Keep your cool: Watch out for the ‘hot buttons’

As children we sang the rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never harm you.” In reality, that rhyme is not totally accurate. It is not unusual for a counterpart in a negotiation to attempt to push your “hot buttons.” These words and phrases are designed to get you off track and break your concentration or focus. Each of us has hot buttons and has pushed someone else’s buttons in retaliation during a “heated” discussion or negotiation.

According to the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College, “hot buttons” are those irritations and annoyances that can provoke you into conflict. These are situations or characteristics in others that aggravate and frustrate you, perhaps to the point where, despite knowing better, you instigate a conflict. Interactions with button pushers can leave you feeling demoralized, unmotivated, powerless, anxious, frightened and angry (possibly enough to resort to sabotage or other destructive acts).

In the workplace, hot buttons can lead you to be less productive, efficient, organized and creative. They can also negatively affect your life outside of work as well as your physical and emotional well-being.

As stated in an article by Dawn Quesnel, who is a certified professional coach, on her CoachDQ website, the first step toward resolving a hot button issue is understanding how it impacts you. Unless someone is acting in an immoral manner, violating the law or is unethical, you need to look inward when the conflict arises.

Hot button strategies:

  • Take a deep breath and question why this person or situation really bothers you.
  • Don’t retaliate by pushing their “hot buttons;” that would only escalate the conflict.
  • Identify your “hot buttons” and then turn them off.
  • Let the other party know that the behavior will not be rewarded.
  • Separate the moral from the ethical issues.
  • Refocus the discussion/negotiation back on the agenda.
  • Take a break to defuse the tension.

If any of these strategies don’t work, reschedule the discussion/negotiation for another time. There is no reason to continue since nothing will be accomplished in such a tense atmosphere. If the behavior continues, you may wish to request another individual to represent his or her company. This may involve having your superior contact his or her peer at the other company and request the change.

I took the “hot button” test and discovered that “untrustworthy” was my number one hot button. Quesnel’s research found that across gender and at all levels of management, the “hottest” button is untrustworthiness. According to the website,, untrustworthy people are exploitative, manipulative and dishonest. The site also states “either deliberately or indirectly, untrustworthy individuals undermine others’ efforts, success, authority and feelings of self-worth.” Quesnel observes that “untrustworthy people lack not only honesty and ethics, but also compassion and empathy.”

The Center for Conflict Dynamics suggests the following strategies be incorporated into my next negotiation where someone tries to push my “hot buttons.”

Create an atmosphere of honesty and integrity by setting “ground rules” and being a “role model.”

  • Set a positive tone for the discussion/negotiation.
  • Articulate your expectation on how the discussion/negotiation will be conducted.

Be wary and aware of other people’s behaviors.

  • Turn on your “radar.”
  • Don’t take anything for granted.

Be forgiving, but not naïve.

  • Everyone deserves a second chance.
  • Extinguish the behavior if it reappears.

Resist being pulled into others’ unethical behaviors.

  • Be aware of your personal boundaries.
  • Recognize and respond in a positive manner.

Listen for “hidden messages.”

  • Read between the lines.

Limit interactions and document agreements in written form.

  • Don’t get pulled into protracted discussions.
  • Document the discussion/negotiation with published minutes.
  • Keep your correspondence in a protected file.

Keep your superiors aware of your progress, ideas and agreements.

  • Practice a “no surprise” philosophy with your superiors.
  • They need to hear it from you, not someone else.

These are just some of the suggested actions you may proactively take to reduce the potential for “hot button” tactics by your partners in a negotiation. Learn what your “hot buttons” are by completing the test at

-Cary Silverstein, MBA, is the president of SMA LLC and The Negotiating Edge. He leads a group that provides services in the areas of strategic planning, negotiation training and conflict resolution, with offices in Fox Point and Scottsdale, Ariz. He can be reached at (414) 403-2942 or at

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