This summer we asked our Community Voices group for feedback on a survey and they all agreed that one of the questions felt rude. Digging a little deeper into their reaction, several things stood out.
It wasn’t clear why the survey was asking for certain information, so it felt like it was prying into personal business. Most of the options were extremely specific and negative, leaving participants feeling like they would be judged for choosing those options. People didn’t want to answer this question because it didn’t feel emotionally safe.
Safety is one of the most critical pieces of trauma informed care. As this example shows, creating safe communications goes beyond avoiding explicit threats. It’s often more subtle, like considering if people feel respected by the language you’re using.
In part 2 of our series on Trauma Informed Communication, let’s dig into some of the ways we can help people feel physically and emotionally safe.
What does safety mean in the context of Trauma Informed Communication?
Think about the last time you went to the doctor. They probably asked you some very personal questions. Did you feel confident to answer freely? Did their reaction make you feel comfortable to share more? Did you feel understood? If you answered yes, I’d say that sounds pretty safe.
Safety doesn’t mean a lack of discomfort. For example, conversations about racial equity can feel stressful for white people, but working through those feelings is important for creating a more just society. In instances like this, safety means setting expectations and protocols so that my discomfort isn’t projected on my BIPOC colleagues and also finding the appropriate place to unpack my feelings without judgment.
What makes a communication feel safe is being able to engage despite the discomfort. Safe communication feels free from judgment and retaliation. It respects our boundaries by sticking to a clear purpose.
Creating Safe Communications
There are several things we can do to help our written and spoken communications feel safer.
Set Clear Expectations
Be upfront about who will be part of processes, what information you need, how long things will take, and what folks should expect.
When you ask for personal or sensitive information, tell people why you need it and what you’re going to do with it. People are much more comfortable sharing about themselves when they know that information won’t be used against them or in a way they don’t consent to.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have the power to change long or confusing processes. Acknowledge this, so people know it’s not their fault if they're struggling. Saying something like, “This form can take a few minutes to get through. Feel free to take a break if you need it.” can help put someone at ease.
Give People Options
Providing choices helps people feel in control. We can be creative about ways we incorporate choices in our work.
For example, I feel anxious when I have to read something in front of someone. I feel pressure to read quickly and often don’t absorb as much information as I do when I read alone.
Choices in this scenario might include:
Let me take it home and follow up tomorrow.
Step away and do something else, but make it clear I can interrupt with questions.
Offer to read it out loud.
Everyone has questions and we want to make sure people feel safe asking them. Using phrases like, “what questions do you have about this?” can feel more inviting.
Mind Your Tone
Making people feel respected in written communication comes down to the words we choose. Strategies like using “you” to talk directly to your reader, avoiding words like “should” and sticking to more conversational language can help create a more respectful tone.
A huge part of this is talking about people the way they want to be talked about. Get to know your audience and how they describe their identities.
Safety and Equity
Prioritizing safety in our communications goes beyond the individual. Who gets to feel safe is an issue of equity. Like we talked about in part 1 of this series, systemic biases can deeply impact how safe people feel.
We can all communicate more effectively when we consciously work towards safer communications.