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The Attention Distracted Interviewer

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

The famous screen and stage actor Kevin Spacey was recently performing the role of Willie Lohman in the play “Death of Salesman.”  In the middle of one of the scenes a cell phone began ringing somewhere in the audience.  After a few annoying moments the phone ceased ringing only to start ringing again!  Spacey stopped his performance and told the member of the audience that the actors would be pleased to wait for the owner to answer the phone and tell the caller to call back later.  We are now living a culture of constant interruptions that has shortened everyone”s attention span and eroding away at our ability to concentrate on completing even one task at a time.

Unfortunately this era of attraction distraction has also invaded the interview room.  In the consulting side of my work, I frequently review and analyze audio and videotape interviews and interrogations.  More than once I have witnessed interviewers, who have totally lost control of the focus of the interview, the loss of concentration on their part as well as that of there subject and the overall degradation of the productivity of their interview efforts. Personal interruptions, external disruptions and a flooded room are just some of the distractions I’ve witnessed.

When you enter into an interview situation, your attention should be totally focused on your subject, obtaining case facts, admissions and confessions.  In two separate interview videos, I observed female interviewers engage in personal grooming behavior.  In each case they pulled out either hand or body moisturizing creams and began treating their hands, elbows and in one case the female interviewer went as far as pulling off her shoes and rubbing cream on her heals.  Don’t get all puffed up guys!  I’ve also observed male interviewers take cell calls from wives and girlfriends during an interview.  In one case I could hear one interviewer over his interviewing partner still talking to the subject as he made plans for a dinner date as he stood over in the corner of the interview room talking on his cell phone.

Distractions aren’t always generated from inside the interview room.  Many of us have victims of “helpful” fellow officers, investigators, or staff who suddenly decide that their little problems should be a crisis shared by everyone including anyone interview room. You shouldn’t every let the fact that there’s interview going on stand in the way of planning who is going to buy the beer and bring the ribs for the tailgate party for the ballgame Saturday.  Itís also important to find out if the guys in the interview want to go in on pizza for lunch and you certainly want to keep tabs on how the interview is going so just stick your head in the room and asked if he’s “given it up yet.”

There is no doubt that there are times when problems can be solved better when we have several people together brainstorming.  It doesn’t work well however in the interview room.  In the video of one homicide investigation it was apparently important to have all jurisdictions represented.  I counted three jurisdictions and a total of 6 interviewers counting the attending supervisors.  In two separate cases involving juvenile homicide subjects I counted 6 and 7 participants respectively counting the parents and family members.  It’s kinda hard to stay on track when everyone feels they have to ask questions.

Have you let all the distractions take over your interview room?  Whoever had the idea that humans can learn to “multitask” their activities has never been inside “The Room.” Interviews are far too important in consequence to be some contaminated by controllable distractions.  Take ownership of your interview room and demand the full attention and focus of those present.  Enforce a “no distractions rule.”  Limit the number of people in the room to a bear minimum.  Ditch the cell phones and pagers before you come in ñ ban them from the room if necessary.  Make it department policy that NO ONE walks into the interview room uninvited or unexpected unless it is absolutely critical to the interview.  In addition, don’t forget to respect the rules of your fellow investigators and interviewers when they are conducting their interviews.

Over Prepared Interviews

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

There is nothing unusual at all about any investigative interviewer preparing extensively for an upcoming interview. There is really no situation that I can think of that I had too much information on hand when I went into the room. The danger may be however that we can become too obsessed with the preparation at the expense of being spontaneous and flexible when we finally get into the room.   Certainly “turning unknowns into knowns”  is a good strategy for reducing our tension as the interviewer and we often mentally practice what we are going to say and anticipate any possible surprises and build backup plans to deal with such surprises.  Over preparation however can paralyze the interview and information recovery.

Are your “scripting” your interviews?  One telltale sign of over preparation is literally scripting the interview questions.  In some cases writing out the questions in advance and even sequencing the questions in the order they may be asked.  The danger here is that the interviewer becomes so “fixated” on completing the list of questions that they fail to follow up on incomplete answers or on responses that warrant further attention be the interviewer. Listening to these interviews on tape makes you think the interviewer is merely in a conversation with himself, never hearing the subject.

Over preparation obsession is frequently manifests itself as pre-conception thinking by the interviewer.  A common and easily recognized hallmark of an interviewer bearing pre-conceptions is an overwhelming presence of leading questions and especially the use of short answer questions. If the casual observer where to map the direction of logic of the interviewers discourse he would find that questions are focused toward only one possible conclusion.  Movement of the dialogue to a direction contrary to the pre-conceived charted course is met with resistance and the conversation directed back to the only acceptable conversation thread. This will be obvious despite that fact that often the subject’s responses clearly indicate the dialogue should follow the different track.

Finally, the obsessively over prepared interviewer will frequently find themselves extremely frustrated and impatient with their interview.  He or she will invariably regard their interview subject as belligerent, antagonistic and uncooperative in the face of what the interviewer considers to be overwhelming evidence and logical proof. The frequent result is an interview that degrades into verbal hostilities with marginal or no real productive results.  The interviewer frequently misses opportunities to elicit available information from their subjects due to the interviewer obvious growing frustration.

It is certainly prudent for any investigative interviewer to prepare for all their interviews.  Dispensing with such preparation altogether and forging ahead on a wing and a prayer would be the devil’s folly.  The best advice is to recognize that there is a delicate balance between being prepared and manically trying to prepare for every possible scenario or worse, only one possible scenario.  Preparation is essential but not at the expense of being able to respond to the numerous moments that will arise during the interview that will require you to be flexible to a change in course and react spontaneously to your subject and their behaviors.