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Coping with triggers as a workplace investigator

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I can remember this event like it was yesterday. It was at the beginning of my career as a workplace investigator, and I was assigned to conduct an investigation of discrimination on the grounds of race. On this particular day, I recall sitting there, listening to the Respondent tell their side of the story. Suddenly, a familiar but deeply uncomfortable feeling crept up. It was at that moment I knew that I was “triggered.” Unbeknownst to me on that day, that “familiar” feeling was me reliving a past trauma I have experienced.

In my role as a workplace investigator, I listen to others tell their stories and revisit traumatic events that have happened to them. While listening, I ensure that I remain attentive, neutral, and fair at all times. Outside of my role as a workplace investigator, I must make sure to “leave work at work” — a saying I am sure you all have heard at the beginning of your professional careers. On the contrary, I have always wondered why there is no emphasis or conversations about “leaving home at home.” What I mean by this is that sometimes our “home life” can seep into our work.  Whether we like it or not, sometimes our investigations can hit close to home. Every one of us has “triggers” that can impact our reactions emotionally and/or physically. It is how we deal with these triggers and our ability to manage them that is important.

Here, I will provide you with my tips on managing your triggers when conducting an investigation.

What Does it Mean to Be Triggered?

“Triggered” is used to refer to the experience of having an emotional reaction to some type of uncomfortable content. Feeling triggered is not just about something rubbing you the wrong way. Being around anything that reminds you of a traumatic experience makes you feel like you are experiencing the trauma all over again1. Triggers are “those things that happen and make us feel strong emotions.” I expand triggers also to mean something that upsets you personally or gets under your skin. What is unpleasant about triggers is that they can “pop up” when you least expect them.

Ways to Cope with Triggers

The following are some of my methods that I have used to successfully manage triggers when they unexpectedly appear while conducting an investigation:

1. Acknowledge the Trigger

After leaving the meeting in the above-said incident, my colleague asked me why I was feeling triggered. At that very moment, I was not able to pinpoint what was troubling me. It was not until I stepped away from the investigation for some days that I realized that some of the negative experiences that I endured as a Black woman in my everyday life resurfaced. I learned from this situation that it is essential first to recognize what is going on and why you are triggered. By recognizing those unexpected physical and emotional reactions internally, it will help you calm yourself down, leading to my second point.

2. Stay Calm

When you feel the negative response from a trigger, remember to take a deep breath. Taking deep breaths can help you avoid that negative feeling or the “fight-or-flight” responses to a triggering situation.  In my investigation practice, I always inform parties at the beginning of the meeting that at any point, if they need to take a break, they should let me know so that we can pause the meeting. This information also applies to investigators. If you feel yourself getting “triggered,” take a break at an appropriate and reasonable time. I encourage you to leave the meeting room, or turn off your camera on Zoom, and take a moment to yourself. If need be, call on some support. Ensure that if you do call on some support, it is within the confines of maintaining the confidentiality of the investigation. It is the hope that your support can help calm you down and get you back on track.

3. Power of Detaching

I recently discussed investigators being triggered with my colleague, Janice Rubin. She suggested that while you have to be open and warm when conducting interviews, you still have to be somewhat “emotionally unconnected” to interviewees in order to keep an even keel. My takeaway from this discussion is that as an investigator, you should create a hypothetical net in your head to catch that information that could lead to a trigger.  Psychologists call this “detachment.” Without delving into the crux of what detachment is, because, let’s face it, I’m not a psychologist, it is “mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically disengaging from a situation.”

Additionally, I find what helps me is reminding myself before, during, and after an investigation meeting that I am not the subject of the investigation.

4. Be Kind to Yourself

A reminder to all workplace investigators, you are human too. I think it is important to be sympathetic to both you and the parties to an investigation. Remember, an investigation can be very traumatizing to all parties to an investigation. With that in mind, do not forget to take care of yourself throughout the process.  For more on self-care as a workplace investigator, click here to read Janice Rubin’s blog “Self Care for Workplace Investigators”.

1Alin Cuncic, “What Does It Mean to Be Triggered,” VeryWellMind (December 3, 2020), online: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-triggered-4175432

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