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How to take the high road

When someone provokes you, it’s easy to react without thinking. Learn to slow down and respond in ways you’ll be proud of

Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum





Alissa Hebbeln

is a clinical intern therapist, and a graduate student at Eastern Washington University studying clinical mental health counselling. She is currently completing a specialised study on compassion-focused therapy with Russell Kolts.

Russell Kolts

is a clinical psychologist and professor at Eastern Washington University. His area of specialisation is compassion-focused therapy. He is the author of several books on CFT and compassion, including CFT Made Simple (2016) and The Anger Workbook (2024), and lead author of Experiencing Compassion-Focused Therapy from the Inside Out (2018) and An Open-Hearted Life (2015).

Edited by Matt Huston





Need to know

Try as we might to avoid it, it’s inevitable that we’ll sometimes run into conflict with others as we navigate life. So how can you handle those challenging moments as gracefully as possible? How can you ‘take the high road’ when someone else goes low?

Consider a possible scenario: you’re sitting at the dinner table during a holiday meal or a birthday party, when suddenly a family member starts making judgmental comments about your life choices. Maybe you’ve decided to move in with your partner or start on a new career path, and your relative starts criticising that decision. The tension in the room builds to an uncomfortable level and you try your best to stay calm. But you’re feeling attacked, and the sense of frustration and anger grips your chest like a vice, building to a boiling point.

Finally, you snap back, telling them to mind their own business. They tell you to stop being so sensitive and get over yourself, and before you even have time to process what’s happening, you’ve gotten into a yelling match. The rest of the room falls away, and all you can focus on is the raging argument in front of you and the need to defend yourself. You end up storming out of the room. The frustration is overwhelming, and it’s like things just escalated out of nowhere.

It’s a rough scene, one that has endless variations. It can happen anywhere people interact with others – in work meetings, in crowded stores and public spaces, even in online comment threads. In situations like this, you might feel attacked or judged, and instead of taking the high road – showing up in a way that reflects your values and the sort of person you want to be – you go low, and end up behaving in ways that bear little resemblance to that person. Afterwards, you might feel frustrated with yourself or ashamed about losing your temper. You might wonder: why can’t I just ignore that relative/coworker/stranger when they act that way? How do I prevent this from happening again?

As we’ll explain in this Guide, there are ways you can prepare yourself to take the high road more of the time – to try to be the best version of yourself, even when things get difficult. You can approach the other person, and the situation itself, with compassion and understanding, allowing yourself to reflect and respond rather than escalating the conflict.

Let’s reboot the family-dinner situation. Once again, a relative starts making judgmental comments and you feel triggered but, this time, you’re able to notice this as it happens. You pause and consider what it is that you need in this situation; maybe you take a few deep breaths and tell your relative that, while you understand that they have different ideas, you’re happy with the way you’re living your life, and would appreciate it if they could refrain from saying those things. This gives the other person a chance to understand the impact of their comments on you, and you’re able to steer the conversation back towards a topic that won’t send your family gathering careening off a cliff.

To understand how to work toward such an outcome, let’s start by getting curious about why these situations can so easily get out of hand, and whether there are ways you can navigate them that don’t result in your feeling triggered – or ways to navigate them well even if you have been triggered.

Managing the sense of threat and seeking safeness

Understanding why our brains are wired to react intensely in many situations can help you draw a new map for taking the high road instead. The principles of compassion-focused therapy (CFT), developed by the psychologist Paul Gilbert, help explain how and why our emotional reactions have been shaped by evolution to respond to our environment in ways that don’t always feel helpful, given the realities of modern life.

CFT draws from evidence-based therapies (such as cognitive behavioural therapy) with an evolutionary perspective informed by neuroscience, and it emphasises how our lives are strongly influenced by basic evolved motives. These motives are hypothesised to have helped our human ancestors survive and pass on their genes. The first thing those ancestors had to do was survive long enough to reproduce in a world filled with very real physical threats.

In CFT, this is reflected in what’s called the threat system, which involves neurological structures and functions that evolved to help anticipate, identify and rapidly respond to threats. When this system is engaged, a person will tend to feel emotions like fear, anxiety, anger or disgust. Thinking and attention narrow to focus on the perceived threat. That means you might become less able to engage in critical thinking or empathy as your thinking falls into rigid, self-protective patterns. Anger involves a sense of urgency to act, which can overwhelm good judgment when it takes you by surprise. This single-minded focus and urgency would have been helpful in preparing our ancestors to fight off predators in the wild, but can be a poor fit with the nuanced social stressors we regularly encounter today.

Another of the systems described in CFT is the safeness system. When this is engaged, a person tends to feel calm and connected, with the body producing chemicals like oxytocin and endorphins. This system evolved to be stimulated through caring connection with others (we can learn to connect with it in other ways as well) and, when it is engaged, we’re able to widen our perspective, think in flexible ways, and communicate our needs more effectively. We also tend to be more caring and compassionate. This system sets the stage for our most compassionate selves to arise – which makes it much easier to take the high road in difficult situations. And when we help others feel safe, it paves the way for their best selves to emerge as well.

The threat system often overrides other systems, which is important for understanding explosive conversations; when left to its own devices, it makes it challenging to take the high road. It isn’t very good at distinguishing between ‘real’, physical threats and social threats that involve criticism or rejection. When others come at us in ways that trigger our threat systems, we’re neurologically disposed to react as if danger were approaching. It’s not our fault that the brain works this way. But it’s our job to do what we can – such as activating the safeness system – so that we don’t get hijacked.

As you become more familiar with the things that tend to trigger a threat response in you, and learn to anticipate and notice when they occur, you can intentionally plan to help your threatened self feel a bit safer in these tough situations – setting yourself up to choose a different path. You can learn to take the high road, even when things get challenging.

What to do

So, how do you access your safeness system? Compassion is vital. Compassion combines a sensitivity to suffering – including your own – and a motivation to alleviate it. It requires that you face your distress and discomfort and ask yourself what would be helpful. When we cultivate a practice of attending to our own emotional needs in a compassionate way, it allows us to show up for ourselves and others with greater flexibility, understanding and creativity.

Get curious about possible triggers

Kind curiosity is a compassionate superpower. We’ve all got situations and experiences that will tend to trigger us and send us down the low road. Rather than beating yourself up for times you’ve handled things less than ideally, you can get curious – noticing and contemplating the situations, people, conversation topics and experiences that tend to activate your threat system. This curiosity can be particularly helpful in working with anger, as a core part of that work typically involves becoming aware of potentially tricky situations before they happen.

You can even make a list of situations that commonly trigger a sense of threat in you, and then start to get curious about how you want to handle such situations going forward, in a way that fits with the sort of person you want to be. You will ultimately come up with a game plan for how you want to respond to these situations, and the skills that follow can help with this.

Cultivate awareness of your feelings

It’s important to learn the signs that indicate when you’ve been triggered by someone’s words or behaviour; you need to recognise that it’s happening. Mindfulness practice can make you better equipped to notice the shifts that happen in your body and mind. The sooner you notice emotions like anger or other signs (such as racing thoughts, or the feeling that you have to react immediately), the sooner you can do something to work with your experience in a helpful way.

You might start practising mindful awareness by ‘checking in’ on your physical and mental state a few times per day: pausing to notice the sensations in your body and the thoughts, images and emotions passing through your mind. By doing this routinely, you can build a habit of noticing aspects of your experience that will help alert you to shifts in how you’re feeling.

Mindful breathing practices can train you to notice movement in the mind as well, as you come to recognise the experience of thoughts and emotions arising in you. This recognition gives you a bit of space between you and what you’re experiencing in any given moment, space that you can use to consider how you want to respond. There are lots of mindfulness apps and resources available to help you cultivate these strengths (a few examples are Insight Timer, Headspace and Calm). Try some out and take note of the ones that are helpful for you.

Practise getting the safeness system online

Eventually, you will find yourself in a situation where you feel that sense of threat that we’ve described – or a situation that is similar to when you’ve been triggered in the past. There are ways to intentionally slow things down in these situations, to bring your safeness system online, and make it more likely that you can respond to the situation in a flexible manner. You can start curiously collecting strategies for doing this as you gradually learn more about how to soothe yourself on the go. But there are a couple of techniques that many people find helpful in this regard.

Soothing rhythm breathing

This is a simple yet powerful practice of slowing down the breath. Slowing the breath can stimulate the vagus nerve, which facilitates the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to soften the threat response and bring the safeness system online. This can make you less likely to react to difficult encounters in an impulsive way.

To practise this skill, bring your attention to the breath, and allow yourself to breathe in a balanced, relaxed manner. Don’t worry about doing it ‘just right’. Simply allow your breath to slow down. Focus on cultivating a slow, comfortable rate of breathing. And once you’ve found a comfortable, soothing rhythm, you might see how it feels if you allow the breath to slow down a little bit more – perhaps to a count of 4 on the in-breath, and 5-6 seconds on the out-breath. The goal is to find a rate of breathing that is comfortable and soothing, and to savour it. So, if you notice that counting triggers a focus on ‘doing it right’ rather than calming you, let the count go, and focus on breathing in a rhythm that is comforting and enjoyable.

Connecting with your breath in this way sends a signal to your threat system that you are safe, helping you shift out of the immediacy of the threat response. When doing this, imagine that you’re doing it not to rid yourself of feelings of threat, but to connect with safeness and soothing, preparing the groundwork for your compassionate self to take the lead. If it is tricky or triggering for you to bring your attention to your body, you might sample a few of the many breathing apps that are available, such as iBreathe or Breathing Zone. You may find it easier to breathe along to a visual cue than to focus on the body.

Soothing imagery

Some people scoff at using their imagination to soothe themselves (‘Oh… you want me to go to my safe place?’). But we’d bet that, if you’ve ever found yourself stuck in anger or anxiety, you have already inadvertently used imagery to fuel your emotions – mentally replaying the situation that triggered your anger, imagining the snappy comeback you could have made, or fantasising about all the ways a situation could go wrong. When we find ourselves stuck in threat emotions, there’s often imagery at play. Using imagery is about taking control of this process to help move yourself in the direction you want to go.

Imagery, as we mean it here, can involve vivid mental pictures, but it doesn’t have to. A common form of imagery involves picturing yourself in a soothing scenario – a mental ‘place’ that helps you feel safe, soothed and calm. This often involves visual aspects, but there are many different ways to bring the experience to life in your mind. How would this place sound, smell or feel? You might imagine walking on the beach, hearing the sound of the waves, feeling the sand under your feet or the sun on your face, smelling the sea or flowers. The point is to create a mental experience of a calming space, in whatever way feels most real for you.

Once you’ve learned to engage your safeness system, you can use the techniques when triggered, or even when entering a situation where you anticipate that might happen. When you first notice your irritation or anxiety rising, take a moment to disengage from the interaction if you can – maybe excuse yourself to use the restroom if needed – so that you can get your safeness system online. Redirect your attention to your breath, pull out your favourite breathing app, or connect with some soothing imagery. Once you feel less activated, you can consciously reengage in the social situation. (In the next section, we’ll explore how you can plan responses to help you do this.)

One of us had a client who used the combination of these strategies to great effect. A member of one of Russell’s CFT-for-Anger prison groups had a common trigger: one of the corrections officers who worked the day shift at his prison would often make snide comments to him when he was walking across the yard for lunch, baiting him to respond. One day in group, the client proudly shared that, for the past several weeks, whenever he was walking across the yard, he’d slow down his breathing and bring to mind his soothing space, which kept him calm and able to ignore the quips when they inevitably came. As time progressed, he even began to compassionately consider the perspective of the officer who was baiting him: ‘I feel bad for the guy – how miserable must your life be if you’re picking on people who are already locked up?’

Enlist the help of your ‘compassionate self’

You can extend your ability to take the high road by doing some work behind the scenes to cultivate a version of yourself who’ll be more resilient in the face of triggers. To understand how to do this, you might first consider your emotional context. To illustrate, if someone throws a lit cigarette out the window of a moving car, what happens? Well, that depends on the context in which the cigarette lands. If it lands in a field of dry grass, we’re likely to see a wildfire spring to life. But if that same cigarette were to land in a field of green, well-watered plants, it would likely be extinguished without doing any harm. We can’t help that people will sometimes lob cigarettes – threat triggers – into the fields of our lives. But we can create an emotional context that helps us manage our reactions when it happens.

In CFT, this involves cultivating what we call the ‘compassionate self’. Your compassionate self is a version of you that is especially kind, courageous and wise. It is able to look at the greater context of your life and acknowledge your strengths as well as your areas of potential growth. When you’re thinking compassionately, you can hold yourself accountable with a gentle understanding that you’re doing the best you can with the tools you have available. The ability to relate compassionately to yourself and your struggles is often called self-compassion, and it’s all about engaging with yourself in the same way you would engage with anyone you care deeply about.

If this compassionate version of the self sounds very different from how you experience yourself in everyday life, see if you can approach it like an actor playing an unfamiliar role. You can imagine what it would be like if you did have these qualities to a greater degree, and how that would shape the way you engage with your life. First, you can start by asking: what would it be like if you showed up as a more deeply kind, wise and courageous version of yourself? How would this compassionate version of you go through life? As this compassionate self, what would you care about? How would you spend your time? How would you take care of yourself?

Let’s apply this to an example. We encourage you to get out a piece of paper and briefly note a recent situation that you found triggering – perhaps a conflict with a family member or coworker. It would be particularly good to use a situation that is ongoing, or one that you expect might repeat itself in the future. Once you’ve identified a situation, take a moment to do some soothing rhythm breathing: slow down your breath to a comfortable, soothing rhythm. Then, connect with your intention to figure out a way you’d like to respond to this situation that will fit with the person you want to be.

Now consider how you would respond to this situation if you were at your best – your calmest, kindest, wisest, most confident and most compassionate. Reflect on the following questions and take a moment to write down some answers:

  1. What would your compassionate self care about in this situation? (From this compassionate perspective, how do you want the situation to turn out? What is most important to you?)
  2. What would your compassionate self understand about the situation? (What might your compassionate self remind your threatened self to consider?)
  3. What might your compassionate self do in this situation? How might you approach the other person in a way that wouldn’t escalate the situation? What tone of voice would you want to use? How might you communicate your perspective assertively? (One of our favourite prompts is plastered on many classroom walls: ‘When ____________, I feel _________________, and I would like ________________.’)
  4. How might your compassionate self help you stay grounded even if the other person persists or responds in an unhelpful way? What could you do that would be true to your values?

Reflecting on how your compassionate self would approach a difficult situation can help you come up with a specific plan for when such a situation happens. Let’s imagine that your trigger is a relative who enjoys making politically charged comments at family events, looking to get a rise out of you. Working through the questions above, you might become aware of a few things:

  1. What you really care about in this situation is enjoying yourself and reconnecting with the family members you’re close to, and you’d like to avoid drama if possible.
  2. You understand that this relative enjoys political banter, and that getting a rise out of you is part of the fun. You might also recall that otherwise he isn’t a cruel person, and has offered significant help to people you care about on multiple occasions.
  3. You have a few options in terms of what you could do. You could just ignore him, which might result in a temporary escalation of his behaviour as he tries to engage in the way he’s used to doing. You could assertively let him know that his comments aren’t appreciated – which would be true and appropriate, but which also might open up a larger conversation you don’t want to have. Or, you could come up with a lightly comedic reply to deflect the comment and signal that you won’t be playing this game: (‘Ha… very funny. I think this snowflake is gonna float over there and fill up on eggnog.’)
  4. It might be helpful to pause and connect with your compassionate intentions for handling this situation, or to carry a reminder of how you want to take the high road – which could just be a coin, a stone or another object in your pocket.

You could even role-play the situation with a friend, partner or therapist – having them bait you while you try out different ways of responding. The idea is to build the habit of slowing down and connecting with your compassionate intention to engage with the situation in a manner that serves you.

Consider life changes to help your compassionate self emerge

One foundational pathway to cultivating the compassionate self is to engage in perhaps the purest form of self-compassion – basic self-care. It’s hard to be at our best when triggers show up and we’re already stressed out, have unmet needs, or aren’t taking care of our bodies.

Take a moment to contemplate whether you might benefit from investing in yourself in any of the following ways:

  • Start an exercise routine or make time to meditate every day.
  • Choose to go to bed a bit earlier to make sure you get a full night’s sleep.
  • Go to see a therapist, or spend more time talking with friends who can help you gain perspective on difficult situations.
  • Ask for what you need in your personal relationships and set boundaries with those you love.
  • Refrain from habits such as excessive alcohol or drug use, over-scheduling yourself, or spending lots of time doomscrolling online.

The key here is to take some time to direct compassion toward yourself, considering the things that create stress or difficulty in your life, and to plan tangible steps to address your needs. Put into practice the understanding that when you’re taking good care of yourself, you’re also setting yourself up to cultivate healthier relationships.

Personal change can be challenging, but there are lots of resources to help you stay on track and address the obstacles that inevitably arise. One of our favourites is the book How to Change (2021) by Katy Milkman (see more on this in the Links & Books section below).

Exercise kind curiosity about other people’s behaviour

The kind curiosity we mentioned in the first step can be especially helpful when you apply it to understanding other people’s behaviour. Mentalising is a skill that can help you garner insight into the challenging behaviours of others. It involves getting curious about the behaviours you observe and considering what possible emotions, motivations, thoughts, needs, goals or beliefs might be driving those behaviours.

An easy way to practise this is to simply ask yourself: ‘How does it make sense that someone might act that way?’ You can consider what might be going on in the other person’s mind that could help you understand why they would act the way they do, while trying to resist the urge to label them negatively.

Let’s use the example of the family member who makes judgmental comments about your life choices. What might motivate a person to criticise a choice someone else is making? Could they be concerned for your welfare? Could they perhaps not have access to the same knowledge that you do? Could they have had a negative experience of their own when they made a similar choice? Or maybe there is a certain narrative (from the media, or elsewhere) that is colouring the lens through which they are viewing your situation?

Considering such possibilities can sometimes encourage you to take the high road, as understanding others can produce sympathy and empathy for them (or at least soften your reactivity). For example, when one of us (Russell) was approached by a student about a poor grade they had received on an exam, he initially felt defensive, as the student was clearly agitated and their tone seemed to imply that he was to blame. Luckily, he was able to notice his rising irritation, which he’s come to recognise as a sign that it’s a good time to slow down and connect with his compassionate intentions. Taking a few seconds to slow down his breath, he was able to recognise that it made complete sense that this student would be experiencing strong feelings after receiving a bad grade. This rapidly replaced Russell’s defensiveness with a desire to help his student negotiate the situation, which resulted in a calmer, more helpful conversation.

Substituting kind curiosity for the threat-driven urges to judge and react can set you up to understand the people in your life more compassionately. This can help you respond to challenging interactions in ways that fit with the person you aspire to be.

Key points – How to take the high road

  1. When someone acts badly, it’s tempting to react in kind. In moments when you feel attacked or judged, it can be difficult to ‘take the high road’ – to respond in a way that reflects your values and the sort of person you want to be.
  2. Responding well can require managing a sense of threat. Confrontation with others can trigger an involuntary response that discourages empathy and critical thinking. Restoring a sense of safeness can make it easier to take the high road in these situations.
  3. Get curious about possible triggers. Think about – and list, if you’d like – some of the situations, people or conversation topics that tend to activate your threat system.
  4. Cultivate awareness of your feelings. ‘Checking in’ on your physical and mental state a few times a day, and other mindfulness practices, can make you better prepared to notice the changes that happen when you are triggered by an interaction.
  5. Practise getting the safeness system online. With exercises such as soothing rhythm breathing and soothing mental imagery, you can learn to calm yourself when an encounter stirs up irritation or anxiety.
  6. Enlist the help of your ‘compassionate self’. Imagine how a version of you that is especially kind, courageous and wise would respond to a specific challenging interaction – and use your reflections to create a plan.
  7. Consider life changes to help your compassionate self emerge. Taking care of yourself through rest, exercise, support-seeking and so on can make it easier to respond well in potentially aggravating situations.
  8. Exercise kind curiosity about other people’s behaviour. Ask yourself: ‘How does it make sense that someone might act that way?’ Considering possible explanations could help you respond with greater empathy.

Learn more

Reviewing how you responded in a difficult situation

Learning to exercise compassion for yourself and others takes practice. The reality is that, no matter how much time, attention or intention you put into it, there will likely still be some moments when you feel triggered by an interaction and react defensively. So, what happens when you’ve done the work, but you still end up responding in a way you’re not satisfied with?

Our brains are incredibly good at doing what they’re designed to do, which is to react to perceived threats. So, resist the urge to judge yourself if things don’t go according to plan. Instead, try to see each attempt as a learning opportunity in an iterative process – gradually learning more, refining your approach, getting better and better each time. It’s important to remember that life isn’t a superhero movie: it doesn’t all come down to one final, do-or-die moment. While overreacting in a triggering moment doesn’t feel good, it gives you the opportunity for reflection.

Debriefing internally after conflict is an important step in the process of compassionate self-development. Try asking yourself: how do I feel? How am I relating to myself right now? Am I taking an honest inventory of ways I can continue to grow, or am I criticising myself unfairly? Remind yourself how it makes sense that this situation would be triggering for you. Consider what went poorly, and how you’d like to approach things differently the next time. Consider what went well, or what was helpful, and what might help you build on that.

If you resist the urge to shut down, to beat yourself up or to demonise others, you can gradually grow your ability to take the high road, even when others go low. You might find that you end up taking some of them with you.

Links & books

Russell’s book The Anger Workbook: Discover the Strength to Transform Your Anger Using Compassion Focused Therapy (2024) is an experiential workbook, designed to help readers apply the principles of CFT in working with situations that trigger anger and in developing the compassionate self. These ideas are also presented in his TEDx talk, ‘Anger, Compassion, and What it Means to Be Strong’.

For readers interested in deepening their cultivation of compassion in everyday life and applying it to many challenging situations, Russell’s book with the Buddhist nun Thubten Chodron, An Open-Hearted Life (2015), provides a roadmap in the form of pithy modules, each complete with a reflection or practice.

The book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (2021), by Katy Milkman, draws upon the science of behaviour change to help readers plan the changes they want to make in their lives, and to overcome the obstacles that inevitably come up along the way.

Those who want to learn more about the science of compassion and how it can be applied to many aspects of life may want to check out James Kirby and Stan Steindl’s podcast The Compassion Initiative – and, for more on CFT specifically, Steindl’s Compassion in a T-Shirt podcast.

This Guide was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon Media from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon Media are not involved in editorial decision-making.