Researching Violence and Asking People to Describe Traumatic Experiences

by Doug Meyer

“How did you get them to talk about these awful experiences?” That’s sometimes the first question my students ask me about my research, which involved interviewing 47 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people about violence they had experienced. Depending on my mood, I answer this question in a variety of ways, but my answer typically boils down to some version of “very carefully.” When I first began interviewing, I was surprised by the amount of information people shared with me – a stranger. I attribute this openness in part to the particular person I become when conducting interviews: warm, nice, sensitive, and constantly giving positive reinforcement (nodding “yes,” and saying “I see,” or “that makes sense” are particular favorites of mine). The persona an interviewer takes on obviously reflects the situation; not to say that I am a jerk in other areas of my life, but how I behave during an interview is in some ways very different from my behavior in other contexts.

Being nice and warm seems easy enough, though, so my students often then probe deeper with their questions. They want to know what tips, or advice, I have for them, particularly those students who are conducting interview-based research themselves. These questions are more difficult for me to answer, since interviewing is more of an art than a science and each interview has different dynamics. There are practical suggestions I can give – avoid asking “yes or no” questions, ask clear questions, and work your way up to more sensitive topics – but the truth is, none of these are absolutes that must be followed in every situation.

One challenge of interviewing is that you want to make participants in your study feel comfortable. An approach that works for some interviewers is to begin by making “small talk” – such as asking about the weather or how the person’s day has been so far. Personally, I find small talk incredibly awkward and generally avoid it. Another approach, much closer to what I do, is to ask easy, softball questions that anyone can answer and that will help put participants at ease. When I first began interviewing, I made the mistake of first asking, “Can you tell me a little bit about your family background?”, – mistakenly thinking that this question would be an easy one for anyone to answer. However, since many people’s family backgrounds are not comfortable topics – many of the people I interviewed came to the interview to tell me about violence they had experienced from family members – this question set the interview off on the wrong footing. I quickly abandoned it in favor of a much more neutral first question: “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?” This question, which technically violates my rule of not asking “yes or no” questions, helped participants feel comfortable.

Although interviewers can adopt strategies to help minimize tense moments, I learned over time that eliminating such moments is not a necessary or even worthwhile goal. I certainly hoped not to hurt participants with my questions – which is why I spent a considerable amount of time on the wording of my questions – yet I also learned to become more comfortable in accepting that everything during the interview did not have to meet my expectations or even run smoothly. The variability and even potential contentiousness of interviews is something to embrace. Some participants, albeit a minority, cried, while a few others became angry.   For instance, Nevada, an intersex person I interviewed, described the process in which she (Nevada used female-pronouns) had undergone “corrective” surgery on her ambiguous genitalia. Nevada referred to this procedure as a “normalization process,” which I then asked her about in the following way, hoping she would speak about it in more detail:

Me: So, when you were born, they “normalized” you? Did this happen throughout your childhood, were there normalizations…

Nevada: <angrily>They operated on me! The normalization process was them forcing me to be a boy. Even though they knew it was hurting me, they didn’t care. They just forced me to present a male image, so they could have the functional family.

Me: And your parents had to sign off on these “corrective” surgeries?

Nevada: You know, I don’t even know, I don’t have a clue. <angrily>I was an infant!

The moment when Nevada said, “They operated on me,” was very tense. I recall feeling slightly threatened and ashamed for having possibly asked a question that hurt her. My follow-up question (“your parents had to sign off on these ‘corrective’ surgeries?”) was said sympathetically, as I tried to acknowledge Nevada’s pain. Regardless of whether or not my tone helped defuse the situation, Nevada was only momentarily angry. The time between her statement, “They operated on me,” and my next question was about five seconds, but I remember it feeling like an eternity. I shifted the conversation away from the traumatic procedure itself and toward her parents, which provided the space for Nevada to vent her anger at them.

So, while practical tips about interviewing are helpful, what I learned quickly during my research is that you have to develop the art of reading people as an interviewer. It is this art – reading what people want to talk about and what they most certainly do not want to talk about – that proved most valuable for conducting interview research on traumatic subjects.

Doug Meyer is a professor in the department of Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia. His article, “An Intersectional Analysis of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) People’s Evaluations of Anti-Queer Violence,” is published in the December 2012 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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