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Interview Techniques

“The Effective Professional Interviewer”

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

What is it that makes one interviewer more successful than another? Is it training? Do they have some special hidden talent? After analyzing more than 1000 video taped investigative interviews criminal justice researchers have been able to identify the performance characteristics that separate successful and unsuccessful interviewers. One of most telling results of these extensive studies is that only a minority of the investigators observed would qualify as “skilled interviewers.”

One observation that I have always had was that good investigators are not necessarily good interviewers and good interviewers are not always good investigators. We cannot assume being good at the one means that we are good at the other. Sadly one of the most disturbing findings of these studies was that 36% of the investigators observed would found to fall below a minimum standard of performance. The question is therefore, what are the optimum standards of behavior that are displayed by skilled and successful interviewers.

First, the skilled interviewer was well prepared before they entered the interview room. He or she knew the main elements needed to make the case. They approached the interview with the idea that the ultimate goal was the “construction of proof.”

Second, the interviewer allowed the subject make an unhurried, uninterrupted opportunity to state their position. They tested the subject’s responses fairly and without any form of pre-conceptions regarding possible credibility.

Third, the subject was allowed to present their personal view of the events in questions. This was accomplished using open ended and narrative oriented questions as opposed to short answer or leading questions.

Fourth, the successful interviewer listened to the subject. Not just listened to but, actually “heard” the subject. When the interviewer eventually asked questions they actively listened to the responses from the subject and effectively asked appropriate follow up questions to clarify mistakes, gaps, contradictions, and omissions.

The last finding was considered to be among the discoveries about the important characteristics of the successful interviewer. He or she had learned to adopt the personality behaviors and style of their subject. They also made an attempt to understand and take into consideration the circumstances of the case.

Consider your own personal interviewing style. Review past interviews that you may have recorded electronically. Listen to yourself as you interview subjects, victims and witnesses. Which successful techniques do you already use? Are there some subtle changes you can make to improve your techniques and ultimately your results?

The “Negative” Interview

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

Many of us as interviewers have encountered the occasional subject who will not respond to any of our efforts to conduct some semblance of an interview. We may not able to get them to provide some form of alibi statement much less an opinion about what they “think” might have happened or how they may be connected. The next time you encounter this type of highly resistant, difficult subject try conducting one or more of three “negative” interview approaches – the “never”, “definitely” or the “they’re wrong” statements.

The “never” interview consists of asking questions about general case information and having the subject absolutely deny the information. For example, he “never” dated the victim, was “never” in her car, “never ever” been in possession of her checkbook or other personal item, “never” saw the computer printout, etc. In this interview it will not be necessary for the interviewer to initially possess all the information or details about which he or she is asking and we definitely do not want to give away any crucial evidence at the risk of contaminating our subject. Once we have an “absolute” denial we can conduct some investigative follow-up regarding the subject responses to determine that he or she was deceptive.

The “definitely” interview is used when the subject provides some form of statement but shows no sign of acknowledging contradictory evidence. In this case we work with the subject asking specific questions of him or her that provides them the opportunity to provide “definite” proof of their statement. The more they provide what they consider specific details of their “proof” the more investigative leads we are able to generate to either support or disprove our subject’s statement.

The “they’re wrong” interview presents the subject with general information that has been provided by friends, witnesses, or even fellow subjects. Once again we are careful not to contaminate the subject’s behavior and knowledge by feeding them specific case information. We want to be sure that the subject’s knowledge of facts originates from their intimate contact with and participation in the event and not from our dialogue. In the “they’re wrong” statement, the subject is permitted to address the statements that appear to contradict those that they themselves have made and articulate why those people are wrong – either the other people lied, don’t like them, weren’t there, etc. This approach will create an apparent all “those people” versus “me” and all their statements, although they are consistent and correspond with the majority of the evidence is wrong.

The objective of the “negative” interview is to lock or subject into their statements so tightly that those very statements effectively condemn them as being deceptive. This approach still permits us to conduct the more effective narrative-based interview that has been shown to be less likely to elicit false statements. We are not attempting to “bluff” the subject nor impress them with the information we have in hand. All I need to do as the investigator is to “impeach” the absolute statements of the subject and the subject has provided me the tools I need to accomplish that goal. How many times have we heard or been told that an attorney during deposition, direct or even cross-examination should never ask a question for which he or she doesn’t already know the answer. We are asking the subject questions that for the most part we already know most of the answers. We are giving the subject the opportunity to be truthful or deceptive. We want to see which choice they make. If it is the wrong choice, we will be sure his or her words will come back to haunt them.