Myia Welsh on Conducting Focus Groups with Trauma Survivors

Hi! I’m Myia Welsh, an independent consultant working with nonprofit and community organizations. Much of my work is done with organizations that provide services to survivors of human trafficking. What’s that, you ask? Trafficking is any enterprise where someone makes a profit from the exploitation of another by force, fraud or coercion. Just like the sale of drugs or weapons, the sale of humans occurs both in the U.S. and around the world. Find out more about human trafficking here.

Lesson Learned: Conducting evaluation with these organizations has required me to learn my way around engaging trauma survivors in evaluation – especially in focus groups. Focus groups with trauma survivors can be challenging if you don’t know what to expect. They require slightly different planning and facilitation skill. I recommend the following preparations:

  • Understand what you’re dealing with. Do some reading on trauma, so that you know how to recognize dynamics in the room.
  • Review your protocol for trigger questions. Stick with what’s essential to the evaluation.
  • Consult knowledgeable stakeholders to help you be aware of causing potential harm, and brainstorm about how to avoid it.
  • Be prepared for an emotional response, and have a plan to handle it with respect and support. An abrupt or uncomfortable response from the facilitator could silence participants. So, check your reactions. Have tissues ready in case of tears and tactile toys/objects around to help manage anxiety.
  • Make safety a factor in your planning: Where will this group feel safe? Physical space and location should be taken into consideration. Will bringing additional note takers or co-facilitators into the situation enhance or threaten perceived safety?
  • Check your facilitation practices. In most focus groups, a zoned-out participant would be prompted to participate. With a group of trauma survivors, this might be a signal that the reflection brought on by the discussion is getting overwhelming. Have a plan ready so that you can recognize it and continue on without disruption. Consider a non-verbal cue that you can set up in the beginning, a colored index card for instance. A participant can set their card on the table as a signal that this is getting tough. Make sure everyone knows that they can step away if they need to.
  • What’s your wrap-up plan? Have a strategy ready for ending in a positive way, soothing the emotions that may have emerged. Guide discussion to future hopes or recent accomplishments.

Lesson Learned: Even if it might be emotional or messy, service recipients are key stakeholders who’s voice cannot be left out of an evaluation.

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3 thoughts on “Myia Welsh on Conducting Focus Groups with Trauma Survivors”

  1. Kelly K Garcia

    Dear Ms. Welsh,
    Thank you for providing a some good resources on how to one can better understand the effects and challenges of individuals that have experience abuse. I family member of mind was a victim of sexual abuse. At the time we were not aware of her situation and it was difficult for us to understand and explain her behavior. It is a very serious and grave experience, and learning how to be able to conduct ourselves around victims of this abuse is vital to be able to help them in any way we can.

  2. Great tips! I especially love that you have pointed out how critical it is for the interviewer to be aware of their reactions or expressions! Sending the wrong signal or one that may not feel wrong to you, can definitely alter the way the participant feels.

  3. Allison Wolpoff

    Great tips, thank you. I’m curious what you have also learned regarding human subjects protection for this population? Are there specific steps you take to ensure they understand the consent process, as well as protect their condidentiality when reporting results?

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