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How to Avoid Triggering Trauma in Groups/Organizations

Many organizations around the world are working in volatile areas, or they are dealing with polarizing subjects as part of their mission. For example, organizations working on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, organizations that focus on the abortion issue—on either side—political organizations, etc. In addition, sometimes groups that are in a whole other “business” hold conferences on “hot” topics that are, in themselves, polarizing and can create conflict in groups. All this has a tendency to create conflict in organizations, which also tends to bring up trauma in individuals and evoke trauma in groups.

Large Scale Trauma Dynamics Evoke Group Trauma Dynamics
Almost inevitably, whenever a group of people decides to discuss a volatile issue, the dynamics that happen in the larger issue (e.g., Israel/Palestine) start happening in the group itself in the moment, in the relationships in the group. The smaller group becomes a microcosm of what’s happening on the larger scene in that the emotions, ways of thinking and ways people act and relate to each other begin to mirror what happens on the larger scene. Conflict in groups emerges and escalates. For instance, where on the world scene there might be a threat of a people’s annihilation, in the smaller group fears will begin to emerge in various people that are much larger and more intense that what seems to be warranted by what’s actually happening in the group. For example, various people may begin to feel everyone is against them, they might begin to feel that they don’t fit in where everyone else does, they may be afraid of being scapegoated or thrown out of the group. On the other side, some people may begin to look askance at someone in the group, to feel that that this person doesn’t really fit in with “the rest of us,” and want this person to leave the group. They may even feel that this person is dangerous to the existence of the group. Where these kinds of dynamics occur, conflict in groups tends to occur too.

Group Trauma Dynamics Affect the Whole Group
All this happens because the trauma dynamics of the larger scene become like a template unconsciously laid on the smaller group and actually create group trauma dynamics that mirror the thoughts, emotions and ways of relating that happen in the larger scene. If they are not dealt with, conflicts easily erupt and escalate.

Group Trauma Dynamics Template
It’s important to be aware that, when people are beginning to have these seemingly exaggerated thoughts, feelings and reactions to each other, this is probably the “trauma template” landing on the group process and it’s important to assume that the group is becoming caught in group trauma dynamics, in the group trauma “trance.” Just knowing that often helps.

What to Do When Group Trauma Dynamics Emerge
1. Begin with an educational piece: Go through what people might feel. For example, isolated, not belonging, put down, trapped, scared to speak. Let them know that, if anyone begins to feel this way, others are having the same experience. Let them know that it’s part of what happens when we discuss this topic. They’re not the only one.
2. When someone says they are having emotions, thoughts, and ideas about their relationship to the group or toward people in the group, thank them for bringing them up. Remind them that others are probably feeling that, too. The group trauma trance makes people feel isolated. Reminding them that they belong keeps group trauma dynamics from taking hold and avoids escalating conflict in groups.
3. In a group, when discussing painful, polarizing events or topics, stay away from mentioning details of what might have happened to people—specifics about injuries or assaults or specific verbal, ethnic or racial slurs. Bringing up details brings up images in people’s minds and can trigger people’s individual traumas.
4. When trauma is evoked in a group, things tend to speed up and get out of hand. Keep slowing down. Make sure one topic is thoroughly finished before adding another one. When several topics are up at the same time, with none of them completed, things tend to escalate. If you’ve missed this, you can always back up, table the additional topics and go back to the first topic until it’s thoroughly resolved.
5. Hot spots might occur, that is, someone might say something considered outrageous or taboo. Several people may begin yelling at each other. Or there may be a sudden charged silence when people don’t know how to respond to what’s just happened. Rather than becoming afraid and trying to move away from the hot spot, stop right there, slow down and move into it. Have people explain what they meant, how they’re feeling in response, etc.
6. Later, after hot spots are taken care of, ask people who have been silent for a while what they’re thinking or feeling. Often they’ll come up with something that clears the air.
7. When there’s a feeling of resolution or relief, acknowledge the shift in the atmosphere. Appreciate people’s honesty and openness—and take a break.

Organizational and Group Work
For more information on group trauma dynamics, organizational dynamics and helping with conflict in groups, see eft-emotionalfreedom.com .