Interviewing With Empathy: How To Reduce Triggering Trauma

Donor Interview


By pdohan

August 18, 2022

The past two and a half years have been exceptionally difficult for everyone. Think about your own experience – where were you in March 2020? What plans did you have? Where did you live? What job did you have? Who was in your life? The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all our lives in drastic ways.

Everyone has faced some form of trauma in the last two years. And your donors, staff, and board are no exception. We all know the power of sharing the stories of people involved with our organization, and for many nonprofits, our missions can be emotional. Now, more than ever, we must proceed with empathy when talking with constituents and hearing their stories. Here are some tips to help you to exercise empathy when interviewing individuals:

  • Do Your Research. Get as much background about the participant as you can before conducting the interview. This may come from notes from previous conversations, information from fellow staff members, or information from relevant social media accounts.
  • Set Expectations. Let the participant know that this is their story, and you are only asking them to share what they choose to. Ask them what they need from you to feel comfortable and confident to share their story. Let them know that if they’d prefer to stay anonymous, or use an alias, they can.
  • Put The Interviewee In Power. You may have questions that the interviewee might not feel comfortable answering; let them know they have the right not to answer every question you ask. And you should also let them know they may request to stop the interview at any point in the process if they need a break or are uncomfortable.
  • Provide Resources. As mentioned, we all have experienced trauma. Sharing their story may bring up memories, feelings, and emotions that trigger trauma. Offer the participant resources they may use after the interview, whether that’s a hotline to call or tips to increase and promote their mental health.
  • Record, Record, Record. Simply put, ask for permission to record their story, and promise to not share the recording. Let the participant know that recording the interview will ensure that they can reflect on the recording to capture their story accurately. This will also ensure that as the interviewer, you don’t need to contact them to clarify a point or statement that may be triggering.
  • Show Empathy. Lastly, show empathy towards the person you’re interviewing. Mirror the language they use, both when talking with them, and when writing their story. Importantly, match their body language – you may have the urge to cry, laugh, or make a facial expression and that can sometimes trigger a person.

Storytelling is very important for all of our missions – it lets people connect with our organization and attaches emotion to our work. As we continue to grapple with the pandemic and the impact it has had on all of us, be kind to everyone around you. Showing empathy to people that mean the most to your organization will help you craft an even better narrative and story.

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