One consequence of stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of Covid-19 has been a “pandemic within a pandemic” of intimate partner violence, as people subjected to domestic violence found themselves trapped at home with their abusers. 

This past fall, the Battered Women’s Justice Project, a national resource center on civil and criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence, partnered with Hattaway to convince lawmakers, judges, and law enforcement officers of the need to remove firearms from the homes and hands of domestic abusers. Removing these firearms became an urgent priority as the pandemic raged on and gun sales surged.  

Creating authentic messages about this complex issue required that we interview people with direct experience of gun-related domestic violence. To learn how to thoughtfully interview survivors of trauma, the Hattaway team turned to our partners at the Battered Women’s Justice Project, and explored resources for conducting trauma-informed research shared by the Dart Center for Journalism & Truth, The Ground Truth Project, and the U.S. Department of Justice.  

With their input and insights, we developed four practices to consider when conducting trauma-informed interviews.  

Prepare the team. Assembling the right team is key to ensuring a healthy interview process. Interviewers should study the topic thoroughly before talking to people with first-hand knowledge, in order to ask informed questions. Interviewers must be able to strike the right balance between dispassion and empathy—avoiding overly emotional responses, while connecting with the interviewee on a human level.  

Considering the prevalence of intimate partner violence, researchers could be survivors themselves. Provide space for people on the team to say they don’t feel comfortable conducting interviews—and don’t expect them to disclose their reasons for declining.

Foster a comfortable conversation. Begin the interview with introductory questions that allow your subject to ease into the interview and let you build rapport. One way to do this is to ask interviewees to explain their work in a few sentences, or ask them which audiences are key to achieving their goals. When you move to emotional or traumatic topics, find ways to ask about interviewees’ experiences without requesting that they relive painful memories. For example, you could ask, “Based on your experience, who is generally affected by this issue?” or “How would you explain this issue to a friend who wasn’t familiar with it?”

Transition away from distressing topics before concluding your conversations. Asking subjects to share a success story, or a story that gives them hope for the field, leaves them on a more optimistic note. Additionally, be sure to get interviewees’ permission to share their story.

Recognize signs of trauma. Traumatic experiences can affect people’s recall and behavior. It is normal if someone remembering a painful experience struggles to answer questions, tell a linear story, or maintain their composure. The interviewer’s job is to recognize these signs and adapt. If someone seems distressed, offer to take a break or to come back to the question later. Respect a “no” in any form. The last thing you want to do is trigger or retraumatize your subjects.

Take care of yourself. Topics like gun violence and intimate partner violence can be upsetting to both interviewee and interviewer alike, especially if the researcher is hearing painful stories again and again. After each interview with survivors of domestic violence, my colleague and I would schedule at least a half hour to decompress—by going for a walk, making a snack, or watching mindless TV—before returning to work. Giving yourself a break will help you maintain your equilibrium throughout an emotional interview process.

These practices prepared us to conduct smart, safe interviews with survivors of intimate partner violence—and, ultimately, helped the Battered Women’s Justice Project create compelling messages about the need to remove guns from domestic abusers.

If you or someone you know has been affected by intimate partner violence, help is available:       

National CoalitionAgainst Domestic Violence,

National Domestic Violence Hotline,

National Sexual Violence Resource Center,

StrongHearts Native Helpline,