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Your Meetings Need to Be Trauma-Informed

Put physical safety, psychological well-being, and empowerment on your agenda

Key points

  • Up to 90 percent of Americans will have experienced a traumatic event by the time they reach 65.
  • Meetings need to be trauma-informed to achieve their goals without inadvertently causing re-harm.
  • Meetings should prioritize physical safety, psychological well-being, and participant empowerment.
Jewish Federations of North America/Used with permission
Staff of Jewish Federations meet one month after the Oct 7th attacks on Israel
Source: Jewish Federations of North America/Used with permission

This post was co-authored by Shelley Rood Wernick, MBA, Managing Director of the Jewish Federations’ Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma.

Every day in the United States, 11 million meetings are held, which is over 4 billion meetings per year. If you’re the one planning the meeting, you’re likely thinking about the schedule, the agenda, the stakeholders, and, of course, the food. However, if participants don’t feel safe to attend and engage due to past trauma, the meeting goals may not be achieved.

Considering that up to 90 percent of Americans will have experienced a traumatic event by the time they reach 65, your meetings need to be trauma-informed if you are to achieve the goals of the meeting without inadvertently causing re-harm.

Meetings can’t be successful if someone’s heart races because they must recall their difficult childhood during an icebreaker prompt. They can’t be successful if someone is forced to sit next to a workplace bully. They can’t be successful if someone is worried that the picture taken in this meeting will end up posted on social media without their consent.

What is trauma?

Trauma results from an event that has a lasting impact on the individual. It can stem from a serious injury or illness, a natural disaster, terrorism, sexual assault, domestic abuse, incarceration, war, witnessing a death, systemic discrimination, incidents in the workplace, vicarious trauma in the helping professions, and even institutional betrayal, among other instances.

The same event can be traumatic for one person but not for another. And while we can’t always know who will be impacted, we can know that trauma shatters a person’s sense of safety and sense of control.

From years of working with Holocaust survivors, the Jewish Federations’ Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma has championed person-centered, trauma-informed (PCTI) approaches beyond older adult care to extend to meetings and gatherings. The PCTI framework infuses knowledge about trauma into organizational programs, policies, and procedures.

Here are some steps you can take to increase the likelihood of creating a safe, inclusive environment that achieves your meeting goals while avoiding unintentional harm. Some steps may work better for regular staff meetings, while others may be more applicable to meetings in new or unfamiliar settings.

Reinforce physical safety

Because trauma ruptures a person’s sense of safety, it is important to restore the sense of physical safety in a meeting. One way to do this is by letting participants know exactly what the procedure will be if there is a drill or real emergency. For example, you might show people where the emergency exits are or have a diagram available in the meeting materials. This might feel like a waste of time to some participants, but for those who have experienced a traumatic event, it can mitigate anxiety.

Another consideration is to ensure adequate spacing between seats so that participants have personal space and don’t feel closed in. Social distancing became important during the COVID-19 pandemic, and personal space remains a factor for people who are concerned about communicable diseases. While it may be tempting to assign seats to encourage people to “mix it up,” letting people choose their seats empowers them to avoid unsafe situations, such as sitting next to someone who has harassed them or being seated far away from the nearest exit.  

For Deborah, who witnessed the second plane fly into the Twin Towers on 9/11 from her office window, sitting near the door feels critical to her sense of physical safety. She needs to know that she can escape the room as quickly as possible.

Other ways to boost physical safety include ensuring adequate lighting, enforcing security measures such as not propping doors open, not letting people follow someone in through a locked door, and creating groups of walkers to bus or subway stops. If physical safety measures impede on a person’s autonomy and choices—such as limiting the number of entrance points to the meeting room—communicate how and why these decisions were made.

Promote psychological safety

Safety isn’t just about physical protection. If someone has been betrayed by a person or institution they trust, their sense of psychological safety may be violated. They may be worried that their contributions to the meeting may be rejected, ridiculed, reprimanded—or even retaliated against. 

One way to address this is to adopt ground rules that everyone agrees to. These may include “speak from your own personal experience,” “assume positive intent,” or “be curious rather than judgmental.” Then, ask the meeting participants to share what else they might need to feel comfortable and build that in. You can follow up after a meeting with an affirmative comment such as “I appreciated what you said because I think a lot of staff feel that way.”

Transparency can promote trust, so consider ways of delivering on that. For example, let people know how meeting notes will be used. Ask for permission before taking photos and let them know how photos will be used. Let attendees know if the schedule has changed—and why. Be proactive in communicating the meeting’s goals and sharing the process for feedback. Show how prior feedback resulted in changes, so participants gain confidence that feedback will be taken seriously.

And while many of us use the term “safe space” to invite participants to share openly, this still might not feel safe enough for people whose sense of safety has been violated. With that in mind, have clearly communicated protocols should there be an incident or breach of trust—and then make it easy for people to follow those protocols.

Empower participants

Trauma shatters a person’s sense of control over their destiny. It renders their needs unimportant or irrelevant. Whether someone is a survivor of domestic violence or of a life-threatening illness, that person has faced threats beyond their control. When participants are empowered with a sense of control, they are more likely to be invested in the outcomes of the meeting and do their best work.

This can be as simple as giving participants permission to take care of their physical and psychological needs. For example, say, “Some of this information may be difficult to hear, so if you need to leave the room, please do so.” Or, “We’ll be taking a break at 11:30, but you’re welcome to take care of your needs at any time.” By empowering people to protect and care for their bodies and minds, they won’t feel like they’re “breaking the rules” to do what they need.

Another way to reduce the likelihood of unintentionally causing a trauma response is to offer choices where possible and give participants a say in the goals and agenda. Solicit participants to contribute to the agenda via email, in one-on-one conversations, or at the end of a previous meeting’s agenda. Share the agenda in advance so people feel prepared to contribute. Build upon an individual’s strengths or experiences by inviting them to lead a section of the agenda, facilitate a breakout session, or present a group project.

Give participants language to advocate for how much or little they want to participate. Deborah offers participants the opportunity to “play” (meaning they want to speak up), “pause” (they might want to share something later), and “pass” (they don’t want to respond). She also asks other participants not to read into those requests.

A Universal Approach

You’re not going to know all the traumatic events that have happened to the people in your meetings, and that’s OK. But by prioritizing physical safety, psychological well-being, and participant empowerment, you are more likely to achieve your meeting’s goals. You will show attendees that their participation is valuable, and you will actively resist re-harming someone who has experienced trauma.

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