Your object in conducting interviews with potential Clemency Project candidates is to elicit information sufficient to compile a comprehensive report on almost every area of the candidate's life. You will be asking questions about: family relationship, marital history, employment, educational and medical history, the offense, her trial, the woman's prison record, and her goals for the future. Your Clemency Interview Questionnaires will be of great assistance to you in structuring the interview. (See Appendix 12). But what if your client responds in monosyllables? How can you elicit the information you need with sensitivity? What can you say if the client becomes emotional? In order to prompt your client's story and to respond to the emotional nature of her recollections, you may want to consider the following suggestions:
The physical setting in which an interview is conducted in part determines the attitude and responsiveness of the client. 123 During an interview in which you expect to discuss highly emotional issues, an interviewer would be wise to do what she can to make her client as physically comfortable as possible. Outside a prison setting, this might include taking care that the interviewing room has adequate ventilation, comfortable room temperature, comfortable chairs, freedom from distraction, and privacy.
In a prison setting, obviously, an interviewer has little control over the physical conditions under which the interview is conducted. Do the best you can. If you cannot do anything about the uncomfortable condition, at least be aware of it and its potential effect on the co-operativeness and responsiveness of the client.
Privacy is vital to a good interview. A client will be less willing to share painful memories with a stranger if she feels she can be overheard. Likewise, you as an interviewer may have trouble concentrating or expressing yourself if you feel that others can hear you. If you are an attorney or an attorney's representative, request a confidential room, as discussed in Chapter VIII.
The presence of a desk between you and the client tends to emphasize the interviewer's authority and to create a sense of formality that may not be conducive to open communication. Think about arranging chairs in a way that fosters a sense of equality.
During the course of your interview, you will be asking your client to reveal to you, a total stranger, some of the most painful, humiliating, unendurable moments of her life. You may be working with a client who has difficulty confiding in others, who distrusts lawyers or social workers, or whose culture has conditioned her not to discuss her private matters with outsiders. Before delving into the substance of the interview, it is important to focus on achieving rapport. 124
♦ Greet the client warmly and introduce yourself.
♦ Extend the courtesy of asking the client how she would care to be addressed. Doing so conveys your respect for your client. Be aware that in some ethnic and social backgrounds it may be considered impolite to address an older adult by her first name.
♦ Engage in a "warm up" period with your client. You might tell her a little bit about yourself and why you are interested in the Clemency Project.
♦ Assure the woman that the information she conveys is confidential, and that you will not disclose it to anyone outside the Clemency Project without her express informed consent.
♦ Be respectful and attentive. Try to remember names the client has told you. Take notes, but do not bury your head in your papers.
♦ Pay attention to the non-verbal messages you are sending to your client. Maintain good eye contact. Try not to slouch in your chair, flip through your papers, fiddle with your pen, or tap your foot in a distracting manner while she is talking.
♦ Dress professionally, but do not overdress. You do no want to make your client feel that you are inaccessible.
♦ Start where the client is. If she appears to have something pressing on her mind, allow her to express her concerns before beginning the interview.
Some verbal barriers to effective communication include:
♦ Moralizing (e.g. "You shouldn't have done that.")
♦ Using sarcasm or humor which is distracting or makes light of a client's problems
♦ Responding infrequently
♦ Using self-disclosure inappropriately
♦ Mumbling or speaking inaudibly
♦ Speaking too loudly
♦ Nervous laughter
♦ "Empty consolations" (e.g. "You'll feel better tomorrow;" "Don't worry. Things will work out;" "I really feel sorry for you.")
If your client is responding in monosyllables, this may be a sign that you are phrasing your questions too narrowly.
Instead of asking:
"Did your husband get mad?" ASK
"What impact did that have on your husband?"
Instead of asking:
"How many children do you have?" ASK
"Tell me about your children."
There may be moments during your interview when you want to convey to your client that you are trying to appreciate the magnitude of the emotional trauma that she has experienced. You can do this with empathic responses. An "empathic response" is a social work jargon for a response that identifies a feeling a client has just expressed, and reflects it back at them. For example:
"It sounds like you felt completely powerless to help your child."
"You did the best you could under the circumstances."
In making empathic responses, try to avoid telling the client that you know how she feels. Listen to her carefully, and try to respond to what she has just told you with words carefully chosen to reflect emotional nuances.
If a client does become emotional, allow it to happen. You need not immediately jump in with consolations. This may make her feel like it is unacceptable to show emotion around you and you want her to stop. Finally, be attentive to signs that a client may be too emotionally exhausted or otherwise indisposed to continue with the interview.
All Project volunteers will be expected to maintain strict confidentiality. This means you are not to discuss the substance of your interview even with close friends and family. If you have questions about confidentiality issues, please consult one of the Project Coordinators.
122. In drafting this chapter, the author has relied heavily on Hepworth & Larsen's Direct Social Work Practice. 4th Ed. (1993).
123. See: Hepworth & Larsen at 41.
124. Hepworth & Larsen suggest some of the following interview strategies at 42-45.