I Can’t Listen When Triggered

By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist

Welcome to the club. Triggers are strong emotions that overwhelm our ability to listen effectively and think clearly.  They are essentially emotional memories that are partly from the past and partly from the present, and are difficult to unravel and separate. It is easy to think of positive emotional memories, maybe a certain smell of baking bread, a picture from your childhood, or an old song you used to love. Negative emotions, however, are more difficult to place in a sense of time because we are afraid of them.

Now, let’s say you feel those emotions but you do not remember why they are so strong. All you know is that you feel it now. That is a trigger. Feelings of inadequacy, rejection or abandonment work this way.

How do you respond to your triggers?

Psalms 56:8 says: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” It’s a beautiful description of how God cares for us. But it doesn’t end there.  We are also called to self-care.

Paul writes “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).  God asks us to move beyond our triggers into growth.

So how do we listen better?

Chances are you think you’re a good listener.  Just like most people think they are above average in a number of routine tasks, most of us think we are a good listener. We don’t interrupt, we act like we are listening, and we could repeat much of what is said. 

Research suggests effective listening goes a step beyond. The Bible seems to agree.

C larify the feelings and needs behind the message.

1 Peter 3:8: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”

A sk questions that promote discovery, insight and build self-confidence.

“In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

B oundaries are issues and differences that are discussed openly with a goal of helping the person.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:29-32).

Signs of poor boundaries lead to a loss of trust in the relationship.  When one is defensive, or critical, boundaries are poor.  If communication can be collaborative, instead of competitive (listening only to identify errors), communication can leading to building up the relationships, and each person.  “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).


When I ask you to listen to me
And you start giving advice
You have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me
And you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way
You are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me
And you feel you have to do something to solve my problems
You have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen! All I ask is that you listen
Not talk or do – just hear me.

Advice is cheap: the world is full of free advice.

And I can DO for myself. I’m not helpless.

Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
No matter how irrational, then I stop trying to convince you,
And can get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.

And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.

So please listen and just hear me, and if you want to talk,
Wait a minute for your turn, and I’ll listen to you.

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