Trauma-Informed Interviewing – Bringing forward a new way of interviewing

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I was first introduced to trauma-informed interviewing in September 2016. I attended a training session at the University of Alberta where Psychologist Chris Wilson informed the class of the brain, trauma, and how to effectively interview victims who have suffered sexual assault. The specific form of trauma-informed interviewing Dr. Wilson taught was Forensic Experiential Trauma Informed Interview (FETI). FETI was created by Russell Strand and the Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division at the US Army Military Police School. FETI was formally brought into use in 2010. Following the training I received, I began researching and digging deeper into what trauma-informed interviewing was and how it could benefit all investigations, not only sexual assaults. The research specific to interview methods was minimal. However, there was a lot of literature related to the impact of trauma and how traumatic memories are encoded in the brain. My following blog is a quick discussion about the benefits of trauma-informed interviewing and how it can be integrated into investigative methods.


Traumatic memories are unique in they are not encoded the same as memories that are deemed happy memories. Happy memories, according to psychologist Dr. David Lisak, are encoded like a story with a beginning middle and end. When asked to recall the event, many individuals will be able to remember with confidence and rich detail. Traumatic memories, on the other hand, are different in they are encoded in sensory details. Encoded sensory details mean individuals who experience trauma encode their memories in flashes or broken detail and the incidents are remembered with senses – sight, hear, touch, smell, taste. When asked to recall the details of a traumatic event the individual will not be able to provide a beginning – middle – end of what happened. Instead, they may rationalize what happened using what logically makes sense to them. Therefore, as an interviewer, it is crucial to recognize how trauma influences an individual’s ability to recall in sequential form and to shape interview questions so they align with this type of memory recall.


The traditional interview methods I had been trained in as a police officer included Cognitive Interviewing, Forensic Interviewing, and TED (Tell Me, Explain, Describe) Interviewing. Cognitive Interviewing was, and is, a common form of interview method used by both police and private industries. It is important to note; traditional police interview methods were created and around long before neuroscientists understood the impact trauma had on the brain and how the brain encodes traumatic events. The techniques utilized in traditional interview methods fail to recognize how traumatic memories are encoded and fail to align questions that allow a person being interviewed to recall their experience with detail and accuracy.

The following is a comparison of Traditional Interview Methods to Trauma-Informed from my experience using both methods:

TRADITIONAL INTERVIEW METHODS (Cognitive Interview, Forensic Interview, TED)


Rapport Building – gathering details from the individual related to their address, phone number, place of work, etc.

Engaging in small talk related to weather, irrelevant details, etc.

Rapport Building – acknowledging the trauma faced by the individual “I am sorry you had to go through this difficult experience, thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”

-avoid taking personal details related to home address, phone number, etc. complete at the end of the interview or another time.

-Ask the individual how they would like to be addressed during the interview “May I call you by your first name or how would you prefer I address you?”

“Where would you like to conduct this interview?”

“Would you like to have an advocate with you?”

-During the interview offer flexibility and show genuine empathy.

-Can include pre-thought out questions using Who What Where When Why and How. 

– Can focus on attempting to obtain a sequence of events or narrative -Reverse Order component where the person being interviewed provides their experience from beginning to end or from the end and work backward.

-The reverse order has the potential to contribute to errors and inconsistencies in memories. According to literature completed by Malone & Strand (2015) the following may occur: 1) the victim may not be believed by investigators or prosecutors; 2) the victim’s statement is more readily attacked by the defence causing them to be less likely to succeed in the legal system, and 3) potentially suffer harm by not being believed.

-Flexible Questions based on the individual Experience and at the point the person being interviewed wishes to begin. As an interviewer, the actual event or experience is not specified in the initial question. Simply stated: “What are you able to remember about your experience?” or “What are you able to tell me about your experience?”

-Trauma-Informed interviewing recognizes traumatic memories are not recalled with a beginning middle and end, but instead are fragmented and encoded with sensory details (Lisak, 2017).

-The questions asked can be biased to the investigator assuming what the individual focused on during their experience.

– Typical questions asked by investigators and police officers: What was the suspect wearing? What did the suspect look like? What color was the suspect’s hair? Etc.

-Trauma-Informed Interviewing treats emotion as part of the impact of the experience – the focus of the details central to the victim.

-Assumptions do not play a role in the interview process. Questions are asked to help elicit and recall the sensory details of the experience.

-Possible questions include: “What are you able to remember about what you saw? What are you able to remember about what you felt? What are you able to remember about what you heard? What are you able to remember about what you tasted? What are you able to remember about what you smelled?”

-Includes open-ended and closed-ended questions.

-Researchers have noted traditional interviews include more closed-ended questions than open-ended questions during the interview process.

-Researchers have also indicated interviewers interrupt and interject during open-ended questions, and do not allow those being interviewed to complete uninterrupted responses (Wilson, 2016).

-Open-ended questions

-Clarifying questions are asked following the completion of recall by the person being interviewed. The interviewer will not interject until it is clear the individual has completed sharing their experience.

-Can force the victim/witness/accused to capture the information and commit to it.

-Have the victim/witness/accused tell you what they think you want to hear.

-The information obtained is wholly focused on the individual who experienced it

– The person being interviewed is in control, and the investigator is there to hear the experience and ask clarifying questions when needed.

-Cognitive Interview questions can focus on time sequence and spatial contexts.

-Trauma-informed interviewing acknowledges what many researchers have explained related to trauma and trauma recall – memories are often encoded without time awareness (Lisak, 2017; Malone & Strand, 2015). Questions similar to time sequences are avoided.


For years as a police officer, I used Cognitive and Forensic Interview Methods. I was taught in these methods, and I didn’t know any other way to interview victims, witnesses, suspects/accused. Since using trauma-informed interviewing, I have found it to be beneficial. The best part, I didn’t have to ask as many questions as I did when I used the traditional methods. I recall the first time I used trauma-informed interviewing, and I asked, “What are you able to remember about your experience?” two hours later I was able to ask clarifying questions of the experience provided by the individual being interviewed. I was amazed by this method! I continue to use it, both for investigations and research. Yes, this method has been beneficial when conducting research related to my Doctorate! Further, trauma-informed interview questions are useful with victims, witnesses, and suspect/accused. Researchers also provide the benefits of trauma-informed interviewing for suspect/accused citing the suspect/accused offers further information without realizing they are doing so. Additionally, the rapport building using this process increases the ability to solicit more information from the suspect/accused (End Violence Against Women International, 2017).

Please, consider using trauma-informed interview methods when you interview. Feel free to contact me for training opportunities or further information related to trauma-informed interviewing.

Jen Magnus has a DBA in Organizational Leadership. Dr. Magnus conducts workplace assessments, investigations, and training related to bullying and harassment, organizational culture, leadership, workplace investigations, and trauma-informed interviewing. She is a 14-year veteran of policing and a member of several Public Boards. All notes, publications, and opinions are her own unless otherwise specified. © Magnus Consulting 2018


FETI Methodology. (January 2017). End Violence Against Women International. Retrieved from

Lisak, D (2018). The neurobiology of trauma. Retrieved 2018, September 4,

Malone, R. & Strand, R. (2015). Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI). Retrieved 2018, September 4, United States Army Criminal Investigation Command Forensic Behavioral Science.

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