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Trauma Informed Communication Series #1: Shifting Power Dynamics in Everyday Writing

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

October is Health Literacy Month. We’re using this month’s blog to kick-off a series exploring what a trauma-informed approach to communication looks like in practice.

As we wrote about last year, there are two aspects to health literacy: individual health literacy and organizational health literacy.

According to the CDC, "Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others." And "Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others."

Organizational literacy puts the responsibility on organizations, institutions, and individual practitioners to evaluate how they share health information, create space for people to ask questions and express their needs, and design processes that work for people.

We see a strong connection between organizational literacy and trauma-informed communication.

What is trauma-informed communication?

The concept of trauma-informed care has been around for decades. It’s a framework that recognizes that trauma is very common and prioritizes working with people in ways that build healing relationships in environments that make people feel at ease.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) outlines 6 principles of a trauma-informed approach:

  1. Safety

  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency

  3. Peer Support

  4. Collaboration and Mutuality

  5. Empowerment, Voice and Choice

  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

In our work, we explore how to apply the six principles of a trauma-informed approach when designing, tools, resources, and overall experiences. More simply put, how do we communicate with people in ways that honor their experiences, reduce harm, and seek to correct historical and contemporary injustices?

Since we cannot achieve organizational literacy without addressing cultural, historical, and gender issues we’re starting our blog series with the sixth principle of a trauma-informed approach. This principle asks us to look at the systemic issues that cause or exacerbate a trauma response in situations.

How does trauma-informed design connect to organizational literacy?

It’s not difficult to find information on racial and ethnic health disparities in the United States. The answer to why these disparities exist is complex.

Individual biases play a role, such as individual doctors dismissing pain experiences by female patients.

When we think about organizational literacy and how institutions treat individuals, a trauma-informed approach actively works to counter the injustices people experience.

What does it look like to apply a trauma-informed approach to organizational literacy?

Effective communication centers its audience. Increasing organizational literacy means accounting for a wide range of experiences with your organization. Doing so in a trauma-informed way means prioritizing communities who have been actively harmed by your industry.

Be thoughtful about whose perspectives and experiences you’re prioritizing. This means thinking about:

  • Who decides what a successful program looks like?

  • When you evaluate services, do the opinions of people in positions of power carry more weight?

  • What makes your processes difficult to navigate and how can you make them easier?

  • Whose stories do you tell and what images do you use to talk about your work?

  • What are you doing to train staff against bias?

  • How are you holding staff accountable for performing safe and equitable work?

People sitting around a table analyzing documents.

One straightforward example of this is having everyone share their pronouns in their bios and email signatures, and when making introductions. This helps normalize sharing this information and takes some pressure off trans and nonbinary folks, because they’re not being singled out.

You can take it further in your organizations by asking for people’s pronouns and preferred name on forms, removing gendered language from your policies and procedures, and looking critically at the demographics of who you serve. If there’s an under representation of LGBTQIA+ folks, that could mean your organization doesn’t feel safe or welcoming to that community.

Moving Forward

We’ve said it before in this blog and we’ll say it again: systemic issues require systemic solutions. Individuals can have a trauma-informed approach, but there are limits to what they can achieve until organizations commit to addressing cultural, historical, and gender issues. Improving equity and access within our institutions means taking a deep look at our policies and practices, both official and ad-hoc.

Next month we’ll look more closely at the principle of safety in trauma-informed communication. What does it mean to consider physical and emotional safety in our communications?



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