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by Milly Sinclair

If we are to be practitioners working in the field of Systemic Conflict Transformation, we need a trauma informed approach.  Some trauma belongs to a person’s individual experience and some belongs to the wider systemic field; many both.   If I am a Person of Colour and experience racism within my organisation, I may have a personal trauma response; however systemic racism is almost certainly part of the trauma of the wider systemic field of both the organisation and the country it is part of.   We also need to understand that many people have been traumatised in conflict situations in the past, so any conflict situation, however mild to some, may trigger a traumatic response in others.


Trauma in the individual

As I’m sure we know,  Fight and Flight are natural ‘active’ responses to conflict or ‘threat’ that we share with all animals to help us survive.  We are threatened and then we react to try and survive the threat.  We are ‘mobilised.’

A trauma response is activated when we are overwhelmed.  When our strategies of ‘Fight’ or ‘flight’ are not possible, and we move into ‘Freeze/ Flop’  We are ‘immobilised.’ 

Although a traumatic or ‘overwhelming event’ can happen at any-time, it can be particularly seen in childhood.

When faced with a conflict or threatening situation as a child,  we may not have been able to ‘mobilise’ our survival strategy; we couldn’t ‘fight or flee.’  Freeze may have been our only option.  We may have done this by ‘absenting’ ourselves from the situation.  Our bodies are there, but ‘we’ are no longer there.  We disassociate.   This is an important strategy that helped us as children survive the traumatic experience. 

We know that a traumatic experience may have originated in the past (childhood) but when triggered feels absolutely in the here and now.  We go to the same, often young, place. 

 Like ‘Fight’ and ‘Flight’ it can reoccur as an adult in conflict situations.  Conflict has a high potential for triggering a trauma response, we need to have both compassion on ourselves and others when it happens.  We need to have a trauma informed approach when we work with conflict.

Moving conflicts
moving conflicts



  • We can’t focus on what is happening in front of us.  We are no longer present to ourselves or others.  We can no longer listen

  • We may find ourselves in a very ‘young’ and vulnerable place

  • We may find we are physically triggered.  Our heart starts beating faster, our breath becomes shallow and our bodies tense but we can’t do anything about it

  • If we believe we can’t escape, we may disengage mentally and emotionally

  • We may experience strong emotions like shame, fear and anger, and become either highly reactive (fight/ flight), or unable to express them (freeze).

  • We may become cold, distant, analytical and overly rational, protecting ourselves from the emotion of the experience



  • Self-compassion and empathy.  We all have the potential for a trauma response in conflict (it will be different situations to different people).  You may need to leave the conflict situation to protect yourself

  • Presencing and mindfulness.  Coming back to your body, to the ground, to the breath.  Coming back to the ‘here and now’ is hugely helpful

  • Support.  If you are entering into a conflict situation, make sure you have people to stand with you in love and compassion (either in the room, or before you enter the room)



  • The person is no longer ‘present’ in the room (apart from physically) they disengage

  • Skin may become flushed and breath shallow

  • They become either highly reactive, or disengaged and distant

  • They can’t listen to the other

  • Hyper- arousal and hyper-vigilance, extreme anxiety, helplessness and depression, numbing and unexplained physical symptoms



What is MOST important is to prevent re-traumatisation, especially when working with conflict 

  • Kindness, compassion and empathy

  • Trauma is experienced alone; make sure they know they are supported by you or the group

  • Small steps are best

  • A working agreement before you work with conflict with an individual and group to create psychological safety for everyone.  A potential for anyone to call ‘Time Out’ and for it to be respected and honoured.

  • Starting the session with a Presencing / mindfulness exercise

  • Make sure people are resourced and supported before the conflict is discussed

  • A discussion about trauma and conflict and what can happen to people in conflict situations

  • Ensuring everyone is resourced enough to access the trauma/ conflict.  Working with people one to one before bringing them in a group can be extremely beneficial.



Once we understand how individual nervous systems respond to trauma, we can apply those understandings to larger bodies (family systems, organisations, cultural systems, political systems).

Our work has shown us that trauma like conflict is never purely an individual problem.  No matter how private or persona, trauma cannot belong solely to a family, or even their ancestry.  Like we saw with conflict, the systemic consequence of trauma can seep across individuals, relationships,  communities and the whole eco-system itself.   We can see this with the huge conflicts that riven our society today, regions, lands and nations.   


An individual event or trauma, like the brutal murder of George Floyd or Sarah Everard, reverberates throughout communities, nations and continents because they connect to the underlying trauma of systemic racism, slavery, brutality against POC by police and sexual voilence against women globally.  Like individual trauma, where past events have an impact on our present and future, so does collective trauma.   Events of the past; colonialism, systemic racism, police brutality, patriarchy, sexual abuse of women,  impact the present and the possible future.

Countless organisations; whether community, place of worship, private or public, found themselves having to face the shock waves of such events which often were expressed in conflict.  If not addressed and faced, the past will continue to impact the present and the future.

However, as we have seen, conflict often is trying to tell us something about a system that NEEDS to be heard.   The murder of George Floyd obviously didn’t create the conflicts around race and racism in our organisations and communities, it just highlighted something that had been ignored for too long.   What cannot be talked about gets re-enacted.   As practitioners tasked to support such conflicts, we need to put them into systemic context, understand the underlying trauma and help our communities/ organisations to respond to them appropriately.  Remembering and respecting the potential individual trauma response whilst holding the context of the systemic trauma can be helpful to both the individual and system itself.  


When we allow ourselves and our organisations to zoom out  and think systemically, we can take steps toward justice and healing on a personal and collective level that are more deeply transformational than the steps we would take if we only perceive trauma in individual bodies. 


As Thomas Hubl says in his book: Healing Collective Trauma


 “The future indeed has the power to rewrite the past.  In fact, when we integrate shadow or trauma, whether personal or collective, we’re utilizing this principle because healing past energy creates a forward ripple effect.  This releases light and energy that was previously held in shadow, offering greater movement and freedom of will in the present.”

Remember, in all our work in Systemic Conflict Transformation, this takes time.  It isn’t a quick fix.  It is faced with presence, compassion and patience.

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