settling, you can take some time to reflect on the event and where you need to go from here. Some people find it helpful to write and make notes for themself, others do it more reflectively. Do not go back into the conversation with self or others to fight, convince, or continue the debate, but rather to go in with active listening and honest sharing. It is not about figuring out what or who is right or wrong, it is about hearing, validating, and working together (yes, even with yourself. We abandon ourselves all the time without even realizing it).

Again, these tools work best if complemented by ongoing development of assertive communication, empathy, active listening, healthy self-talk, and emotional intelligence (amongst other areas of personal growth). I wish you the best in practicing these tools to improve your relationship with self and others.