When offering any kind of Trauma-Informed Care, you’re likely to meet people who will be hesitant to open up. Whether you’re working in mental health care, education, legal support, or social work, some of those “awkward” and even painful questions are key to learning the needs of the people you’re serving.
So, what are some examples of Trauma-Informed Care questions and approaches where the right approach can make a world of difference?
Letting the Situation Be Your Guide
In Healing-Focused Care, we prefer to focus on the individual‘s strengths. The goal is always to empower the served person to make positive choices and take steps toward healing. As practitioners, it’s essential to realize that every situation you encounter will be unique, and there’s no set approach or a Trauma-Informed Care questionnaire that will fit all.
As an example, when performing an initial intake, you want the conversation to dictate the flow of the intake versus letting the intake or assessment dictate the flow of the conversation.
When you carry out a Trauma-Informed Care assessment, your goal is to learn about the person’s journey thus far. Why are they coming to your organization? What do you need to learn from them to ensure that the services offered by your organization are the right match for their needs? What can you learn about this person?
Sound deep for an intake? It can be. When offering Trauma-Informed Care, questions can be personal and even difficult. The goal is always to avoid “retriggering” the person’s trauma while allowing them a safe space to open up and connect.
When things get deep and personal, following a set of specific ” Trauma-Informed Care questions” can actually feel impersonal and distant. It’s important to let the conversation happen naturally rather than read off an assessment list and check the boxes.
We often think of Healing-Focused Care as primarily applicable in mental health settings, but the Healing-Focused Care model can apply to all sorts of different situations, service environments, and role types. For example, an educator may use Trauma-Informed Care questions to help guide a meeting with a new student. A parole officer may use similar questions to build rapport with their client. Likewise, hospital staff may want to use a Healing-Focused Care approach when discussing medical history and other sensitive topics.
Any time we’re dealing with human topics, sensitivity will put people at ease and help them feel comfortable opening up and beginning to share.
At Share Collaborative, we’re not here to “tell people” or “train people” on how they should approach their clients. We’re not interested in telling you a bunch of questions you should ask on an intake assessment. Each context is different. As I write this to you and you’re there in front of your screen reading, I have no idea what you do, the needs of the clients, or your organization’s approach.
What we love to share and teach (and yes, what some refer to as train) is how to ask questions. The approach is, in our opinion, the most crucial aspect of any intake or human interaction. What is the vibe, the energy of the asker? What is the vibe of the listener? How can they play off each other and come together to connect in a safe, effective, and healing-focused way?
Set-up Context and Ground
When the conversation starts, it’s helpful to set up the context. The background helps establish the environment and puts everyone in the right frame of mind.
Ask yourself, why are you going to have this conversation? What is the intention of this conversation, and what is the purpose? The purpose of the discussion will act as your guiding star throughout the interaction. Should things go off the rails, come back to the purpose.
Similarly, ask why you want to learn this information about the client. What will happen to it? Where will the information go? Transparency is key in providing trauma-informed, healing-focused care.
One answer applies in every context in the wide variety of areas that I’ve served in, such as youth, families, AODA, criminal justice, schools, and workforce development. The purpose of the conversation is to LEARN. “I’m employing the structure of this intake or assessment to learn how I, along with my team, can be helpful to you, the served person.”
To that end, the first question you may ask is something to establish context. For example:
- What do you already know about what is the purpose of our time together today?
If it feels appropriate to the situation, you could show them the intake form or assessment. Again, it’s important to be transparent. Some people feel more comfortable when they’re aware of the types of questions that will be asked and know a little about what to expect.
On a similar note, you may then want to ask:
- What questions do you have about the conversation we’re going to get into?
You can ensure them that there are grounding techniques that you can walk through in case the questions stir up some discomfort. Review the list of techniques together to agree upon something that feels comfortable to them. Aside from listening to their favorite death metal song turned up to 11, there is likely a grounding technique that they can do in or just outside your office (or in whatever space you may be holding the conversation).
The next question you might ask is:
- What helps you return to the present? Or…
- What helps you cool your jets? Or…
- What helps you recombobulate? (Your version of any of these questions will be just fine!)
As you provide context and grounding techniques, keep the conversation as short and sweet as possible. Do your best to go at the other person’s pace and in a way that feels appropriate to their needs. The next question you might ask is something along the lines of:
- Are we good to go?
This question helps them check in and empowers them to decide that the conversation can move forward. It’s always important to go at the PACE of the person.
Start the Trauma-Informed Care Assessment Questions Broadly
If you’ve ever watched a late-night talk show or even an interview on the news, you’ve likely heard of a “softball question.” These questions are typically broad and easy. They help establish a connection and build comfort.
Starting with an open-ended question allows the guest (or, in this case, the person you’re serving) to riff on however they feel. They can discuss and share what they want to share. This type of question puts them in control and offers them the power position in the conversation, and that’s where you want them to be.
Powerlessness is the very essence of the invisible wound—the trauma. So right away, you’re avoiding creating a power void. You’re helping them get comfortable and feel empowered. Before you jump into any “must ask” questions on the intake form or assessment, the question you may want to ask is:
- What would you like me to know about you and your journey?
Once again, your version of the question will do just fine. Like most conversations, you’ll likely start off less personal and get more so as the conversation goes on. In the early part of a Trauma-Informed Care assessment, you’re creating safety.
I often remind myself that “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Fast is good.” This means that when you take your time early on and set up the proper context on the front end, it will take less time to complete the intake and assessment as you go on (for most encounters, as you likely know).
The initial few questions may seem unnecessary, but it’s in those early moments that you’re really seeing the other person as a fellow human being. You’re not just there to “fill out a questionnaire” and do an intake. You’re there to help them on their journey and to understand them—to hold a safe space for them in the moment so they can begin their journey of healing-focused care.
As you listen (the most essential part of asking any question), the person will often start to answer some of the questions on your intake form or assessment. You can sit back, listen to them, and begin to check off the boxes and fill in the blanks.
Allow the Conversation to Dictate the Flow
Now you’re in the heart of performing the care assessment. You might feel the urge to adhere to a strict order and read off the questions.
The conversation will be more comfortable, open, and productive if you instead allow it to unfold as needed. That means allowing the conversation to dictate the intake or assessment’s flow, rather than the assessment form dictating the flow of the conversation.
We often get worried that we’re going to miss something or forget to ask, but we can circle back around as needed if we’re familiar with the assessment before we begin. Remember that we have the magical capacity to turn pages and click-through screens. So if someone starts answering questions from page one and then offers insight that answers something on page three, section two, jot it down, reflect it, and listen.
For example, you might find that when you reflect what they say, it can lead you on to another section of the assessment. Or if you need to get a little more information, you can try the wonderful question:
- Can you tell me more about that? (Again, your version will be totally fine.)
Or do both! Reflect what they shared and invite them to share more about it. When you know what information you need to glean from the conversation, you can always let it come back around to where you need to go. The more you listen and offer a safe, caring space to share, the more they will be willing to open up and offer the information.
Wrapping Up the Intake Conversation
As you complete the intake conversation, there’s can be a tendency to want to wrap up and move forward to the next step. But throughout the conversation, especially at the end, take time to genuinely and substantively affirm them for sharing.
The goal of Healing-Focused Care is to help the served person move forward with positive steps in their healing journey. It takes a great deal of strength and bravery to delve into our traumas, especially with someone we don’t know well (as in any human services setting). Even if we’ve elected to put ourselves in a situation such as mental health counseling or educational settings, we as humans may still have a hard time opening up to someone we just met in such a vulnerable way.
As Trauma-Informed Care providers, one of the best ways to build rapport and help close the conversation in a nurturing, healing-focused way is with affirmation. For example, you may want to say something like:
- You’ve demonstrated a lot of bravery today—not only in sharing this with me but also in keeping your head up and continuing to work hard to not only survive but thrive from some of these super painful experiences. Thank you. I’m honored that you’ve shared this with me.
As with all the Trauma-Informed Care questions and conversation examples here, your version of the statement will be just fine. The main thing is to own what we’re saying and sincerely mean it. Connecting with someone during their healing journey can be powerful for them as well as for us as care providers.
Please reach out for more information on the Healing-Focused Care model and ways to help your team provide substantiative Trauma-Informed Care. We’d love to work with you on the next steps of your journey.