Conducting great witness or claimant interviews means mastering the art of nonverbal communication.
As a retired major crimes/homicide detective, I’ve conducted more than a thousand interviews in which the stakes for the subject would best be described as “heavy.” Some faced life in prison or the death penalty.
As you can imagine, getting the truth can be difficult under such circumstances. It’s no less difficult getting information from an insurance claimant or a nervous witness. Both may have something to lose, and both require a balanced approach — part verbal and part wordless. Gestures, facial expressions, and body postures are a language of their own.
That’s why the best interviewers are also great actors.
Of course, every good interview starts with a good investigation — the best way to know whether someone is telling the truth is to have as many facts up front as possible. But most investigators are so caught up in what the claimant or suspect is saying, they forget to consider their own non-verbal communication. Planning your reactions to a range of your subjects’ possible responses can impart critical non-verbal communication to them and help steer the interview.
Over my 20 years of experience, I’ve found three major techniques to aid in your fact-finding interviews.
1. Convey a command presence.
Ask your questions with a confident tone, in a manner that conveys to the subject that you just MAY already know the answer. Never read questions from a form. Look your subject directly in the eye and prepare for step 2 on this list.
2. Practice the art of silent communication.
Don’t fill up the long pauses. When subjects respond to your questions, say nothing with your mouth, and speak volumes with your face. Don’t believe them? Make your face say that and wait. Silence can be the best elicitor of information.
3. Observe, react, and repeat.
As interviewees react to your questions and silences, watch their faces and body language and respond to what you see — a practice called “reverse kinesics.”
“Kinesics” is reading body language. “Reverse kinesics” is altering your own body language to manipulate the person being interviewed. I may mimic someone’s body language to put them at ease, or feign bewilderment or anger to steer the person down a certain path.
I might ask a subject, “Where did you have dinner that night?” If they give an answer I don’t believe, I’ll flip open a binder, slide my fingers down the page as if I’m checking finance records, and make a strong facial expression of confusion. This conveys a clear message to the interviewee without my saying a word.
This approach has the added benefit of being non-accusatory, non-threatening, and easily adapted to structured questionnaires you may be required to use. Sure, the client may provide you with a list of questions you have to ask. But they cannot dictate the tone, facial expression, silences, or FEEL of the interview.
Practice your acting skills. Interview with your face at least fifty percent of the time.
These strategies don’t work every time, but they can yield surprising results. I’ve had subjects answer a question, endure the long silence, then hang their head and say, “You’re not buying that are you?” — just before they blurt out the truth.
We all know how to observe a subject’s kinesics. We know that when a question makes an interviewee fidget, the topic may be worth exploring further. But you may not yet realize how effective reverse kinesics can be — using your own nonverbal cues to guide the conversation.
I challenge you to practice your acting skills. Interview with your face at least fifty percent of the time. I’m confident you’ll find that a strategically raised eyebrow can sometimes convey more to a subject than an entire sentence would.
About the author:
Shawn L. Terry is a retired homicide detective from the Brooksville, Florida police department. He is a licensed private investigator and owner of SLT Investigations in Satellite Beach, FL.