Guidelines for Working with People Affected by Trauma

Strengths-based Perspective

Focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses is a basic tenant of working with everyone, but especially with people who have experienced trauma and who may see themselves as inherently weak due to their experiences. Working from a strengths-based perspective is part of the process of relationship and trust building. A trauma-informed perspective that views trauma as an injury shifts the paradigm away from “sickness” to “impact” and moves the conversation away from “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?”

Post-Traumatic Growth

As service providers, it is also important to be aware that people who have experienced trauma can go on to not only “survive” the trauma, but also experience what has been identified in the literature as “Post-Traumatic Growth”. Understanding that this is possible is an important element that contributes to fostering hope.

The research suggests that between 30 and 70% of individuals who experienced trauma also report positive change and growth coming out of the traumatic experience (Joseph & Butler, 2010). Post-traumatic growth is defined as the “experience of individuals whose development, at least in some areas, has surpassed what was present before the struggle with crises occurred. The individual has not only survived, but has experienced changes that are viewed as important, and that go beyond the status quo” (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Individuals have described profound changes in their view of “relationships, how they view themselves and their philosophy of life” (Joseph & Linley, 2006).

What is essential to keep in mind is that post-traumatic growth is not a direct result of trauma, but rather is related to how the individual struggles as a result of the trauma (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). There are a number of things that people who have experienced trauma and subsequent growth identify as significant to their struggle. These include having relationships where they felt “nurtured, liberated or validated” in addition to experiencing “genuine acceptance from others” (Woodward & Joseph, 2003). The ability of the service provider to assist and support a client who has experienced trauma through active, attentive and compassionate listening can lead to the client making meaning of the experience, which can foster posttraumatic growth.

It is important as a service provider to be cautious not to minimize the trauma in an effort to promote post-traumatic growth. Indeed, attaining post-traumatic growth is not always the outcome for individuals who have experienced trauma, and so it’s important not to imply any failure or to minimize the impact of the trauma. It is also important to be aware that even in the presence and development of post-traumatic growth, it doesn’t mean that there is an absence of distress. Both can occur simultaneously.

Post-traumatic growth can be considered both an outcome and a process. It is about maintaining a sense of hope that not only can a person who has experienced trauma survive, but they can also experience positive life changes as a result. Keeping in mind it is not the event that defines post-traumatic growth but what is able to develop from within the person and service providers, can play a significant role in this process.

Conversations with individuals who have experienced trauma should be non-judgmental and occur within a context of compassion, empathy and humanity. The primary focus is on rapport and relationship building, as well as the client’s own capacity for survival and healing.

This non-authoritarian approach views the client as the expert in their own life, and as a whole person rather than just an illness or mental health label. As a result, the treatment of their trauma symptoms encompasses their mind, body and spirit.

How We Talk to People Who Have Experienced Trauma

In any verbal message, the part of language that has the most  impact is how we say it. We need to be mindful of the words we choose, the tone we use, and how our statements and questions are phrased.

Important points to consider

Some important points on language and what we need to consider when working with people affected by trauma are:

  • When English is a second language, make sure that people who do not speak English as a first language understand the recovery process.
  • Use appropriate language that matches the client’s level of understanding.
  • Don’t use jargon.
  • Acknowledge non-verbal communication as verbal communication. Some people communicate more through behaviour than with words.
  • Acknowledge silence as a way of communicating. Some people can’t speak about it, or need time to feel comfortable.
  • Clarify anything you do not understand or are confused by. Some people will speak indirectly about trauma. For example, “He was bothering me” could mean “He was abusing me.”
  • Use language that does not denote assumptions or judgments. Your inner assumptions should never be reflected in your language.
  • Don’t always refer to the person who abused them as “he,” and victims as “she,” or vice versa. We know that victims and those who behaved abusively can be both sexes.
  • Be careful about the labels “offender,” “perpetrator,” “batterer,” etc., because it could describe a beloved parent or family member that abused them. It is more helpful to refer to behaviour rather than characterizing a person and defining them by using a label. It is suggested to use language such as “behaved abusively.”

Language and Assumptions

If we want individuals who have experienced trauma to hear us and be open to sharing their feelings and needs, then it is important to watch the language we use and assumptions we make. If we approach clients with a belief system based on negative assumptions, we will perpetuate the cycle of retraumatization and add to the problem. Following is a list of commonly held assumptions that service providers may unwittingly promote, as well as suggestions for turning these unhelpful responses into helpful belief systems that will assist the person with their recovery.

“This person is sick.” “This person is a survivor of trauma.”
“They are weak.” “They are stronger for having gone through the trauma.”
“They should be over it already.” “Recovery from trauma is a process and takes time.”
“They are making it up.” “This is hard to hear, and harder to talk about.”
“They want attention.” “They are crying out for help.”
“Don’t ask them about it or they will get upset.” “Talking about the trauma gives people per mission to heal.”
“They have poor coping methods.” “They have survival skills that have got them to where they are now.”
“They’ll never get over it.” “People can recover from trauma.”
“They are permanently damaged.” “They can change, learn and recover.”


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