Handling a traumatised witness

Trauma Led Interviewing

Investigators of serious workplace incidents and fatalities will be aware of the challenges of handling a traumatised witness, prompting questions such as: Why do witnesses often struggle to recall crucial pieces of evidence? How do you gather evidence whilst minimising the risk of exacerbating their trauma? This article sheds light on the impact of traumatic incidents on the human brain and subsequent memory recall.  This article also offers practical insights into how to foster a comfortable environment conducive to obtaining the most reliable evidence and includes considerations for engaging with neurodiverse witnesses.

What is trauma? 

Trauma, as defined by the American Psychological Association and experts such as Bessel van der Kolk, encompasses distressing events that overwhelm existing coping mechanisms, often inducing intense fear, helplessness, or horror in individuals.  Trauma can present in different ways within individuals.  A typical response that we see during witness interviews, following a workplace fatality or serious incident, is an individual who is particularly quiet and subdued.  We have also seen individuals who display signs of being very erratic, stressed and ‘jumpy’.  Understanding these diverse responses is crucial for effective support and communication during such sensitive interviews as discussed below. 

The brain’s response to trauma and the impact on memory function

The human brain is finely tuned to respond to fear and threat.  The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure located within the brain’s temporal lobe, plays an important role in processing emotions, particularly those related to fear and threat.  The amygdala operates with remarkable speed, triggering the sympathetic nervous system within 7 milliseconds of an incident unfolding – think of it as the biological equivalent of a smoke alarm primed to keep the body safe.  It enables the body to release a variety of stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol which enables the body’s fight, flight or freeze response.  

The swift action of the amygdala comes at a cost as once it is highly activated it can divert resources away from some of the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex, which are pivotal in memory function.  Consequently, this can have a significant impact on memory recall for witnesses.  

Psychologists have undertaken extensive studies in this area and have sought to measure the impact of traumatic events on memory recall; their experiments often involve the simulation of stressful scenarios and then the measurement of the participant’s ability to recall details, such as identifying suspects in a line-up.  A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies in this area demonstrated how, on average, around 59% of suspects would be identified in low-stress conditions, with only 39% being identified in higher-stress conditions (Magnussen, 2003).  Whilst a typical health and safety investigation will not involve the identification of a suspect in a line-up, these studies demonstrate how traumatised witnesses may experience gaps in their memory from the outset of a witness interview. 

Can investigators exacerbate trauma? 

The role of the investigator is to obtain the most reliable and comprehensive evidence possible whilst ensuring the well-being of the witness and not exacerbating any existing trauma.  During witness interviews, it is important to exercise caution to avoid triggering the witness’s amygdala and potentially exacerbating any further memory function impairment.  Notably, trauma does not need to stem from overtly threatening incidents, even a collection of smaller stressful incidents can elicit a similar response from the amygdala.  Indeed, experiments conducted in a US military training camp revealed how even stressful interviews can significantly impact memory function (Morgan, 2004).   These findings underscore the importance of approaching witness interviews with sensitivity and an awareness of the potential impact you may have on memory recall.  

Guidance and practical tips for handling trauma-informed witness interviews. 

Understanding the psychological states of witnesses during interviews is crucial for optimising information recall and ensuring a supportive environment conducive to effective communication.  The body has three broad modes of operating; the first of these is an ‘at ease’ setting sometimes called a ventral state.  This mode is characterised by feeling relatively calm and safe.  From this position our minds are fairly expansive taking in the world at large and helping us to find relevant information from our memory banks.  Witnesses would look engaged in the interview and may appear more socially responsive.  This mode will enable the best recall and be least likely to further interfere will memory recall.  The second is a sympathetic state characterised by ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ responses.  From here the body feels unsafe and alert.  The mind is prioritising threatening information and the witness may not be recalling at their best.  If a witness is operating in this second state then in order to support the nervous system, you would need to provide cues of safety, for example by demonstrating warm body language and allowing the person to cover the information at their own pace.  

The third mode is a state of overwhelm that is a form of shutdown or freeze.  The witness may look sad or slow in their responses and may have an air of hopelessness about them.  Again the mind is unlikely to be the most effective at recalling from this physiological state.   If a witness is operating in this state then, in order to support an overwhelmed or frozen nervous system, the investigator may seek to engage the movement systems in the witness’s body, for example, by asking the witness if they would like some fresh air or a comfort break; movement may help reactivate more the of ‘thinking parts’ of the brain. 

We include below some additional practical tips which may assist investigators with the interview process, in order to reduce the risk of reactivating the amygdala: 

  • Timing of difficult questions
    • If witnesses are required to answer challenging questions which may cause distress as part of the essential evidence-gathering process, it would make sense to address these towards the end of the interview where practicable.   
  • Body language.
    • Stressed or relaxed? People mirror each other’s body language so lead by example and be mindful of your own body language.  Are you relaxed at the beginning of the interview? Or perhaps you have arrived a little late to the meeting after a lengthy journey and are inadvertently exhibiting signs of stress? 
    • Facial expressions. Be aware that humans are highly reactive to facial expressions. Even the smallest thing could trigger the amygdala response in a witness, for example, a frown could be interpreted as: ‘They look cross … perhaps they are blaming me for the incident?’. 
  • Power dynamics.
    • Your position. The witness may feel intimidated by the position or occupation of the individual interviewing them. Consider things like your attire – perhaps avoid wearing more formal business attire (remove your suit jacket or any tie during the meeting).
    • Language. Also, consider the type of language you are using, is it accessible language or have you opted for overly complex and verbose language which may increase tension in the witness? 
    • Number of attendees. Have you taken a junior colleague with you ? Explain why there are two of you in the room, for example: ‘my colleague is with me to take notes, so that I can fully concentrate on our conversation’. 
  • Environmental factors.
    • Location of interview. Consider where you are taking the statement and what associations the person may have with that environment. Is the meeting taking place in the boss’s office? Is it close to where the incident occurred? 
    • Room layout. Consider the room layout … has it inadvertently been set up like a job interview? Arrange the seating to avoid sitting directly across from the witness.
  • Neurodiversity. 
    • Lighting. For neurodiverse witnesses, you may wish to consider things such as the lighting – is it too bright? You could assess whether this is an issue by saying to the witness ‘I know I have a lot of lights on, would it be more comfortable if I turned some off?’.
    • Eye contact. It is usually fairly easy to assess if someone is struggling with eye contact.  If they are then be responsive to their cues – if you notice that a lot of eye contact is causing them distress then consider minimising the amount of eye contact you make and perhaps position your seat at a 45-degree angle away from them. 
    • Fidgeting. Some witnesses may operate better where they are able to fidget during the interview; a way of allowing this would be to leave a pen and paper out on the table for the witness.
  • Counselling. Ultimately, most organisations will offer a form of counselling to employees when they have witnessed a serious workplace incident. Remember to remind the witness to take advantage of any such scheme. 

Whilst the above list is not exhaustive, by implementing some of these techniques, investigators may enhance the quality of the evidence they will obtain, whilst also prioritising the well-being of the individual.  

For further information or details on our training please get in touch.