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  • Writer's pictureAttia Qureshi

How to talk to your team about national trauma

Earlier this week, a shooting in Atlanta, Georgia killed eight people, a majority of whom were Asian women. Just two months ago, rioters broke into the US Capitol building, railing against the democratic process our country was founded upon. In another two months, we’ll mark one year since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man whose death sparked renewed fervor for a nation-wide reckoning with racial justice.

These devastating events, the kind that shake us to our core, don’t seem to stop. In recent months, I have heard from friends, clients, and colleagues suffering from high anxiety, sleepless nights, and an inability to concentrate.

When digging deeper with my clients, I learned that many of their organization’s leaders haven’t brought up these events with their teams. That is a mistake. These events are impacting at least one if not all of the members of your team. They are sensitive and stressful topics, so I see how someone may be afraid to broach the subject. However, to ignore these traumatic events does a disservice to your team. A good company culture recognizes that before their role as employees, they are first humans. Here are my recommendations for how to welcome a dialogue about these moments of national trauma:

  1. Dedicate time. Schedule time dedicated to letting your team talk about the event. A simple 30-minute Zoom meeting is a good start. Let your team know what the topic for discussion is, and make attendance optional.

  2. Establish psychological safety. Start off the conversation by setting expectations that you want to provide an open, safe space for them to bring up the topic and anything difficult around it. Ask them all to agree to keep everything confidential in the space, and be respectful of all opinions shared even if they diverge. Have your team give you a verbal “yes” or thumbs up as agreement —- the act of agreeing matters, because it holds us more strongly to our word.

  3. Encourage vulnerability. The easiest way to invite vulnerability is to start the conversation by sharing your feelings. Open up about your struggles with what has happened and the impact it has had on you. Seeing you display vulnerability in this way will invite others to do the same and help the group feel comfortable sharing.

  4. Ask open-ended questions. Ask your team about the impact the event had on them, and if there are specific aspects of the events they’re struggling with and how they are coping with the feelings they are having. Make sure that you’re asking open-ended questions that give people space and freedom to respond. For example, “How has it impacted you?” or “Is there something in particular that is sticking out to you or repeatedly running through your head repeatedly?”

  5. Guide the discussion. Allow the conversation to flow naturally, but guide it back to the main topic if the conversation becomes too entrenched in one area. Questions like “How are you managing the stress of that?” or “What else has been on your mind?” are both examples of ways to help move away from getting bogged down on one aspect.

  6. Don’t forget to wrap-up. If you find that you are running out of time, don’t make the mistake of ending the meeting abruptly. Take a minute to thank your team for sharing and give thoughtful, positive affirmations for the way they handled the dialogue. Examples of this are to say, “Thank you for taking the time to discuss this, I found what you shared to be very positive, productive, open, vulnerable, etc.” Make sure to let your team know that if they would like to have another group discussion, you can arrange it. Lastly, let them know that you’re available to discuss anything further individually as well.

  7. Provide Resources. If your organization has them, remind your team of any resources that they can access. For example, does HR have an internal document with stress management techniques or mental health resources that you can share? Some companies have started offering “mental health days” that require no justification for employees to take the day off. You could look into advocating for this or perhaps you can offer a few hours off during the week.

Once you’ve done all of this, you’ll see how just one 30-minute conversation can help your team both individually and as a group. Providing them a safe space to discuss what’s on their mind allows them to shed some of the burden they’ve been carrying from this event and refocus on work. These structured conversations also come with the added benefit of making your team feel more connected to each other and ultimately drive a more inclusive, transparent, and tight-knit culture.

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