We at TOP-SET are in a very strong position to comment on the skills of interviewing for investigation, not because we are all expert interviewers, but because our tutors role-play on many of our courses to give students interview practice. Consequently, we are at the raw end of very many interviews and have learned through experience the best techniques to use.
It can seem a straightforward task. All you are trying to do is get as much information as you can from a witness. But with this being the focus, it is common to lose sight of how the way you interview can be a barrier to this. So, what are the major problems, and common errors, in our experience of being interviewed?
- Not Listening
If you rearrange the letters of LISTEN, you get SILENT, but this is lacking in many interviews. The interviewer can’t let the interviewee finish their story. There are a number of reasons for this: have you ever conversed with someone who is fundamentally only interested in telling you about themselves, what they do and what they think? They only listen in order to reply rather than to understand. Many people are not very curious about others, and don’t really want to listen to what they have to say. This is reflected in poor interviewing technique, where the interviewer can’t bring themselves to sit and listen for an extended period of time or be at ease with silences. There are other reasons for interruption. For example, as the interviewee is telling their story, the story itself brings up issues that puzzle you, and you want to stop to ask supplementary questions for clarification, as the story unfolds. Frustratingly, when you interrupt, the thread and flow of the story is often lost, and you suddenly find yourself in a cul-de-sac, not quite remembering how you got there. It is so important to leave space for the interviewee to talk, and to really listen to them without letting yourself get in the way.
- Interviewer Overkill
Good interviewers should have a notetaker with them. There are many advantages: an extra pair of ears, and another brain to analyse the responses to the questions. The notetaker also saves you having to take notes yourself, which allows you to listen without any distractions, or it should do. However, what often happens is that the notetaker becomes so curious that they start to ask questions too, and the interviewer, because she is not directly involved, starts to make notes as well. Now the interview has developed into a two-person interview, with each taking their own notes. This is common but not good practice. Make sure the roles of the interviewer and notetaker are established beforehand.
- Disjointed Questioning
Good interviewers listen to the answer to the question and develop other questions from that answer. Bad interviewers are not really interested in the answer and are looking at their notes to see what question is coming up next, which might be totally unrelated. One suggestion is to turn over your question page after asking your question, so that you are not distracted or tempted to think about what is next on your list. So, for example, if you ask someone when they last had a drink of alcohol, they might say 12 hours before. The next questions following on from this might be along the lines of: what was the drink, how much did you have to drink, where were you and who was with you? Not what was the weather like that day!
- Losing Information
It constantly surprises us how often key questions are omitted. Interviews end, and the chance to gain key information has been lost. What can be done about that? Two things: (1) prepare thoroughly if you are lucky enough to have the time to do so, and (2) make sure you maintain lines of contact, so that you can ask supplementary questions at a later date should something else come up or you remember something you didn’t ask at the time.
We cover effective interviewing for Incident Investigation on our 3-Day Investigator Course, as well as other human factors issues that can influence an investigation.