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How to deal with trauma during a training? (part #2)

This article is a practical guide on how to deal with trauma during training. We invite you to read part #1 Crisis, conflict and trauma during training. It was written when we, as trainers, realized that there are no good trainer resources on how to deal with a crash of the group process during training. We divided our findings into two parts: #1 the theoretical characteristics of crisis, conflict and trauma situations during a training and the second part with practical tips for trainers.  

How to deal with trauma.
Activities As a facilitator or a trainer, you usually work with a group and its process, not the individuals, so we want to focus on that. We propose some activities as a brief intervention, based on the Solution-focused brief therapy  (SFBT), so that the facilitator can handle crisis, conflict and trauma situations when they actually happen during a workshop.

1. Context 

There is a saying “During the fire you look for a fireman”.

Any workshop participants need to express themselves in an atmosphere of warmth and support, receiving respect and guidance (control) from the facilitator. Be clear that you are in control of the situation and can handle it. It could be physical or verbal: “I will stop the exercise. As a facilitator, I will propose something else now.”

For example, you can go back to the group rules and hold each member accountable for their compliance with them, or add new rules. Deliver information, if necessary, regarding the experience, preventing that it differs from person to person. This allows the participants to realize that their experience is welcome and is not a “bad” group process. For example, offer conceptual definitions of crisis, how it manifests itself, possible reactions, and relate them to what is observed at that moment in the group.

Ask or listen to each member if their experience meets the definition of crisis, conflict or trauma. As you give an overview, allow participants to see individual differences and how this enriches the group. For example, in the face of conflict, someone may feel strong emotions of anxiety or anger, while somebody else may face this situation with curiosity or see it as a learning opportunity.

Use ‘anchors’ to guide the participants to the “here and now”. For example, set a time limit for each activity, "we will spend 5 minutes defining this situation", "in the next ten minutes, I invite you to share your experience", “it is 11:20 now”, etc. 

2. Containment

a) The facilitator must provide stabilization and relief to the experience that arises. He can achieve it by:

  • Writing exercise: Write (or draw) how you feel now, or what are your thoughts at this moment. “Everybody writes down two present, dominant emotions/needs. You have two minutes to do that”  
  • “Can we observe any similarities or differences in the way we experience what has just happened?” The facilitator helps the group observe (or look for) common/different emotions/reactions.
  • You can ask:  “What changes in you when you listen to others’ experience?” or “Can you imagine yourself in other people’s stories or situations?” 
  • Writing exercise: “You have 5 minutes to write a positive outcome of what happened and share it with the group. Think of a possible ending, based on the real strengths you heard from the group and that you have, to resolve or deal with this situation.” Share, listen and comment.

b)    Present symbol This activity helps to guide a person or group to the here and now. Ask the people before they start talking, to identify something inside the room, a "symbol of the present" that can be used to remind them that they are in the here and now. Then, if the people begin to experience a lot of distress, they are asked to stop and connect with the present through this symbol. It can be any concrete object that can be touched inside the room, such as a chair, a clock, a flipchart, or something the group built such as a poster or drawing, material for an activity, etc.

In those cases where there is no symbol of the present, and they begin to re-experience the experience in an overwhelming way, the facilitator can say, "Look around you in the room, and tell me what you see here and now."

c)   Comfort or positive experience Find out the strengths what the participants have been doing before the crisis within the group and have been effective in helping them to solve difficult problems or situations. For example, what did they do to agree on rules, games, express and listen to opinions, support or care about others, etc., and of those what they would like to continue. Then you can give the task of warning when it happens again and warning of other signs of improvement. Give this task: "Make a written list of those (group) things that you would like to continue. Make the list as long as you want, and carry it with you during the process”. This provides a context of hope and a change in focus towards a solution. The facilitator can show participants the areas in which there are already signs of improvement and / or changes and ask them to speculate on what they believe will be the next sign of improvement they will observe.

3.    Rituals We tend to perform self-destructive patterns or rituals, so that it may be useful to discover and perform new rituals that are more for the benefit of the participants. The ritual can be repeated (daily, at least for two or more weeks, etc.). One example is the “Write and burn”: it is suggested that the group writes about feelings, thoughts, etc., then read and burn them. The metaphor of purification by fire can provide some relief and closure. It can be used with anger, pain and sadness. When it is done in a group, they can write and burn their writings in a group, seeing how the fire consumes them, knowing that they will not have to carry what is in them anymore.

For some groups it could be a gathering in a circle, group hug, making a common breath. 

4.    Relations It is crucial that the facilitator keeps communication between people open. You can do this by: a)    Facilitate conversation between members

  • Conduct a complex synthesis or reframing in several steps
  • Positive motivations, values or intentions that underlie the person of each side
  • Reframe the perceived weakness as a possible strength
  • Suggest possible interpretations when a person is not imaginative
  • Ask both parts to imagine how they could help each other

b)    Use resources such as family, friends and other significant support. With the group, you will spend a couple of hours or days. As a facilitator, you should help expand the network of solutions, so that the process continues in relation to others. Asking the question: “Who could help you in a similar situation next time?”. Even in trauma there is always somebody to give help. Talk to that person and tell them specifically what to do if you ask for help. 

5. Closing Give a concrete sign of closure, which can be verbal "it is time to close our day today" or symbolic "we put ourselves in a circle and express in a word something positive that I learned or that I want to thank the group for." If there are any pending issues, they are invited to write it on a flipchart, paper or sticker: it has stayed as it is until the next session. “This is what happened. Keep your notes. We will come back to this tomorrow” 

Final remarks  The proposed model and activities have a positive orientation to the future (more than focus on problems, weaknesses, or examining barriers). The facilitator must be in control of the situation. He has to be constantly on the lookout and ask for group feedback regarding the relationship and the method he is using. The activities proposed by the facilitator must fit with the style and goals of the group. These activities provide a conscious break in the memory of the conflict and reduce the emotional impact of talking about it. The group must be protected from the need for reviving the conflict. The re-experimentation of the conflict over and over again, without any corrective professional experience, besides being ineffective, plunges it back into suffering.

Always be aware to detect manifestations that cause concern. Prevent isolation or impulsive behaviours. Stimulate the development of productive activities. And work in a professional network, supervise yourself and ask another professional for help when necessary.


Authors:Carlos Bobbert – psychotherapist, trainer and coach. Specialist in the development of talent and strengths. With a lot of experience in experiential education, in companies and public services. Speaking English, Spanish, German and Portuguese, together with having lived and worked in South America and Europe, allows him to support people and organizations in global and intercultural contexts.

Aga Leśny - experience designer, trainer. “I base my work on simulation games and outdoor education methods. I am a promoter of ideas and methods of experiential education in Poland. Based on my academic background, I work as an expert in transferring scientific theory into management practice. I have working experience in public administration, cultural institutions, businesses and non-governmental organizations. I am the founder of NGO Pracownia Nauki i Przygody”.

Thanks to Joanna Keller and Kuba Garbarkiewicz (Pracownia Nauki i Przygod) for help within this article.

The article is an outcome of the international seminar “Overwork the process” co-funded by Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The project was led by Pracownia Nauki i Przygody (Poland). 

Copy free of charge. CC BY NC 

Co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
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