By understanding how our brain and body protect one another, we become better humans. Susan Jones breaks it down.
Susan Jones is founder and principal of Creative Behavior Systems, a behavioral change consultancy that, well, helps people get along better. A big reason why Tina and I (Kristy) started HEP is because of Susan.
I met Susan when I was a few weeks old back in February 1967. Susan was an older girl in town by about 6 months. When we were 12, I was a full foot taller than she; to this day, we hold that difference in height (which is pretty hilarious). We played softball and rode our bikes. Ate Taco Bell and TV dinners. Stayed up until midnight watching “Saturday Night Live,” disco roller-skated, and spent way too much time using curling irons before middle school. This was the idyllic part of our childhoods we would never change.
The less idyllic parts: we both had very young parents. As the eldest of 3 siblings, we took on a lot of emotional responsibilities we were far too young for (which is not uncommon for young families). We’re both white, cis women who grew up in a very elitist, racist, white-privileged community that espoused peace and happiness, yet demonstrated a very dark underside in the adult behavior we experienced time and again.
What I appreciate most about Susan is she naturally took a path to help others. She became a special education teacher, which then put her on a path to become a behavior analyst. Around 5 years ago, she was introduced to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which brought the awareness to what her teachings were all about: Trauma Informed.
There’s a lot to understanding our brains and bodies. What Susan has demonstrated to me over the years is how, as a “People Whisperer,” you can have influence on people of all ages demonstrating ranges of aggressive behaviors if you know how to listen, respond and calm. We’re all capable of being a People Whisperer.
Here’s the first of two interviews with Susan. We’d love to get your feedback and questions; please post comments and let’s get more dialogue going.
HEP: Hi Sus! Let’s begin with your career in education. What have you learned about yourself, working with students and families, educators and staff?
Susan: I think over the last 20 years, I’ve realized that we’re all just people who are trying to make the best out of the immediate situation, whatever it may be. The majority of people don’t have the communication skills to be able to keep communication and engagement and a cycle of communication that doesn’t have any sort of reactivity to it. It goes back to relationships; having a trusting relationship. Everybody is experienced. You’re talking with someone. The communication is going great. The engagement is good. I call this the hakuna matata. Imagine the infinity sign applied to a smooth communication pattern.
Then there’s the other side. We’ve all experienced communication where it’s pretty spiky. There are different reactions or assumptions or preconceived notions, whatever it may be, about what’s being spoken. Often for us, a lot of misunderstandings occur along the way without actually stopping and identifying what is the misunderstanding and where is it coming from. In classrooms, teacher to student, student to student, teacher to families, parents, guardians, administrators, it’s the overlying umbrella of really what needs to be looked at. In the meantime, everybody is in the trench, just trying to do all of the things that they need to get done for the day. A lot of things go sideways, and that’s what I try to help people understand how to fix.
HEP: Why did you decide to start Creative Behavior Systems?
Susan: I decided to start it literally from a fluke back in 2011. I created a Facebook page called Creative Behavior Systems, where I took events and situations of things that I was dealing with on a daily basis of working in public education. I was a moderate to severe inclusion specialist teacher, then moved into work as a behavior specialist. I would take different situations of what I was seeing, and I would write about them and then write different suggestions of what we can do just a little bit differently to help people in similar experiences.
Over time, even though I was working in education, I began to notice that different people would come to me and ask for advice and support. I started doing trainings, coaching, consulting on the side. And here we are!
HEP: Excellent. When it comes to teaching Trauma Informed, what are the tools?
Susan: When it comes to teaching Trauma Informed, I think a lot of people just focus on the ACEs study and the neurology and physiology of the escalated systems and how you’re either in fight, flight or freeze mode based on the data that came from the ACEs. The piece I really dive into is looking at our own behavior. Here’s a recent example: There were a few teachers at a school site I had worked at that really took this Trauma Informed to heart. They wanted to move forward and create a staff common agreement. There were T-shirts and stickers made for all of the staff. The common agreement was to “Meet each other at the corner of frontal and lobe”.
What this means is to be present in the moment. Any time there’s going to be communication, it means that we‘re willing to take a deep breath, be present for the ability to hear and understand what’s being communicated in the moment. It’s such a great story that actually shows one of the most important tools of being Trauma Informed is to truly be self-aware and be present when another is communicating with you.
I’m sure we can all understand in different scenarios throughout the day where you’re sharing something with someone and whatever their words or their body language may be, you know that they aren’t actually with you in hearing what it is that you’re saying in the moment.
HEP: When you think of your work and how it can be applied to business environments, what comes to mind?
Susan: The first thing that comes to mind is stress. People are stressed. We’ve got I believe technology, which is really pushing the capacity of our ability to stay calm and present to the Nth degree, but we’ve also got expectations and deadlines and societal pressures all around us of … Especially with social media. Social media I think is a significant component of pressure, from adolescent all the way to adulthood, because as we all know, you don’t put your worst day ever on social media. You’re not going to post yourself sitting on your couch in your pajamas at two o’clock in the afternoon saying, “I’m having a terrible day.” You’re going to post your Jamaican retreat or you’re going to post your amazingly, perfectly cleaned up and manicured backyard or, “Life is perfect,” on social media.
If any of us can be in tune with, “That’s not what reality is,” then that’s really the first step I think of being self-aware and being able to calm. We’ve just got so many pressure, and they’re coming from all directions. Stress, whether it’s in organizations or in any arena or any organizational system, you’re going to have to have the communication again between each other. All of those layers of stress, you can’t always tell what’s happening on the inside of people and different reactions and responses might come out in ways that you’re not expecting.
The adult’s first response to a sideways reaction is often to turn around and head the other direction, and then maybe even pull in a colleague and say, “Hey, did you see that? Kristy is having a bad day today,” whereas what should happen is you should stop and say, “Hey, Kristy. I can see you’ve got something going on. Tell me what’s happening.”
HEP: Share a bit about what’s planned for this Friday’s “Trauma, Behavior and You” workshop we’re doing in Portland. We’re introducing what Trauma Informed is, but what else?
Susan: Yes, looking at how different interventions and systems that organizations working with adults and kids have adopted, such as PBIS and Restorative Practices. How to do restorative conferencing, how to build community within classrooms and other environments. It’s about taking those types of interventions with the knowledge and understanding of what is happening in two-thirds of our population when it comes to identifying how many people are struggling with trauma.
It doesn’t really matter where you work. If you can have the awareness of how to do all of these different types of pieces that teach people how to communicate with each other and have a good understanding of why, we will have a better understanding of all of the different functions of behavior. Especially how trauma can cloud a lot of the initial responses and reactions we experience every day.
Behaviors are layered. There are so many facets of experiences of our lives. There’ll be a lot of collaboration and working together in the room, not just me talking about a bunch of brain science stuff. It’s always intense so be ready for that, but it’s all so, so good. I often get a lot of hands folded across the chest in the beginning, and then at the end tears and big hugs and thank yous. Getting adults to be vulnerable is a lot harder than kids! And it’s so worth it.