Interviewing victims of traumatic experiences such as sexual violence requires careful consideration of multiple factors regarding their care and your objectives in obtaining information from them, as well as their rights regarding an appropriate consent procedure.
Before the Interview
It is important to be aware of the following considerations prior to the interview. Receiving training from experienced practitioners in this area of work is highly desirable, where possible. At the very least, you should be aware of the following before designing and implementing an interview process:
- The information provided by the interviewee may not be complete, accurate or consistent. See here for more on why this may be the case and how to deal with the information.
- Consider whether the interviewee can or should remain anonymous. Some victims may prefer using pseudonyms. If their real names are required for data recording purposes, you should get their consent to do so, and they should be informed as to where and for how long their personal data will be kept and shared.
- Do not take the interviewee’s responses personally. Recalling traumatic experiences may trigger the interviewee to express negative emotions (Ruch & Chandler, 1983).
- The victims may seem fearful and uncertain: these responses are common, and demand a sensitive approach from the interviewer.
- Your interviewee may have a preference in how they are referred to: whether as victims, survivors, or something else. Ask them about this prior to the interview.
- It is preferable for victims of sexual violence to talk to an interviewer of same gender.
- Ensure your interviewee is fully informed as to the purpose of the interview and the research you are conducting, and to make an effort to build trust with them prior to the interview. They should feel safe at all times.
Behavior and Setting
Along with the mindset, there are factors that may be considered to make the interview a more comfortable setting for the victim. Such factors are not directly related to the things you say, but are closely associated with your behavior, tone and how the interview is carried out.
- It is good to be empathetic, but keep yourself neutral. Validation of the victim’s expression is appropriate but it is impossible for you to predict the victim’s personal experience of the event.
- Be patient and flexible throughout the interview, and do not cut them off inappropriately.
- Allow the victim to lead the conversation and be sure you sit at their level rather than above them.
- Utilize active listening skills.
- To avoid making the victim feel vulnerable, carry out the interview in a bright and secure setting.
During the Interview
Be sure to provide all the information the victim needs to feel safe and to be fully informed about their participation.
- At the beginning of the interview, inform the interviewee clearly about the purpose of the interview and how the data will be stored, secured and used.
- Explain your role and give the victim an opportunity to ask any questions.
- Do not make any promises to the interviewee that you cannot keep.
- The victim may not be willing to answer some of your questions. Do not push them beyond what would be considered appropriate.
- Avoid asking “why” questions. Trauma is associated with degrees of shame and guilt.
- Make use of open-ended questions so that they have the choice to answer in their own way.
- You can get more information on interviewing trauma survivors here.
After the Interview: Appreciation
Now that your interview is completed, make sure to show your appreciation and go through key follow-up information.
- Thank your interviewees for sharing their story. There is no need to give advice at this step.
- Let the interviewee know of any next steps that they should be aware of, and ensure they have someone in your organisation or in an agreed-upon organisation that can offer follow-up support or counselling, for example.
Ruch, Libby O., and Susan Meyers Chandler, “Sexual Assault Trauma During the Acute Phase: An Exploratory Model and Multivariate Analysis.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 24, No. 2 (1983): 174-185.
Last Updated: July 30, 2019
Author: Minji Kim