“It is not a sign of disfunction that you have a nervous system that works.”

Last week I attended a workshop on working with trauma in coaching. It was highly instructive. One of the key takeaways was our response to traumatic events is hierarchical and based in our evolutionary biology:

  • We will first seek social connection to help us feel safe.
  • If social connection is unavailable or not enough, then we will engage our ‘fight or flight response’.
  • Finally, if fight or flight prove ineffective, we will shut down and go into submission.

None of this is in our control. We are biologically wired for this response.

Trauma is a response to adverse life events that overwhelms our ability to cope. This feeling of being overwhelmed may result from major or big ‘T’ traumatic events such as violence, major accidents, sexual assault or combat. It may also develop due to an accumulation over time of small ‘t’ dramatic experiences such as the prolonged exposure to workplace bullying or harassment.

As coaches or leaders who use a coaching approach, the points above are significant. Coaching, by its very nature, is a form of social connection. The psychological safety created in a coaching conversation gives space for the client or employee to discuss traumatic events that have occurred in their lives. You need to be prepared for when it does happen.

Most of us are not psychologists, however, there are still things we can do. Things to consider are:

  • Mental health first aid training provides guidance on the initial response when people are experiencing trauma.
  • Do you know who the relevant helping professionals are and how to refer someone to them when needed?
  • Does your organisation have an up to date, well communicated and subscribed mental health strategy?

People’s response to trauma will be on a sliding scale. For some, it will be minor, they are dealing with it, and they only want to talk about it with you. For some, there may have been a triggering event which reminds them of the initial trauma and has significantly impaired their ability to cope. As a leader or coach in these situation, would you know what to do?

Everyone’s response to events will be personal. What might be traumatic for some, may not be for others. That said, we will all be exposed to something at some point in our lives that we might consider to be small ‘t’ trauma.

If anything in this post has raised concerns for you and you feel you need assistance, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.