NextGen Know-How: How to Manage Your Emotional Hot Buttons

frustrated young woman screaming
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

4 minutes

Becoming familiar with your triggers is a great starting point for increasing your self-awareness and leading effectively.

I had just returned from a rare weekend away with friends when I walked into my house to find a mess—clothes all over the floor, living room pillows scattered everywhere, papers littering the table and floor, and about fifty tiny staples stuck in the carpet. I felt my frustration rising as my calm, relaxing weekend faded away by the second. This is a familiar scene in my house, since I have three kids ages eight and under. Even though they have a playroom full of toys, they love to play with my things—namely office supplies and the pillows on our couches. 

I like order. I think things to be the way I left them when I left them. I like the pillows to stay on the couch. This has been a hot-button issue for me, these pillows. Having three young kids, things don’t always go how I want them to go. This has been a huge adjustment for someone who is orderly, on time and structured—because kids are not orderly, on time or structured. I used to react really negatively when my kids would mess up my tidy house. Over the past few years, though, I have been working on adjusting my mindset around how we live, setting new expectations for the reality of our daily life. I remind myself regularly that kids are kids, and that getting angry or upset every time I find the pillows on the floor will only make me miserable, not fix the problem. I am working on embracing the chaos, even though it goes against my values and triggers my hot buttons.

Hot buttons. These are situations, events and sometimes people that trigger a negative emotional reaction in you. We all have them. Being aware of your hot buttons is an important piece of effectively managing your emotions.  

You have undoubtedly heard a lot of talk about emotional intelligence and how important it is for successful leadership. Despite what most people think, emotional intelligence is not just about getting along well with people; it’s deeper than that. Emotional intelligence has many elements—how we feel about ourselves, how we interact and connect with others, how we make decisions that involve emotions, how we manage stress and change, and even how we feel about life overall. 

Emotional intelligence is the ability to notice your own emotions and the emotions of others, understand why you are feeling how you feel and consciously choosing your actions and behaviors, even in the face of emotion. This is a skill—it’s not always easy, but becoming familiar with your hot buttons or triggers can be a great starting point for understanding yourself and increasing your self-awareness. 

Which brings me back to the pillows. One of my hot buttons is when things are out of order. I’ve noticed that when I am feeling overwhelmed, it is usually because my space is disorganized or not arranged how I want it—my desk is messy, my schedule is overloaded or the house is in disarray. Knowing this about myself has been integral in helping me manage my emotions around it. Instead of becoming angry, I have learned to pause, take a breath and identify why I am feeling the way I am feeling. I have learned to respond rather than react. As my husband and kids can attest, this has been a big step toward a happier and (semi) peaceful household. 

Below are some questions to ask yourself to bring awareness to your own hot buttons:

  • What makes me angry, or brings out a negative emotional reaction in me?
  • What irritates me at work?
  • What makes me crazy/frustrated/annoyed?

Perhaps your hot button is when someone talks over you or doesn’t listen, or when someone makes a lot of mistakes or excuses, or when your schedule is packed full of meetings and kids’ activities.

Becoming conscious of your hot buttons allows you to build your self-awareness and actively work on handling your reaction when you feel triggered. Managing your emotions is an important part of being an effective and successful leader. This skill creates the ability to approach situations more mindfully and calmly, connect with people on a deeper level and collaborate more effectively. Noticing other people’s emotions helps you to navigate challenging conversations and be purposeful in responding. 

Increasing your emotional intelligence allows you to bring your best self to each situation—to approach your employees, your boss, your colleagues and even your kids—with a big-picture perspective that builds and strengthens relationships. 

Over the next week, whenever you have a strong negative reaction, whether it be frustration, anger or annoyance, take note of the situation: 

  • What specifically happened? 
  • What were you feeling in that situation? 
  • How did you respond? 
  • Is this a pattern that shows up in other areas of your life?

Now please excuse me while I pick up the pillows off the floor. For the fifth time today.cues icon 

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

Compass Subscription