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Why You Need to Shut Up During Investigation Interviews

Researchers say that investigators should talk less and listen more

Posted by Dawn Lomer on August 30th, 2012

When a research team at Memorial University in Newfoundland reviewed 80 transcripts of police-suspect investigation interviews conducted over a ten-year period, they found that interviewers were making some big mistakes. The research indicated that interviewers weren’t allowing subjects to “talk and provide information freely”.

Instead, researchers found that the investigators tended to dominate the interview with accusatory and short-answer questions, hampering their ability to get complete and accurate information from interview subjects. The research also revealed that investigators were asking open-ended questions less than one per cent of the time and were expressing their opinions far too often.

Interrogation vs Conversation

Researchers attributed this trend to the “traditional confession culture” in the US and Canada where an accusatory interviewing approach is the norm. They felt that by monopolizing the interview, investigators were trying to obtain a psychological advantage.

We’ve written blog posts in the past about this method and there is some controversy over whether the interrogation-style interview is too heavy handed. Investigators with a background in law enforcement seem more likely to prefer a more aggressive interviewing style, whereas lawyers and corporate investigators tend to take more conversational approach.

Catch More Flies with Honey

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Most of the investigators I’ve interviewed lately have recommended a less combative approach, favoring techniques such as rapport building and conversational-type interviewing. They stress a softer approach, building trust and coaxing information out of the subject. You’ll catch more flies with honey, they argue.

The Canadian researchers seemed to agree, and in their report titled Let ‘Em Talk!, published in the Criminal Justice and Behaviour journal, they wrote that the accusatorial interviewing approach “can cause suspects to become defensive and uncooperative”.

Tim Smith, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, defended the methods used by Canadian police and cited the internationally renowned interview of ex-Colonel Russell Williams, who was convicted of two murders, two sexual assaults and numerous break-ins. In that interview, OPP Det Sgt Jim Smyth allowed Williams to tell his version of what happened, then introduced each piece of evidence against Williams one-by-one, until Williams was trapped by his lies.

Ironically, the same interviewer was blasted by a judge last year for using “dangerous” tactics. The judge threw out the confession of a young man accused in the shaking death of an infant in Guelph and acquitted him based on the tactics used by the investigator in the interview. The judge said that Smyth went on a “relentless monologue” and lied to the suspect about the strength of the evidence against him, causing him to confess under the pressure.

The Power of Silence

Based on the findings of the study, here are some recommendations for conducting investigations interviews:

  • Ask as many open-ended questions as possible, questions that begin with tell, explain or describe
  • Avoid giving your opinion
  • Listen actively
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Follow the 80-20 talking rule, which means that the interviewer talks only 20 per cent of the time

Is there a place for both styles of interview? Are there some situations where a confrontational interview is the best way to go? What do you think?


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications 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.

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