Investigation Interviews That Hit the Bullseye

A good interviewer can detect deception by paying attention to word choices and knowing how to read the target

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on January 23rd, 2012

Interviewing skills aren’t just for investigators any more. Many other professionals are finding themselves in positions where they have to conduct investigation interviews and interrogations. HR professionals and managers may need to interview employees in discrimination, harassment and other workplace investigations. Auditors may need to interview company executives when investigating accounting anomalies. School principals may find themselves in situations where they need to interview students, administrative staff and teachers, for investigations into misconduct.

The consequences of missing the mark during investigation interviews can be dire, no matter who is doing them. A badly conducted interrogation can spark a lawsuit, cause an innocent person to lose a job or go to jail, or put a company into bankruptcy. So it’s important that those who are required to do interviews have the weapons they need to do them well.

Word Choices

One important skill in a good interviewer’s quiver is the ability to determine whether or not a person is telling the truth. And while we’ve all heard about reading the signs of deception through body language, there’s another equally telling way to detect whether someone is telling the truth, and that is by analyzing the words they use to tell their story.

At the ACFE Canadian Fraud Conference in Toronto, interrogation expert and author Don Rabon led a four-hour workshop on detecting deception through words. As the former Deputy Director of the North Carolina Justice Academy, and an instructor to international criminal justice personnel as well as NATO counterintelligence, Rabon has more than 33 years of experience in investigations. He taught us how to analyze terminology used in an interrogation to spot words and patterns that suggest deception.

Signs of Deception

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Through examples of actual interrogation dialogue, Rabon provided tools for investigators to use to detect deception. He analyzed the interview examples sentence-by-sentence, explaining how words, phrases and dialogue style can provide clues to deception.

Some of the telltale signs of deception he talked about were:

  • Weakened assertions, such as ‘to tell you the truth” or “as a matter of fact”
  • Stalling, using hesitation or phrases such as “let’s see”
  • Lack of specificity, using vague identifiers such as “someone” or “something”
  • Changing pronouns from “I” (as the person doing the action) to “me” (as the recipient of action)
  • Second-person referencing, such as “you know…”
  • Modifying or qualifying statements, such as “little”, “usually” or “sort of”

Placement of Questions

But as with any soft science, there are no hard and fast rules. The use of the words and phrases above are only the “linguistic indicators of the possibility of deception,” said Rabon. A good interviewer should just be aware of their use and treat them as a point to probe further. “Use these as opportunities to guide us as to where to place the questions,” he said.

Building Relationships

Rabon stresses that the interview process is a chance to build relationships. In his newsletter, Hamlet’s Mind, he elaborates:

One of the many goals of interviews is to cultivate a relationship (i.e. building rapport) with the interviewee and potentially turn that individual into a source or informant subsequently. From an individual investigation standpoint you need to get the required information to complete your investigation; however, there is a need to also be focused on the long term impact that your behavior can have with the interviewee and any other individuals that person may come into contact with over time – be it immediately or years later.


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.