The “Annoy Me” Button: How to Avoid Pushing Conflict Triggers


For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people say, “That guy really knows how to push my buttons!” When I used the expression around my young son (who was in that curious, question-filled phase of development), I was presented with a sincere inquiry that stopped me in my tracks: “What button is the man pushing?”

His question caught me off guard. I don’t ordinarily give cliché statements like this much thought. So I stumbled and stammered my way through concepts like figure of speech and metaphor in a way a six-year old would understand. I finally came up with what I thought was a pretty good response. I told him I was referring to my “annoy me” button.  It’s a button that when pushed, causes me to get frustrated, angry, and causing me to pull away from the other person.

As time passed and I started thinking more deeply about the nature of interpersonal conflict, I have come to recognize that each person has an annoy me button that represents potential conflict triggers. Pressing the button becomes an invitation to conflict—the beginning of a costly journey that can quickly spiral out of control.

Conflict is triggered when something important to us is threatened. Ultimately, these triggers are tied to a person’s sense of self-worth. If we perceive that our self-worth is threatened, then we are at risk of reacting emotionally, experiencing a change in motivation, and finding ourselves in conflict. For most of us, conflict isn’t a pleasant place and we certainly don’t do our best work when we’re there. It’s far better to prevent conflict in the first place. But how?

Preventing conflict requires a proactive approach. You first need to anticipate that conflict can happen by knowing who you’re dealing with and then asking yourself how other people might view the same situation differently. When two or more people see things differently, there is the potential for conflict. If you can figure that out, you have a good shot at steering clear of it.

When we have a sense for who we’re dealing with, we can choose behaviors that will be less likely to trigger conflict with that person. A well-chosen behavior on our part can prevent conflict with another person, but we also need to prevent conflict in ourselves.  This often has to do with increasing our self-awareness and being willing change our perceptions and reframe the situation.

When we are able make behavior choices that are appropriate for the situation and people involved, we are less likely to push another person’s buttons and unintentionally invite them into conflict. Choosing to perceive others’ behavior toward us through the lens of positive intent allows us to reframe and place a safety latch on our conflict trigger as well. Together, these choices help us prevent conflict and keep us in a place productively engaged with the people around us.


Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at PSP in Carlsbad, Calif. and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.

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