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I was in college when I first really understood how hard it can be to hear a story of trauma.
I was volunteering at the local domestic violence shelter one day when the hotline rang. I answered to hear a piercing wail. The caller had just discovered that her ex-husband was abusing their daughter during court-ordered visitation. I was the first person she spoke to after she found out.
I was 19 years old.
I wanted more than anything to drop that phone and go find someone else to handle the call. There was only me, though, so I did the only thing I could. Fortunately, it was the only thing she needed: I listened. I clutched the phone, murmuring, “I’m so sorry,” as she sobbed.
Eventually she calmed. She caught her breath. And then she hung up.
Listening is not easy, but it’s the best thing we can do to support someone in trauma or distress. Because she could vent her feelings, she was able to go on and mother her girl. And she did. She was a fierce warrior for that child, who, as I learned later, is OK today because of her mom.
In that moment, I learned both the challenge and power of listening. This moment set me on the path to working with those in trauma and distress, and ultimately to developing a process to better support them.
I have now worked with crime victims for more than 25 years, including 15 years at the Justice Department, where I advised on victim issues in cases ranging from terrorism to large-scale fraud to child exploitation and more.
One of the things I learned over the years working with victims of different types of crimes is that those in trauma and distress need the same kinds of support.
To clarify, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines trauma as “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence,” as distinguished from other stressful events, like divorce, job loss, addiction, discrimination, or bankruptcy.
What I’ve learned in working with those in trauma is that the tools and skills that are helpful in supporting those in trauma are also beneficial when helping those experiencing the many kinds of distress that plague our organizations and communities.
Thus, tools and skills I would use to help a victim of human trafficking weren’t different from the ones I’d use to help a victim of identity theft — or, in fact, to help a co-worker who was furious about the way he’d been spoken to in a meeting, or one who feared her ex-boyfriend might be stalking her.
When we’re in trauma and distress, we need the same things.
Unfortunately, many of us find it difficult to give those things.
There may be many possible causes for why people have difficulties listening to others or showing empathy, including:
- emotional intelligence (e.g., some people may not recognize emotions in others to begin with)
- personality (e.g., some people may not care about emotions in general)
- learning history and belief systems (e.g., some people may have learned or believe that paying attention to emotions is ineffective for functioning)
In part, though, I believe these difficulties may also stem from how we’re built.
When we’re faced with danger, our brains work to protect us. Often, this means that we get a flood of adrenaline, in case we need to take some action. Those parts of our brains that are less helpful for immediate self-protection, like the part responsible for rational decision-making,
This response is automatic — and it kicks in anytime our brains determine that we’re in danger, whether because an attacker is coming toward us or because we’re humiliated in front of a crowd of our peers.
When we’re under stress, we can feel a rush of energy and may have difficulty forming rational thoughts.
The next thing to understand is that we’re hard-wired for empathy and may experience the feelings of those we observe. That means that feelings are contagious. In fact, scientists refer to this phenomenon as “emotional contagion.”
When I see someone laughing really hard, I may smile or laugh myself, even if I have no idea what the person is laughing about. Similarly, when we see someone in stress, our stress levels rise, too.
I believe that stress affects us the same way it affects them — an increase in adrenaline, which may make us a little fidgety and may make it harder to know what to say, and easier to say things we later regret.
I consider these to be normal reactions to stress, but they may not be very helpful in the moment when someone comes to us for help, because they can communicate that we don’t want to hear what the person is saying.
In a work environment, these unhelpful reactions can also get us and our organizations into trouble.
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that the traumas and stressors we’re facing don’t stay in neat little boxes in our personal lives.
The pandemic, weathering racial injustice, economic uncertainty, and political upheaval we’re experiencing have spilled into our workplaces, as organizations struggle to support their teams through skyrocketing rates of
When organizations fail to support their teams through the challenges they’re facing, it breaches trust and causes a second injury, called institutional betrayal.
If instead we can support each other through challenging times, we build psychological safety that increases trust, creativity, engagement, and loyalty.
This means that we have to create workplaces where people feel comfortable sharing the difficulties they’re facing, and for that, we have to respond well when they do.
What does an empathetic response to trauma and distress at work look like? There are five steps.
This is the most important step. Listening alone can make a tremendous difference in a person’s healing.
When someone shares their story, we can show that it’s OK for them to talk by asking open-ended questions like:
- “What happened next?”
- “Where was that?”
It’s also a good idea to watch your body language. If you’re feeling stressed or nervous because someone is approaching you with a difficult topic, you may adopt a defensive stance with arms crossed and a furrowed brow. This may make you seem less approachable. Take a deep breath and consciously relax your posture.
An added benefit to watching your body language is that we often subconsciously mirror the person with whom we’re interacting, so the person you’re supporting may mirror your relaxed stance — helping them to calm down, as well.
Teddy Roosevelt said: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Once someone shares a difficult personal story with you, it’s important to acknowledge what they’ve shared. This can be a simple, “Thanks for sharing that,” or “I’m so sorry for all you’ve been going through.”
The key is to avoid responses that either deny what the person said (“I’m sure he didn’t mean that”) or distract from it (“the same thing happened to me, let me tell you about it”).
One of the most difficult aspects of undergoing a traumatic or stressful experience is the loss of control.
You can help the speaker regain some measure of control by sharing information with them, like any facts you know about the incident, or about what happens next (e.g., how complaints are handled or how decisions around re-opening the office will be made).
Of course, we don’t want to overwhelm people or make an assumption about what information they want, so it’s a good idea to ask for their permission. For example, you could say, “Would it be helpful if I shared information about our company policies with you?”
It’s also useful to share values, either of the organization (“our school has a zero bullying policy”) or your own personal values (“it’s really important to me that everyone here feels safe at work”).
It’s even helpful to share what you don’t know, because it shows that you aren’t hiding anything.
For instance, you could say, “I’m actually not certain who on the human resources team handles these complaints, but I can find out and share that with you if you’d like.”
The person who has experienced trauma or distress is going to have to continue on their journey without you.
You can help that person by providing resources, like how to access the organization’s mental health supports, security team, or flexible work options.
Still, remember that the goal is to provide them with the tools they consider useful (not the ones you consider most useful for them).
It’s a good idea to start with, “What resources would help you?” Let them take the lead in obtaining the supports they need. By giving them a choice, you empower them further.
On my website, you can download a one-pager of community resources for supporting those in trauma and distress.
The final step is Return. This has two facets.
First, it’s a reminder to check in with the person later. This demonstrates that you continue to be a support to them and gives you an opportunity to see if they have questions or need additional resources.
Remember that the path is theirs. If they’ve chosen not to follow up on resources, accept that they’re making the right decision for themselves at this time.
This step is also an admonition to return to yourself. Supporting others can take a toll on us, and we need to ensure that we’re taking care of ourselves as we take care of others. A routine of self-care and discussing our own stressors with a supportive friend or colleague can help protect you from compassion fatigue and secondary trauma.
The steps are thus:
They can be remembered in the moment when adrenaline floods our brains with their simple acronym: LASER.
The goal is to help you stay focused (laser focused) on what needs to happen in that interaction to support the person who’s experiencing something challenging.
These steps can give you the confidence to know that you can handle whatever walks through your door with compassion and calm. They will help your organization build stronger teams and a more engaged and healthier workforce.
Most importantly, they’ll help those who may be going through a difficult time get the support they need.