Trauma Informed Language: Applying the principles

Team TICS
May 10, 2024
This image describes a reflection on trauma informed language and the power to reduce stigmatisation

Changing the language across the helping professions, human services and education is essential to changing the culture; the language we use and the way we use it expresses and creates the world we’re each living in.  Understanding what underpins the direction of travel we wish to go in, are the trauma informed principles of safety, trust & transparency, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, voice & choice and cultural humility. Language that problematises the individual by definition, isolates them from the experiences they’ve had which may have been violent and violating, the community they live in and the particular views and beliefs held by the society they are part of.

Trauma-informed practice (TIP) is an approach that emphasises understanding and responding to the impact of trauma on individuals. By acknowledging the prevalence and pervasive effects of trauma, TIP seeks to actively resist re-traumatisation and promote environments of healing and support. At the heart of this approach are principles designed to guide interactions in a way that empowers and heals (CDC, 2020). This blog will explore the essential principles of TIP, specifically through the lens of communication.

At the heart of trauma-informed language is the principle of safety. This involves a conscious choice of words to avoid re-traumatising or causing distress. When talking with someone who has experienced trauma, it's crucial to provide options and allow the individual control over the conversation. Asking if they would prefer to discuss their feelings or an experience offers the individual a choice, reinforcing safety in the dialogue. For example, instead of ‘trauma digging’, you might say, "Do you feel comfortable continuing this conversation, or would you prefer a break?" This helps a comfortable pace to be set and establishes a safe space for dialogue. Validating their feelings with phrases like, "It makes sense you’d feel that way given what you’ve been through," and also supports a secure and empathetic communication environment (MIND, 2023).

Trust is also essential, especially for those whose trust has been previously compromised and betrayed. Demonstrating reliability and honesty in your role helps build a trustworthy relationship. Clearly communicating your role and the limits of what you can do supports transparency. For instance, "I want to be honest with you about my role and what I can do to support you," helps set realistic expectations and builds trust. This can only be possible if we can empower individuals in how they wish to communicate is vital. Offering choices like where they prefer to sit during conversations or how they want to express themselves through drawing, writing, or speaking can make a significant difference. Such practices restore control to those who may feel it was taken from them, thus supporting their recovery journey. We can also achieve similar results using collaborative language. This ensures that the person feels their voice is heard and valued. Asking for their input on what might help or what they need invites them into a partnership, making the therapeutic process a joint effort. This could be as simple as, "What do you think might help? What do you need from me today?" Acknowledging cultural contexts, beliefs and practices with an understanding of the intersectionality of systemic oppression supports a holistic view of the person you are working with.

Additionally, empowerment-focused language emphasises an individual's strengths, resilience, and potential for recovery (Cherry, 2021). Celebrating small victories and acknowledging their courage without judgment can reinforce a positive self-image and inspire hope. Phrases like, "You have been very brave sharing this with me," validate their experiences and the bravery involved in their communication. Always hold in mind the importance of understanding and respecting the cultural backgrounds of those you work with. It involves recognising how cultural contexts influence the expression and processing of trauma. Communicating respectfully with individuals from diverse backgrounds means being mindful of cultural practices and incorporating this understanding into your approach.

Creating a safe space for difficult conversations involves more than setting up a comfortable environment. It requires gentle inquiry and active listening (Collins, 2023). Avoid direct or confrontational questions and opt for open-ended ones that allow the individual to share at their comfort level. Reflecting back on what you have heard and asking for clarification ensures accuracy and shows genuine engagement.

Ultimately, adopting trauma-informed language practices is a continuous learning process not a one time event. It requires us to be mindful of our words and actions, actively seeking feedback and having a commitment to understanding cultural nuances. As we refine our approach, we not only enhance our professional interactions but also significantly contribute to the healing and empowerment of those we support.

If you need any help and support or just a general chat about ‘all things Trauma Informed’, please get in touch with Lyndsay, our Working Together Lead at lyndsay@ticservicesltd.com and our team will support you in your journey.

For a variety of webinars and downloadable guides, head here!

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References

CDC (2020) Infographic: 6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach. Available from:  https://www.cdc.gov/orr/infographics/6_principles_trauma_info.htm [Accessed: 2.05.2024].

Cherry, L. (2021). Conversations that Make a Difference for Children and Young People: Relationship-Focused Practice from the Frontline. Routledge.

Hill Collins, P., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Polity Press.

Collins, H.K. (2023). When listening is spoken. Current Opinion in Psychology, 47.

Mind (2023) Mental health language. Available from: https://www.mind.org.uk/media/7582/mental-health-language.pdf [Accessed: 2.05.2024].

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