Updated: Nov 7
Having difficult conversations in the workplace can be awkward, difficult to deliver, and surely difficult to be in the position of the person receiving the information. It can be so difficult that as the leader of your organization you’ve probably procrastinated having the conversation for a few days, and maybe even weeks. (It happens to the best of us so don’t sweat it too much).
Today, we’re going to cover having difficult conversations regarding ending employment and also having conversations regarding changing behavior in order for you and the employee both to continue the working relationship.
In life, perspective is everything. And when dealing with difficult conversations, it’s not any different. One of the lenses to which you can look at having difficult but necessary conversations is through Trauma and Trauma Responses.
What is “Trauma Response” & What Are They?
A trauma response is the reflexive use of over-adaptive coping mechanisms in the real or perceived presence of a trauma event.
There are 4 trauma responses, two of which you’re probably already familiar with. There is fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. According to licensed therapist Chioma Morono, LCSW, "When we experience something traumatic or have been exposed to prolonged stress, it causes part of our brain, the amygdala, to go into hyperdrive where we see and feel threats in non threatening situations…This causes us to act in ways that we don't understand and can leave us feeling like we no longer have control over ourselves. The [trauma] response is often based on what your brain thinks will help you survive the current situation."
These various trauma responses may have been learned as a means of survival in childhood, abusive relationships, or severe trauma. The type of response then reoccurs later in life as a default every time the person faces anything they perceive as a threat.
It is important to note that while the word “Trauma” alludes to big heavy life events, that is not always the case when it comes to developing your own trauma responses to which you default to. We all have a default trauma response regardless of whether or not we endured what I’ll call a “big T” event, such as war, rape, sexual abuse, death, disaster, etc. As humans we can develop our trauma responses absent the “big T” through micro-traumas, the “little t”.
Trauma is highly individualized and subjective and can have profound effects. So while they are called “micro-traumas” it does not take away from how hurtful, painfully lasting, and traumatic these experiences can leave a person. Micro-traumas can be a really bad breakup, a huge betrayal of trust, a chronically abusive workplace, or living in prolonged subtle fear.
The 4 Types of Trauma Responses
1. The Fight Response
It should be noted that trauma responses are both healthy and unhealthy. It’s all circumstantial. A healthy fight response can allow you to create solid boundaries and assert yourself when needed.
When used as a trauma response during let’s say a conversation between you and an employee where you as the leader of your organization needs to tell the employee that they can no longer misbehave in the office kitchen because other employee feel uncomfortable, your employees trauma response being fight is an act of self-preservation. They will move towards conflict, the conflict being you highlighting their behavior, with anger and aggression. This is an example of an unhealthy fight response.
This anger and aggression can look like your employee being argumentative, and also your employee looking for what’s wrong with what you just said. It can also look like yelling, throwing things, property destruction, etc. With the fight response, your employee is using conflict to navigate the situation.
2. The Flight Response
This is pretty self-explanatory, the flight response is avoidant behavior. The flight response would look like your employee standing up and leaving your office after you’ve told them the issue you're facing with their behavior, most often, without saying a word to you.
In healthy situations, the flight response may help you avoid and disengage harmful conversations, leave unhealthy relationships, and remove yourself from physically dangerous situations.
In unhealthy situations, the flight responses may look like, keeping busy at all times to avoid the conflict, panic and constant fear, workaholism, and the inability to sit still.
3. The Freeze Response
Picture this, you’ve called over your employee to talk about their unappreciated behavior, after you’ve said your spiel, they just sit there and stare, no words, almost no noise. Don’t mistake their silence for zoning out, most of the time they’ve heard you loud and clear. They just don’t know how to respond to you at the moment. Further, after your employee has had time to let your message sink in, away from you and your office, they often think to themselves “Dammit, I should have said this!”.
This response is often seen when there is harassment in the workplace.
When used healthily, the freeze response will allow you to assess the situation at hand carefully and in detail to determine your next step. When unhealthy, you will see the above behavior, dissociation and immobilizing behavior. You can even go as far as to think of it as a type of temporary paralysis.
4. The Fawn Response
This response is also common in workplaces where there is harassment. In my experience, it is a response most seen in all workplaces. The Fawn Response is about people-pleasing and engaging in pacifying behavior.
It can look like an employee responding back to you or another employee with the “politically correct answer”, meaning the answer that the other person wants to hear from the employee. This behavior allows for the employee to avoid talking about the real issue or conflict.
While it is nice to be liked by others, engaging in this response in an unhealthy way can leave your employee feeling like they’re not seen in the workplace.
As a woman, this response has been ingrained in me. People-pleasing to the degree of forgetting myself, my needs, and wants. Responding with the right answers, go along to get along energy.
As a business owner and leader of your organization it is important that you keep these 4 responses at the top of your mind when having difficult conversations with your employees. This will allow you to see and understand your employee better, give them room to respond the only way they know how to, and also, circle back around and re-engage in the conversation when it’s time and your employee is ready.