The following excerpt comes from A Little Book About Trauma-Informed Workplaces, which I am a co-author of. The chapter, Shift Attitudes, explores the importance of moving from judgement to curiosity when interacting with others.
While trauma awareness is valuable at a knowledge level, an attitude shift is necessary in order to change how we engage with people. By shifting attitudes, we are able to put our awareness of trauma into action. This shift impacts the questions we ask and creates a mindset of curious empathy that we can bring to our interactions. It is demonstrated by responding to people, organizations, and communities in ways that reflect awareness of the role trauma can have. When we shift our attitudes, our biases recede and healthy responses to trauma become the norm.
Traumatic experiences can cause people to react with the protective survival instincts of fight, flight, and freeze behaviours. Because these survival instincts can also emerge in everyday situations that aren’t actually threatening, these behaviours are often misunderstood and difficult to respond to. While they are useful in the face of actual threats, they can come across as unhelpful or challenging when they don’t seem to match the situation.
When we recognize the possibility that trauma may be a factor in these behaviours, we can understand and approach them with an attitude of empathetic curiosity.
When we recognize the possibility that trauma may be a factor in these behaviours, we can understand and approach them with an attitude of empathetic curiosity. For example, a coworker may try to protect themselves from the trauma of a difficult divorce by going into a “freeze” response when overwhelmed at work. This can result in them shutting down and withdrawing from people, being chronically late to work, closing themselves in their office, or missing meetings. Or, for another individual, a domestic breakdown could produce aggressive “fight” behaviours and cause them to become defensive in the face of seemingly harmless questions.
Being in the presence of someone who is reacting to a threat, whether it’s real or perceived, can significantly impact our own emotional state. We can get pulled down a parallel reactive spiral and into our own fight, flight, or freeze responses. Without a pause and an attitude shift, we are likely to respond with an emotion-led reaction that is counterproductive to the situation. Furthermore, reactive responses tend to be judgemental, which can damage the relationship, increase tension, or worse yet, cause further re-traumatization. This is where someone re-experiences the emotional and physical impacts associated with the original trauma.
One of our favorite sayings at CTRI is “Shift judgement to curiosity.” At the heart of this saying is a call to approach a person’s behaviour with openness and curiosity. For example, instead of thinking “What is wrong with you?” when responding to a challenging behaviour, consider “What has happened that might be leading to this behaviour?” The problematic question “What is wrong with you?” reflects a reactive attitude that implies blame and a deficit in the person. In contrast, by withholding judgement and taking a moment to internally wonder what has happened that could explain this behaviour, we are acknowledging that trauma might be influencing this person. In this way we are separating the person from the behaviour. It is important that this approach is not practiced by just a few people, but by everyone. This shift from judgement to curious empathy may begin at the individual level, but as more people practice it, it will naturally spread throughout the workplace. However, different employees will require different levels of support and time to shift their attitudes and biases. There will be times when judgemental attitudes need to be challenged, and staff who are slow to incorporate the shift in attitude will need to be coached.
Becoming a trauma-informed workplace is not about being perfect – it’s about being honest about our shortcomings and looking for ways to improve.
Becoming a trauma-informed workplace is not about being perfect – it’s about being honest about our shortcomings and looking for ways to improve. Through open exchange and dialogue, we can become more aware of our hidden biases and problematic ways of thinking. This has the effect of destigmatizing the sometimes challenging symptoms of trauma.
An enduring reality is that, despite our best efforts, we never fully arrive at a perfect attitude. Therefore, it is important to turn our attention toward continuous learning and dialogue with our peers about the impacts of trauma. By being intentional about shifting our attitudes and bringing curious empathy to all our interactions, workplaces can take the necessary steps to avoid re-traumatization and create environments that promote well-being for everyone.
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