When communicating with others, asking questions seems to be the least often used skill. This happens for many reasons; we do not want to appear uninformed, overbearing or overly challenging in our quest for the truth. Quite simply, asking questions and pairing them with effective listening skills prevents us from “jumping the gun” or filling the gaps in an investigation with our own opinion. Ask questions to understand rather to confirm.
How you ask a question is very important in establishing the basis for an effective interview; they open the door to knowledge and understanding of the facts as they relate to the matter with which we are asked to investigate. The subtle art of productive questioning lies in knowing which questions to ask and when. Asking effective interview questions also requires the interviewer to be cognizant of his/her verbal and nonverbal behavior as well.
There are two basic types of questions, open-ended questions and closed-ended questions; here are the differences:
- Open questions. Open-ended questions require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. They elicit the interviewee to describe, explain, or come to some conclusion based on their own understanding of the facts. Asking open-ended questions increase the chances of getting additional details and ensure a greater accuracy of the facts from the interviewee’s perspective.
Examples of good open questions include, “How would you describe this accident?” How did the accident happen?” or “Why did Joe fall off of the scaffolding?”
- Closed questions. Closed questions implicate a very short or specific factual answer and can be helpful in directing the interviewee’s attention toward relevant information and establishing facts. Closed questions can be used to pinpoint critical information. You should only ask specific questions when you are looking for a specific answer.
Examples of good closed-ended questions include, “What time did the fire start?” “Who was in the car with you when the accident occurred?” or “Did you see the stop sign?”
The correct investigative approach to interviewing anyone is with the time honored “Who, What, When, Where and Why” process.
Knowing who contributed or were associated with an event creates more opportunity to gather information but should not be used to assign blame to any one of them. That is a job best left for legal counsel and a judge or jury.
Understanding what happened is the core of any insurance investigation. All details that are relevant must be gathered and cataloged in the investigative report.
The time when something happened can reveal important elements in the evolution of the event being investigated. For example, did you know that most fraudulent workers’ compensation claim accidents occur on Mondays or after vacations and major holidays, and then, most often early in the morning?
The place where an event occurred reveals important facts such as a physical layout of an accident scene or working conditions.
Asking a witness or claimant why something happened most often reveals the most useful information regarding any insurance claim. “How” questions are often used interchangeably with “why” questions as they both require the respondent to describe the “mechanics” of an event. These often get closest to the root cause of the event. Asking “why questions” repeatedly often reveals more information than would normally be uncovered. On the other hand, if asking why an accident happened causes a defensive reaction in the person being interviewed, you should consider it a red flag and make an effort to probe further when permitted. I have found that when I ask a claimant, who is subsequently found to be faking or inflating their claim, why a specific loss occurred, they have a tough time “creating” enough facts to support their statement and eventually begin to feel the pressure that I may soon detect their deception. This burden increases the nonverbal indicators of their deceit, prompting me to continue to ask questions so that these “facts” will be recorded and debunked later in the claims process. As a private investigator I am only concerned with the collection of statements of fact, I’ll let someone else decide which statements are true.
You can liken the process of investigative interviewing to that of putting material into a funnel; at the top of the funnel goes the most information, elicited with open-ended questions asked early in the interview. At the bottom of the funnel come the most pointed, closed ended questions meant to pinpoint and clearly define the facts of the investigation. The process of developing these facts synthesizes somewhere in the middle of the funnel. The subject’s broad based recollections and feelings about an event are eventually distilled into the cause-and-origin of the event. If the investigation is based on a complicated situation, simplify the approach by organizing your “funneling technique” so that each aspect of the event is examined one at a time in its own funnel.
Here are 10 tips for creating and asking questions:
- Ask open-ended question to elicit the most information;
- Ask closed-ended questions to establish fact or to influence the direction and nature of an interview;
- Avoid asking leading questions, such as “Were you at the top of the ladder when you fell?” Leading questions inject “facts,” which may or may not be true, directly into the question and must be avoided. Instead ask, “How did you injure yourself?” Response: “I fell from a ladder.” Follow up: “Where were you on the ladder when you fell?” Response: “I was about two thirds the way up ladder.” Follow up: “Why did you fall?”
- Avoid using negative wording. Ask, “Do you remember seeing the other car?” rather than, “You don’t remember seeing the other car do you?”
- Organize your questions into groups regarding related concepts (i.e. ask all of your questions pertaining the identity and description of a vehicle that was involved in an accident, then ask about the numbers and identities of witnesses, then ask for a description of the accident scene, then ask all of your questions regarding how it happened, etc. rather than asking questions without a logical order);
- Ask important questions several times in a variety of different ways;
- Do not use technical terms or investigative jargon with an interviewee unless you are sure that he/she understands specifically to what you are referring;
- Ask several simple questions rather than one complex question;
- If the answer seems overly complex, ask MANY more simple questions to clarify the answer;
- Ask questions for information rather than for confirmation.
Asking questions is obviously an important aspect of the interviewing process but it is only a part of the process. An interview is a “guided conversation” requiring the private investigator to be both a sender of information (asking the questions) as well as a receiver of information (listening to the answer, understanding what new facts were gained and formulating another question). Communication is a two-way street. It is as important, if not more important, to be an effective listener as it is to be competent at asking questions.
This article is a small excerpt from Statements, Lies and videotape: A Private Investigator’s Guide to Conducting Insurance Claim Investigations, an online continuing education course for private investigators