By Catherine Conner and Laurie Phuong Ertley
Inherent in conflict are difficult emotions—anxiety, anger, anguish—that tilt our equilibrium when in a space of vulnerability. In this environment, trauma often manifests as formidable feelings—not only those of others in the room, but also our own. When we work with people in conflict, we need to understand what trauma is, recognize when someone is in this state, and know what to do when a person is experiencing trauma. And our ability to shift between internal and external awareness is critical when trauma is in the room.
Trauma is not an event. Rather, it is the effect of the event laid unto our bodies and mind. Our response to situations and how easily we are taken off center is a result of our history, developmental issues, the past and present external environment, and internal factors that key up our nervous system and predispose us to trauma.
Our physiological response to trauma is our body’s perception that we are in danger and triggers our response to fight, fly, freeze, or submit. Our racing heart and shallow breathing send signals of duress to our brain, which responds into what can become a negative feedback loop between the brain and body. By closely observing the nonverbal signals from others as well as our own physiological responses, we may be better able to recognize when someone else is reacting from a state of trauma.
The indicators of trauma can be subtle and particularly challenging to perceive when working online. One way to compensate for the digital divide is to more explicitly feel out the room, such as asking participants about their feelings, acknowledging the atmosphere of the space, and observing reactions. A vital caveat to this process is maintaining inclusive language and not pinpointing an individual as the source of the tension— “it’s tough to go deeper on this issue” or “when we talk about such a sensitive time, it’s hard to think straight.”
If we feel a tightening in our chest before joining a call with clients, this response is likely tied to our anxious expectation about what might happen in the “Zoom” room. Understanding and calming our own emotions and responses helps us cultivate a settled state that anchors people in the room. Humans are open nervous systems—our eyes take in light, our ears hear sounds—and we are naturally affected and influenced by other open circuits. When we, the professionals, are settled in our bodies, our physiological responses, such as a slower and steadier heartbeat, naturally draw people to us and help them to become more settled. Furthermore, the more we feel inside our own skin, the less we will activate another person’s internal trauma network. Sometimes it may be as simple as interrupting the negative feedback cycle by everyone taking a drink of water, which creates a pause and a sense of safety as our body resets itself.
Although transitory, trauma is also ever present and when it finds footing in conflict, it can throw off everybody in the room. Conflict resolution professionals can help break the cycle of trauma and support the disputing parties from a place of compassion and understanding.
Catherine Conner interviewed Phuong Ertley, LMFT, who’s a trained trauma therapist of 21 years. Her background includes post-graduate studies and certification with the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, Somatic Experiencing studies with the Somatic Experiencing Training Institute, Attachment-Focused EMDR with the Laurel Parnell Institute and Somatic Resilience Training with Kathy Kain, PhD. Her understanding of the trauma presentation stems from the neurobiological research of Stephen Porges, MD, Allan Schore, PhD, and many others.