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“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?

Intuitive versus Analytical Diagnosis of Credibility

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

Historically human beings are very bad at spotting deception failing on average 50% or more the time to identify lies. Unfortunately, investigative interviewers and  professionals in many other disciplines also have the same poor performance based on numerous research studies.  One of the major contributing factors is that most of us make our assessments about whether a person is being truthful or deceptive based on our “gut feelings” and other undefined symptoms.  Such intuitive assessments have always proven themselves to be inconsistent and unreliable.  When an investigative interviewer focuses their analysis on more reliable documented verbal and nonverbal cues, their accuracy dramatically improves.

An “intuitive” analysis of a subject frequently is characterized by comments such as “I think he’s lying” or “I know he’s hiding something.”   When you ask the observer what specific behaviors make them believe the person is deceptive you often get answers such as “I can tell,” “You just know” and they fail to identify any reliable cues. When they do cite verbal or nonverbal cues those that are mentioned as deception markers are more often than not are just signs of stress or incriminating stress cues and fail to isolate lies.

A reliable analytical diagnosis of behavior focuses on specific questions or issues and clearly defined behavior responses by the subject.  These analyses are characterized by comments including terms such as “clusters”, “timing”, “consistent”, “change” and “constant.”  In these cases the interviewer – observer can be very specific about a subject’s deception and can name the particular behaviors. The behaviors mentioned will be cues identified as “denial”, “aversion”, “negation”, “contradiction”, “unclear thought line” or “performance.”

The danger of making an “intuitive” diagnosis is that they are subject to “pre-conceptions” by the interviewer that more often than not results in gross misdiagnosis.  As we’ve discussed in the past the existence of pre-conception on behalf of the interviewer is also most often results in contamination of the interview further compounding the error of the credibility assessment.   The end result of such a flawed analysis can be wasted time, investigative effort and resources and at worst a case subject to crushing attacks that can be made in defense of the subject in trial and disciplinary proceedings.  An analytical diagnosis requires a lot more effort by the interviewer.  The observer will force themselves to resist making blanket statements about their subject’s lack of honesty without specific behaviors they have identified to support their conclusions.  Cases made with such extensive micro-analysis typically contain better quality information and often other forensic sources that provide confirmation of the subject’s remarks.  These cases are also more likely to survive any challenge of prejudice, flawed analysis, contamination and some cases even false confession.  On what basis are you deciding the subject is being deceptive – your ‘gut feelings’ or reliable behavioral cues that you can cite on a point-to-point basis? Don’t just tell me your subject is lying – tell me what he or she is lying about and the specific behaviors that have led you to that conclusion.