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Hot Buttons: Five Simple Steps To Cool Down Holiday Conflict

From Lorraine Segal’s Conflict Remedy Blog

Fighting holiday nerds

We all have idealized images of the holiday season–perfect gifts and the warm glow of togetherness. But the real stress of expectations and difficult patterns of interactions with family members (perhaps better loved at a distance) can set off our emotional hot buttons or triggers.

Whatever we call these reactions, we know when someone says or does something that “makes” us freeze in fear or hit the roof in anger.

It is possible, however, to “cool down” these hot buttons, improving our communications and increasing our holiday serenity in the process.

Here are 5 steps for cooling down holiday-intensified conflict caused by hot buttons.

Step 1: Identify your hot buttons. We can’t change our response to hot buttons unless we know what they are. So, we start by thinking of a situation where a hot button got pushed by another person. Think about the facts (what happened or what was said) and feelings (how you felt, reacted.) For example, if every time you go home for the holidays, your mother says, ”Have you gained weight?” or your brother-in-law asks if you’ve gotten a real job yet, and you react with shame or anger, you can be confident that she or he hit a hot button.

Now what? I’ve never had much success getting family members to stop “pushing” my hot buttons, even when I’ve clearly identified them. If that’s true for you as well, I recommend steps 2-5.

Step 2: Tell your own story.

The next step is to understand the story you are telling yourself about what the button “pusher’s” intent was and what he/she thinks of you. This often involves some variation of your belief that the other person must think you are unimportant, incompetent, stupid, unlikable, or fat. These internal stories are hurtful, and give hot buttons some of their power.

Step 3: Explore your underlying emotions (backstory).

Our childhood and earlier adult experiences are the true source of the intensity for current hot buttons. If someone’s words or actions remind us of earlier hurtful events, or seem to repeat a pattern, we react against all of those incidences, not simply to the present trigger. Looking at these patterns increases our conscious awareness and understanding of our own responses.

Step 4: Imagine a different story.

After we become aware of the story we are telling ourselves, the next step to imagine a different story. This could mean shifting our vision to enter the other person’s perspective or changing our self-story for the better. For example, perhaps the brother–in-law asking if you found a (better) job wants to show concern and caring, albeit poorly expressed, or feels bad about his own job.

Step 5: Change your response (Act as if).

The final step is to change your response; in effect, to unhook the hot button. Assume for a minute that the interpretation or positive aspect you investigated or invented in step 4 is correct. Then, use this perspective to slow down and change your response. Even if you’re sure they are criticizing you, choosing to act as if the better story is true can help you detach and stay serene during the holidays.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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