I was recently speaking with a close friend about her specific triggers and how this year has been especially hard for her. And although I empathize with her situation, the problem was that this close friend also happens to be one of the most resilient, strongest, and accomplished women I know. If she was struggling, then what hope was there for the rest of us.

Many of us are going through a collective triggering experience right now. Moreover, entering our family holidays and social situations off the back of a year filled with racial tensions, a raging pandemic, and an incredibly divisive presidential election feels almost like a triggering perfect storm. So, what can we do about this?

Early in the pandemic, a lifelong friend who came over to our farm upstate. I suggested that we stay socially distanced and he replied, “You really are the most scared person I know.” I was furiously triggered. As a gay man growing up in the ’80s, being tested weekly, and learning very early on that the words “trust me” was in fact a death threat, being “scared” just felt like being smart. And so, at that moment in our conversation, I did something very simple…I paused. I paused for one breath in and one breath out, thanked him for the wine, and led him to the socially distanced chairs on our lawn. Of course, this didn’t magically take the sting out of his comments. But it did allow me to at least enjoy the rest of our time together. More importantly, it gave me space to reflect on his comments when I was in a calmer and more detached place.

I brought this idea of pausing up with psychoanalyst Barbara Callahan. We were discussing how the uncertainty around the elections was creating a sense of anxiety that often leads us to feeling vulnerable and short-tempered.  I found her reply illuminating;

“A lot of my work with clients deals with the two hemispheres of the brain. I talk to them about how we are socialized to work out of our left brain. […] but that what’s necessary and important is that we’re able to get into the right brain where spontaneous healing takes place. And oftentimes a quick moment of silence is all you need to get you there. […] For example, I posted a tiny thing today on Facebook about education being the solution to the problems we are facing. Someone on my feed wrote me back. It was a big missive about how wrong I was. Instead of responding right away I sat down and did my meditation and afterward I knew I needed to go back to her with empathy and compassion and a sense of solidarity with her.”

I have come to find Barbara’s insights here to be equally applicable in corporate contexts as well. I was once advising an interim CEO in the midst of a company crisis. We had assembled a board meeting and it quickly became clear that we were all anxious to make decisions way faster than they needed to be made. We were debating plans a year out when all we had to do was get through the week. I interrupted—also a kind of pause—and told them my favorite adage from former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. When asked about the Greek Debt Crisis he said simply, “If we had just taken a breath and slowed down there wouldn’t have been a crisis at all.” The tone in the entire room shifted after that. The board paused and stepped back for a second. It was exactly the “right-brain” communication moment we needed.

Does that kind of pause work for all triggering content? In the case of my friend who insisted on calling up my “scaredness” every time we talked or saw each other, eventually, I chose a long pause and we decided to take an extended break from our friendship. I suspect in the long run that our relationship will be better for it.

But what about my accomplished, super resilient, uber accomplished friend? Would taking a breath and stepping back have helped her? Clearly there are times where a pause may be inappropriate or ill-suited to the moment. Stressful moments where we are called into action. Or simply times when a pause just isn’t enough. But it’s difficult to think of an instance where it isn’t at least a tiny bit helpful. Where it’s not at least helping to keep us from indulging in our most reactive impulses. Pausing bridges, the two hemispheres of the brain into greater communion and at least gives us a chance at getting ourselves into a place where spontaneous healing can occur.

This year has been filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and triggering for so many of us. Sure, pausing may not be the solution to all of that, but it might just be the best first step.


  • Fred Dust


    Making Conversation LLC

    Fred Dust is the founder of Making Conversation, LLC and works at the intersection of business, society and creativity. As a designer, author, educator, consultant, trustee, and advisor to social and business leaders, he is one of the world’s most original thinkers, applying the craft and optimism of human-centered design to the intractable challenges we face today. Using the methodology in his forthcoming book Making Conversation, he has been working as the Senior Dialogue Designer with The Rockefeller Foundation to explore the future of pressing global needs; and with The Einhorn Collaborative and other foundations to host constructive dialogue with leaders ranging from David Brooks, Reverend Jenn Bailey, and Vivek Murthy to rebuild human connection in a climate of widespread polarization, cynicism and disruption. He is also proud to be faculty at the Esalen Institute. As a former Global Managing Partner at the acclaimed international design firm IDEO, Fred works with leaders and change agents to unlock the creative potential of business, government, education, and philanthropic organizations. Fred is a frequently requested speaker, advisor, and lecturer. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees for the Sundance Institute, the Board of Directors for NPR, and the Board of Directors at The New School. He was a founder and trustee for IDEO.org, IDEO’s non-profit that designs solutions to global poverty. He lectures widely on various topics, including design methodology, future trends, and social innovation. Fred writes frequently for publications such as Fast Company, Metropolis, and Rotman Magazine. His books include Extra Spatial (Chronicle Books, 2003), which discusses the design of spaces, and Eyes Open: New York and Eyes Open: London (Chronicle Books, 2008), city guides that view exceptional experiences through an urban lens. Fred holds a bachelor’s degree in art history from Reed College and a master’s in architecture from the School of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley.