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Manage conflict when it starts by learning your hot buttons

Picture this. It’s a common enough scene—one you might remember from the days when we actually worked together in buildings!

You’re walking down a hallway at work, coming from a meeting, carrying your smartphone and your legal pad. Here comes Joe in the opposite direction, head down. Joe walks past you without even acknowledging your existence.


You hate it when people are aloof! It really sets you off. Grrr.

Welcome to the opening stages of conflict. What’s happened here is Joe has activated one of your hot buttons. So triggered, you are more likely to engage in negative conflict behavior such as going out of your way to avoid Joe at work.

In this post, we’ll look at where your hot buttons come from and what to do when you know one of your hot buttons has been pushed. When you finish the article, you should have some steps you can take to help you turn conflict into collaboration.

Ready? Let’s go.

Where do hot buttons come from?

Most of us have certain things that trigger a strong reaction. It might be specific people, issues or situations. Could be anything. A micro-managing boss. A direct report who can’t be countered on. A self-centered co-worker. These situations that are most likely to irritate us are called hot buttons, or triggers.

Hot buttons reflect our underlying values. When another person’s actions upset us, it is often because it violates our expectations about how people should behave. These expectations can arise from early life experiences.

For example, if you value integrity, someone lying to you—or even just you assuming they are lying—could cause a conflict because their behavior demonstrates to you that they’re untrustworthy. In your mind, something you value is getting “stepped on.” Someone has violated your expectations about how people should behave.

What happens when a hot button is pushed?

What happens when a hot button is pushed is your body enters fight-or-flight mode. This is a biochemical reaction in both humans and non-human animals that enables them to rapidly produce sufficient energy to flee or fight in a threatening situation. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol course through the body. The heart rate shoots up and blood is directed away from the organs and toward the arms and legs to enable fighting or fleeing.

The fight-or-flight response was handy for the earliest humans. See a bear—run! The problem is that our brain often reacts to the more mundane threats we encounter in the modern world—that micro-managing boss, for example—as if our safety we’re threatened. But instead of running from your boss’s office screaming, we make use of some more subtle responses. You engage in destructive conflict management behaviors such as:

  • A winning-at-all costs attitude

  • Emotional outbursts

  • Demeaning the other person

  • Retaliating

  • Giving in just to avoid conflict

  • Becoming self-critical

When we’ve begun to engage in one of these destructive behaviors it’s a sure sign that we are in attack mode. The problem is that the other person is liable to respond to your destructive behaviors with their own fight-or-flight response. At that point, the odds of coming up with a solution to the conflict that everyone can buy into are pretty slim. It’s just going to go from bad to worse.

What are the different types of hot buttons?

The Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) assessment instrument we use at Noble Edge as part of our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration, measures a set of nine different hot buttons typically encountered in the workplace. See if any of these resonate with you:

  • Abrasive—People with this hot button get upset when they have to interact with someone they perceive as arrogant or abrasive. The underlying value is Courtesy.

  • Aloof—People with this hot button reaction strongly when they have to interact with someone who isolates themselves or doesn’t seek input from others. The underlying value is Engagement.

  • Micro-managing—People with this hot button react negatively when they deal with people who constantly check up on their work. The underlying value is Autonomy.

  • Overly-analytical—People with this hot button react strongly when they have to deal with perfectionists who focus on minor issues. The underlying value is Action.

  • Unappreciative—People with this hot button react strongly when they have to deal with people who don’t give credit to others or seldom praise good performance. The underlying value is Recognition.

  • Unreliable— People with this hot button react strongly when they have to deal with people who don’t give credit to others or seldom praise good performance. The underlying value is Commitment.

The first step is to determine your hot buttons

When you find yourself reacting strongly to something a coworker did, you can ask yourself, “What hot button is this pushing?”

Once you’ve identified your hot button, you can move from instinctively reacting to thoughtfully responding. You’re in control.

Instead of blaming the person who “triggered” you, you can conduct what’s known as “reframing.”

In reframing, you try to see the conflict through the eyes of the other person. What is their “context”—their attitudes and opinion and beliefs about proper behavior? What are their values? You ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making about them—about what’s driving their behavior?” Seeing their values as equally as important to them as yours are to you is a crucial step in managing conflict.

Move to constructive conflict behaviors

What is the hallmark of constructive conflict management? It’s when you’re focusing on the ideas presented—and not the personalities. It’s no longer about “winning” the argument. It’s about finding a solution that everyone can get behind.

Here are a few constructive responses you could use to help reduce the conflict:

  • Reflective thinking

  • Delay responding

  • Perspective taking

So, to use our example at the opening of this post, you could step back and ask yourself, “What other explanations might there be to his ‘aloof’ behavior?” With a little bit of brainstorming, you could come up with a number of possibilities:

  • Maybe Joe had just been reprimanded by his boss and is self-absorbed over it

  • Maybe Joe is late for a meeting where he’s going to make an important presentation

  • Maybe Joe’s worried he has offended you and doesn’t want an angry confrontation

The point is you’re searching for solutions instead of blame.

Wrapping up

So, would you like to manage conflict more productively? Learn what your hot buttons are and you’ll be ahead of the game. You’ll be able to respond in such a way that relationships are enhanced and productivity is increased.

Want to learn more? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration. During this interactive online class, participants receive a personalized report of their Conflict Dynamics Profile that measures their tendency to engage in constructive and destructive behaviors. Participants then have real-time opportunities to practice and skill build those behaviors that de-escalate conflict and bring about more collaboration.

Did you like this post? Try The Right Way to "Emote" During Conflict


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