James E. Whitaker
Observers suggest asking open-ended questions and focusing in on specific details as the conversation moves ahead If a trained interviewer has ever questioned you, you may have started out by promising yourself to keep certain information secret. Then during the interview, you spilled it all. Police detectives, officers and savvy security professionals have learned how to talk to people in ways that will elicit information that subjects prefer to conceal. How do they do that? “Start out by building trust and rapport,” says James E. Whitaker, CPP, President and CEO of The Whitaker Group in Cincinnati. “Keep it conversational and friendly.” Whitaker also suggests making the interviewee feel as comfortable as possible. “Don’t sit between the individual and the door,” he says. “Have them sit with their back to the door so that they can get up and walk out without having to navigate around tables and chairs.” If the individual might be subject to criminal charges, you should offer an opportunity to confer with an attorney and to have an attorney present during the interview. Similarly, information obtained through threats or force will be thrown out of criminal as well as civil court if matters get that far. It is probably wise to conduct the interview as if the matter will go that far. “In that regard, you should conduct the interview in ethical and lawful ways,” Whitaker says. Creating a comfortable atmosphere Begin by getting to know the individual, Whitaker continues. Ask interviewees about themselves. What do you do for a living? How long have you been doing that? Do you like it? Asking about themselves gets them talking about themselves, a subject they know and enjoy discussing. Once they are talking, ease into questions related to the investigation. Open-ended questions for fact extraction "Focus on eliciting facts and avoiding suppositions and opinions. Look for signals that you are being lied to. Pay attention to body language," says James E. Whitaker, President and CEO, The Whitaker Group Observers suggest asking open-ended questions and focusing in on specific details as the conversation moves ahead. Instead of asking, “Why did you steal that laptop,” you might say: “The policy against taking laptops and other electronic equipment home is well publicised. Why did you think it would be okay this time?” A rationale as a response might be akin to an admission of having stolen the laptop. Body language speaks volumes “Focus on eliciting facts and avoiding suppositions and opinions,” Whitaker continues. “Look for signals that you are being lied to. Pay attention to body language. When someone lies, he or she might lean or step back — it might be a big step or a slight movement. He or she might also break eye contact.” Observers also suggest watching for yes and no answers and long-winded answers. Truthful answers are typically direct. “No, I wasn’t there, yesterday,” sounds truthful to an interviewer. Then again, “No, I walked home in an entirely different direction, and I was probably miles away,” sounds contrived. Refrain from using loaded language At the same time, Whitaker cautions against using loaded terms such as lying, stealing, thief, and other words that will only make the person being interviewed pull back. Another suspicious category of answer is “huh?” Police interrogators say that guilty individuals often answer accusatory questions with a “huh?” or “what?” or other question that fakes not having heard the question. Know what you want Most importantly, make sure you know as much of the story as possible before undertaking an interview. “You have to do the investigative work, first, and learn the answers — or at least the likely answers — to most of the questions you plan to ask,” he says. “That way you will know when you are being lied to, and you can follow up with questions based on the factual findings of your investigation.” Finally, don’t forget that an interview is one piece of a larger puzzle including other interviews, inspections of the scene where the event took place, as well as the overall corporate environment. While there are always a few anomalies, most of the pieces must fit together into a whole that seems a realistic explanation of what happened.