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NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors

Understanding Trauma for Better Interviews

Trauma-Informed Interviewing

Have you ever interviewed someone who seemed hesitant or confused when recounting events? It might not be about forgetfulness, but about trauma. Trauma can significantly impact memory, making clear recall challenging. This can be frustrating in an interview setting, but with a trauma-informed approach, you can create a safe space that gets better results for everyone.

Here’s what to understand about trauma and memory:

  • Vivid details, unclear timeline: Traumatic events are often remembered in fragments with intense details but a fuzzy sense of order. Don’t expect a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • Filling in the gaps: When asked for specifics, people might describe events logically, filling in missing pieces to make sense of the experience.

So, how can you conduct a trauma-informed interview?

  • Shift the focus: Instead of blaming questions (“What went wrong?”), ask empowering ones (“What happened?”).
  • Build trust and safety: Make the interviewee feel in control. Let them know they can take breaks, skip questions, and end the interview at any time.
  • Validate emotions: It’s normal to feel upset or scared when discussing trauma. Acknowledge their emotions and avoid dismissive language.

Here are some practical tips for structuring the interview:

  • Free recall: Start with open-ended prompts like “Tell me why you’re here today” and listen actively to their narrative.
  • Clarify later: After the free recall, ask specific questions to fill in any gaps but avoid pressuring them for details.

By prioritising the interviewee’s experience and creating a safe space, you can gather valuable information while minimising the risk of re-traumatisation. This approach fosters trust, collaboration, and ultimately, better outcomes for everyone involved.

Explore the concepts further at the workshop “Trauma-Informed Interviewing” led by Rafik Tanious of STARTTS. Find details at https://www.startts.org.au/training/introductory-workshops/trauma-informed-interviewing/.


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