Responding to Trauma in the Workplace with Katharine Manning, President of Blackbird DC
In this episode of On Record PR, Jennifer Simpson Carr, goes on record with author Katharine Manning to discuss empathy in the workplace and how to support co-workers experiencing trauma.
Katharine Manning is the President of Blackbird DC, which provides training and consultation on empathy at work. She is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: Five Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. She has worked on issues of trauma and victimization for more than 25 years.
As a senior attorney advisor with the Executive Office for United States Attorneys for 15 years, Kate guided the Justice Department through its response to victims in cases ranging from terrorism to large-scale financial fraud to child exploitation. Some of the cases she advised on include the Boston Marathon bombing, the Pulse nightclub and South Carolina AME church shootings, the uprising in Charlottesville, the Madoff investment fraud, and the federal case against Larry Nassar, doctor for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team.
Kate now uses her expertise to help organizations prepare for and respond to the challenges they face involving employees and clients who may be in trauma. A member of the bar in Washington, D.C. and California, Manning also served as an attorney with the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop in San Francisco, where she represented Fortune 500 companies in class actions, insurance, and media cases.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Welcome to the show, Katharine. I’m very excited to talk to you about a very serious topic. I do have to give a quick shout-out to Lesley Pate Marlin, who was so gracious in introducing us. We had a wonderful discussion a few episodes ago about empathy in the workplace. I’m excited to continue the conversation about how we each show up every day to do the best that we can do at work, but also how we support those around us to make sure that they have that environment to do the same.
What is trauma, and how does it show up at work?
In my background, working with crime victims, anything from fraud to terrorism, child exploitation, human trafficking, all the different types of crimes that the Justice Department prosecutes, one of the things I started to realize was there were not wildly different things that people needed if they were victims of fraud versus human trafficking, for instance. Everybody needed to feel heard, everybody needed acknowledgment. They needed resources and support. I began to realize that those same kinds of supports were needed not just by the victims, in our cases, but by my coworkers, if I had a colleague whose father was dying, or another who maybe was dealing with an abusive boss. I realized I was using those same kinds of skills to support people through a whole host of different kinds of experiences that were either originating in the workplace, or originating out of the workplace, but were affecting people and their ability to do their jobs.
I began to realize that these issues were not just victimization, it was trauma in general, that people were experiencing really difficult circumstances. I like to say trauma’s not a jacket that you can just take off when it’s time to go to work. We carry it with us all the time. My definition of trauma is one that’s sort of a streamlined version of the Substance Abuse Mental Health Association definition. What I say is that trauma is a psychological injury that affects your performance and well-being. I think the key there is it’s not something related to a particular type of incident – it’s not just that you have experienced trauma if you have experienced the loss of an immediate family member, right? Trauma is more related to the person in front of us, and their experience, what it is that they are going through right now.
Rather than trying to judge, “Is this the type of thing that could lead to trauma?”, instead, let’s just meet people where they are and figure out how to support them from there. My goal is to help organizations learn how prevalent trauma is in the workplace, especially these days as we’ve gone through the pandemic, George Floyd, the war in Ukraine, political upheaval, and everything else that we’ve been through in the 2020s.
The reality is that trauma has always been in our workplaces, and it always will be. We’ve always worked with colleagues who are suffering from addiction, who are going through divorce, who maybe are facing financial difficulties. Those issues have always affected us at work. They affect our productivity, our ability to communicate, absenteeism. They really affect the bottom line. When we can get better at recognizing and supporting each other through hard times, it’s empathy when it matters most. If we can learn how to support each other in those hard moments, that’s really where we build phenomenal bonds of trust and loyalty, strong relationships that are going to serve us well for many years to come.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I really appreciate what you said about understanding that trauma is different for all of us and can be different situations for each of us and not approaching an individual or an issue by evaluating whether or not you personally believe it’s a trauma, but meeting them where they are. Certainly, everyone has different life experiences and backgrounds and we are all impacted by things in a very unique and different way.
Katharine Manning: I had a client who came to me during the pandemic and said, “We want to find out which of our employees have lost an immediate family member to COVID, and we’re going to go out with a special communication to them that expresses our sorrow for their loss and offers them access to special support services. What do you think?” I said, “I don’t think you should do that, and here’s why: that type of communication is going to be both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.”
Just as an example, I lost my father when I was in my late 20s, and at the time I was working at a big law firm. I went back to work right away, and all day long, on my first day back, everybody was coming up to me and saying, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I just heard about your dad. That’s so awful. Why are you here? Go home. You don’t have to be here. Please go home.”
The reality is, though, that my father was not who raised me. I hadn’t seen him since I was very, very young, and while it was sad, it wasn’t the kind of devastating loss that it might have been if it had been the parent who raised me. They were viewing it through their lens, which is how would it feel for them if they had lost their father. Coming to me with that kind of support, they were trying to be nice. They were trying to be thoughtful and empathetic, but for me, it just made me feel worse, like I wasn’t having the kind of reaction that I was supposed to.
Conversely, you can imagine somebody in a workplace, maybe the person they lost to COVID was their ex-boyfriend, who they always thought they were going to marry. They weren’t even together at the time, but this was the guy that she always thought she would spend the rest of her life with, and now he’s gone. Now, for her, he’s not an immediate family member, so she wouldn’t have gotten that communication. She maybe could’ve really used that support, but she didn’t get the communication because he didn’t fit the bill as an immediate family member. She now feels more alienated, more embarrassed about feeling so upset about it. That’s why what we should do instead is develop the resources, have those supports, and just offer them up to everybody. Let people decide whether they want to access them or not.
Do you have recommendations for those coworkers who may not know how to approach another coworker who, from their perspective, has experienced a trauma similar to the example you gave about your father?
I think the key is we want to meet them where they are. For instance, you find out a coworker lost their father, and they’re in the office. You can pop by and say, “Hey, I heard about your dad. How are you doing?” Just ask the open-ended question and then listen. Maybe they’re saying, “I don’t know, it’s awful. I can barely put my mind around and I’m really struggling.” Maybe they indicate they really do need to talk, and that’s great, sit down and listen. Maybe they say, “It’s rough, but I’m holding it together, and I’m glad to be here at work because it’s distracting.” That’s great, too. Then fine, listen to where they are, and believe them. Let them communicate to you what kind of support they need or not.
Can you describe the LASER method that you recommend for supporting those in trauma at work?
Let me tell you a little bit about how it came to be. In 2018, Me Too happened, and it was all over the place. It was in education and business, and every kind of industry seemed to be talking about Me Too. At the time, I was an attorney who had been working with crime victims for decades and part of me was thrilled because I thought, “Here are these issues that I’ve been thinking about for so long, and I’m so glad that other people are more aware of them and talking about them and realizing how they are affecting workplaces and people’s well-being.” On the one hand, I was thrilled.
On the other hand, I found myself really frustrated, because I felt like Me Too put so much on survivors. I had people sending me text messages saying, “I’ve never disclosed this about the sexual assault that happened or the sexual harassment that I experienced and now I feel all this pressure. Do you think that I am letting people down if I don’t disclose Me Too and post about my experience?”, which is awful. I don’t want anybody to feel that it is your obligation to share your story for somebody else’s benefit. That is not your job. I felt like it was a lot of pressure on survivors.
At the same time, there was this real lack of an understanding that when a survivor shares their story, there is an obligation on the listener to listen in a supportive way – to ask how they’re doing and provide the support that they might need. It’s not like when somebody shares their story, we don’t have any responsibility. We have a really important responsibility when somebody opens up about their story of trauma with us.
By the way, this is not just related to Me Too offenses. In my work at DOJ, I saw people who were victims of financial crimes. The devastation that they experienced was some of the worst of any type of crime that I dealt with. These issues of trauma are not limited to Me Too types of offenses. I had this realization that people needed a better understanding of why it’s important to listen in a compassionate way and be supportive, and how to do it. I knew from my work at DOJ that you can listen and provide support while still conducting a full and fair investigation. It doesn’t mean that we are just putting everything aside and taking everything at face value. This person has come to you in pain; acknowledge that pain. We can figure out facts if we need to later on, but right now, just meet this human in front of you and acknowledge where they are.
When you’re mad about something, as I was about this with Me Too, that’s a sign that you need to do something about it. I thought, “Okay, well, what is it that you think people should do when they hear a story of trauma at work in particular? Really, there are five things,” and that is what led to the LASER technique. It’s
- Share information with them.
- Empower. Give them resources and support.
- Return. Check in on them later, and also return to ourselves. Recognize that supporting people through hard times wears on us as well, and we need to be protecting ourselves from compassion fatigue.
I came up with this acronym in part because I spent so many years in government that I just think in acronyms at this point, but also because I know that when somebody comes to you with something heavy that’s weighing on them, it’s very common to have that deer-in-the-headlights reaction. I’ve had it myself where I’m just having a regular conversation with somebody and then it pivots and you realize, “Oh, this person is disclosing something really, really hard that they are dealing with.” Suddenly, my mind goes blank, and I don’t know what to say. That’s a normal human reaction. It doesn’t mean that we’re bad, it means we are empathetic. We feel bad for this person, and the stress of “I don’t know how to support them” can make it difficult for us to think clearly.
The acronym is in part a little roadmap just to give you something to follow in that moment.
- You listen first, then acknowledge.
- Acknowledge is just, “Thanks for telling me that. I’m so sorry for everything you’re going through.”
- After that is where we share This is where you go to file a complaint, or this is what I know so far about this incident, if something like workplace violence, for instance, happens.
- Empower with resources is – Do you know we have EAP? Do you know about the 988, which is a phenomenal resource that just went up in the last few months that is a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis support line? You can call or text at 24 hours a day, 988.
- Return is that piece about letting them know that you’re still there. You’re still a support for them even after the conversation is over, but you’re also practicing self-care – what are we doing to take care of ourselves? Are we engaging in things that feed us as well? Because we need to be full and whole, if we’re going to be doing the work that we need to do.
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day in English and Spanish. For more information, visit: https://988lifeline.org/
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Many wonderful things that you have said resonate with me, but I want to point out the LASER method because a vast majority of our listenership is lawyers, both in-house and private practice, legal business professionals, and executives at different organizations. I share that because in our roles, we are all very solution-driven. However, when someone comes to you with a personal issue, it is very common for your mind to go blank, and those of us that are solution-driven want to do something to support this person. I think this is a fantastic method to feel empowered to support someone who’s sharing something so difficult with you.
What have you been seeing of late in your work and how is it impacting the support that you are giving to your clients?
It’s amazing. I started writing the book, as I mentioned, in 2018, 2019 after Me Too, and in the way of publishing, it takes two years for the book to come out, so the book came out in 2021 last year, and in that time we had the pandemic and George Floyd and Capitol riots and on and on. In some ways, I feel like the timing was exactly the way it needed to be. The beginning of the book is largely explaining to people, “Hey, you should be aware there’s trauma in your workplace.” I don’t have to explain that to people anymore because they are seeing it all around them.
It cuts across industries. I spoke with somebody who’s a leader at a hospital recently, and he said, “I realized that almost every person I interact with on a daily basis is experiencing trauma.” I’ve spoken with people in higher ed, in retail, in hospitality, in the military. Everybody is experiencing trauma right now, even industries that you wouldn’t necessarily think are being affected by things like the pandemic – people who have “just had to sit at home and in isolation for two years,” there’s a lot there as well.
I did a talk not too long ago. It was a big keynote in a hotel ballroom. We’re just starting to have those again. There are something like 600 people in the room, and everybody’s in suits. They’re very professional and they’re having their Caesar salad or whatever as I’m talking. I started off by just acknowledging what we have been through, and I talked about COVID, a million Americans lost, anti-Asian hate, and all the things that we’ve been dealing with.
Afterward, numerous people came up to me crying, literally in tears. One woman had two people next to her holding her up, and she said, “I just wanted to thank you for your words.” That’s all she could get out. I thought, “What did I do? What did I do to them?” I try to be very cognizant of not being triggering, so my COVID image was not a hospital photo, it was just what COVID looks like under a microscope. I tried to be very thoughtful about that. I said to one of the organizers, “Did I do something that triggered this?”, and he said, “I got to admit, I cried, too. I think it’s just the first time in two years that somebody just said it – just talked about everything that we have been through.”
I realized as we are reopening, so many businesses are coming back with fanfare and cupcakes and cocktails and parties, and that’s great. I am also really glad to see people in person again, but I feel like if we don’t acknowledge the pain that people have been through in the last couple of years, we’re missing something really, really important. We’re glossing over something really, really hard.
Also, by the way, we’re missing an opportunity for connection. The reality is, when you support somebody through hard times, you build a strong connection with them. Just think in your own life, when you think back on times when your life has been turned upside down, where you lost a person, or a thing, something that was really important to you, and you felt like, “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the week,” maybe, “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this night.” The people who stood by you in those moments, I don’t care if you haven’t talked to them in a decade, you will drop anything. If they need you, you are going to be there for them. It’s the same thing in the workplace. If you can have the kind of culture where you support each other, when people are suffering, when they are down, not just cheer about making that deadline, producing something phenomenal. When we can support each other in hard times, that is really when those bonds are built that will carry us through anything that is coming down the pike.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: We always tell our clients that their employees can be their biggest advocates, and it informs the communication recommendations that we give. Right now, there’s such a challenge out there to find and retain talent, and I know that organizations that have provided resources and guidance have probably earned the trust and the longevity, the loyalty from their clients. I suspect that for some listeners, a light bulb went off, and they said, “Wow, I may not be supporting my employees. I may not have realized that trauma can come in so many forms, and it may not just be these big world events, but so many people could use support.”
What’s the first step that you would recommend to an executive listening in terms of starting the process of getting the right support and resources for their organization?
I think everybody is a leader. It’s not related to your job title; we all lead from where we sit by the actions that we take. The first thing we can do as leaders is getting better at listening. There’s often that push to want to problem-solve. I think it’s very common for lawyers, and I really think the more senior we get in our jobs, the worse listeners we become. The way we get more senior is by solving problems. When we are able to fix things, we get kudos for that, we get raises, we get promotions, and so it becomes instinctive like, “Yay, I get benefits when I can come in and fix things,” so it’s really, really difficult to train that out of yourself, to be willing to be more receptive and just hear the person in front of you instead of instantly starting to think through, “What is the answer to this? How do we fix this thing that they’re coming to us with?” I really think that is the first thing that leaders can do.
I also think it’s important that we be willing to have hard conversations at work. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, from Supreme Court decisions to school shootings, and heavy things happening in the world that are affecting people at work. Also, things happening in the workplace that are affecting people that people might not be comfortable talking about. A lot of people are thinking, “Are we going toward a recession?” Some people are starting to think about budget cuts. Does that mean layoffs? Does that mean reorganization?
When we have these issues that everybody is thinking about and nobody feels comfortable talking about, it can really sour your culture very quickly. We have to get better at having these conversations. I think of them as the elephant-in-the-room conversations. Can we make it okay to talk about hard things on this team so that we can bring things out in the open and address them?
I do training and consultation, and I think it is helpful. Sometimes we need a little bit of outside help with these things. There are some phenomenal people out there who can lead conversations, who can help with identifying skills that everybody should have in the workplace to support each other. I always say, “We don’t want people to become therapists.” I think of it as like EMT skills, right? You are the person on the scene, you identify the problem, you give them some quick support, and then you send them off to the experts.
I want everybody in the workplace to have those EMT skills, and it’s important that when it comes to the resources that we are promulgating in our organizations, that we are listening to the people affected. Don’t roll out some expensive, phenomenal new benefits program, and then realize that the people that you are aiming that to don’t need it at all. It’s important that we listen to the people who are in need and give them the supports that they are asking for, as opposed to the things that we guess or believe that they probably should need. There are some great places to go for information on that. Maybe you do some sort of a benefit survey. Employee resource groups are another great way to get information, or listening sessions where you just ask people. Make sure that the resources that you’re providing are the things that people are actually requesting.
Then one final point on this: make sure people know about what’s out there. I think often there are a lot of great resources that are just somewhere on the website that you have to know to go look for. We have to talk about these resources a lot repeatedly because maybe there’s some great mental health resource that you have that you mention once, but at the time you mention it, I don’t really need it, so it goes in one ear and out the other. Six months later – boy, do I need that. We have to talk about it repeatedly.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s great advice, and we always encourage our clients to take very proactive, transparent communications, particularly at the height of many of the situations and challenges you discussed, which is making sure that their employees have the resources easily accessible to them, so they’re not digging around on the internet or that paper that we sign when we first get a handbook, a hundred pages deep. Make sure they are easily accessible when someone does feel like it’s time to use the resources that they have access to.
Katharine Manning: The reality is that when we are experiencing trauma or distress, it’s really hard for us to hear. I often felt like in my work with crime victims, they heard about a third of what I was saying. I’m sure a lot of your listeners are familiar with this feeling of brain fog. It’s so hard to comprehend and remember things. We have to talk about things very clearly and repeatedly.
What recommendations do you have for individuals to take care of themselves as they’re supporting those around them?
I’m going to share just a few tips on how to manage your emotional response when you’re hearing something hard. If you’re in an investigation and somebody is talking about something really difficult, there is a thing that sometimes we do as lawyers or as investigators where we think, “I am starting to have an emotional response. It is not appropriate for me to have an emotional response because I must be professional right now, so I’m just going to squash it. I’m going to squash that emotion.”
That does a few things. One, it’s not great for our long-term mental and physical health. That is what leads to these long-term health impacts. Also, it makes us less effective in the interview. It’ll be obvious to the person. If you have just turned off your emotions, they’ll tell us something really hard, and we just in a monotone read the next question. They will not miss it, and it’ll affect how open they are with us. In the moment, we must learn how to manage our emotions effectively so that we don’t do long-term damage to ourselves, and we can stay present for the person and get good information from them.
- Just breathe. When I’m doing an interview, or I think I’m going to have a hard conversation, I write “breathe” at the top of my notebook to remind me. Take a deep breath.
- Name your emotion. There’s research that shows that just naming your emotion can help you feel more in control of it, such as, “I’m getting really angry about everything that she’s saying,” or “I feel really sad about everything that he’s been through.” Putting a label to it can help you feel more in control of it. You can remember that as “name it to tame it.”
- Take a break if you need to. It’s always okay to walk away. I think sometimes we feel like we must power through, but it’s better to walk away before things get too difficult for you. Just be willing to say, “Thanks for sharing that. I’m going to take a quick break and circle back in 15 minutes,” and give yourself a moment to get a drink of water, look at the sky, look at pictures of the beach, something that calms you. That’s how to manage an emotional response in the moment in a way that is protective.
Another thing that I think is important, particularly if you are doing work where you’re repeatedly exposed to trauma and stress of others is we got to have a good self-care routine. This is one of those areas where the best defense is a good offense, so have something that you do every day that is just for you. For me, I do five minutes of yoga, five minutes of meditation every morning. That helps keep me on an even keel throughout the day. I know a guy who plays the guitar for 15 minutes at the end of every day as a signal to him the workday is done. Maybe you walk your dog, or you say a prayer before bedtime, whatever it is for you that is a good way to feed yourself. Just try to do something that you can commit to.
I also think we all have to get better at talking about the hard things. I think lawyers in particular are pretty bad at opening up about the things that are weighing on us. Obviously, we must protect confidentiality, but when we talk about our own experiences, we are not violating confidentiality. If I say, “I’m having a really hard day. I had a conversation with somebody who is in a dangerous situation and I’m not sure I can help him,” none of that is violating any kind of confidentiality, and in opening up, even if we think we don’t need to, you will see over time there’s a beneficial effect to being willing to open up about things.
Then my final piece of advice would be to know your warning signs, the signs that you’re starting to suffer from burnout. Maybe it’s that you are getting more short-tempered, you are more sarcastic, or bitter. Sometimes it can be a sense of apathy like, “Oh, it’s just another thing, of course,” or helplessness like, “Nothing I do matters, anyway.” Those are signs of burnout, and when you start to notice those signs, that’s an indication that you probably need to double down on the self-care and reaching out for support.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s great advice and I appreciate everything that you’ve said. I think as professionals, we do feel the need to power through. I agree that it’s not helpful and that we can all benefit from taking a breath and giving ourselves a break when we feel like we need it.
If our listeners would like to learn more about you and get in touch, where can they find you?
If you are interested in the topics that we’ve been talking about, the book is called The Empathetic Workplace. I am very active on LinkedIn. I would love for people to reach out and connect with me there. I’m also on both Instagram and Facebook as @EmpatheticWorkplace. In addition, I recently started doing a weekly text. I send out a text every Thursday that’s on empathy and leadership and resilience, so if people are interested and want to get those, they just have to text the word “Blackbird,” to (833) 975-1945. It’s just an easy way to stay in touch.
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