All-Star Facilitator Series

Navigating Triggers with Kathy Obear

The Safe Zone Project Team

All-Star Facilitator Series

This is an one of the many lessons in our All-Star Facilitator Series, designed to help social justice educators improve their skills. Click here to see the rest of the posts, or if you have an idea for a lesson get involved. Note: this series spun off into our book, Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation — where we expand on some of these lessons, and include others.

“Facilitating dialogues about issues of diversity, inclusion and equity can be challenging and stressful work. It involves exploring areas that are not typically addressed in traditional learning environments. Whether conscious of it or not, facilitators and participants bring most, if not all, of who they are to the learning environment, including their fears, biases, stereotypes, memories of past traumas and current life experiences.”

As a result many facilitators report being “hooked” by the comments and actions of participants and feel “triggered” emotions, including anger, fear, embarrassment, pain and sadness. Many experts in the field use the term “trigger” to describe the “instantaneous response to stimuli without accompanying conscious thought.” ~ Dr. Kathy Obear


Woohooo.  Big, bold powerful words from none other than Dr. Kathy Obear, a wonderful and inspiring individual who does this social justice thing so. dang. well.  One of her cornerstone pieces is on triggers and both Sam and I agree this is something every social justice educator should read.

If you haven’t experienced triggers in a social justice setting here is another way to think about them.  You know how your siblings, family, close friends know a way that almost instantly gets under your skin.  Where its like they pushed a button and though it mighta been small the feeling it creates is HUGE.  That’s a trigger.

I’m going to stop talking about this now, because this piece speaks for itself. Here’s a link, and down below are some things to keep in mind. Go read it!

Questions to consider when reading/reflecting on the piece

  • Does this resonate with me?  Can I think of examples from my own facilitation experience when this has happened?
  • Have I ever been triggered as a participant by a facilitator?  How did that go?
  • What are the things that come to mind as triggers that I can name right now? How would I deal with those?
  • Do I need to be aware of not only what was said that triggered me but who was saying it?  Do different people/identities trigger me differently.

My take-aways

This is one of those pieces of writing that I could barely get through the first time because it inspired so many different thoughts in me I was bouncing all around the place thinking, “Woah, this is the real deal, Kathy is putting it all out there, this is how it is!”  During and after that feeling this is what I was thinking:

  • I really need to get my know triggers better.  I am a generally very calm person, well I don’t’ get angry easily (I do get very excited) and I always assumed that I would be just naturally good at remaining calm. However, the more I think about what triggers me, or those moments where I speak or even simply aggressively roll my eyes on impulse those are when I’m feeling triggered
  • The story I tell myself really is a story.  This is still a really challenging for me to remember.  That person crossing their arms and looking at the floor isn’t necessarily mad or checked out.  Maybe they are sick or maybe that is how they listen best without other distractions.  I am telling myself a story about why they are doing it, it is only my interpretation.
  • Different people trigger me differently.  If a man or someone I perceive to be a male says something that take as sexist it is going to trigger me differently than if someone I identify to be a woman says the same thing.  Someone’s identity may be part of my trigger.  And in that same way my identity may be a trigger for someone.  This is something I need to dig into and be more conscious of.

Have a read! I hope you enjoy.