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‘What else might be going on?’

Illustration of people walking around a question mark.
It’s one question you should be asking yourself about virtually everyone you meet in your work in academe, writes Associate Professor Tricia Shalka.

By Tricia Shalka. The essay was initially published on February 21, 2024, on Inside Higher Ed.”

A recent Inside Higher Ed article reported that college counseling centers have experienced an increase in the number of students who report trauma histories. In many instances, students who have experienced trauma do need the support of mental health professionals, but the truth is that our counseling colleagues can’t alone do the work of supporting students through trauma. Rather, we need to build campuses where faculty and staff members are also part of the conversation in working to create the kinds of environments and circumstances that create space for students who have experienced trauma to be well and successful on their own terms. We need campus communities committed to continued education about trauma and its trajectories in ways that can help both faculty and staff work in trauma-informed ways.

When I’m presenting about trauma-informed practices in higher education, I usually get to a point in the presentation where I share that if someone takes away nothing else from our time together, it should be this: get in the habit of asking yourself, “What else might be going on?” Of course, in reality, trauma-informed practice is much more complex and contextual than one simple question could offer. But if we’re going to do just one thing as faculty and administrators, this one simple question carries a lot of power for two specific reasons.

  1. Getting in the habit of asking “What else might be going on?” in our interactions with students and colleagues leaves space for the possibility that trauma is present. Imagining the possibility of trauma being present is an important starting point, because the statistics about trauma are pretty clear and compelling. They tell me that in any group I’m ever a part of, I have to assume some people have been impacted by trauma. Beginning with the possibility of trauma allows us to start working in ways not only to imagine what to do if trauma is present, but also how to operate knowing that it is present.

In other words, during some of our interactions in higher education—whether meeting with a student, planning an event with colleagues, teaching a course or attending a meeting—trauma will very likely show up for someone, somewhere. That doesn’t mean everyone has experienced trauma or even that every encounter we have has trauma under the surface, but leaving space for the possibility that it might be present can reframe how we enter into and make sense of our interactions.

Getting in the habit of asking oneself, “What else might be going on?” isn’t about trying to turn ourselves into trauma detectives, as Alex Shevrin Venet would call it. Rather, it’s about holding space to know that sometimes what is visible to us on the outside isn’t the full story. Sometimes that full story implicates trauma in ways that make the interaction make a lot more sense.

For example, how many instances can any of us conjure up in which someone acts a certain way in a meeting, a class or another interaction, and we or others label them as “overreacting”? Sometimes what we perceive as overreacting in the form of anger or fear or any number of other behaviors or reactions is because something about that environment or interaction is feeling unsafe or triggering to a person who has experienced traumatization.

Notably, it means something rather different in how we perceive a person in a community moving forward—whether we’ve decided they have a pattern of overreacting versus whether we’ve left some space for the possibility that they are reacting in a way that might make sense given contextual information we’re not aware of. Knowing that trauma could possibly be present means we’re better able to arrive with a sense of grace and generosity in our interactions with others.

  1. The practice of asking, “What else might be going on?” helps foster our capacity to do something that we’re often conditioned not to do: slow down. In trauma-informed practice, we work with particularly active sympathetic nervous systems during and after trauma to provide the space and conditions for those nervous systems to decompress. To create that kind of space, we have to imagine different kinds of rhythms to our work in higher education.

The practice of asking, “What else might be going on?” becomes exactly that: a practice to help us get in the habit of slowing down and creating some space. In the practice of asking that question, we’re slowing ourselves down to begin creating some distance between the stimulus and response. We have the capacity in that space to act and exist in ways that are more nourishing and supportive—not only of those who have experienced trauma but also, in fact, of everyone we encounter.

Let’s return to the example I offered of labeling someone as “overreacting” in a meeting or in a class. Sometimes what follows is that the person is treated as disruptive or melodramatic or out of control, while those around them begin to roll their eyes or scrunch up their faces or display other verbal or nonverbal signals that the person is the problem. Over time, a group may even come to consciously or unconsciously decide that a person with a pattern of “overreacting” needs to be dismissed or ignored, which ultimately serves to alienate and isolate that person.

But what if we disrupt that pattern by asking the “What else might be going on?” question, which might help us to slow down long enough to halt a conditioned response and do something differently? Maybe rather than deciding that person doesn’t have anything to offer us in their supposed overreaction, we take a breath and try to listen to what they’re actually saying. Maybe rather than meeting the person with a dismissive or frustrated stance, we soften long enough to consider that fear, insecurity or a feeling of being overwhelmed is present. In other words, instead of signaling to that person that we have given up on them, that slight pause can help us communicate to them in ways that make them feel understood and connected and—most important in the context of trauma—that they are safe in the space and with the group. Creating that space for others also leaves room for our own imperfect future selves to show up, too.

In short, we can fill that space between the stimulus and the response with something I describe as compassionate curiosity. It’s not a curiosity focused on figuring out what happened to someone. It’s instead a gentle curiosity that’s grounded in a sense of compassion for fellow human beings through which we slow down enough to listen and leave space for them to share who they are with us.

It’s a kind of being that pauses our natural inclinations toward sometimes being the problem-solver extraordinaire. Instead, it encourages us to be comfortable with simply being present and listening with the intention to understand. We arrive with grace and a desire to minimize the harm that can arise in an interaction while holding onto a longer-term goal of fostering, restoring or preserving relationships.

So, if there’s nothing else we do, let’s begin by leaving space for the possibility of trauma and nurturing our capacities to slow down in higher education by getting in the habit of asking, “What else might be going on?”


Tricia Shalka is an associate professor of higher education at the Warner School of Education & Human Development at the University of Rochester and the author of Cultivating Trauma-Informed Practice in Student Affairs.