How a Trauma-Informed Lens Can Make You a Better Critical Thinker

critical thinking trauma Jan 30, 2023

If you are in HR or are a business leader or owner, you've employed critical thinking in your job Critical thinking helps you take a systematized view to solving problems and making decisions so that you don't fall into thinking traps and biases. 

You may have heard of confirmation bias where people make a snap decision about something that then find evidence to support their view. Or groupthink where social dynamics can push people to make a less than optimal solution. Thinking biases are mostly concerned with keeping us safe, such as the loss aversion bias where we fear losses ever more than we desire wins or the negativity bias where we tend to weight negative things disproportionately when making decisions. Having a clear critical thinking method can help you avoid common thinking biases, generate a wider range of options, and choose a solution that has the most commitment to implement from the group. 

To make the critical thinking process even more effective, it can be helpful to take use a trauma informed lens.

Why Trauma is important?

70% of folks have experienced trauma according to the World Health Organization. That number was taken from a 2017 study, pre-COVID. Post-COVID, even more of us are traumatized. If we did not suffer a direct health impact or lose loved ones, we may have had financial setbacks, have trauma left over from lockdowns (and conflict over lockdowns) and/or fear it will happen again. 

Trauma and Thinking

Trauma has a major impact on the way we think. Trauma activates our survival brain, which is concerned with survival functions, involuntary responses, and unconscious learning. The neocortex, that is responsible for critical thinking, takes a backseat to the part of our brain trying to keep us safe as the diagram below illustrates:


Trauma activates our central nervous systems in a way that makes us very concerned about our safety. We tend to go into fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode. The fawn response can be particular insidious since it leads to people pleasing in the name of social safety, which fuels groupthink and bad decisions.

A critical thinking process can be helpful in screening for biases but only if the following two conditions exists: 

1. The brains of the critical thinkers must be in rational, rather than survival mode

2. The critical thinkers must be extra aware of thinking biases that might influence the thinking process. 

Accessing the Rational Brain

In an earlier post (and podcast episode), I outlined the Window of Tolerance. By creating emotional safety, we help ourselves and others get into our rational brains. Before any critical thinking exercise, it's important to make sure everyone is in a place where they feel safe and socially connected. If there are bullying types in the room, it's hard to think critically. If people are worried about job security, it's hard to think critically. The best thinking comes from employees who feel emotionally safe at work. To create a good environment for critical thinking, it's important to widen that window of tolerance by creating emotional safety. 

Applying a Trauma Lens

When we are trying to make decisions, create systems, solve problems or be creative, it's important to look at things through a trauma-lens. The trauma-lens is a little like extending the empathy stage of design thinking and using that to underscore all other stages of thinking. It's important to engage all stakeholders to co-create the thinking process. It's also important to screen the process itself for potential harm. As an example, an brainstorming session can feel threatening to someone who has had a boss or colleagues criticize them, micromanage them, or bully them in the past. If someone feel their job is insecure, they may not feel comfortable challenging a less-than-optimal idea. 

It's important to put particular emphasis on making sure that all stakeholders are involved in the process. People decisions are still make without HR in the room. Not-for-profits often decide how to best serve clients without having clients be part of that process. A lot of harm is done through acts of omission even when everyone has excellent intentions. 

it's also important to challenge existing systems and "the way things have always been done." The reality is, the way things were always done in business in North America tends to use a male, white, straight, cisgender, middle class lens and it's important to see things from a variety of perspectives. The greater the diversity of thinking, the better the solution. Diverse thinking only happens when there are a variety of folks with a variety of perspectives in the room. 

If AI or algorithms are being engaged to help make decisions, it's even more important that the biases be checked since they tend to create a multiplier effect. One employee with toxic biases can traumatize their direct circle of coworkers and clients. If an algorithm or AI contains a harm-causing bias, the impact can be incalculable.

The question I find useful to ask when engaging in trauma-informed critical thinking is:

Whose perspectives were considered? 

When you think you've gathered all of the relevant information ask from whose perspective did you conclude the data collection was complete? A weary project team running out of time and budget? A CEO facing pressures by the board and demanding answers? Or a diverse thinking team who had the time and bandwidth to complete the task and is satisfied they have everything they need?

Another key question is:

Whose perspectives were not considered?

Again, who was not part of the process? Who was not in the room?

It's impossible to make perfect decisions. We will never have time and budget and bandwidth to think through things perfectly. The goal of this exercise is to create better critical thinking that does not have any obvious gaps. 

The key to thinking critically is to make sure that you are seeing an issue through a variety of lenses. Think of the last time you were at the eye doctor. Things can look very different depending on the lens through which you see.






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