My last three blogs focused on considering how the needs differ for someone who has experienced significant trauma versus someone who has not experienced it. Specifically, that blog, Establishing Safety, Keeping Your Distance focused on what a trauma-sensitive responder needs to use to better meet some of those needs: intentionally creating a sense of safety by empowering the trauma-impacted person to be in control while simultaneously maintaining your distance. This is a level that needs to be continually maintained and reinforced – this is the single most important constant that should be present in all interactions in which someone might have the scars or active wounds of unresolved trauma.
It’s important to remember that you don’t just progress up the steps but rather fluidly move from the first to the second level and then back to the first based on the needs you perceive of the trauma-impacted person.
The next level is Using Trauma-Sensitive Listening. This is when the trauma-sensitive responder notices a shift in how safe and trusting the trauma-impacted person appears to be feeling. As a result of the ways you established safety and kept your distance, the trauma impacted person may then be able to respond, feel and think something like: “I am feeling uncharacteristically drawn to share a little bit of myself with you. I need to be in total control of if, when and how much I do this. I need to see that you accept that I might instantaneously go back to needing you to help me feel safe and once again you must keep your distance.”
In these moments, the trauma-sensitive responder experiences a slight lessening of the guarded stance of the trauma-impacted person where a window has opened, allowing slightly more intimate connection between the trauma-impacted person and the responder.
At the same time, there might be expressions of anger and hostility directed toward the responder; “Look, you might think you know about me and what I’ve experienced but you don’t. Nobody does! I went through a living hell for most of my childhood and not one person came to my rescue – not even one person!”
The person might seem very edgy even as he or she seems to want to share a little bit more. It is almost like they are daring the responder to continue to be a safe person who is nonjudgmental, noncritical and able to hear about their suffering. Trauma-impacted people can feel very vulnerable when someone allows them to feel safe. They can vacillate between being drawn to that person, desiring to be able to share with them, and at the same time feeling unsafe or even danger.
In these moments, the trauma-sensitive responder continues to be highly aware of things like physical distance and his or her body language and other forms of nonverbal communication. The responder continues to transmit messages of safety and communicates that the trauma-impacted person has the power to direct the interaction.
When the trauma-impacted person shares how he or she is feeling or describes their trauma story, the trauma-sensitive responder cautiously uses trauma-sensitive listening, being careful not to reveal that he or she is perceiving more than the trauma-impacted person wants to be perceived. “It’s really hard for me to tell you about my childhood. I had some crappy things happen to me. It makes me really nervous to be around people.”
Listening responses may be nonverbal responses such as head-nodding, having a furrowed brow, and using one-syllable words or sounds like “Wow!” or ”Hmmmm.” The responder can use words to describe back to the person what he or she believes they are saying and might include a feeling the person may be experiencing. “It’s really hard for you to share some of the things that happened to you, which then makes it hard for you to be close to other people
The trauma-sensitive responder might offer to go a little deeper by stating what they are noticing as the person speaks, and speculate on their struggles, wishes, or needs. “You are remembering a few of the details of your life when you lived in that house. I notice as you talk about it your voice gets very soft. I am noticing that you look a little scared right now.” [This could be perceived as too intrusive so the responder would need to be very cautious and notice if his or her comment seems to be more threatening than comforting.] “Sometimes when someone starts to talk about frightening experiences, just mentioning them can inadvertently trigger some of the feelings they had at the time.” [This is an example of using a listening statement that is in the third person, making the description seem universal.]
Each step of the way, the responder is observing the impact of what he or she is saying and doing and how it is being received. The responder is trying to assess what might be going on for the trauma-impacted child or adult and does everything possible to make safety, trust and giving away power while working to build a connection. The responder works to communicate: “I am here. You can share as little or as much is you want to share—you are in charge. I can handle whatever you decide you want to share. I can be attentive to you and at the same time am not pushing you to be more open. I am not judging you.”
By gently communicating messages that show you understand and appreciate what the trauma-impacted person is experiencing, you allow them to become clearer about their own experiences, needs, feelings, struggles and wishes. These are universal human necessities and are especially important for the trauma-impacted person to receive because they often have not had the experience of someone being gently aware and understanding. Trauma-sensitive listening is one of the most powerful communication skills to help meet the needs of the trauma-impacted person.
Invitation to Reflect
- Notice how you felt when you read some of the messages in quotations. If you have your own trauma history, imagine how it might feel if somebody first made sure that you felt safe to share and then put words to your experience, needs, feelings, struggles or wishes.
- Can you see how delicate the balance is between maintaining distance in order to provide safety for a trauma-impacted person and then carefully and gently providing listening responses to what that person shares? Can you see how at the same time this form of gentle communication is so important to meet their needs?