Whether it be past inter-generational trauma, military service, violence or even the alleged events currently being investigated, interviewing a witness burdened with traumatic memories is becoming an increasingly common occurrence in workplace investigations.
As a psychologist and harassment investigator, we have 35 years of cumulative experience with trauma-informed interviewing (“TI-I”). It hasn’t been an easy road but we prefer to forget our mistakes and remember the lessons.
TI-I has taught us that we cannot follow a conventional interview approach when reconstructing past events.
If you only glean one takeaway, this is it – using a conventional interview approach with these witnesses can go down like a lead balloon. At best, people can be upset and may question your qualifications. At worst, you could be accused of callously triggering a traumatic response, resulting in thoroughness challenges. It can be like walking a high wire where falling seems a tiny misstep away.
Risks, however, can be mitigated if an investigator becomes knowledgeable with the neuroscience for how trauma influences a witnesses’ demeanor and ability to recall.
When a witness has been affected by trauma, they may easily revert to self-protective ways. These responses are formed at the less-than-conscious level and not mindfully chosen. For instance, when these interviewees are asked to recall a difficult timeline, feelings associated with their harrowing experience frequently well-up. While this seems common sense on the surface, the truth lies well below at the nervous system level – when experiencing distress from recalling a traumatic event these witnesses frequently enter into a mental state built for survival.
The term, ‘fight or flight’ resonates with many investigators, but some do not understand this response during an interview is in fact associated with a reminder of a past distressful situation. For witnesses who have been historically traumatised, not only is fight or flight a possibility, but also ‘freeze or immobilization’ can set in.
When humans experience a threat from feeling terrorized or vulnerable, their nervous systems compensate with self-protective mechanisms. For instance, blood rushes to extremities in order to escape or battle a real or imagined danger. This means that regular autonomic functions like digesting, resting and even actively engaging the ‘thinking part’ of the brain go offline until the danger has abated – even if the peril is no longer in the present. As a result, when these witnesses are distressed, interviewers might notice they are having difficulty recalling details or experiencing word-find challenges. Further, these witnesses can feel too emotional to share or may report physiological symptoms like a pounding heart, perception of an elevated pulse, faintness or difficulty breathing. In short, the ‘thinking part’ of the brain has been overridden with the stress response.
In addition to the presence of a fight or flight response, painful traumatic memories are not encoded the same as pleasant ones. Pleasant events are temporally encoded with a beginning, middle and end. Traumatic memories, on the other hand, are frequently different in that they’re often remembered in flashes, splintered details and with the senses. These witnesses rarely encode their memories in logical order and tend to rely on the five senses when recalling their traumatic experience (i.e., what they smelled, tasted, etc.).
Despite traumatic memories creating the most complex set of harassment interview circumstances imaginable, solutions are possible to help these witnesses feel safer, more comfortable and willing to share:
1. Provide some control, choice & tailormade supports:
· Prior to the interview, ensure the witness arranges for a support person to accompany them of the same gender or from their cultural group (i.e., Elder).
· Give the witness some choice with the interview location, where they sit and remind them they can take a break anytime during the course of the interview. Have tissue and water available. Ask “Is there anything you need prior to starting?” This is a humanizing and empowering way to engage.
· Ask the witness what name they would like to be addressed by.
· Ask if they would like to slice the interview into shorter sessions – this allows witnesses time to re-regulate and gain some measure of control before returning to a deeply upsetting discussion.
· Strive to develop ‘unconditional positive regard’ throughout the entire interview. Without revealing a bias, acknowledge the situation (“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me”; “It took courage to take this step and talk about this”; “I’m sorry this scenario has evolved for you in this manner”).
· At the outset, inform them about the topic areas that you are hopeful to discuss.
· Foreshadow how they might feel revisiting the incidents in question. Simply acknowledging “That they may feel emotional, overwhelmed or even shut-down” can be helpful. Proactively fashion a plan with them in the event their ability to think effortlessly does become compromised and affects their answers to delicate questions. You can teach their support person a ‘calming strategy’ that is known to lower stress-hormones and help people calm their bodies and clear their minds. For example, when feeling overwhelmed, simply inviting an individual to massage the outside fleshy part of their hand while breathing deeply can result in them feeling less distressed in the short-term and more able to respond to the questions associated with a difficult experience.
· Outline how the Policy enforces confidentiality. Ensure they understand their participation is a protected act from retaliation.
2. Tone, language & style of questions:
· Permit the witness to share their story without frequent interruptions. Redirect questions can come later.
· Consistently use a kind but firm tone, rather than acting overly impersonal.
· Don’t burst out of the gate asking about the event in question. Instead ask “Where they prefer to start sharing”; “What are you able to remember?” and, “What are you able to share?”
· When possible, frame questions as a request versus a demand (“May I ask you…”). This empowers the witness with an optic of choice.
· Try to avoid using the word “why” when prefacing your questions. Instead, use the word “what.” (“What is the reason you left work that day?”). The word “why” can denote blame. Removing this word can reduce guilt or shame the witness may feel regarding the events under investigation.
· Avoid a cross examination style – witnesses won’t feel safe enough to answer.
· Opt for soft, rather than hard language (“It’s okay to rest for a minute,” versus “Can you try to calm down?”).
· Opt for open-ended questions to allow the witness to take the interview in a direction that feels safest for them. While it’s necessary to ask some direct, close-ended questions to solidify facts, when these are surrounded by open-ended questions, witnesses often feel less overwhelmed.
· When necessary, shape questions to align with how traumatic memories are encoded (“may I ask you what you heard, smelled, [etc.] that day?” Note that these type of questions may result in some distress; you may want to remind them of the calming strategy described in point number one.
· Use pregnant pauses after you ask a question and resist the urge to break the awkward silence. Witnesses with traumatic memories can need time to process.
3. Post-interview follow-up:
· At the close of the interview, acknowledge that discussing the events in question was difficult, but that you appreciated their willingness to participate (“We covered a lot of difficult topics today”; “I appreciate your participation”; and, “Thank you for your valuable time and energy to meet with me”).
· If the witness is expressing a high degree of distress, immediately provide contact information for a reputable counselling service (or EAFP) in their region.
· Ask them if you can follow-up with them in a few days to check on how they’re feeling and respond to any questions they have post-interview. If rapport has been established, witnesses often recall answers to questions they had difficulty responding to in the interview. While this follow-up is not designed to ask additional questions, it’s possible that clearer information will arise, and closure can occur for the witness.
· Close with asking “Is there is anything else you need today” and “Is there anything else you wish to add?”
In sum, a TI-I mindset considers “what has happened to you,” rather than, “what did you do to cause or deserve this?” While subtle, this mindset is vital in addressing interviewees in a genuinely compassionate manner that offers dignity.
A successful TI-I is not accomplished by following a rote list of principles but rather by developing a working understanding the brain impacted by trauma, being prepared, being nimble and most importantly, being intentionally sensitive to the experience of others.
Bailey, C. (2020). Basic safety first: trauma-informed care in a hostile environment. BJPsych Bulletin, 44(2), 41–43.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.