Let’s talk about triggers…

Let’s talk about triggers…


Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com
Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com

I was delivering training in a not for profit RTO a couple of years ago. The learners in the small class were either refugees or migrants from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds. One day, as these people were returning from their lunch break, a lively conversation broke out during which people related stories of their school days and especially the naughty things they did as kids and the ways in which they were punished. The group was laughing and cheerful, except for one Cambodian lady. Unheard by the rest, she turned to me and said “I grew up under the Khmer Rouge. I didn’t go to school.”

I am no expert in Cambodian history but the little I do know about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, their persecution of academics, the starvations, the killing fields and all of the ghastly things that happened during this time in Cambodia tells me that not being able to go to school was only one problem that this lady and her loved ones would have faced at that time. Her one brief revelation to me that day pointed to a past that was steeped in the sort of privation, tragedy and trauma that a flabby middle class Aussie like me can only guess at*.

I quietly replied that I was aware that the Khmer Rouge had closed all places of learning and persecuted academics, and how difficult and terrible that must have been to live through. She nodded and then turned straight back into participating with the group at large. She didn’t want counselling, she wanted a moment of empathy and of acknowledgement of what she had lived through. This want arose spontaneously in a moment where a conversation had unexpectedly triggered a memory of something horrible.

But imagine this: you are facilitating a group discussion. Something arises in conversation which triggers a strong emotional reaction in one of the participants. They begin to cry, or shake, or become angry. I have had the rare experience where this has happened too. As the person facilitating the group what do you do? What strategies do you use to help that person, and then help the group who has witnessed it?

I am currently putting together some frameworks for facilitated discussions I plan to offer later this year. The material I am working with should be

interesting, even fun, but could also take people to a very deep emotional and imaginative level. The discussions will be about aspects of workplace culture and dynamics; given the frequency of bullying in Australia right now there is a chance that these discussions could trigger in some participants memories of being bullied.

I am definitely NOT aiming to run group therapy and my questions and choice of material will be chosen to direct people to thinking about things on an organisational and cultural level. Having said this, and acknowledging that I am using material that engages the feelings and imaginations as well as the intellect, I am assuming that people will be emotionally engaged (mostly in a good way, I think).

I am NOT worried that severe triggered episodes will happen often. Nor am I worried, per se, about my ability to cope with emotional responses if and when they do arise. I have a history of dealing with such episodes appropriately in the training and group facilitation that I have done in the past. But I would be a fool if I neglected the possibility that it could happen and I feel that, while I am reviewing my facilitation skills, why not give them a bit of a brush up? Further professional development is always good so I thought I would reach out to my peers (that’s you) and see if any of you had any advice or thoughts to share. I am also an inveterate sticky beak who loves to find out how other people do things.

I am contacting various people I know from many different fields; the one thing they all have in common is that they talk on a deep level with groups of people. Among my contacts are a psychotherapist, directors guiding groups of actors through rehearsals, trainers in the neighbourhood house sector, corporate trainers and consultants, sociologists, and event managers. I hope people will respond. It will be interesting to compare advice given across sectors.

The last time I had to deal with a triggered response was when I stepped in, as a favour, to cover an ESL class in a neighbourhood house. The people I was teaching were either migrants or refugees. During one conversation, which was about the necessity of practising a language that you learn in order to remember it, one man, who had arrived in Australia as a refugee after the Vietnamese War, was talking about why he could not remember the French he had learnt as a youngster. He blurted out not just that he was tortured by a prison guard for speaking French, but how. He then blushed and looked mortified; I got the impression that he hadn’t intended to disclose this but had just been hijacked by a terrible memory and spoke on impulse. I expressed sadness for what he had suffered, remarked on how he must find it hard to consider speaking French even now, and then opened up the conversation into a group discussion about how the conditions we live in affect the way we undertake to study language. From here it was relatively easy to steer the conversation onto practical matters like time management, study habits, and the use of conversation partners. This man had not been looking for therapy. He deserved empathy but then he needed to find a way back into the group dialogue and away from opening up traumatic memories. I was aware that anyone listening, given their own refugee backgrounds, might also have their own terrible memories to contend with and I needed to keep the discussion under control for their sake, given that they had turned up on that day expecting an English class and not group therapy.

For the rest of the class, both this individual and the group functioned just fine and the atmosphere continued to be relaxed and friendly. I actually felt that a sense of trust had developed between us all. But after class, on my way home on the train, I cried for this man, the horror he had endured, and the power of memories of that horror to endure for so long afterwards.

"I'm fine. Really. I'm fine." Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com
“I’m fine. Really. I’m fine.”
Image sourced from oldpicsarchive.com

As group facilitators we are not all called upon to provide therapy (unless this is your actual job); we have specific goals to achieve for our group, be it a technical skill successfully taught or a piece of theatre successfully developed. But as humans dealing with other humans we need to be prepared for the emotional atmosphere that builds as we work towards these goals, be that good or bad.

Leave a comment below: how do you prepare the emotional context for your participants in the way you plan or promote your activities? How do you deal with deep emotion when it arises?

*But there she was, middle aged, kids safely launched into school, making use of her time doing volunteer work and enrolled in a Diploma course which she was BLITZING because she was as hard working as she was naturally intellectually brilliant. Folks, this is why we DO let genuine asylum seekers into our country. Apart from honouring the humanitarian principle of helping others in need, we gain terrific people who invest their talent, courage, resourcefulness and loyalty into our society.

If you want some background on the facilitated conversations I am developing then please look here. I will be trialling these conversations over the next couple of months. Contact me if you want more information.


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