4 Key Practices for Responding to Triggering Comments

by | Aug 4, 2020 | Nonviolent Communication

Have you ever been working as part of a team, or in a small group during a class or a training, and one person in the group begins making racially coded, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise triggering comments?

And you’re left stunned, taken aback, and unsure of what to say next.

For example, what if someone said something like, “Those Black people are always causing trouble in my neighborhood, and the police should really do something about them.”

How would you respond to this in a relational way that still meets your needs for integrity?

1. Begin by making the implicit explicit.

“It sounds like you’re wishing for protection from the police and also making some very generalized racial assumptions about people in your neighborhood. Is that true?”

“It sounds like you believe only Black people cause trouble, is that true?”

“It sounds like you’re assuming that I would agree with you that Black people cause trouble, is that true?”

“It seems like you don’t realize how that statement sounds. Is that true?”

Whatever it is that you think they are saying, put it in stronger terms and offer it back to them to see what sticks. You can’t discuss something that isn’t being said outright, because someone might just claim that you are misunderstanding them. So, start by making what you think they are saying explici and then move on to the next steps.

2. Decide if you want to use a soft touch or a heavy touch.

This will depending upon the context and relational conditions:

  • A soft touch is more relational and helps the other person save face. It’s about seeing their best intentions and inviting them into their highest selves and using gentle confrontation.

  • A heavy touch is about direct confrontation and limit-setting. It’s about letting them know more about where you stand than about caring for where they are coming from.

Either can be relational depending upon how you deliver the comment.

For example, a soft touch question might sound like, “I’m guessing you don’t really mean to sound so racist right now, do you?”

A strong touch question might sound like, “Do you realize how racist you sound right now?” or “Do you enjoy making racist comments like that to provoke people?”

3. Help them get more connected to their own humanity by offering empathy.

If you’re up for it, you can offer empathy to them – not to their beliefs.

With any triggering content, you can practice making your default response an opportunity to practice surfacing this person’s feelings and needs. You’d practice getting them out of their head and back into their heart. You might offer one of these:

  • Are you feeling angry and wanting justice in the world?

  • Are you’re feeling vulnerable and needing to trust that you can protect yourself and others?

  • Are you feeling grief and sadness and needing more peaceful communities?

The goal here is not to normalize harmful behaviors, but rather to help one another stay connected to their deeper feelings and needs and to stay as much as possible in a place of shared humanity even when we disagree with one another.

4. You can reveal yourself.

You can use this as an opportunity to share your own feelings, thoughts, needs and requests with compassion:

  • When I hear you say that, I notice I start to feel tense and afraid, because I value finding nonviolent and peaceful solutions to issues to like…

  • I notice I feel vulnerable because I have a need for more safety and shared reality in this conversation.

  • I notice I feel confused because I have a need for understanding/growth/mattering of all people.

In summary:

  1. Make the implicit explicit.

  2. Calibrate between soft and heavy touch.

  3. Stay connected to their humanity by focusing on their feelings and needs instead of their beliefs.

  4. Reveal your subjectivity and the impact these things have on you by sharing your own feelings, needs, values, beliefs, and requests.

Without these four tools, most people’s default is tends to alternate between getting flooded and frozen, staying silent and not speaking up, or moving into debate, aggression, and force. Each of those old behaviors actually just keeps the status quo entrenched. Let’s change the conversations, show up in our full humanity, maintain our commitment to increasing consciousness and compassion, and cultivate creative new conversations that move things forward.

I’d love to hear from you. What scripts and strategies have you found useful as you’ve navigated triggering, loaded conversations in these times? Leave a comment below.

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  1. Jaya

    The journey from the resyrictive, judgemental and stuckness in the Amygdala to the spaciousness of choice, compassion and curiosity of the neocortex requires us to recognise and acknowledge our own fears first and be comfortable to name them. Once our own pain finds some resolution we feel an instant self connection. This opens up more space within us to connect to the other with curiosity and compassion…the 4 NVC approaches beautifully explained in the psychological way…the 4 go-tos will help us to move away from reaction to response … I love your explanations Yevette. Love our wise, knowledgeable, geverous spirit.

  2. Terry Gips

    Thank you SO MUCH Yvette!
    Your approach is brilliant! I now have a clear, concise road map about where I can go when confronted with challenging situations. And I can support others when they confront theirs.

    I feel this is all so important that it needs to be widely shared. I’d like to post it on Facebook if it’s ok with you. But I’d urge you to make this a NY Times op-Ed. It’s SO important, especially now.

    With Love and Appreciation,
    Terry Gips

  3. Yves

    Hi Yvette,

    I’m grateful for the inspiration of your sentences and I’m gonna try some of them out.

    In answer to your question about my scripts: I have mixed results with just asking a question without first using words to connect to my intention.

    So my goto sentence to start my response with is: "let me see if I’m understanding you"…pause…self connect…and then whatever comes up. This sentence brings me back to my longing to understand someone and bring us to shared understanding.

    A nice empathic guess that I like to use after this intro-sentence is: "it sounds like you really want to protect something that is important to you, am I getting you?"

    This sentence has "saved" me…or better: saved the connection dozens of times. Now that I’m writing this, I realize my first sentence, "let me see if I’m understanding you" including the pause, has saved me even hundreds of times, woohoo 🙂

    Next up: testing your sentences in real life, can’t wait.

    Oh…and is anything I’m writing resonating with you?

    From Amsterdam, with care,


    • Simona Necula


      I am very new to NVC so my observation will come from intuition and common sense rather than NVC experience.

      I like your suggestion of softening the first step (make the implicit explicit) without devaluing the content. Along with offering empathy as the second step, it would hopefully put us on the path of "connect before correct" in the discussion.

      The "soft/heavy touch" and "reveal yourself" as steps 3 and 4 then flow beautifully and naturally together in my opinion.

      You also underline the power of "pause" to emphasize and connect, not to be neglected.

      Thank you,

  4. Jason

    I always love and appreciate your weekly emails!!! It really helps me to see my own blind spots and work with them. I can resonate with the default strategies you mentioned, and I feel more confident when I see other options and notice when I begin using them. "Yay!" for humbling growth!

  5. Simona Necula


    this is my first contact with this blog and I am very new to NVC. I much appreciate the "recipe" but even more I value the comments, the inputs that add their own flavoring to the recipe!

    Thank you Yvette and thank you all,


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