Overcoming Reluctance With Trauma Victims

Trauma Victims: Overcoming Reluctance


Traumatic experiences become a part of an individual forever.  At a domestic level, clients may have traumatic experiences like rape, domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse.  At an international level, clients are often the victim of human rights abuses ranging from genocide to war crimes.  These individual have stories that may remain untold forever; however, some turn to the authorities and share their experiences one way or another.  Typically, a survivor of trauma may seek legal action against the perpetrator.  For survivors of human rights abuses, many victims tell their story to truth commissions or war crime tribunals which provide victims with a “sense of justice and catharsis.” In promoting long-term reconciliation, war crime tribunals identify and hold accountable specific individuals—instead of entire ethnic, political, or religious groups—who committed the crimes; this in turn subverts any “collective blame, guilt, retribution and continued or re-awakened hostility.” Despite the difficulty in reliving the traumatic experience, many victims share their stories for the greater good.  Out of the pain and struggle, hopefully trauma victims can slowly heal from sharing their experiences.

In dealing with traumatic situation, a lawyer can incorporate various methods and techniques to help a traumatized client overcome reluctance.  The first part of this paper describes how trauma can inhibit a client from full-disclosure in an interview. The second portion describes various techniques to help a client overcome reluctance by removing barriers, preparing a statement, invoking various techniques, safeguarding the client throughout the interview, and safeguarding the lawyer after the interview. Lastly, the paper will conclude. An interviewer must approach an interview with a traumatized client in a certain manner; however, hopefully the client can benefit from the experience and the disclosure can begin a therapeutic process.


Several factors may inhibit a client from actively participating in an interview with a lawyer. Clients who have suffered a trauma may be inhibited in a lawyer-client interview.  Trauma inhibits the flow of information because clients are often reluctant to relive the emotional pain that flowed from the traumatic events. People are often reluctant to recall experiences that evoke negative feelings and emotions such as anger, fear, humiliation, or sadness. A client who suffers from a trauma may have resulting psychological disorders. An individual suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may suffer in many ways: re-experiencing the event through intrusive symptoms; avoiding the past through numbness or denial; or increased and heightened arousal. A victim could also suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual disorders, organic impairment, or somatic complaints. When a person endures torture, a victim might also experience alterations of identity, disorientation in relation to reality, survivor’s guilt, disruption of capacity to sufficiently assess danger, social isolation, difficulty in modulating affect and impulses, and interruption of the symbolizing process. Clients who are still reliving the pain every day through physical or mental symptoms may wish to avoid unpleasant feelings that result from discussing traumatic events.

Trauma is an inhibitor.  A lawyer has three choices when a client is prevented from full disclosure as a result of a traumatic experience.  First, a lawyer may choose to postpone discussion of the traumatic event until greater rapport is established or until some other factor will overcome the client’s reluctance; however, this choice requires the luxury of time where no immediate need to discuss the issue exists. Second, a lawyer may ignore any apparent discomfort or reticence the client may be displaying and continue questioning the client; unfortunately, this tactical choice may only be successful with a particular personality type. Third, a lawyer may address the client’s reluctance and seek to overcome it through discussion. The next section will address how a lawyer can help a client open-up in an interviewing session.


In certain practice areas, a lawyer can predict when trauma will be a factor in a client interview. In these situations, a lawyer should take certain preparatory steps to help the client overcome reluctance during an interviewing session.

Removing Barriers

Clients who perceive barriers are likely to be inhibited in a lawyer-client interview.  Etiquette barriers are people’s reluctance to share information with “outsiders.”  Because the etiquette barrier “arises from [the client’s] desire not to shock, embarrass, offend, or discomfort others,” the client is concerned with the client’s effect on the listener not the listener’s view of the client.  A client may be reluctant due to a gender barrier where the client feels uncomfortable if the interviewer is of the opposite sex. Socio-cultural barriers may prevent a client from disclosing information to the lawyer due to cultural differences; likewise, communication barriers often prevent a client from communicating effectively, perhaps due to a language difference, an interpreter, a heavy accent, or a disability. Physical and psychological barriers are also actors in the lawyer-client interview when the client is experiencing physical pain, fatigue, sensory deficits, psychological disorders, or cognitive deficits. If necessary, a lawyer should encourage a client to bring a close family member or friend to the interview to provide a social support for the informant during and after the interview; in extreme situations, the lawyer might prepare for the client to see a counselor or therapist before or after the interview, with the client’s consent. Environmental barriers such as the layout of the room, the length of the interview, and the comfort of the interview room are also factors to consider. Privacy and security may be a large concern for clients who have just experienced something traumatic; therefore, the interview room should be a quiet area removed from the commotion of a law firm. A lawyer must ensure that the client’s concerns about privacy and confidentiality are not barriers between the client and the lawyer.  Therefore, the importance of client confidentiality must be stressed. A lawyer must employ various strategies to dissolve barriers to ensure that a client is comfortable and uninhibited.

Preparatory Statement

A preparatory statement is designed to motivate a client to fully disclose information and participate in the interview. A preparatory statement often involves motivational statements which “explicitly recognize or anticipate client’s reluctance and invite them to disregard it” by overcoming the inhibiting factor through empathetic understanding and encouraging the client to overcome an inhibitor for the resulting benefit. First, a motivational statement offers a generic statement that acknowledges the client’s reluctance and the source of the reluctance; furthermore, the statement also provides a normalizing comment tell the client his or her reaction is common.  Clients often need reassurance that the feelings and emotions they are experiences are normal. Where the lawyer is uncertain of why the client is reluctance, a lawyer can implement normalizing responses without identifying the source of the reluctance. Second, the motivational statement provides a “reward” to the client by reminding the client of the potential benefit that arises when clients disclose all the details to a lawyer. A lawyer may stress the important of discussing the traumatic event in order to achieve the most satisfactory result for the client’s case. In the preparatory statement, the lawyer should request corrective feedback and encourage the client to ask the lawyer questions; thereby, the lawyer conveys empathy to the client without making the client defensive.

Additional Techniques

A lawyer may employ additional methods to facilitate discussion with a reluctant client.  During the interview, a client must feel comfortable.  A client feels comfortable when the lawyer takes time to create rapport, establish respectfulness, and connect to the person beyond the victim’s legal problems. Rapport is established when a lawyer and client have developed a “state of understanding and comfort” where the client begins to feel safe in the external environment. It is also important for a lawyer to limit interruptions, and allow for silence. The lawyer should use active listening as indicated in attentive behavior like eye contact and verbal following; moreover, a lawyer should reiterate and restate what the client has said to clarify and to convey empathy. A lawyer can also use mimesis (which means “imitation” or “copy”) by adopting the style, pace, mood or posture of a client’s form of expressivity. Likewise, a lawyer can use pacing to adjust to the client’s expectations by “carefully explaining [the lawyer’s] intentions, pausing when the interview terrain gets too rocky, [and] regulating [the lawyer’s] physical movement and space so the [client] in not threatened.” When a client becomes reluctant to discuss something, the particular pattern of questioning can be changed. A lawyer may shift from open questions to narrow questions that allow the client to answer questions in a systematic process.When a client rambles excessively, the lawyer may step in to help the victim get back on track; however, the lawyer should also consider whether the client is returning to a particular issue because the lawyer has not addressed one of client’s concerns adequately. If a victim has an emotional breakdown, it may help the client to take a break and step away from the table for a moment; a lawyer may also want to make a normalizing or “face-saving” statement that lets the client know that his or her heightened emotions are common and that discussion will continue only when the client feels ready to continue.

Safeguarding the Client

As a client finally opens-up and begins to tell his or her story, the client may experience a rush of emotions and psychological reactions.  Individuals from different cultures may express emotions very differently such that the “demeanor may not match the person’s actual suffering”; thus, a lawyer must be in constant dialogue with a client regarding the client’s comfort level beyond noting emotional changes and picking up on cues to stop. When establishing consistencies, the lawyer should demand details in neutral areas. As always, it is important to examine factors that might suggest a client is lying.  The following factors often help determine credibility in a person being interviewed: demeanor, the opportunity and capacity to observe the event or act, prior inconsistent statements; contradiction by or consistency with other evidence, bias, inherent improbability, or character. However, a trauma victim may display these indicators not from being deceptive but from reliving traumatic events.  For example, a trauma victim may exhibit body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions that a lawyer could mistake for a client’s deceit; likewise, a victim’s story might appear inconsistent on its face where the initial description of events differs from the final facts as the true story unravels. A lawyer must utilize the client-centered approach especially with sensitive clients that have suffered from trauma.

Safeguarding the Lawyer

Trauma is contagious. Like the interviewee, an interviewer may experience a variety of emotional reactions that manifest itself as secondary or vicarious traumatization. An interviewer could experience PTSD reactions, relive a personally traumatic experience, or suffer from witness guilt. Witness guilt occurs when an interviewer “witness[es] the distress but has not been part of the traumatic experience”; subsequently, an interviewer may feel isolated or unsure of his or her ability to help a client given the interviewer’s lack of traumatic experience. Because witness guilt can also arise when the lawyer feels part of a system that failed to protect the client, the lawyer may exhibit shattered world assumptions. A client may also experience feelings of helplessness and entertain ideas of rescue fantasies  where rescue responses are typically dormant until awakened by another’s particularly traumatic situations. Because lawyers may experience a wide array of emotional reactions after an intense interviewing session, a lawyer must implement various safeguards to ensure a supportive and safe work environment.  Before an interview, a lawyer should anticipate vicarious trauma reactions, and after an interview, a lawyer should debrief after hearing a traumatic story. A lawyer should combat vicarious trauma reactions with humor and should avoid repeatedly conjuring imaginary of the traumatic events; furthermore, a lawyer should monitor his or her overall wellness and relax with periodic vacations. In a work environment where lawyers frequently interview trauma victims, the firm must anticipate and normalize reactions by directly discussing the risk of vicarious traumatization, developing an organizational plan to support staff, and providing lawyers with the opportunity to discuss how work is affecting their life.


Trauma is a sensitive issue.  It may seem futile to ask a client to relive horrific moments and highly emotional memories. However, despite a client’s reluctance to share his or her experiences, healing may come in many ways.  For example, the storytelling process itself may be cathartic for the client.  Perhaps healing comes when justice triumphs at the conclusion of the legal action—be it a civil action, a war crime tribunal, or a truth commission.  Regardless of how healing occurs, the fate of the world is in the stories of these survivors.  The world must know the horrible events in order to “prevent similar acts and discourage new rounds of violence where atrocities were committed . . . . [and] contribute to coherent international criminal law to prevent such acts worldwide in the future.”  Consequently, lawyers must become well versed in the art of interviewing clients who have faced and are overcoming trauma.  A lawyer can do this by implementing various techniques and approaching the interview with a very client-centered focus.

ADR Times
error: ADR Times content is protected.