One of the primary tools that private investigators use in conducting their investigations is the investigative interview. By asking questions of witnesses, informants, suspects, and others, private investigators can establish the facts of a case: what happened, who was involved, who is telling the truth, and who is not.
Conducting an investigative interview is a skill that is developed over time through careful training and practice. In this post, we will explore what an investigative interview is, how to conduct one, and what are some tips and techniques to make your investigative interviews more effective.
What is an Investigative Interview?
An investigative interview is a one-on-one conversation between an interviewer and interviewee where the interviewer asks a series of questions to a witness, suspect, informant, or another involved party to help determine the facts of a specific case. The information that private investigators gather from investigative interviews is often used as part of the formal legal or organizational processes resulting from establishing the facts of a case, and this information can even be used to help prosecute criminals, exonerate the innocent, or provide clarity or closure to an incident or event.
How to Conduct an Investigation Interview
Interviews vary in their particular purposes and scopes; but in general, most follow a particular flow and pattern. Here is generally how to conduct an investigative interview:
1. Always approach your interviews with an open mind
Never approach an interview with a closed mind or your mind made up about what you will learn. This type of approach will result in interview tunnel vision that will stilt your questions and skew the results of your interview. It could even lead you to misrepresent the facts of a case and jeopardize your credibility as a private investigator. Always be fair, honest, and open-minded.
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare
You should always do pre-work for your interviews. This includes knowing who you will be interviewing, any relevant information about the person, and why you are interviewing them (e.g. are they a witness, suspect, or some other party). Next, it is important to draft a list of questions to ask a witness in the interview. These questions will be the outline for your interview, though you can always deviate from this list as an interview unfolds.
3. Schedule a time and place to meet
Next, it is time to schedule a specific time and place to meet with the interviewee. It’s important for private investigators to always be sensitive to and flexible with the interviewee’s schedule. This means setting expectations for how long the interview should take, sticking to that commitment, offering multiple times to meet to ensure flexibility, and making sure that the meeting place is conveniently located for the interviewee.
When it comes to choosing a location to meet, always choose a non-threatening place, such as an office or conference room. It’s important that your meeting place is in a safe area, is well lit, and comfortable (e.g. have comfortable furniture and not be too hot or too cold).
4. Establish rapport
The very first step in any conversation is to establish rapport with the other person. It’s important to introduce yourself and find common ground with the interviewee before you dive right into asking your questions. It’s also important to establish and maintain credibility and trust over the course of the interview. Helpful ways to do this are to smile, make eye contact, explain the interview process, give the person your full attention when they are speaking, and silence your phone and remove other distractions.
5. Practice confidentiality from the outset
Investigations often involve sensitive matters that should not be broadcast to witnesses or other involved parties. Over the course of your interviews, only share information that the interviewees need to know. If you fail to maintain confidentiality, sensitive details about the investigation may soon spread like wildfire and cause further harm to an organization, business, or individual.
6. Start simple
With the basics in place, it’s time to start the formal interview process. Whatever you do, don’t dive right into your heavy-hitting questions. It’s best to start with simple questions that get the interviewee comfortable with the idea of you asking questions and he or she answers them.
Some jurisdictions do allow for citizen’s arrests, but this is a practice for all citizens and unrelated to one’s role as a private investigator. In jurisdictions that allow for citizen’s arrests, private investigators should ensure they fully understand the law and ensure they are staying compliant with it.
7. Progress to more complex questions
As the interview progresses, you can start to mix up the types of questions you ask. There are two types of questions you can use: open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” but require the interviewee to elaborate) and closed-ended questions (questions that can be answered with a limited number of answers, such as a “yes” or “no”). Open-ended questions are your best friend in any interview because they get the interviewee talking and get you the most possible information. Closed-ended questions have value too and are a great way to confirm facts or get direct answers to particular questions.
8. Ask about confusing points or contradictions
Sometimes things just don’t add up. This can be for a number of reasons—you are not fully understanding what is being communicated, the person being interviewed is confused, the situation is complex, or it may be a contradiction or a lie. If you encounter one of these points in an interview, ask clarifying questions about what the person means or ask how a contradiction meshes with something the person previously said. Whatever you do, do not be accusatory in your tone or questions. Simply focus on the facts.
9. Find out who else to contact
Sometimes interviews can be stepping stones to other interviews with people who are more closely involved or know more about the topic you are investigating. Your job is to find out who else you should be talking with and ask your interviewee who these people might be.
10. Leave the door open for further conversation
When the interview is wrapping up, be sure to give the interviewee your contact information and let them know that they can reach out to you at any time to share any additional information they may learn or anything else they may remember after the interview is over.
11. Document your interviews
You will normally always document your interviews by taking notes. In some cases, you may even record your interviews if appropriate (be sure to ask for permission first). In the following section, we will explore the details on how to do this, but the important point here is that you make sure the results of your interview are captured in a clear, detailed, and shareable way.
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How to Document Investigative Interviews
As interviewees answer your questions, it’s important that you document these answers. Taking notes is often the primary way private investigators document investigative interviews. Here are some helpful tips on how to document your investigative interviews:
- Make sure you’re capturing the key points - The best way to keep notes is to use the 5W1H technique (asking about the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How). While not every one of these six questions will be relevant in every situation, they provide a good outline for your notes to ensure that you are capturing complete information.
- Record your interviews and use timestamps - In some cases, it is appropriate to record your interviews (just be sure to ask the interviewee for permission first). While recording can be useful, it can also be extremely inefficient if it is not coupled with detailed written notes. To maximize efficiency, most recording devices have a timestamp displayed on the front of the device as it is recording. As important points take place in the interview, quickly look at the time stamp on the device and jot it down next to your note. This will help you easily find that part of the recording later if you need to re-listen to it.
- Create a notetaking convention - Notes can ebb, flow, and meander across a variety of topics. To help keep your notes useful, it is recommended that you create a notetaking convention that you can use to make your notes easily scannable. Here is an example convention that you can use:
- Add a checkbox for items that may require action or follow-up after the interview.
- Underline important statements or phrases
- Circle names of other people involved
- Star key facts or points
- Put a box around items for points to return to later in the interview
Whatever convention you choose, remember that it is designed to help you later.
- Create a digital copy of your notes - After the meeting is done, create a digital copy of your notes to ensure they are saved and shareable. It is discouraged that you use a computer during the interview, as this can be very distracting and come across as cold and impersonal. It is recommended that you create a digital copy of your notes later, which is a great way to review your notes and glean additional insights that you may have missed during the interview.
Improve your documenting skills with our Report Writing for Investigators Course.
Interview Tips and Techniques for Investigators
Interviewing is a skill that takes time and practice to perfect. As you get more and more experience, you will develop your own set of interview techniques. Here are some tips and techniques that will help you improve your investigative interviews.
- Avoid accusatory, leading, or threatening questions - Remember, it is your job to establish the facts of a case, not accuse a person or imply anything either positive or negative about that person. That means you should never ask questions like, “Is it true that you are considered a mean person?” or “Why did you hit her?” Better questions would be: “How would people describe you?” or “Who hit her?”
- Look for indirect answers - When someone gives you an indirect answer, there is probably an important reason for it. Indirect answers should raise a red flag in your mind, and you should ask clarifying questions to get to the bottom of why the person is being indirect.
- Double-check answers later on - Sometimes it is a useful strategy to loop back to previously answered questions to double check a person’s answer. This can help confirm facts, establish or diminish the interviewee’s trustworthiness, and glean new details.
- Ask if there is something left unasked - Sometimes you don’t know the right questions to ask. A great question is to ask the interviewee if there is anything that you as the interviewer failed to ask that the interview feels you should have asked. This can sometimes open up new troves of information.
- Balance being methodical and flexible - With diverse personalities, one size of interview does not always fit all. You will need to be flexible enough to adapt your style for differing personalities, but methodical enough to ensure you still get the information you need. Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you can do this right away. This is an interviewing skill that is developed over time. With enough practice and experience, you will soon be able to read each interview and adapt your approach appropriately.
Are you looking to develop your investigative interviewing skills? NITA offers Interviewing Skills for Private Investigators, a course designed to help private investigators develop their interview skills and teach useful investigative interview techniques. This course will cover a wide variety of topics, including general rules for interviewing, various types of interviews, traits of a successful interviewer, types of interviewees, and cognitive interviewing communication. Learn more about the course.