Trauma-informed communication

Couple having intense conversation

Workplaces bring together people with diverse backgrounds, various life experiences and different levels of psychological health and wellbeing. When a colleague or client flies off the handle with seemingly little provocation, we often do not know what causes their intense behaviour or what we can do to help them calm down.

Traumatic stress is more common than you may think. According to studies quoted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 57–75% of Australians will encounter a potentially traumatic event at some point in their lives. The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing also revealed that 12% of Australians experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime—a  temporary or ongoing inability to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.

The BlueKnot Foundation estimates that 1 in 4 Australians live with the impact of childhood trauma. Some of the other more common traumatic experiences involve workplace bullying, severe sexual harassment or abuse, family and domestic violence, or surviving a natural disaster or major accident.

Traumatic experiences cause an intense physical and psychological stress reaction which activates an ancient and hard-wired survival response in humans. Our bodies pump out stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, and our brains prepare us to be physically ready for “fight or flight” mode. At the same time, our capacity for rational decision-making, problem-solving, clear thought and emotional self-control is heavily diminished.

Long-term consequences of trauma can affect an individual’s ability to form positive relationships and correctly interpret social situations. People with unresolved trauma may also be easily triggered by cues in the environment such as a particular smell, loud noise, voices or objects that they consciously or unconsciously associate with the traumatising event, which you may be completely unaware of.

While individual reactions to extreme stress or trauma can vary greatly, it often leads to irrational or erratic behaviour—sometimes long after the traumatic event itself has passed—which other people are likely to perceive as an inappropriate or disproportionate reaction to the current situation. From the perspective of an onlooker, they may seem to suddenly “fly off the handle”, appear emotionally unstable or become unpredictable in their reactions.

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It is, however, important to remember two things: Firstly, when we are stressed, we are likely to lose our ability to remain calm, reflect and respond constructively. Secondly, we do not always know what is going on for another person and what kind of disturbing experiences they have had to come to terms with.

For these reasons, it is helpful to employ the following five principles of trauma-informed communication in workplace interactions.  They are critical in interactions with distressed people—whether you are starting the conversation yourself (for example, because you want to check in with and support a colleague who you suspect is mentally unwell or has experienced trauma), or you are responding to a client or team member telling you about a traumatic incident. It is useful to think of these principles as the hallmarks of respectful communication under any circumstances, not just in crises. These key principles underpin positive and psychologically safe workplace cultures and are a pre-requisite to building positive personal and professional relationships.

  1. Safety
    Ensuring physical and emotional safety for all parties – including yourself – is paramount. Aspects of physical safety may involve choosing a location which ensures the privacy and confidentiality of the affected person. If they are agitated and highly stressed, they may also become oblivious to their surroundings and start having a conversation while walking alongside heavy traffic or a busy carpark, in which case you will need to gently steer them away from any physical danger. However, more common may be threats to their emotional safety, such as experiencing an intense negative emotional reaction during the conversation (being “triggered”). Keep monitoring the person for possible signs of stress and help them to calm them down if necessary, for example, by taking short breaks or encouraging them to breathe slowly and deeply. Make sure your non-verbal communication shows that you are supportive, focused and listening, for example, by keeping good eye contact and using appropriate facial expressions such as nodding and smiling in the right moment. In case the person is still visibly distressed when the conversation is over, do not leave them alone but stay with them until they have calmed down sufficiently.
  2. Trustworthiness
    Interpersonal trauma is caused by disturbing, harmful or life-threatening experiences caused by other people, for example, in situations of family and domestic violence, severe bullying or forceful sexual harassment. One of its characteristics is the violation of trust which often leads to betrayal trauma (psychological damage caused by betrayal in a relationship which destroys trust and a sense of security). Traumatised people, therefore, often find it difficult to trust others, and it may take some time until they can trust you. Do not take this personally or respond with impatience or annoyance if you sense the person’s suspicion or strong caution in their interaction with you. You may be able to gain their trust by remaining attentive to their needs and non-verbal communication, taking a gentle approach and not bringing an “agenda” to the conversation (for example, trying to push them towards a particular action, or insisting on expectations), giving them your undivided attention in your interactions, and refraining from making judgements or interrupting them. 
  3. Choice
    Because trauma removes a person’s ability to exercise choice, it often leads to feelings of helplessness and loss of agency. You can help a distressed client, peer or staff member to regain a sense of control of the situation by giving them as many options and choices as possible, for example, around the time and location of your conversation, the way the discussion is held and develops, the level of detail they would like to get into when they would like to end the conversation or take a short break, and – where possible and appropriate – what they would like you to do with the information they have shared with you.
  4. Collaboration
    This principle is about the difference between doing something with someone, rather than doing it to them.  Remember that you are there to provide support, not to take complete control of the situation, which would only further add to the feeling of helplessness and lack of options which a deeply distressed or traumatised person is likely to be feeling already. Of course, you should assist if the person asks you to (as long as you feel comfortable and it would be appropriate to do so), for example, calling a family member or friend for support, or speaking to their manager or health professional on their behalf – but never without getting their prior consent.
  5. Empowerment
    Interpersonal trauma often occurs in relationships with a power imbalance, and restoring a sense of personal power is key to the person’s healing process. You can provide support in this process by helping them to restore their self-esteem (for example, by focussing on their strengths and validating their thoughts and emotions), always making your interactions respectful and inclusive, and treating the person as an equal partner.

Interacting with traumatised, grieving or very upset people can be emotionally draining and confronting, and looking after yourself and ensuring your own psychological safety and wellbeing is critical. Remember that while you can provide support, you are not responsible for other people’s actions and decision. Do not hesitate to reach out if you are unsure what to do, if you feel overwhelmed by the other person’s story, or if you’d like to get another perspective on things.  As a member of QLS, you can access LawCare to obtain free, professional, confidential and personalised support, counselling and trauma assistance. They also provide online resources via their online portal which is free to members.

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

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