Trauma informed collaboration for remote teams

During these last years I have worked in numerous remote teams and COVID has really accelerated a trend that was already picking up speed. In the meantime The Wisdom of Trauma was released pointing out perhaps what we knew all along, that trauma is present in all of us, some more and some less but it is there and in times of stress such as during a pandemic trauma has been an ever present topic on people’s reading list.

Remote work has allowed some people affected by lock-down restrictions to continue working but it has also in many ways presented challenges for people who had not been doing remote work to adopt and learn new tools in order to show up professionally, get to grips with the technology to support their work and learning to collaborate in a whole new way.

Checking in

In permaculture circles meetings start with a check-in, often it is an invitation to say how people are showing up for the meeting.

How am I showing up? / What am I feeling?

It takes a few minutes and people can gauge the general mood and energy level in the room, this can influence what different people may decide to bring forward in an agenda. For example if people are showing up stressed and tired someone may decide to leave out a discussion about a contentious topic for another day.

Reflection about my own triggers

When I feel triggered in my collaboration with others whether during a meeting or when reading written communication I am faced with some choices:

I can go with a guttural response — reply there and then pushing back as I feel right

I can sit in my discomfort for a while and ask myself:

  • why do I feel triggered / angry / defensive / resistant
  • what are my concerns?
  • can I let it go?
  • do I understand where the other person is coming from?

Not so long ago when I felt confronted in my collaboration with a peer I found that I had a tendency to freeze, this means that I do not address what the person is saying to me, they have no way of knowing by my silence whether I have dismissed them and what they are saying or whether I was processing.

What they could not see was me agonizing over what they’d said for days afterwards dissecting every word and deliberating whether what they had been saying was actually true or just their own projection of their own issues, triggers and trauma induced behavior.

I’ve learned then to feel out loud: “I feel like I need time to process what you have said before I can reply.”

What do I have to lose?

Often we are or feel like we have to be transactional in our collaborations so if I feel triggered in a scenario where I am volunteering in a big city I am more likely to just call it quits and find somewhere else to volunteer my time. This is low risk environment response where I have the privilege to be able to walk away.

However many of us in different freelancing and contract employment relationships do not have such privilege. These high stakes now puts us in a position where our flight response may be figuratively taken away, what’s left is freezing or fighting. We can still participate in a muted fashion, communicate minimally, do the bare minimum and keep the castle protection walls way up but what are we losing in so doing?

Muted participation robs us of the joy of working with people on a connected level that goes beyond productivity, it robs us of opportunities perhaps for further work as people can see or feel that we are not really fully invested or genuinely and artfully participating.

Often as a freelancer I am offered jobs and opportunities from participating in one project and blending into the next by collaborators. The way I show up is testament to my work ethic, integrity, it builds up trust with my collaborators that I can be trusted to complete the job and be a great team player.

Muted collaboration on the other hand takes those opportunities away. It may damage my reputation and ultimately hurt my ability to make a living.

How do I take responsibility for my trauma?

As we have established at the beginning, since we all have some level of trauma a good starting point for taking responsibility for my trauma is to become aware of it.

Exploring one’s own trauma can be retraumatising! So proceed with caution.

What is trauma?

You will find many different definitions online:

The American psychological association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.”

Integratedlistening defines trauma as “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.”

It is important to make the distinction between the event and the emotional reaction caused by the event.

For example quite a few years ago I was physically and sexually assaulted during a date. As I write this I can feel my body react to it, my shoulders tense up. I am not in any physical danger right now however, the recollection of this event now will make me check that my door is securely locked before I go to bed tonight. At the time of the incident that reaction of hyper alertness and quickly figuring out a way to get out of the situation was the correct response, being anxious then was the right response. Trauma is the anxiety I still feel years later as a result of that incident, it is my changed attitude towards dating and the way I live and socialize with other people.

A traumatic event can also be forgotten, for example if something happened to me as a very young child I might not remember the incident but the trauma from that event may still affect me in ways that I may not be able to directly link with any event.

Something else to keep into account is that what seems to be not a traumatic event to you may be deeply traumatic to others and the triggers which may seem insignificant may result in what seems to be a disproportionate reaction as a result of a past trauma the person may or may not be aware of.

Our behavior today is consciously and subconsciously informed by our past experiences.

A real life example of trauma induced behavior

In a workshop not too long ago one participant greatly upset another with a wave of the hand during a sharing of a personal experience. A very heated argument ensued because the receiving party felt dismissed and belittled as they had been many times before as a minority — they felt that person B was saying their experience was not important or valid or true.

What was surprising was not the trigger or the reaction but the inability of the person who triggered the other to apologize. A number of people asked person B to apologize the person felt that they were being made to do something they didn’t want to as perhaps they had been made to do other things in the past without their consent and so they adamantly refused.

This is a typical conflict scenario were a skilled team may step into mediation and avoid escalating the confrontation into an online punch up ending in one or the other or even both people leaving.

What could the team have done then:

  1. Bring attention to the behavior and ask clarifying questions: I can see that person A is upset, why do you think they are upset at your reaction? If they do not know why ask person A to try and explain why they are upset.
  2. Ask person B to explain their reaction and the intention behind the reaction. Often people react not to upset others, remembering the why we work together helps to recenter the focus from an adversary position to one of collaboration.
  3. Encourage feeling out loud statements: I feel hurt that my experience was dismissed. I feel pushed into doing or saying things that I don’t want to do or say. I would like to receive an apology from person A.
  4. If an agreement is not possible for one position to another then look for a compromise that both parties will agree to.

If these conflicts are not addressed you might find yourself with statements such as this:

“In this team I feel like my experience is repeatedly ignored, I do not feel seen or valued. I feel like I am not able to bring my authentic self to this space.”

What if the feeling does not match reality?

Be aware of a possible chasm between the feeling and the reality.

Feelings are always true and valid but reality may not be correspondent with those feelings.

Taking the quote in the last section as an example the person is feeling those emotions even though they are treated respectfully and given a fair chance to participate in the work. The true cause of those feelings may lie outside of the team in that person’s life or past trauma which is still very live in that moment. For example being seen and heard might mean to them that they expect people to agree with them. However, one can be heard and seen and also respectfully disagreed with all at the same time.

Team members should be able to review what has happened in reality and assess whether the feelings are connected and linked with the particular event or whether the cause lies elsewhere.

Embalse del Rules — Andalucia — Bridging the gap

How does this past trauma show up then as triggers and problematic behavior in my professional relationships?

This is not always an easy question to answer, sometimes I am not always consciously aware of the traumatic events that have lead to the trauma itself but if I am to be taking responsibility for my behavior I must accept the work that goes along with it.

As an example: when I feel adversarial or a team member comments on this then it is my responsibility to dig around myself at the cause, it is my responsibility to remember to pause when I feel this and reflect on how I can show up more collaboratively.

It is my responsibility to listen to my team mates feedback and try to understand how and what I can do to address this within myself.

If I am unable to overcome some problematic behavior by myself it is my responsibility to address it with help in therapy.

What can I / we do trauma when gets in the way of team work?

  1. Set aside time to deal with the behavior outside of already pre-allocated focused work time. This is very important if delivery of the work impacts team members livelihood.
  2. Be aware that not every team member will have the capacity to be able to provide support.
  3. Recognize when the individual team member needs outside help and be ready to reallocate work in order for that person to go get the help they need in order to become functional again.
  4. Be compassionate to people’s emotional capacity and boundaries applies across the team not restricted to an individual team member.
  5. Be respectful of the team’s time and energy — step out when needed to process your own trauma in therapy.

As a team member how do I draw my own boundaries when dealing the other team members trauma induced behavior?

I think it is critical to find out through self reflection to what point your capacity for supporting others is, especially where some behavior pushes at your own triggers.

Teams may decide through a team culture session what kind of behavior they would like to see and would be willing to support.

For example: As a team we agree to treat each other with respect, to openly communicate needs for time off to deal with mental and physical health. We agree to be supportive of each other and reallocate work around the team giving time of X days for any team member to return to the project before a replacement is sought.

What are the benefits of trauma informed collaboration?

It makes work relationships more human, more compassionate and more understanding. It also allows for people to show up more readily, to communicate more openly and to reflect and seek clarification before reacting to their triggers thus potentially reducing conflicts from arising and increasing the quality of work delivered.

#permaculture practitioner, teacher and designer — co-founder of #ecohackerfarm