Don’t Second-Victimize Me: Interviewing GBV Survivors from Displaced Communities Using Trauma-Informed Techniques

Dana Azzeh, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Migration Studies


In the last article of this series, we focused on how trauma affects the brain and how to skillfully work with trauma responses when they happen at any time while interviewing GBV survivors. In this article, we will focus on how to conduct trauma-informed interviews with GBV survivors, starting from the preparation phase until the closing of the interview.

Trauma-Informed Interviewing: The Answer and the Solution 

Trauma-informed approach “is an approach in the human service field which assumes that an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma and acknowledges the impact trauma may have on someone’s life.” It is worth pointing out that trauma-informed approaches do not aim to treat symptoms associated with trauma, but rather to prioritize the psychological and physical safety of individuals and use evidence-based practices to avoid retraumatizing survivors. More importantly, trauma-informed interviewing does not mean avoiding asking difficult questions; on the contrary, it means asking the difficult questions in a sensitive manner that avoids retraumatizing the survivor.

There are six principles for trauma-informed interviewing to achieve the aforementioned goals: 1) safety, 2) choice, 3) collaboration, 4) trustworthiness, 5) transparency and 6) empowerment. In the following sections, we will discuss a few basic strategies to start infusing trauma-informed approaches into practitioners’ interviewing practices.

Conducting Trauma-Informed Interviews

Effective interviewing skills with GBV survivors meet two important objectives: They increase the level of survivors’ comfort and safety, and they enhance the survivor’s working memory of the traumatizing incident. It is essential to note that trauma-informed techniques should be applied throughout all stages of the interview, starting from the preparation phase until the closure phase.

Preparing for the Interview

The success of GBV interviews highly depends on adequate preparation for it. Thus, at this stage, the interviewer should familiarize themselves with the type of GBV incident that their client was subjected to. For example, if the client was a rape or a domestic violence survivor, the interviewer should be familiar with the causes and the theories of domestic violence/rape; they should gain their information about rape and domestic violence from academic and trustworthy resources; and they should avoid widespread negative stereotypes about rape/domestic violence and its survivors, all of which might impact social attitudes towards survivors, as evidenced by the literature showing that accepting rape myths impacted attitudes of interviewers while interviewing survivors. Another step that is considered crucial for this stage is calling the client one or two days prior to the interview. The purpose of this initial phone call is to create a transparent relationship with the survivor by familiarizing them with the purpose and the structure of the interview. Interviewers should also check with the survivor whether they have certain worries and concerns regarding the interview. Also, they should tell the interviewee about the location of the interview and who will be present during the it. To note, any issues related directly to the GBV incident should not be discussed during the phone call.

This initial phone call has the potential to put the survivor at ease, as it creates a sense of predictability for them, given that decisions conducted with principles of transparency can affect our relations with our client.   In other words, if the principle of transparency was applied with the client from the previous article – and was called prior to her interview – they may not have had that exaggerated startle response and had felt some sense of control. Also, had they been familiarized with the duration of the trip from their place of residence to the office, the organization regulations regarding the entry of the building, the security guards as well as the structure and the purpose of the interview, their response would have been different.

Establishing Rapport

Establishing rapport with GBV survivors goes beyond making small introductions and greeting survivors warmly with a smile. Establishing rapport with GBV survivors means promoting empowerment and well-being, as well as building trust and predictability in addition to ensuring the physical and emotional safety of the interviewees since traumatized interviewees need to feel safe with the interviewer in order for them to articulate their claims and recount their stories. This case is most sensitive with GBV survivors because their interviews touch on extremely personal issues. Thus, interviewers, after introducing themselves to their clients and showing care and interest in them, should ask them open-ended questions about neutral topics that can be answered positively, such as the weather on the day of the interview. This will encourage the interviewee to speak without interruption to prepare them for the style or format of the interview. Furthermore, at this stage, interviewees should be given an explanation of the reason for and purpose of the interview and asked again if they have concerns. Interviewers, in turn, should normalize these concerns and provide the interviewees with explanations and answers.  

Establishing rapport is an ongoing process during the interview, and to maintain rapport throughout the interview, interviewers should provide information about the process of the interview as it unfolds. For example, some of our questions to survivors may seem strange or uncommon, so interviewers should explain to their interviewees their reasons for asking the questions prior to asking them and why these questions serve the process altogether. The rationale behind being transparent with the interviewee and providing them with information about the process throughout the interview will give them a sense of power and control over a process that investigates an incident where they had lost control. In addition to that, interviewers should normalize any trauma responses if occurred during the interview, as clarified in the previous article so as to maintain rapport. Furthermore, taking into consideration the impact of trauma on the brain, it is imperative to clarify for the interviewees that having difficulty recalling certain events or understanding some questions is completely normal.

During the Interview:  What to Keep in Mind When Formulating Questions for Trauma Survivors

When the interviewee seems at ease and rapport has been built, the information-gathering stage of the interview can begin. At this stage, interviewers should consider how their questions and the ways in which they ask them work in order to stabilize and organize their clients as well as themselves. This is due to the fact that, as mentioned earlier, trauma can affect memory and emotional responses, which can also affect the interview process.  Therefore, asking questions about the chronological order or the timeframe of the events may be hard for traumatized interviewees because their memory is fragmented and may serve as a barrier to answering the interviewer’s questions. Consequently, they may tend to exacerbate their confusion and self-blame. Interviewers can then use other strategies that are evidence-based and trauma-informed. Among these strategies is starting the interview with free recall and asking context and sensory-based questions. The examples in the following table will clarify this point:

Questions to Avoid Trauma-Informed Reframing and Techniques Rationale/Benefits

“What had happened first?”

“Start at the beginning and tell me what happened.”

“Where did you go second?”

Or any questions that ask about chronological order of events

Technique: Free Recall

Examples: “Where would you like to start?” or “Would you tell me what you are able to remember about your experience? You can start where it feels natural.”

Reframing the questions and opening with “What are you able to…” can reduce the pressure on the survivor to recall specifics given the impact of trauma on memory.

This technique can also help the interviewer in asking follow up  questions that can further clarify or expand the account.

“At what time did the incident happen?”

“When did you leave the house?”

Technique: Using context and sensory-based questions.

Examples: “In your mind, go back to where the incident happened, Can you tell me what the color of the sky was? (the color of the sky may help in knowing at what time the incident took place, either morning or sunset). What did you hear?”

Context and sensory-based questions ask about the physical environment where the incident took place, what they observed in the place where the incident took place and what was seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled at that particular time. These types of questions can serve as a retrieval aid for the interviewee’s memory,  which will consequently help the interviewer to begin building a timeline and placing events in chronological order.

Source: Trauma informed Police Responses to Trauma and Successful Trauma-Informed Victim Interviewing

Furthermore, interviewers should take into account the wording of the questions they ask. The phrasing of questions during survivors’ interviews is crucial because it impacts the survivor’s perception of it and might be perceived by them as being blamed for things they had done – or for things they are not able to remember. Also, as stated earlier, interviewers should be familiar with theories around GBV to avoid asking questions that can be perceived negatively by the survivors. The following examples will clarify the aforementioned points:

Questions to Avoid Trauma-Informed Reframing Rationale/Benefits
“Why did you …?” or “Why didn’t you …?” “When (a specific event happened), what were your feelings and thoughts?” or “Are you able to tell more about what happened when…?” When faced with terrifying events, the emotional part of the brain (amygdala) dominates, and the thinking part of the brain takes the back seat. Thus, survivors will not know the rationale behind behaving in a certain way. In other words, asking “why” questions will be challenging for survivors to answer. Furthermore, it will increase their guilt feelings, and, most importantly, it can be perceived by survivors as blaming them for not acting in a certain way. Therefore, starting the question with “Are you able to tell me what happened when …” instead of “Why you did or did not …” will remove the pressure on survivors to explain why they did or did not act in a certain way.  It is worth pointing out that asking questions about feelings and thought processes will give survivors the opportunity to explain their reasons for acting in a certain manner.
“Why didn’t you report immediately after the incident?”

“Did anything in particular cause you to report the incident at that particular time?”  or “Was there someone you trusted to tell about the incident after it had occurred?”

“When you told them, what were you thinking and feeling?” or “What were you feeling—physically and emotionally—immediately after the assault?”
Survivors feel hesitant to report the GBV incident for several reasons, among which is the lack of trust in authorities or receiving a discouraging reaction from close people whom they told first about the incident – which hindered them from reporting. The suggested questions in the second  column may elicit more information about their decision to not report immediately, and does not convey to the survivor that their credibility is doubted.
“Did you fight back?” “What did you feel like you were physically capable of doing during the incident?” or “What was going on in your mind when you realized you were in danger?” When survivors feel in danger, they experience something called “tonic immobility”, which is a natural state of paralysis that certain species like humans and animals  enter when they feel danger as a protection mechanism to avoid further harm, and that will hinder them from fighting back. Thus, the first question can be challenging to answer. The alternative questions in the previous column provide an opportunity for survivors to explain what they did or did not do and why.

Source: Successful-Trauma-Informed Victim Interviewing

Interviewers should tailor their approach to each individual interview as there will always be variations in personality,  needs and coping mechanisms.  On a general note, the interviewer should be noncoercive and nonjudgmental while aiming to create an informal and relaxed interview context. The previous question examples are the most common to be perceived as challenging/intrusive for GBV survivors, but the list continues.

Closing the Interview

At this stage, the interviewer should inform the interviewee that they are done with their questions and inquire if the interviewee would like to add anything. They should ask them how the interview went for them, then they should end the interview as they had started it by talking about neutral topics. The interviewer should also familiarize the interviewee with the next steps.

This article is part of the IMS blog series on ‘Trauma, GBV and Refugeehood’ that will be published throughout the month of April, and culminate in a webinar tentatively scheduled for early May 2023. To learn more on the series, please contact Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab at or Ms. Dana Azzeh at

Read the previous article.