Investigative Interviews On the Fly: How to Get What You Need When You Don’t Have Time to Prepare
I’ve been conducting investigative interviews for 19 years, from initial post-arrest interviews to in-depth interviews with someone charged with multiple homicides. No matter what interview theory you subscribe to—e.g., Wicklander, Reid, Kinetic, Dynamic—they all agree on one thing: You need to learn as much as possible about the person you are interviewing before you sit down to talk.
Find out all you can about the who, what, when, where and why, and then prepare questions to guide you. That is the formula.
But many times, following that formula just isn’t possible. When you’re working an intense case, you don’t always have time for all that preparation. When information comes quickly, you must be flexible. You may have to go with the flow, and quickly follow the next lead or speak with the next witness, without the benefit of all that prep time.
No professional likes this type of interviewing; we feel off our game, and ill prepared. But the investigator who can master the cold interview and learn to roll with it can quickly glean lots of valuable information in the early stages of a case.
None of the ideas I present in this paper are original. These ideas have been presented in some form to me in classes, webinars, and schools for interviewing and interrogations I’ve taken during my career. This article is an overview of what I found to be important and a good starting point for someone new to the profession or old in the business.
Dress like a pro.
“This is a very complicated case Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous.” —The Dude ("The Big Lebowski")
What makes that first impression, sets the basis for rapport?
Whether you are knocking on doors, speaking with people in the street, or visiting local businesses, it’s your appearance that makes the first impression. It matters.
No, you do not need a suit and tie—being “overdressed” can make some people feel uneasy in impromptu situations. BUT you are not The Dude from The Big Lebowski. This is a profession, and you should always present a professional appearance. If you wear a beard or mustache, it should be groomed and trimmed, your hair combed, no ball caps.
You want to give the impression that when you got out of bed that morning, it was with a purpose. Is this superficial? Yes, it is. But you’re approaching strangers and asking difficult or personal questions. They might decide in a split second whether to cooperate. And if you immediately project professionalism and caring in your dress and demeanor, that initial contact may go easier.
Does that seem like common sense? Sure. But we’ve all known a few in the investigative profession who do not adhere to common-sense norms of professionalism.
Check your attitude.
“Respect can be as contagious as measles if it is properly spread.” —Paladin ("Have Gun - Will Travel")
Next step: Check your attitude at the door and smile. Smiling has shown in studies to persuade people to drop their guard. A smile gives someone the impression that you are friendly and approachable.
We all have good and bad days, and our moods bleed into how we interact with others. But when you’re in the field, keep the grumpiness to yourself. Some days, it’s cold and rainy, somebody owes you money and isn’t answering the phone, and everybody calls in sick. But you can’t carry that into the interview. People sense irritation in your tone of voice and body language, and they sense it especially when they’re already hyper-vigilant, worried about why you have approached them.
If someone reacts to you with suspicion or hostility, it’s important to realize that you may be playing a part in their reaction. With that in mind, play your part in a more positive way: Show respect, sincerity, interest, and empathy when appropriate during the interview.
One of the simplest way to put a person at ease and build rapport is to mirror the person’s body language. It’s subliminal, but it can help you communicate empathy and win trust. I’m not suggesting that you totally “fake it” or act completely out of character for you, because people will notice that and shut down. Just take what you really feel and place it on the back burner so you can accomplish your mission.
Shut up and listen.
“Too much positive is either scared, stupid or both. Reality is uncertain.” —Spenser (“Early Autumn”)
Now that you’ve gotten in the door, what do you do?
First and foremost, listen. Silence is golden. You are not there to show the interviewee how much you know, or how educated and worldly you are. You are there to learn, to gather information—not give it. So, let them talk.
If you give a person an open-ended question and let them run with it, and then take notes, it shows you are interested it what the interviewee has to say. If they go too fast, slow them down by asking a follow-up question, then let them continue. Your language should be clear and concise—no slang or street terms.
But that does not mean using huge words or impenetrable jargon that nobody ever says in normal conversation. The person you’re interviewing doesn’t need to know how expansive your vocabulary is. Keep it simple. No acronyms, no industry terms, no insider language.
Take your time. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Do not rush a person when they are giving you information. You may miss something that ends up being important later in the investigation.
If you are in the investigative business for any amount of time, you’ll eventually need to conduct a cold interview. Whatever your approach is to interviewing someone when you have little to no information, it’s important to remember these few simple rules: appearance, attitude, patience. There are already enough variables you can’t control—why not let these guidelines be your constants?
Adapt them as you see fit, and learn to respond to rapidly evolving situations—and you can be successful in the business of private investigations.
About the author:
Chad Stanbery is a North Carolina private investigator, certified forensic interviewer, certified criminal investigator and a graduate from Appalachian State with a BS in criminal justice. He is based in Charlotte, NC and specializes in criminal and civil defense. You can follow him on LinkedIn.