Addressing Complex Issues with Trauma-informed Approaches

Oct 08, 2018 | EDR Blog

By Mary Dumas, Dumas & Associates, Inc. for

Complexity & Confusion

In conditions of complexity, it’s important to remember that data do not make decisions, people do!

Complex issues occur at international scales, such as peacemaking post conflict, addressing poverty and migration, as well as locally in terms of homelessness and adaption to climate change. Complex issues are challenging to work on in communities and committees. Conveners and participants grapple with an information environment that is “incomplete or confused.” Experts from differing disciplines and constituents with a mix of risk temperaments find it difficult to rely on any one “rational actor or approach.”

We’ve come to learn that in settings like these, rational is in the eye of the actor. As neuroscience and behavioral economics research has found, rationality is culturally defined and emotionally driven. Opportunities to learn, do, and adapt can be lost in the mounting tension and confusion.

Biases can arise from many sources clouding perceptions. Complexity can break into many mini-conflicts each vying for attention and urgency. Historic patterns can be repeated, indefinitely it seems at times. And in some cases, trauma results for the parties involved, as well as others vicariously harmed, who may not have had awareness or consent.

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Trauma-informed Approaches

Trauma occurs at multiple scales and may be experienced individually or collectively. So how do we refrain from repeating historic errors and biases? A trauma-informed approach brings awareness of the broader context and discernment of emerging opportunities to identify healthy ways forward.

At an individual level, “trauma is about losing one’s agency.
Recovery from trauma is an act of re-accessing our agency.”

Traumatic events can leave legacy impacts or unresolved consequences in bodies, minds, group systems and geographic places. These impacts—some intended, others unintentional—can perpetuate harm long after the original event occurred. First one needs to differentiate between stress and trauma. Many life experiences are stressful, but not all are traumatic. Trauma can arise through assaults, accidents, natural disasters and/or medical illnesses. Traumatic events can be:

(i) direct experiences or involve threats of physical injury, violation of sexual boundaries or death; or (ii) witnessing traumatic situations happening to other people in which you experienced or witnessed fear, helplessness, or horror during or following the event.

Identifying Conflict Patterns and Historic Points of Trauma

Collaboration partners, mediators, and facilitators can become informed about trauma during the assessment stage of a new initiative, or on the spot, during a stakeholder interview, in the midst of a group discussion, or in follow-up work during evaluation of collaboration or data improvement efforts.

Diagram 1 outlines a five-step process to prepare the collaboration table for trauma-informed engagement that is sustained and respectful of healing response(s) in complex situations. As an assessment report, it provides all the parties’ vital information about the systems that will be changed by the impacts of the group’s work. This transparency provides each party agency in determining how to do better now that they know better about these conditions and circumstances.

Diagram 1 Trauma-informed facilitation: Setting the table for sustained engagement on complex issues.

Sample responses are provided in Diagram 1 illustrating how compiling public information can support participants in becoming more accountable to the potential for continued harmful, unjust actions and impacts in the systems they represent. Shared knowledge in Step 5 provides all collaboration participants, conveners and funders insight on known points of trauma and potential for hot zones. Now, individuals and under-represented groups do not need to be alone in seeing and speaking to a broader context that may be painful for some and not all participants. Take note when tensions rise over rigor, fairness and justice concerns.

Caring for ourselves while caring about others

Awareness of tension and addressing it actively is an important component of a trauma-informed approach. Underserved parties should not have to do the heavy lifting of a difficult subject and interrupting repeating cycles. It’s difficult to witness re-enactments and costly to creativity.

Mediators, facilitators and collaboration partners can take an active, and unique role in maintaining the procedural integrity of negotiated settlement discussions, multi-stakeholder collaborations and interdisciplinary research. Because the discussion of current and historic power and its imbalances can involve matters of trauma, it’s not for you to tip the scale with direct interventions. We can raise questions regarding a rights-based or procedural issue recognizing it is stressful, and potentially costly to participants to do so.  But only after asking them what they’d like to do at this time, that is where agency can be restored.

You’ll want to care for yourself and give the group time for recovery between tough conversations—it’s a lot to think about. Care for yourself should include some form of reflective practice to expose habits, improve awareness. Some suggestions include:

  • First, train yourself to recognize emotions and reactions arising in yourself. Train your brain to slow down its habitual reactions to ideas and information (and especially, speakers!).
  • Next, be more proactive and less reactive by planning a seat for the ghosts at the table, or earlier efforts to raise attention to the issue(s), and change initiatives seeking to raise truth and justice concerns.
  • Allow for more flexibility in questions, styles and provide room for more purposeful responses.
  • Watch for tension currents in the collaboration process and pace of proceedings. Help shift thinking and discussions from binary or over-simplifications.
  • Help them grapple with complexity.

Suggestions for group care include:

  • Allow for frank discussions when rigor is necessary in facilitated discussions, deliberations and decision-making. Don’t rush deliberations and decision-making.
  • Add pauses into agendas to allow people time to re-assess what they are thinking given what they are hearing and learning. Help promote shared awareness of group habits (e.g., agenda prep, power dynamics, silencing through perpetual time or agenda limitations).
  • Include experiential activities that bring all participants to the table as learners (e.g., tours, field trips, work sessions, action research).
  • Look for known and speak to known constraints and shared “hot spots” where historical trauma and current systems meet. Use history as a basis for examining creative opportunities newly available.

Healing Responses

Healing responses to complex, traumatic issues requires patience by all participants in order to build shared knowledge for collaboration.

Facilitators and mediators are uniquely situated to provide multiple pathways for people to learn and choose how to integrate emerging information into their prior knowledge, as well as reveal information and stories of their own.

We can help parties to apply an everyday diplomacy in their awareness and responses throughout work sessions. We can provide time to momentarily “make peace” in the midst of a social encounters.

Just be sure to ensure your own self-care and understanding of habituated trauma responses and biases. This way you can be both aware of and brave enough to discern when key interfaces arise in the group collaboration and public learning process.

Mary Dumas, President, Dumas & Associates, Inc is an independent conflict dispute resolution professional with over three decades of experience working with private organizations, governments, tribes, public agencies, universities, faith communities, nonprofits and research institutes. Mary is known for designing employee and stakeholder engagement programs that translate technical information and regulatory mandates into accessible, collaborative processes and actionable plans with impact and legacy.     360-966-8865