square bulletUnderstanding Why Trauma Informed Communication is Important

May 4, 2020

From Dr. Chris Wilson, licensed psychologist, and Stephanie Sundborg, PhD, Director of Research and Evaluation , Trauma Informed Oregon 

Join TIO’s Stephanie Sundborg as she talks with Dr. Chris Wilson, a licensed psychologist and expert in trauma informed (TI) communication.  Dr. Wilson will discuss the importance of TI communication and the reasons why it’s not just what we say but how we say it that matters.

This video is 17:15 minutes.

Here is a blog about the anatomy of a trauma informed script that you might find helpful.

Stephanie: Welcome. Hi everybody. Thank you for tuning in. My name is Stephanie Sundborg and I’m the Director for Research and Evaluation at Trauma Informed Oregon. I’m delighted to be joined today by Dr. Chris Wilson, the Founder and Director of Being Trauma Informed, who has graciously agreed to talk with me about trauma informed communication. Chris is a licensed psychologist in Portland, Oregon and is an expert on trauma informed communication. He is a sought-after trainer and consultant on this topic. And I know that he’s a favorite in the world of criminal justice and law enforcement. You can take a look at his website, and I’ll post that below in the text. So welcome Chris, and thanks for talking today 

Chris: Well thank you for having me Stephanie, how are you? 

Stephanie: I’m good. How are you? 

Chris: I’m good. In these odd times I’m, I am good. 

Stephanie: I know it’s really interesting to kind of think about too what communication is like now and how we’re engaging in a trauma informed way via Skype and Zoom and all of these other methods we’re using these days. 

Chris: Yeah, it is. 

Stephanie: Yeah. 

Chris: Absolutely. 

Stephanie: So, I wanted to kind of start general if that was OK and talk about communication generally and clarify what you mean when you talk about it. Can you describe sort of what’s included in that and how to think about it? 

Chris: Sure, yeah, the most obvious is the communication that’s done by talking. So, the conversation that we’re having right now is a form of communication. I also encourage people to think about other forms of communication. Emails, letters that are sent, messaging on their websites. These are all forms of communication that if we think strictly about the one-to- one, we sometimes forget that there are these other forms of communication. And then I think the last, I don’t know that we’ll have time necessarily to get into it, but the notion of metacommunication. In other words, what are we saying with the photographs that we choose? What are we saying with the jokes that we tell? What are we saying with the comments that we make? Because that’s also a form of communication. It’s just not direct. So, I consider all of those things when we think about communication. 

Stephanie: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And the photos, I mean, that really is broadening it to a degree that I wouldn’t have thought about and that’s really important. So that probably kind of feeds into my next question, which is what you mean when you talk about trauma informed communication. 

Chris: Yeah. So, I take a very simple view of the definition of what it means to be trauma informed. And it’s the notion that we take the science related to how the brain deals with threat and then how trauma affects that reaction, and we apply that science to the way that we work. Whether that’s communicating, whether that’s setting up curriculum, whether that’s in putting together a training. So, from my perspective, trauma informed communication is then taking that science and applying it to the way that we communicate. And as I said, on multiple levels. Although, to be perfectly clear, I focus usually on the one-to-one, like the communication that you and I are engaging in right now. 

Stephanie: So, can you unpack the science a little bit? I mean, what’s included in the science? 

Chris: Yeah, there’s some really interesting findings. I think from a communication perspective, perhaps the most interesting and relevant finding is the notion that our brains make sense of threat to the self in the same way that they make sense of threat to status. So, as I communicate with somebody, if the way that you’re communicating to me starts to threaten my sense of status, my brain’s going to have a similar style of reacting to a threat to physical self. So, I’m going to become potentially more vigilant. I may feel an urge to shut down. I may feel an urge to defend myself, become more aggressive. And these are all related to the responses that most people are familiar with around flee or fight or shut down or dissociate. So that science to me is particularly important. And that I think the other science that’s super helpful to recognize is that for thousands of years, our brains have been mapping the environment to safety or threat purely from a perspective of survival. 

And thousands of years ago, it literally was about life and death. Is that rustling in the bushes? Is that a lion? Right? And so, we learned to map that very effectively. And granted, a lot of time has passed and with advances in technology and development, we’re no longer facing the same day-to-day threats. But as you’ve all probably noticed, evolution is a really slow process. So, we’re still dealing with these mechanisms or these ways that the brain maps the environment in day-to-day life. So, if my brain picks up on threat to status, I’m going to map that scenario to threat and that’s going to have an effect on me. And the last piece of the science that I think is crucial for people to understand is that if I have a trauma history, I am more sensitized to mapping things to threat. I’m going to have a more extreme response or reaction to anything that I mapped to threat, which really from my perspective is the part about being trauma informed. I want to respect and honor the fact that I may not know whether you have a trauma history. And so, I’m going to start from the place of treat everybody as though they do. And I’m going to work hard to try to make sure that the way I’m communicating with you gives your brain the opportunity to map me to safety. 

Stephanie: So, I’ve heard you talk about some principles that might guide that behavior or how we decide to communicate in a trauma informed way. Can you talk about some of those principles? 

Chris: Yeah. And it’s interesting, whenever I see overlap, it always makes me feel good, like, OK, we’re on the right, we’re on the right track here. So, in the work that I’ve done with victims of crime, whether it’s sexual assault, whether it’s domestic violence. And I’m talking now just as a clinician, one of the themes that I’ve seen, and I’m sure anybody that’s done this work has seen, is that it’s an experience of having choice removed from us. And so, this notion of when we give people choice that maps us to safety. It matches perfectly with the SAMHSA guidelines on what it means to be trauma informed. Give people choice, right? Give them that sense of control, that sense of empowerment. 

Well, that’s directly connected to this notion of map of safety, map of threat. So, understanding that when I give people choice as I’m communicating with them, that’s a way of helping their brain mapping to safety. Another piece is paying attention to notions of transparency. How clear am I being? How transparent am I being about the why’s, about the details? Because again, this notion of transparency is more about map of safety than map of threat. So, I think the last principle is this notion of being sensitive to the impact of my facial expressions, my tone of voice. You know, our brains are sensitive to tone and rhythm and affect. And from my perspective, all of that sort of is what grounds us in what it means to communicate in a way that’s trauma informed. 

Stephanie: Yeah, so I’ve heard you talk about Safe Eyes and you just mentioned the nonverbal stuff. Can you describe more about the importance of that and how we might think about how we communicate with nonverbals. 

Chris: Yeah, so, if you think about the notion of communication being this combination of the words or something that is communicating language, whether it’s sign language, regardless of how that message is being communicated, there is also an underlying attitude that we portray and that mindset, or that attitude, or that stance that we’re taking, from my perspective is so important. Because Safe Eyes to me, says I am taking the stance of genuinely appreciating and respecting your humanity and the experiences that you’ve had. That doesn’t mean I may agree with you. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to set boundaries. 

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to stand up for myself. It says that while I do that, I want to respect your humanity. And Safe Eyes is then an attempt to remind us that our facial expressions, our eyes, our tone of voice, the rhythm with which we speak. All of this communicates either map of safety or map of threat. So, we can just do with our, with the people watching the vlog right here today. I want you to imagine, I’m going to get my face close to the camera. And I want you to imagine that I asked you to tell me about your experience and then I do this. Yes. It’s super jarring, right? 

Stephanie: Right. 

Chris: So, part of trauma informed communication is understanding that if the person I’m communicating with has a trauma history, this is what I call Hard Eyes. It’s incredibly jarring and we feel it in our bodies. 

Stephanie: Yeah. 

Chris: We feel it. So that to me is the essence of, Safe Eyes is the essence of trauma informed communication. This mindset of, I’m going to honor and respect your humanity and your experience. 

Stephanie: Wow. So, I just finished up doing something where I was talking about kind of the patterns that we set up in our brain to perceive things in a certain way. When you think about that in terms of communication and kind of how it unfolds and evolves, can you like, can a person backtrack and repair within communication or I mean, how does that all work? Sort of that restore and repair piece? 

Chris: Yeah, that’s actually a really good question. So, my experience is coming from the world of working with individuals who’ve struggled with being abusive over the course of their lives, and then also working with survivors. And what I’ve noticed is that when we try to repair, it’s absolutely crucial that we have Safe Eyes. Any attempt to repair a relationship without a genuine concern for the experience of the other is not felt as an authentic attempt to repair. So, you know, as a therapist, I often would tell my clients, at some point I am going to disappoint you. I’m going to let you down. I’m going to make a mistake. And the question for us will be the extent to which I can repair with you. And that’s on me, not on my client. So yeah, I think it’s absolutely possible to repair. It just is crucial that in making that effort, we have this notion of respecting and understanding the humanity and the experience of the person that we’re repairing with. 

Stephanie: Nice. And that makes me think that it really is getting to just be like really humane in your communication. And being authentic and genuine and conveying that with how you interact and communicate. 

Chris: Well, the really cool thing is those of us who I think relate to the touchy feely have accepted that all along. What’s really, really cool is that folks who are a little more science- based, folks who are a little more hey, prove that to me. We can, I can share this science with a detective, a judge, an attorney, and light bulbs go off. You know, I had a detective once say to me, and I will be sensitive to language just given that we’re, you know, we’re on a webinar, but he said “I show up on scene with not Hard Eyes, but Don’t F With Me Eyes”. And he said, “I’ve always thought of that being for my own safety”. He said “it never occurred to me that I’m having an effect negatively on any witness or any victim that I might need to interview at some point. Because that science thing you’re talking about, that makes a lot of sense to me”. 

So, it’s exciting when you start to connect these notions of relationship and connection to the way the brain operates. And particularly when you use examples that people can relate to, like that notion of everybody goes, right? It opens doors that wouldn’t normally be open. And I completely agree with you. It’s about connection, it’s about authenticity. And now we just, we have the science to show that these things are true for a reason. We feel that way for a reason. 

Stephanie: Nice. So, we’re using these vlogs as part of our workforce wellness efforts and outreach. And we try to frame this in terms of the intrapersonal level, the interpersonal level, and the organizational level. So, in just the last 30 seconds or so we have together, can you speak to like how you might think about this in terms of the intra or the organizational levels? 

Chris: Yeah. So, you know, that intra personal communication, how I talk to myself, how I work with myself internally. We have to have Safe Eyes with ourselves, you know, it’s really important that we respect and honor our own humanity. Think, take for example, this, the COVID-19 situation that we’re all in. How many people watching the vlog have been critical of themselves and said, you know, you should be working out more often. You should have learned how to play the guitar by now, right? All these notions of what we should have done, and I’m always reminded of Stuart Smalley, you know, you’re should-ing all over yourself. When the reality is, if we are hard on ourselves in that way, with that Hard Eyes voice, all it does is raise up our levels of map of threat. 

So, from an intrapersonal perspective, I think it’s crucial that we treat ourselves in a trauma informed manner. Interpersonally, I think we’ve been talking a little bit about that and being sensitive. You know, I’ll just bring up one real, real quick, and I have a feeling I’m running out of time, but think about this communication between the two of us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think you’re looking at my face and I’m looking at your face, but to each other, it looks like we’re not making eye contact with each other. But if I look here now, it looks like I’m looking at you. 

And so, from an inter personal perspective, I think what’s part of being trauma informed is also when we don’t get what we want from the person we’re working with, having this notion of genuine curiosity and grace as opposed to this notion of expecting that we know why, or we can assume why somebody is doing what they’re doing. And then from an organizational level, I would suggest that the message I gave earlier, that thinking about metacommunication, using your resources, meaning most organizations that are thinking about being trauma informed have somebody in the organization who’s a survivor, and asking that person, inviting them into the space of analyzing communication. And if you don’t have that capacity, then finding somebody outside the organization and inviting that person into your space to help you get a sense of to what degree is our website trauma informed, and not just from a language perspective, but from photographs, and this notion of the message that we’re sending. 

I very often, my sisters head rings out, you gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself. So, from my perspective, being trauma informed, and I’ll leave it with this, the last piece of trauma 

informed communication from my perspective, is always being open to feedback. Always being open to the fact that we have to let survivors let us know whether we’re being trauma informed. Because I can think I’m being trauma informed. But if the survivor that I’m working with isn’t feeling that, then I need to be really curious about why. 

Stephanie: That is a great place to end. So yes, thank you so much and I really appreciate the time together. I learn something every time I talk to you. 

Chris: Well, I’m honored that you invited Stephanie, I really appreciate the opportunity. 

Stephanie: Yeah, thank you.