Trauma Informed Facilitation

A trauma informed framework is an approach that understands, recognizes, and responds to the effects of all types of trauma. In any work that is aimed at ending oppression and advancing social justice, trauma will be present in the room. While we are building up our wealth of science about trauma, a larger body of evidence, the lived experiences of trauma, is certainly pervasively all around us.

From the book “Trauma and Recovery” trauma is defined as an extraordinary event, “not because it occurs rarely, but rather because it overwhelms the ordinary human adaptations to life.” This means that our lived experiences in a society built on institutional oppression has the potential to be overwhelming our bodies and selves everyday. There are serious physiological effects of trauma, including deficient immune systems and the inability to experience necessary bodily functions regularly due to overstimulation.

So get a bunch of people who are surviving trauma everyday and/or have experienced acute traumatic events in a room together to talk about oppression and social justice – you can bet that the ever disruptive agent named trauma will be in the room as well.

Over the past 2 decades, I have had the honor of working alongside many survivors of the various layers of violence that ills our society. I have worked as a case manager, a community organizer, a policy advocate, and a professor. Each of these roles has demanded a holistic understanding of trauma and survivorship in order to build trusting relationships with my clients, colleagues, and students. These relationships, and the incredible ways I have benefited from knowing these people, are what have inspired and pushed me to be a better organizer and teacher. Lately many folks have been asking about my facilitation style and “how I do it.” I think the first step in being a trauma-informed facilitator starts with a deep respect and reverence for the survivors of trauma that you will be facilitating. Knowing that you are lucky to be in the room with such geniuses, knowing that you are moving with power and privilege, and knowing that your facilitation can mean revolutionary things can happen is exciting and a huge responsibility. If you are not starting here, the rest of what I have to share will be difficult for you.

A trauma informed meeting is a meeting that accounts for this ahead of time, ensures the meeting is developed in a way to prevent as many triggers as possible, and utilizes a flexible structure to hold moments when the trauma is present. While this level of preparedness can feel overwhelming, it is actually a rhythm that is easy to pick-up. Like any new muscle, it requires practice and discipline. And once you integrate the practices, it really does become second nature.

Setting Up The Meeting

From the topic to the agenda to the space to the facilitator – intentional choices and moving deliberately can go a looooooooong way on the prevention tip.

1)    Know the audience and make sure that basic needs will not get in the way of anyone’s full participation. Ask yourself/team:

  • Are you meeting in an accessible space?
  • Are you close to public transit?
  • Do people know where to park?
  • Are their elevators in the building?
  • Will people need translation?
  • Will people need food?  What types of dietary restrictions need to be considered (allergies, vegan, gluten free, halal, etc.)?
  • Is there enough seating for everyone?
  • Should we consider being scent free?
  • Do we need childcare or translation services?

2)    Create an agenda that includes activities that engage multiple learning styles and offer choices to the participants, space the activities to allow for full absorption and flexibility in case stuff comes up, and include breaks/self-care as much as possible, including time for deep breaths or embodiment activities. Ask yourself/team:

  • Are materials written down or copied for all?
  • Do we have a need for tech or projection for easier viewing?
  • Is there a way to integrate multimedia? Like videos or sound?
  • Can we include movement?
  • Do we have opportunities in the agenda for processing and debriefing?

3)    Choose a facilitator(s) who will help create open’ness and safety in the space – be cognizant of both the audience and the facilitator’s race/class/gender/disability/education makeup and make sure they are reflected back to one another. Also ensure that the facilitator is best positioned to incorporate the most voices – for example it’s not ideal to have the person who “knows the most information” or has the most “reporting back” to do also be the facilitator.

During The Meeting

Each person can be responsible for their meeting participation and managing their triggers. As a facilitator, your role is often to remind people of this responsibility in ways that don’t embarrass, shame, or harm participants. Instead, there are a number of strategies to ensure that this is possible for each participant and create authentic opportunities to remind participants of this responsibility.

1)    Open up the meeting with intention – welcoming people as they enter the space and helping them get oriented (bathrooms, where to put their things, letting them know if you’ve started or if you are waiting for a few more people etc.). It’s also important to utilize an icebreaker or opening questions that helps create inclusivity (i.e.: preferred pronouns, if people have access needs, emotional check-ins on scales of 1-5).

2)    Utilize group agreements that setup the space that you need – use the group agreements as an opportunity to name the traumas that might show up and what the plan is to address them. Sometimes it can be helpful to have agreements around electronics (i.e.: no cell phones, if video mtg – use camera, etc.) inviting people to be present with each other. Here are some other examples of group agreements you could use (adapted from Southern Law Project and Training for Change):

  • Stay Engaged – Whatever that looks like- drawing, stretching, leaving room so you can be more present. We are going to trust that everyone is doing the best they can and know best what they need.
  • Expect to experience discomfort – We embody violent histories and generations of power, abuse, genocide, struggle – it is an uncomfortable journey of un/re/learning. Discomfort is distinct from unsafe: if your comfort zone (green zone) is familiar/comfortable, try to stay in the yellow zone (new thinking/behaviors, steepest learning curve), but not the red zone of over-risking. Each person’s risks look different than the next.
  • Expect a lack of closure – Integrating new info takes time. Honoring the learning that happens beyond these walls & taking things back to your communities. If you leave with more questions than answers, we think that is a great thing!
  • Speak (through) your truth – I am not the same I was 2 years ago nor 2 hours ago. full selves now. Honor the process. Allowing others to speak (through) their truths, we are collectively creating a space for all to be growing/transforming. Speak from I, Think from We.
  • Trying on is not taking on – We might ask you to think about something in a new way or try on some new language during the workshop. You don’t have to keep using that after this workshop.

3)    When vulnerable or difficult moments happen, do not ignore them or gloss over. Take the time necessary to address the situation and redirect. It is great when the facilitator is able to catch this, but participants can also ask for it and help hold that space.

4)    Listen to one another and make sure to pause/slow down and make space for different participation. Feeling invisibilized and talked over are very quick ways to trigger survivors of trauma – each participant can be responsible for holding sacred space for one another.

Facilitation Tips

As the facilitator, there are specific strategies that you can implement to hold the space and create the container necessary for a successful meeting. Some very basic ideas for creating that container include:

  • Memorizing or writing down everyone’s name and asking them direct questions.
  • Doing a go-around where everyone has an equal opportunity to talk.
  • When you ask a question and no one answers, wait 60 seconds before moving on.
  • Inviting a specific group to speak up, especially if others are dominating: “I’d love to hear from any one in the room who has personal experience, or hasn’t spoken yet or is new.”
  • Utilizing small groups and “pair and shares” when the group needs more processing time but the large group is creating dynamics of who speaks and who doesn’t.
  • Looking for and naming patterns and points of alignment, especially when navigating any conflict or escalated feelings.

Part of holding this space will include being able to notice when trauma is impacting participation and doing your best to offer options for moving forward. This can be tricky, as the facilitators are often holding so much, but here are some ideas for this element of trauma informed facilitation.

1)    Watch for non-verbal signs that participants are feeling triggered: side convo’s unrelated, people shutting down/going to sleep, people repeating themselves or getting escalated, people not making eye contact or body language that is closed off, etc.

2)    Sometimes when a person is triggered, they will attack the first person they can rather than attack the inequity. As a facilitator, it can be important to watch for this and re-direct if this happens, holding space for anger as well as healing. This includes intervening if there is an oppressive moment, even if not directed at someone.

3)    Frame questions and content in ways that transform trauma experiences into a politicized/empowered learning moment: instead of directly storytelling about a traumatic experience, ask about ways they showed strength in that experience. For example: “What are some of the skills and strengths you discovered about yourself through that experience?” or “How did you cultivate support during that time?” or “It’s incredible how you can share this story – how did you heal to this point of being able to share?”

4)    During high moments of escalation or when many folks are triggered, it can be helpful to take a time-out/break and utilize some embodied activity to bring people back to the room. Naming the tension and allowing space for naming what people are feeling can be an important intervention. If you can, check in with the person/people who experienced escalation to see what they may need to be able to remain in the space. Take and integrate feedback if it is offered!

While this is by no means an exhaustive overview of centering a trauma informed framework for your meetings and facilitation, it is an introduction to a very useful tool in our work to end oppression and further social justice. There is much to say about the role of harm reduction in meetings and facilitation, participant self-determination, and challenging white supremacy in our spaces. I hope some of these tools are helpful to you as you hold space and facilitate meetings with survivors!

**Much of my analysis was developed through hands-on experience. Some of the materials I share here were inspired by the Broadway Youth Center in Chicago, The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, and the Rhizome Consulting Project.