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Trauma and Communication: How Can We Do Better

"I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it."

-Maya Angelou


In our most recent Plain Language Foundations training, we addressed the intersection of trauma and communication practices. Why? It is important that we consider how we say things to our participants as well as what we say.


Here are some of our key takeaways.


Clear Communication

What does trauma have to do with grammar and vocabulary and organizing ideas? Let’s revisit a common definition of plain language we often refer back to:


Communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

-International Plain Language Federation


Trauma is prevalent and can be caused by a single event or compounded by events over time. The seminal CDC/Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study detailed the prevalence of childhood trauma as well as its ripple effects into adulthood. Within the history of many countries, the United States included, we find historical trauma deeply embedded. We see generations of Black, indigenous, and communities of color impacted by such trauma.


Trauma impacts so many people, and yet many communications are created in ways that do not take this into account - documents that are harsh and punitive, forms that are deficit-focused, images that reinforce stereotypes, and more.


We encourage you to learn more about the role of trauma in people’s lives. Here are several books to help you understand more about the impact: Creating Sanctuary, The Body Keeps the Score, and Trauma and Recovery. Special thanks to Dr. Casey Holtschneider, our guest presenter at our most recent training, for these recommendations.


Key Themes

Here are a few big takeaways we explored when thinking about making your communications trauma-informed:

  • Clarity - Is your communication intentionally clear and understandable? What are you doing to make your content accessible?

  • Safety - How are you creating a feeling of safety in your communication?

  • Power - Power exists. How is your content working to reduce power differentials and encourage agency for your reader?

  • Relationships - How are you using your communications to foster authentic relationships and connections?

  • Processes - How does reflecting on your communication clarify what is going on in your processes? Does writing about your processes reflect gaps or harms in these processes?


Resources

Here are a few examples from different sectors looking at the overlap of trauma in their communications:

  • This article from the National Alliance to End Homelessness highlights examples of rules in the shelter system that go from a punitive to a strength-based approach.

  • This report from SAMHSA reviews what a trauma-informed judicial system can look like.

  • This study from the Journal of Health Communication on considering the language used in tools


If you want to review more examples, check out our webinar from November 2020 where we break down a variety of before and after examples.


Looking to improve your communications in this area? Reach out to the Clear Language Lab and let’s get started.


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