How to plan your search for information, build rapport, and create a succinct interview report
Many people believe that interviewing is no different from the normal types of conversations we have every day, and for good reason — at first glance, it is a willing exchange of information between two people. But look deeper, and you’ll see that it is much more complex.
Learning Through Mistakes
I sat in an interrogation room face-to-face with a girl who I thought had participated in the theft of thirty firearms from a residential break-in. She was close friends with the suspect, and I thought she was with him at the time. The conversation gradually turned from an interrogation to an interview as I determined she had nothing to do with the theft. She was, however, more than willing to help us. She provided a lot of information that was helpful to the investigation, but it wasn’t enough to bring charges on the suspect.
About a month later, I called her in for a re-interview. This interview was more productive. She informed me that she and the suspect had a mutual friend, and that two months ago, the friend told her the suspect was storing a lot of guns under her bed.
I asked her why she didn’t tell me that in the first interview. She said, “Because you didn’t ask.”
Sure, she may have been intentionally withholding the information during the first interview. But if I had asked the right questions, she might have come forward with it. I was frustrated with her, but I had to acknowledge my mistake: failing to conduct a good, thorough interview.
Since then, I’ve learned to include a question near the end of the interview along the lines of: “Is there anything at all that I may not have asked you about, but that could be helpful to us or relevant to the case?”
A final, catch-all question that invites the subject to volunteer additional information may not work every time. But it might help you learn about additional relevant details, especially if the interviewee is on the fence about mentioning them. And you lose nothing in asking it.
Every interview should have a plan based on the information the investigator already knows — which can be very little — and the information they want to obtain. This could include a list of questions to ask, answers to seek, photographs to show to the interviewee, etc.
You can’t plan for everything, but it’s useful to have a good starting point. Keep in mind that a good plan is only that — a starting point. Because if the interview goes exactly as planned, then you probably missed something that you didn’t even know to look for.
It’s sometimes better to begin by writing out the information you hope to get during the interview. That can help you decide what to ask. And then, at the end, you can look over your notes and see whether you got the information you were seeking.
Starting the Interview
When an investigator first makes contact with an interviewee, it’s important to build rapport. This will help relax the interviewee and build trust, which may make them more willing to share information.
Building rapport starts with a simple conversation that you might have with anyone new you meet. It is best to try and find some common ground. Maybe you like the same sports team, went to the same school, or lived in the same neighborhood.
Don’t rush rapport building. When you first meet, you can get a baseline on their behavior as you chat. And as that initial conversation evolves, you’ll see them relax a bit.
Once you are both comfortable, it’s time to move on with the interview.
Most likely you’ve heard this before: Always use open-ended questions. Open-ended questions require a detailed response, whereas closed ended questions require a simple “yes” or “no.” Clearly, the open-ended questions can extract a lot more information.
For example, if you are interviewing the plaintiff in a personal injury case, you can start by simply asking, “What happened?” You can then develop questions based on the story they tell you. For example, the plaintiff says, “I was in the car going to the store.” You could to follow up with, “Where were you in the car? What road were you on? What direction were you going? What were you near? Who was in the car with you? How fast were you going?” The questioning can go on and on into layers and layers of detail.
Being thorough is important, but there is no need to go overboard and ask a lot of irrelevant questions. Not only does it take up time, but it is more fluff your client has to read through in your report.
Documenting the Interview
Your client may want the interview memorialized in a particular way. They may want a written and signed statement and/or a recorded interview. However, in general, that is not needed.
I am not a fan of recording interviews because the presence of a recorder can limit what an interviewee will say. What is important is documenting the interviewee’s information, the date and location of the interview, and any relevant information pertaining to the setting. If the interviewee seems hostile, that needs to be documented. If they say they will tell you what you want to know, but they will not go to court, that needs to be documented.
Next is documenting the statements themselves. I’ve deviated from my law enforcement training of writing a narrative of the whole interview, and now we use bullet points for the statements made by the interviewee. We find this method easier and quicker to read, and it gets directly to the point. A typical statement would read like this:
John Smith: 742 Evergreen Terrace Springfield, USA; telephone number 555-7334.
John Smith was interviewed at his residence on November 11, 2016. He was polite and cooperative, but he does not drive anymore, and may have difficulty finding a ride to court if he needs to testify.
- He was driving north on Main St. and had a green light at the intersection of Main St. and 1st
- He was going through the intersection of Main St. and 1st when he saw a red truck entering the intersection on his left.
- He immediately realized the truck was not going to stop.
The bullet points go on and on for each statement made. Be careful not to run the statements together under one bullet point, as that defeats the purpose.
Know what information you need going into the interview. Be respectful and kind, and never judge. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions, because an attorney won’t be afraid to ask them difficult questions on the stand.
Remember, you’re not just getting information to help your client’s case; you’re getting “the whole truth,” so your attorney won’t be blindsided with something they didn’t know in advance. That’s why even “bad” information — i.e. information that may not help your case — is still good to know, especially if opposing counsel also knows it.
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About the Author:
Christopher Borba owns Emissary Investigative Services, a Roanoke, Virginia investigative agency specializing in corporate investigations and litigation support. He served as an infantry paratrooper with the U.S. Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He also worked as a patrol officer and a detective with the Fayetteville, NC police department.