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March 19, 2008
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John E. Reid & Associates, Inc. Interview and Interrogation Tips and Case Studies
with John E. Reid & Associates, Inc.

Investigators: Are you a good listener?

An investigator’s ability to solve cases relies extensively on his or her ability to develop rapport, ask the right questions, identify deceptive responses and analyze elicited information relative to evidence and other factual information. What is often overlooked, however, is the investigator’s ability to listen. Just as there is a distinction between seeing and observing, there is also a clear distinction between hearing and listening.

The importance of listening skills is readily apparent when reviewing an electronically recorded communication. The following example comes from a consultation in which a woman went into a police department to report that she had repressed memories of being raped by her father on her 14th birthday. The following is a portion of that interview:

I: “After he brought you back to his apartment, what happened?”
S: “He took advantage of me.”
I: “In what way?”
S: “Well, he got me drunk and then forced me into sex.”
I: “So he had sex with you?”
S: “I’m sure he did.”
I: “Why are you sure?”
S: “Because I hurt the next day.”
I: “And this happened in his apartment?”
S: “I’m having a hard time believing it myself.”
I: “Did it happen more than once?”
S: “It had to be.”

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During this interview the investigator heard that the woman’s father forced her to have sexual intercourse with him on multiple occasions in his apartment, and that is exactly what the criminal complaint alleged. However, upon reading the transcript, it is perfectly clear that the woman never told the investigator that she recalled having sexual intercourse with her father on even one occasion.

This example illustrates an important point: Iit is much easier to interpret written material than spontaneous information heard during a conversation — which is to say, accurate reading is easier than accurate listening. With the growing trend to electronically record interviews and interrogations, the issue of accurately hearing what a suspect, victim or witness actually says is going to be raised with increased frequency. To help address this important issue, this article will identify three common listening errors and offer a remedy for each.

1. Making unwarranted assumptions
As listeners, we all tend to fill in gaps of missing information. A subject tells us one thing, but we hear something else because we want the subject’s response to answer our question. During our training seminar we show the interview of a college coed who reported that she had been abducted from a parking lot at knifepoint by a man. Upon arriving at her parents’ home, following the alleged abduction, her dress was torn, she was crying and her long hair had been cut short. During her interview the investigator asked her to tell him what happened. During her account she explained that the man, “started to cut my hair.” She never said that the abductor cut her hair, rather, she implied that he did. Other examples of phrases that imply that something was done, even though it may not have been, include: “I wanted to...” and “I thought about...”

Another example of an unwarranted assumption is when the subject is asked a specific question and then offers a generalized response. For example:

Q: “What time did you arrive home from work last night?”
A: “I usually get home right around 6:30.”

While the suspect’s statement is accurate in that he usually does get home around 6:30, he is not saying that he necessarily got home last night at 6:30. The suspect has generalized his response through the use of the word, “usually”. Other generalization phrases include:

“I like to...” “The policy is...” “As a habit...” “I generally...”

Another category of response that may cause unwarranted assumptions is called estimation phrases. The following examples illustrate responses in which the suspect is estimating an answer rather than stating a definitive position:

Q: “Did you verify the money received from the vault that day?
A: “I’m sure I did”.
Q: “Have you ever seen this document before?”
A: “My answer would be that I have not.”
Q: “Is that your signature on the back of this check?”
A: “I would have to say that it’s not.”

An investigator’s failure to recognize the difference between a personal judgment and a factual statement can lead to all sorts of incorrect assumptions. Consider the following victim account:

“He smelled like he was drinking and came right at me. We fought and I was able to get away and run to my neighbor’s house. He got in his car and drove off like a drunken maniac. I was afraid for my life!”

If the investigator’s report reflected that the suspect had been intoxicated, operated a vehicle while intoxicated, and that he struck the victim or threatened the victim’s life, he would not be able to defend any of those statements. The victim never said that the suspect had anything alcoholic to drink, that there was a physical fight, or that he threatened her in any way.

Remedy: A simple technique to make certain that the investigator accurately understands what a subject said is to offer a summary of the subject’s account and elicit confirmation that the summary is accurate. For example:

“Let me make sure I have this right. You’re telling me that your dad took you out to a restaurant for your 14th birthday and bought you alcoholic drinks, which you consumed. He then drove you back to his apartment where he had sexual intercourse with you on several occasions. Is that correct?”

Another technique to guard against making unwarranted assumptions is to develop a habit of clarifying ambiguous information during an interview. When the suspect offers a generalized response, uses an estimation phrase or offers a personal judgment, the investigator needs to clarify the subject’s statement:

“Did the man cut your hair?”

“How confident are you that you verified the money that day?”

“Did he strike you?”

It must be realized that any normal conversation is filled with ambiguous statements, because use of such statements simplifies communication. In the following statement, each underlined phrase represents an ambiguous statement.

“It was cold out and the bus was real late. After waiting a long time it came and I got on and there was no where decent to sit. The ride took forever and I finally got off.”

It is unlikely that the investigator really needs to clarify each of these ambiguous statements. But if it is important for the investigator to know how late the bus was or what time the subject actually got off the bus, it cannot be assumed that the bus was at least 15 minutes late or that the subject exited the bus later than the scheduled time at that stop.

2. Misinterpreting speech errors
It makes for great TV drama for a detective to identify the guilty suspect who inadvertently incriminates himself through some form of speech error. While a speech error could be an unconscious admission, it is important to recognize that everyone makes speech errors for a number of reasons including anxiety, fatigue and a feeling of being rushed. Examples of common innocent speech errors include improper verb tense (“At that time I didn’t know that my wife is dead”) plural vs. singular nouns (“I gave the checks to the cashier”) and apparent Freudian slips (“I gave her the tickets, I mean the tapes).”

As a general statement, speakers are accurate in reference to pronouns and genders. When a suspect says, “We left the house that morning” someone was probably with him. When the suspect says, “I gave him the check.” the person receiving the check was probably male. However, I have caught myself making pronoun and gender errors especially when I am speaking in a hurry or when fatigued.

In detecting deception, word use, grammar and sentence structure are more meaningful in a written account where the subject has time to prepare and mentally formulate the document than in a spontaneous verbal response. Speech errors like those listed above could be the result of a guilty suspect who unconsciously allows the truth to leak from his lips. But it is certainly possible for innocent suspects to make identical speech errors.

Remedy: Just as a suspect’s statement, “All right, fine, I did it.” does not constitute a confession, when the suspect’s grammar is inconsistent with facts or prior statements, the investigator should not assume that the suspect incriminated himself and therefore must be guilty. If the suspect’s grammar is inconsistent with other statements, the investigator should ask questions to resolve the inconsistency, such as, “Tell me again, when did you first know that your wife was dead?” “How many checks were there?” “Was the teller male or female?”

With respect to an apparent “Freudian slip,” recognize that alliteration and assonance (also called “vowel rhyme”) are common innocent speech errors, especially when a suspect is nervous, as in, “I left and got into the cab — I mean the car — and drove home.” As always, when evaluating verbal behavior, context is critical. If my boss brought me into his office and announced, “Brian I’ve decided to terminate, I mean re-assess your position within the company,” I would probably be smart to look for a new job.

3. Forming a mental set
Complete the following sentence:

The sky was dark and the wind was blowing right off the coast, rattling my front window. I looked out across the bay and it was raining _____________.

Almost all readers would complete this sentence, “cats and dogs.” The problem is, the actual completion of the sentence is, “on the horizon.” The tendency to form an expectation toward a situation or event is termed a mental set.

I have to guard against this tendency when participants ask a question during a training seminar. When the question is initially being asked I may anticipate what the question will be and start mentally formulating a response before the question is completed. As a result of forming that expectation, and, therefore, not listening to the entire question, I may offer a response that is totally inappropriate.

An investigator who forms a preconceived notion that a suspect will lie to him, that a witness has no useful information to offer or that a victim must be telling the truth may hear exactly what he expects to hear. It requires a conscious effort to counteract the effects of forming a mental set. Over the years I have learned to completely listen to a participant’s question, clarify ambiguous information, and only then respond to the question.

Another casualty of forming a mental set occurs when an investigator fails to analyze the logic of the subject’s statements because his mind is focused on learning specific information. During our seminar, an interview is shown of a suspect who falsely reported that a car cut him off and the men inside the car stole an $8,000 deposit from him. The suspect had offered a somewhat confusing and elaborate explanation of what happened. In an effort to get a better grasp of the sequence of events, the investigator asked the suspect to tell him what happened after he was cut off:

“The car cut me off and I slammed on my brakes. The biggest one, the only one I saw get out of the car, approached the window, pulled open my door, grabbed the keys... turned off the ignition and grabbed the keys and snatched the deposit bag.”

If we are only interested in understanding the sequence of events, this statement seems to make sense. But if we ask, “Is the statement logical?” it most certainly is not. For example, how could the victim know that the man who robbed him was bigger than the one who remained in the car?

In other instances, a subject’s statement may not make sense because it does not follow patterns of normal human behavior. Consider the following statement from a 7-year-old girl:

“I was playing in the park with my sister and two friends, Sally and Jessie. This man came over and talked to us about stuff. When he was by me he touched me where he shouldn’t.”

It seems highly unlikely that a child molester would fondle the girl in front of three witnesses — child molesters try to get their victims alone. The girl’s account does not follow normal human behavior and certainly requires clarification. I had a similar personal experience where I was mowing our backyard on a hot day and removed my shirt. Two 6-year-old twin girls live behind us, and when my wife saw them the next day they announced that they saw me naked in our yard. Fortunately, my wife knows that I don’t mow the lawn naked.

Remedy: A mental set is formed to help focus attention and minimize distractions that may thwart a goal. In many life situations, forming a mental set is a fundamental survival skill, such as heightened awareness when in a dangerous neighborhood or driving at a high rate of speed when responding to a robbery call. During an interview, however, an investigator needs to consciously keep an open mind and remember that his goal is to elicit information and objectively assess the credibility of that information. It is the novice investigator who says, “I know this guy’s guilty and I’m going into that room to prove it!” It is the experienced investigator who says, “There is evidence against this suspect, I am going to go into that room to find out what his explanation is.”

In conclusion, the very nature of an investigator’s job increases the likelihood of listening errors. There are time constraints to solve cases as quickly as possible, there can be a high degree of emotional involvement when the investigator may strongly want to believe that someone is telling the truth or lying, and investigators frequently work under conditions of fatigue and high stress. Finally, it is not a high priority among many of the people investigators question to be accurately understood.

A guilty suspect does not raise his hand to let the investigator know that he just lied by offering a specific denial. A frightened witness does not contact the investigator a day after the initial interview and announce that he withheld useful information. The victim who is reporting only part of the truth does not correct the investigator’s misconception of believing everything reported was factual. Despite these inherent difficulties, good listening skills can be learned and refined through practice and the simple awareness that all of us are prone to listening errors.

About the author

John E. Reid and Associates began developing interview and interrogation techniques in 1947. The Reid Technique of Interviewing® and Interrogation is now the most widely used approach to question subjects in the world. The content of our instructional material has continued to develop and change over the years. John E. Reid and Associates is the only organization that can teach the current version of our training program on The Reid Technique®.



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