This was a question asked at a leadership workshop my colleague Andrew Stevens and I jointly presented interstate recently. We were discussing emotions and the impact of how we show up at work on ourselves, our teams, on productivity and, ultimately, on the bottom line.
Unbeknown to the group, I was facing an extreme example of this dilemma on the day of the workshop. I’d stayed the previous night at a hotel near the venue and awoken just before 2:00am to a very loud domestic dispute next door. It quickly escalated to violent language and an angry, hysterical tone and I had no doubt the woman was in danger. My heart started thudding. ‘Why don't you leave? Just leave’, I was wishing for her.
By now, the woman was crying out ‘get away from me’, and ‘don’t touch me’ followed each time by a thud and finally, when she screamed ‘put the knife down’ twice (or was it three times?) I leapt out of bed to call reception. So terrified was I that I used the torch on my phone to find the number on the desk, in case a light showing under my door might alert the perpetrator that I was the informant. A voice answered from a call centre and asked which hotel I was phoning from. I shakily whispered that there was a terrible violent altercation in the room next door and, before I could tell him about the knife, he asked for my room number, thanked me and hung up. The screaming coming from the woman next door was, by this time, bloodcurdling. Then abruptly, silence.
I was even more shocked by the implication of this. I sat on the bed, hardly daring to breathe, imagining the worst.
A short time later, the hotel proprietor knocked on the door next to mine, explained that there’d been phone call about a violent argument and asked what was going on. The man next door was shockingly calm and casual. “No. No problem here.” I couldn't believe my ears. The proprietor explained that the police had been called to which my neighbour inferred that it was nothing adding that the woman had ‘just cracked it’. The proprietor accepted this explanation and left.
I hastily got dressed. If the police were on their way, they'd want to talk to me. I desperately wanted to get out of here and run for my life. But I was in an unfamiliar city. Where would I go at 2:00am? And anyway, I couldn't make a phone call for fear of being heard and clearly there was no-one at reception to help me.
I don't remember ever feeling so unsafe and utterly terrified, especially when I realised that the police were not coming, after all. I spent hours wide awake, listening to the door opening and closing next door and imagining all sorts of gruesome scenarios.
Finally at 7:00am, I phoned Andrew to ask for advice. He immediately came to collect me. When we got to reception, which was by now open, I was shocked to hear that the woman next door had left the room before the proprietor had gone to find out what was going on. I mentioned the knife and the receptionist looked shocked. Apparently they had CCTV footage of both the woman and the man leaving and returning several times during the night and finally departing together.
While I was glad she was not lying dead with her throat cut, my trauma was no less real.
After debriefing, Andrew and I set off to conduct our leadership workshop. I considered telling the participants what had happened because I felt unsure if I could get through four hours without some reaction. When we arrived at the workshop venue and I looked at the expectant faces of the people arriving, I knew I couldn't tell them. Domestic violence is such a pervasive issue and my story might easily trigger trauma for our participants.
I didn't want to show up as a victim, even though I had certainly felt like one for five sleepless hours. But I wanted to choose another way to be. I thought about how I would ideally like to show up at this workshop as its co-leader. ‘Professional’ was the first word that came to mind. I pictured myself being professional, as I would be normally. I also thought of the word ‘trooper’. I knew I could choose and create a way to be that was professional and, well, a trooper.
And that’s pretty much what happened. Waves of memories flooded into my mind from time to time during the workshop, but Andrew stepped up when my voice wouldn't work or I lost my train of thought. That support made an enormous difference.
One day, I will tell the participants what happened the night before our first workshop. It is, after all, a classic example of how we can choose a different way to show up than the way we might be feeling. Its also a classic example of how we make up stories based on what we think happened and the feelings we have are based not on what actually happened but on the stories we make up.
I teach people to ask themselves sensible questions such as, “What’s another interpretation?” or “What else could be true?’ in situations like this, and yet, when the amygdala (the part of the brain that handles emotions) is triggered, it’s almost impossible to be this logical or rational. The amygdala literally highjacks the rational part of the brain. That’s why the term Amygdala Hijack was coined to describe ‘an immediate and overwhelming emotional response out of proportion to the stimulus because it has triggered a more significant emotional threat’, in this case, my own safety.
I’ve also learned how important it is to have one’s feelings validated, even if the actual turn of events are quite different from one’s imagination or interpretation. That doesn't make the experience any less real and it made a huge difference to me to have others validate my feelings and provide safety and on-going support.
My other insight relates to dealing with trauma. It helped so much to have reassurance that it would take some time to recover, to process what happened and be able to let it go. This is something I often tell others, but it’s very different being the one affected. Writing about the experience has helped, as has talking about it and listening to the wisdom of friends as well as my own sense of what I needed. I finally wrote to the hotel and shared my version of events and that helped. Yoga has also been vital, enabling me to get the story out of my head and feel healthily integrated again.