Why (and How) Trauma-Informed Collaboration Has Become A Pillar at Greaterthan

J.D. Nasaw
Greaterthan
Published in
13 min readMar 26, 2023

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Photo by Margarida CSilva on Unsplash

Of the myriad innovations that sprang up inside Greaterthan in response to the pandemic of 2020, “Trauma-informed Collaboration” (TiC) has vitally endured and evolved. My colleague Ria Baeck sourced TiC as its own topic of inquiry as she noticed within some networked organizations—Percolab, Enspiral, Greaterthan—that tricky interpersonal dynamics “were actually trauma-responses that people were not aware of, and there was a need for more basic understanding of this material.” Ria and Lucia Die Gil launched an internal workshop series which became our flagship Greaterthan Academy course, and now an ongoing community of practice.

Our students and clients usually come to Greaterthan for support in collective transformation, perhaps because they’re ready to try self-management or Teal practices, work differently with money, or just facilitate meetings and design processes with a more liberated structure. We are energizing and drawing attention to Trauma-informed Collaboration because we want to see it embraced alongside these other organizing strategies.

Below I share some context for TiC, the territory we’ve mapped so far, and a few practices you can take up with your collaborators. Future posts will deepen into some of these topics and others that emerge.

Context for Trauma-informed Collaboration

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others.” (Judith Herman M.D., Trauma and Recovery)

“Trauma and oppression leave [our core needs of] safety, belonging, and dignity harmed or unmet. It splits safety, belonging, and dignity from each other, so that they are no longer co-supportive. We are then in an unwinnable internal struggle. We are fighting ourselves, because each of these needs are inherent. None can win out over the others. In its simplest form, healing is the embodied ability to reconnect safety, belonging, and dignity and have them serve one another, rather than be at odds with one another. It is to bring ourselves (body, actions, emotions, relations) into current time… not as a concept, but as a felt reality.” (Staci Haines, The Politics of Trauma)

“Collectively, patriarchy is reproduced through explicit and implicit political, economic, and cultural agreements that maintain and reinforce scarcity, separation, and powerlessness.” (Miki Kashtan)

“Prior to capitalism, there was no such thing as psychology and therapists didn’t exist. In order for psychology to exist, individuals have to exist as separate entities, and capitalism did that by sufficiently tearing us apart from land and from each other. From then on, the focus on individual healing, personal growth, and self-improvement is one of the ways in which we are kept from coming together to recognize the situation we are in collectively, so as to find community-based ways of responding to it, including collective action to change the systems that are destroying the planet and our well-being.” (Miki Kashtan)

Capitalism is killing us.” (Dr. Gabor Maté)

Trauma is our response to an overwhelming pressure that our soma (our entire living body-mind) perceives as life-threatening, that gets stuck in our bodily tissues until we release it. Trauma is complex and varied and warrants just a bit more study than reading a single article (see recommended resources below).

Principles and practices of trauma-informed collaboration have become a pillar at Greaterthan because we serve a wider movement toward reinventing organizations that adores the vision of “bringing our whole selves to work.” This has become a catchphrase, a noble ideal, and also fraught with challenges. In theory, bringing our “whole selves” might feel like embodying authenticity and experiencing the full range of our aliveness. In reality, it means the life histories stored in our bodies come along to the office, and every one of us brings physical, emotional, psychic, relational, and spiritual wounds from power-over patriarchal socialization within parenting, schooling, community and religious organizations, and prior work experiences.

Thanks to a growing public awakening around trauma, we know that “the body keeps the score.” And while somatics and embodiment have finally become embraced by a mainstream audience, our healthcare systems are behind and somatic healing modalities remain difficult to access. We must also cultivate discernment about when & how to invite embodied practices as they can be harmful when shared unskillfully in settings where one’s livelihood is at stake.

Yet we must start somewhere. The traumas stuck in our bodies have an impulse to bubble up and re-enact themselves in a bid for healing—one reason why we find our bodies repeating choices our thinking selves hoped to avoid, and our visionary projects fall apart because trauma has us jump to fighting or fleeing. Even in the most positive future vision, we can reasonably expect that the coming years of The Great Turning will bring greater waves of trauma and call us into immense intergenerational healing from the 10,000 year patriarchal turn.

We still have the social psychobiology of hunter-gatherers, which only gives and receives trust within the intimacy of a pack, which is why in Emergent Strategy the small group is the site of transformation. Our too-big-to-fail institutions answer to corporate and federal mandates that demand compliance and profit, leaving them no choice but to perpetuate power-over trauma and quell evolution. But as these old systems eventually crumble, we can make sanctuary, islands of sanity, and practical visionary alternatives with just a handful of committed bandmates.

Within our visionary collaborations we must move away from the operating norms of supremacy and towards embodying the future we long for right now — a world that works for all, where power is distributed and belonging is cultivated and our gifts flow. We have to start where we are and take action in digestible bits, as our capacity will increase each time we take action within current capacity by stretching but not over-stretching.

Obstacles

The structuring of “work” as distinct from “life” happened just yesterday in human evolution, and our body-minds cannot hold them as distinct. “The very concept of work is a modern one that did not exist as a separate activity in human society until recently” notes Tyson Yunkaporta. “There is no word for work in my home language and none in any other Aboriginal language I have seen.” The internet age massively blurred work/life boundaries and the pandemic catapulted the encroachment of work into whatever remained of not-work. We can no longer pretend that traumas born of childhood, schooling, and professionalization aren’t throwing wrenches in our day-to-day functioning.

Let’s remember that our organizations and ways of leading have been shaped by Western education that, Yunkaporta recounts, was modeled on a Prussian schooling system employing “the same techniques to manufacture adolescence and thus domesticate their people” as they used to break the wildness of farm animals:

1. Separate the young from their parents in the daylight hours

2. Confine them in an enclosed space with limited stimulation or access to natural habitat

3. Use rewards and punishments to force them to comply with purposeless tasks

Change the first to separate “the workers from the owners” or “the have-nots from the haves” and you have a recipe for the modern workplace.

And all of us have been both “have” and “have-not”, overpowering and powerless at different times. We alternatingly ache from the somatic effects of being oppressed and inflicting harm (moral injury). As Erica Sherover-Marcuse so clearly laid out in her Liberation Theory,

“The perpetuation of oppression is made possible by the conditioning of new generations of human beings into the role of being oppressed and the role of being oppressive. In a society in which there is oppression, everyone (at one time or another) is socialized into both of these roles. People who are the target group of a particular form of mistreatment are socialized to become victims; people who are the non-target group of a particular form of mistreatment are socialized to become perpetrators- either in a direct, active form or in an indirect, passive form. Neither of these roles serves our best interests as human beings.

The conditioning of both groups, the target group and the non-target group of any given oppression takes place through a specific form of oppression, the oppression of young people. In a society in which there is oppression, all young people will be the targets of this systematic mistreatment, i.e. all young people will be oppressed.

Our reinventing work movement aims for “adult-to-adult” relationships, but so often fails because the socialization (domestication!) of parent-child and victim-perpetrator roles live in our bodies, and often re-enact themselves with our workmates, in search of resolution. While we start to implement principles and practices of trauma-informed collaboration with peers, we must apply them to raising the next generation too.

Photo by Acton Crawford on Unsplash

Money Matters

The immediate threat of physical violence at work no longer haunts the majority of us reading this article. This is worth celebrating and was not true until very recently for women, trans and gender non-conforming people, and BIPOC folks.

Still, because our bodies hold the traumatic residue of hundreds of years of workplace violence, and money is often the only pathway in capitalism to meet our material needs (and increasingly to access the social-emotional needs of connection and significance) “going to work” is high stakes. If we lose the capacity to “earn” livelihood then we very well could lose everything. One of the most powerful tools in modern warfare is the manipulation of money and economics. So any collaborative space that involves money is nearly guaranteed to trigger our trauma responses.

Purpose-Based Healing

With all of this as ground, we do NOT advocate for trauma healing in the workplace, nor within most collaborative environments (like so-called “nonprofit” spaces) where satisfying our core needs intersects with old power-over structures and ways of being. We do not have the capacity in these spaces to generate a safe-enough container to do trauma healing work. It is with good reason that healers in most cultures tend to be found on the periphery, and communal healing space is activated in later stages of recovery.

At the root of nearly all trauma healing modalities are processes to re-establish safety, empowerment, and connection, and support stuck contractions in our body to move and release. This is complex work that takes years within an established and consensual healing relationship.

Our goal in trauma-informed collaboration is NOT to eliminate trauma, squash conflict, or even cure us. We DO aim to reduce harm and re-traumitization, to be at ease with trauma responses when they arise in us and others, and to end “the uneven distribution of trauma” (Prentis Hemphill’s apt definition of oppression). We let go of false niceness and comfort, and choose “clean pain,” the pain of growth, over the “dirty” pain of avoidance and denial.

And we can’t make the mistake of thinking we must be fully healed or “whole” before we take collective action toward building a world that works for all. Instead we do what Miki Kashtan calls “purpose-based healing” when we find our capacity too depleted to take the next small step forward towards our vision.

“​​This is a profound shift, because it both requires and supports acceptance of our limitations, working around them, compensating for them through agreements and through support from others, and shifting strategies to build on our strengths as much as possible without having to change ourselves. This dramatically reduces the need for doing healing work. It’s a simple and rigorous shift: for as long as we can focus on purpose and move forward, we keep going, warts and all. It is only when we can’t, even with all the support we can get from agreements, structures, and others, that the need for healing per se arises.”

Thus the necessity, and interrelatedness, of both personal work and systemic work. The small group is where we begin, and still if our team or company is thriving (however we define that) but our thriving necessitates the traumatization of peoples and ecosystems somewhere out of sight, the moral injury and downstream effects will catch up. How are we integrating pathways for liberated collaboration with children and elders? How are we in solidarity with all the voices, needs and gifts of those who aren’t in the room, and the seven generations to come? It’s beyond the scope of this article to take up those questions but they are vital to this inquiry too.

Principles for Trauma-informed Collaboration

So what is appropriate action to take at the intersection of trauma and “the future of work”? There is no formula, but a few principles we might add to what’s out there:

  • We collaborate systemically to reduce harm inside our collectives and reduce the impacts that our actions have on other peoples and planet.
  • We assess our current capacity so that we can make agreements and begin practices that are actually doable — working with our internal strengths and limits, and external obstacles and opportunities. This will also reveal what outside resources — facilitation, training, consultation, hands-on healing, solidarity — we might seek out.
  • We rewire power (the capacity to move resources towards needs) so that everyone can influence the decisions that affect them, and experiment with new collective strategies for money and resource flow so we can move out of the fragile, traumatic frame of individualism.
  • We develop competencies to proactively repair and reconcile relationships, and aim to exit a collaboration only when that is the most visionary and nonviolent move. We learn that “conflict is not abuse” and develop the capacity to stay in generative conflict, which emerges as a healthy expression of our differences and moves us to take care of everyone’s needs.
  • We work with trauma responses that will inevitably emerge from the embodied depths in all our social domains. Our practices for this must be freely chosen and adaptable to our team and context. Some ideas follow below — find what works for you.

Practices for Trauma-informed Collaboration

Intentional practices are essential to transformation. Here are some of the practices we see as foundational to trauma-informed collaboration—future articles will dive deeper into each one.

  • Regulating our nervous systems, coming back to the present moment, and accessing the soft qualitiesendless possibilities here! Anything that focuses our attention, awakens somatic awareness, slows the breath, softens muscular activation. Something like centering, soft belly, tapping, or plain old rest. Note: we can be centered, grounded, regulated and also in grief or rage. This is not about artificially tranquilizing ourselves or numbing difficult emotions or sensations, which are vital somatic calls to take purposeful action.
  • Noticing our bodies’ survival responses — we practice finding the outside edges of our window of tolerance, noticing the embodied experiences of hyper- and hypo-arousal, and the signs that we are moving away, against, or towards others in response to pressure. We learn to see that someone is (re)acting from history instead of the present.
  • Deepening our understanding of our collaborators’ “shapes — we practice speaking and listening to each of our complex histories, and learning about the larger forces (communities, institutions, social norms, intergenerational inheritances) that made us who we are in collaboration. Note: this is an invitation to make meaning of what is relevant and ready to be spoken, not to dredge up our most painful memories indiscriminately.
  • Resourcing core needs — we practice anything that increases collective capacity to resource our collaborators’ core needs of safety, belonging, and dignity. We ask “How can we increase trust? What will enable us to be even more authentic? Do all of us have dignity here, or only some of us? Are any of our needs being met at the expense of others?” We practice naming our needs, naming our preferences while holding them loosely, and striving for safe-enough without coddling each other.
  • Increasing our access to resiliencewe practice what makes our bodies more alive, more connected to each other, and more connected to vision. Drawing together, gratitude practice, time in nature, time with animals or children, moments for play — all are welcome as long as we are staying present to bodily sensation and not dissociating.
  • Sensing our limits, embodying flexible boundaries, and consent— we practice saying yes, no, and maybe from a present, grounded, purposeful embodiment. We practice noticing our automatic tendencies around limits, boundaries, and choice. We practice noticing when what someone says doesn’t match their embodiment.
  • Accepting what is and working with the energy of trauma— we practice the aikido move of blending with whatever challenge arises instead of resisting or fighting it with tension; we intervene when someone’s trauma response is causing harm but we don’t pathologize or shame them for it; we practice thanking our trauma responses for trying to take care of us; we practice loving our brilliant imperfection.

Along with these practices, we shift the conversation and collectively presence ourselves with generative questions like “What does resilience look like for this group?” “What are our tendencies when conflict arises?” “Where do we need to be setting better boundaries?” When we circle on these questions, our collective intelligence points the way forward.

What else we are doing at Greaterthan

After three years it still feels like the beginning of Trauma-informed Collaboration at Greaterthan. Here are a few things we are doing internally that intersect with this inquiry:

  • Hosting more cohorts of the academy course and welcoming those who attend into our monthly TiC community of practice.
  • Studying with incredible trauma professionals at places such as Strozzi Institute, Somatic Experiencing, The Embody Lab, and Holotropic Breathwork, and experimenting with their practices inside our collective to find what is effective.
  • Experimenting with the structure of Liberation Pods created with the Nonviolent Global Liberation community (thanks to Selene Aswell and Miki Kashtan for supporting us)
  • Leading internal initiatives to sharpen our somatic toolkit including a recent “Embodiment Festival” and in-development series on “Embodying Power-With”
  • Holding reflective space to hear everyone’s voice on topics like burnout/overwork and continually revisiting the question “What are we not saying?”
  • Working to reduce harm and increase resilience through continually (re)designing our collective money practices, governance model, and approach to emergent possibilities like land-based projects and near-term collapse.
Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash

More breadcrumbs

We invite you to join us in this evolving field of trauma-informed collaboration, to follow along as we work out loud, and to explore the vast web of practitioners and lineages across many domains that have influenced us:

With particular gratitude, and a recommendation to follow, the invaluable wisdom of these six humans/publications:

  • Staci Haines, The Politics of Trauma
  • adrienne marie brown, Emergent Strategy
  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score
  • Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands
  • Peter Levine, Waking The Tiger
  • Miki Kashtan, The Fearless Heart (blog)

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J.D. Nasaw
Greaterthan

somatic coach, facilitator, educator, associate @Greaterthan, founder @Open/Up Hospitality