Father Jeff Putthoff, SJ, the former Executive Director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, began a workshop for Legal Aid staff recently, by asking the participants to each say how they were feeling. The workshop topic was how toxic stress affects the brain and how Hopeworks developed a model of trauma-informed care. Before launching into his presentation, however, Father Putthoff assigned us the surprisingly difficult and awkward task of naming our current feeling. We were discouraged from using words like “good” or “fine.” I felt vulnerable when asked to share with a group of colleagues what my emotions were. It was also challenging to figure out what exactly I was feeling. So much of my day is spent moving from one crisis to the next that I don't actually reflect on my current emotions.
- Renate Lunn
- How are you feeling?
- What is your goal in this particular encounter/meeting?
- Who can help you achieve your goal here in this group?
They are simple, yet amazingly profound questions, designed around our need for basic safety and our brain's way of achieving this for us. The questions speak to how the emotional and rational parts of our brain show up in work life.
I have used this check-in format in small and large meetings. Renate, the person quoted above, was in a training for 60 people. For Renate’s group, we demonstrated the method and then had them break into small groups of five or so to check in. At Hopeworks, we began each day with this. In my current work at St. John’s Jesuit High School, I begin all of my meetings with this format. Once you get into it, it simply unfolds.
The first question is meant to locate the person in their body. When asked, "How are you feeling?" one is not allowed to answer “good, fine, okay, etc.” These are understood as “outlaw words.” Instead, this question provides a moment to sink into how one is feeling in the "here and now" of the current moment and to name that feeling. I have repeatedly found that when someone first says "good" and then is asked for clarification something much more “fleshy” emerges. "Good," becomes “I’m exhausted, stressed, excited or overwhelmed.” This is a very different response than the polite deflection of “good.”
Bringing oneself into a meeting, into a space, is about showing up with one’s whole self---including one’s emotional brain. Starting with a check-in creates space for the body, for emotions, and most importantly for practically acknowledging the emotional contents of our lives. When this space and time for reflection is created, it is easier for meeting participants to have access to their rational brain, enabling them to be more focused on the tasks at hand.
Finally, after naming the task that a person wants to achieve, the person is asked who in the room can be a resource for achieving their goal. This question facilitates the safety of all in the room. Asking this question localizes resources in the present, affirming that there is help in this "here and now" and connects people to each other. Answering this question also calls out the belief that if I am feeling “a certain kinda way” then all else is off the board—that is, that having feelings trumps action. Working through these three questions affirms that feelings are a part of life AND that we can still work at what needs to be done.
This three-question check-in is a practical way to guide meeting participants into the “here and now.” All too often, when when working with individuals who have high ACE scores, individuals who have just experienced trauma, or organizations going through tough changes (layoffs, cuts, market forces), the “there and then” enters the room and overwhelms the “here and now.” By checking in with ourselves and each other, we can begin to build a resilient, repetitive process of check-in rooted in the "here and now".
As Renate writes:
There is power in identifying your own feelings. There is comfort in knowing that is safe to talk with a friend or colleague about those feelings. Imagine the difference between the following two scenes. First, you go into a colleague's office to vent about a recent plea that a teenage client of yours took. The conversation takes the form of vague generalizations, “It sucks when kids take pleas that give them a record and send them to prison.” Barely looking up from his computer screen your colleague agrees, “it sucks, but that's the job.” Maybe he even attempts to one up the level of suckiness with an anecdote about a client in an even worse situation. The conversation ends in a trip to a local watering hole to numb the general feeling of misery.
Now imagine griping to your colleague about that miserable plea, and he puts down whatever was in his hand, swivels towards you and asks, “How are feeling about that right now?” Honored that you have his full attention, you pause, reflect, and admit that you feel guilty because you're worried that you should have encouraged your client to take the case to trial. Now you're in a position to have a productive conversation.