Change, Trauma and Business

Last week I started taking a three-year professional development programme in Somatic Experiencing, a trauma treatment process based on the work of Peter Levine. Though I am not a therapist, my coaching work in change processes brings me into situations regularly in which trauma plays a role, and I had become aware of the need to inform myself better about what I was looking at and how I could support dealing with it productively.

According to Levine, many of the problems people face in their daily lives are expressions not so much of psychological imbalances as of neurological stuck states. When we are confronted with highly emotional situations, our bodies will either go into fight or flight mode to cope. Both reflexes, if successful, help our nervous system to shake off adrenalin and cortisol and so to regulate itself into a renewed state of balance and health. When these reflexes are blocked, for example because the emotion is too sudden or intense or it is not possible to fight or flee, the nervous system will freeze, locking in the emotional charge and with it a state of shock for which the nervous system will try to find compensating patterns that end up as dysfunctions. The focus of trauma therapy is to bring the frozen state of the nervous system back into a “pendalating” process of moving between trauma and resources, so that it can once again regulate itself and integrate the experience now that it could not cope with earlier.

Levine has worked with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome successfully with the method, and its applications range from integrating physical shocks from accidents to pre- and post-natal problems, to adult psychological issues. For example, one Vietnam veteran, who was the lone survivor of a bombing raid on troops having a barbeque on the last day before evacuation, would freeze in panic at a barbeque at a friend’s place when a Cessna flew overhead. Good friends would help him to become aware that he was here and safe, and not in the war situation. In treatment, Levine found that the freezing response, with all its associations, could be brought into pendalating movement, so that the nervous system could integrate the experience and develop alternative responses in the present.

What I experience in change processes is that business initiatives are often massive triggers for trauma states in the people we are working with. To improve a plant competitively, or even save it through restructuring from demise, means to redefine the the roles and responsibilities, the structures and processes in which the people working there earn their living and feed their families. Like the soldier, whose freeze response and panic were triggered by the Cessna, so the sense of loss of a boy whose parents split nastily when he was eight and cost him his home can be triggered in the engineer he has become when the department he has worked and been at home in for the last ten years is dissolved in conflict and he must find his place in the new organization.

Even more critically, new roles and responsibilities require new behaviours and self-understanding from people to fulfil them. Old style managers often show a shocking contempt for needs and the fears of the people involved in the change, and so add new traumas to those which people bring with them to work, threatening them with exactly the things their systems are not able to cope with in the tragic belief that they will get productive results that way. (Watching managers in authoritarian mode, I often can’t help but see the trauma in their own lives that they are playing out in their behaviours.)

But even socially competent leaders, who involve their people in understanding and defining the change, are often overwhelmed by the drama which change can push up to the surface of the organisation. New and useful behaviours cannot be learned by nervous systems in freeze states. The dramas which ensue in the dysfunctional struggle to cope can cost a company its existence.

Today, being a great leader or consultant for innovation will increasingly involve understanding what we trigger in the nervous systems of the people we do business with, and knowing how to respond to the reactions that we get. Understanding how to help someone come out of a stuck state is often rewarded not only with deep thankfulness, but frees up the resources of the person to successfully do fulfilling, creative work. Thinking is embodied, so that the route to good thinking often is achieved by good work on physiology.

The professional development programme I am in will teach us how to work with trauma with individual clients. What I suspect I will do over the course of the three years is to translate the principles and process into work with groups and systems for business.

I will report periodically.

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