Trauma-informed interviewing – tips and reminders

Many of our recent projects have involved interviews with people around traumatic and distressing subjects. From projects in palliative care and suicide prevention, to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who experience the inter-generational impacts of colonialism and systemic racism, it is essential that our interviewers and focus group facilitators take a trauma-informed approach.

The key principles of trauma informed care are: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration; and empowerment. But what do they actually look like in practice, and what do we as evaluators and evaluation commissioners need to think about in order to support safety and make participation as beneficial as possible?

We have a few thoughts on this from our recent work, and acknowledge the insights of our co-evaluators with lived experience, Sarah Wayland, Senior lecturer at the University of New England, and The Groundswell Project, in working with us to crystalise our thinking on what is key.

The first contact counts

It can be easy to view the initial contact to organise an interview time as a simple administration task, but it should be treated as the start of the relationship. It can help with building rapport and helping the person feel prepared for the interview.

People can make good decisions about their readiness to engage if we provide them with the details about what we are doing and some tools to help them reflect. We can also help to inform their choice of interview location (if a virtual interview), to ensure they have a safe, private space.

Power dynamics

Working with people with lived experience of vulnerability requires a nuanced understanding of power dynamics. This should inform how we facilitate groups to manage dynamics and ensure people feel confident to contribute. It should also inform our reflections on who we are not hearing from and why, and what the implications of this may be for the evaluation findings.

Prepare to be human

It’s essential for interviewers to understand the topics we’re going to be discussing at a human level, centring the human experience and all the attendant emotions that come with it.

In preparing, it is sometimes helpful to call in experts in a particular field. This equips us with the language to use, provides the space to connect with the content, get comfortable with potentially feeling uncomfortable and prepare for the kinds of emotions these topics may bring up so we do not limit what people say because it is hard to hear. In some cases, connecting with the topic at a personal level can be critical to this preparation. For our work in the palliative care space, for example, this means we spend time thinking about end of life planning in our own lives. This helps us step into the shoes of our interviewees, think through what it will be important to understand from their perspective and engage with empathy.

It’s important that while our responses are human, that we don’t become so emotional as to concern our interviewees or interrupt their flow! Preparation and being person-centred are critical to this.

Appropriate sharing when interviewers have lived experience

Often, our interviewers will themselves have lived experience of the topics. This can help to create rapport with interviewees, but it’s important that sharing a detail or two from our own lives doesn’t turn into imposing our views and experiences or eat into the time our interviewee has to tell their story.

We also need to have strategies in place to manage our own self-care, and to check-in with ourselves about how we are managing and whether we need to step back from the project. When we work with co-researchers with lived experience, it is particularly important that we are clear they can step out of a project if they need and come back when they are ready.

The warm down

Just as you shouldn’t finish a marathon and immediately sit down, when closing an interview, it’s also best practice to have a warm down. What we can focus on here is ways of helping people ‘step out’ of their story at the end of an interview, particularly if they have been talking about a difficult time in their life.

We also think about what comes next after the interview when scheduling. For example, it may not be wise to do interviews late in the evening, as the mind tends to cogitate and affect sleep, and it can be a helpful to have something to do next in the day following an interview.

Some interviewees may experience a ‘story-telling hangover’ in the days following the interview. It can be helpful if you can provide them with a reminder about what’s next for their story and how it will be used, and to offer the opportunity to call you if they later feel they have shared something that they didn’t want to or have something additional they want to share.

For the interviewer, if it has been a heavy interview or set of interviews, debriefing with a colleague or an expert can be very helpful. For our larger projects, we often schedule a few sessions in to talk about what we’ve heard and process what we’ve felt.

For more tips on working with people with lived experience, read our blog on ‘Transparency and Taking the Time: respectfully bringing lived experience into program design and evaluation’.

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