The power of silence when questioning subjects

When it comes to gleaning information, never underestimate the power of silence. It can be a tremendously helpful tool, when applied correctly, in situations involving suspects who you think may be trying to deceive you and cooperative subjects who are honestly trying to help you.

If you’re dealing with a potentially deceptive suspect, strategically timed periods of silence can generate a high level of discomfort, which in turn can yield the information you’re looking for.

The approach is straightforward, but may require a bit of practice. After you’ve asked a question and received a less-than-sufficient answer, simply sit there silently for a period of time long enough to feel “abnormal.”

Most people have an inherent tendency to become uncomfortable when a conversation suddenly and unexpectedly falls into silence. Chances are good a suspect will start talking again to fill the empty air and to respond to the unspoken “response” you’re giving him to his answer – that being “you either haven’t told me enough or you’re not telling me the truth.” It’s then that additional information that may be helpful might come out.

It’s important to understand, however, that you might also feel uncomfortable in the prolonged silence or you might fall prey to impatience and break the silence just so you can keep moving forward with the investigation.

Don’t forget that sitting there silently is NOT wasting time. In fact, it’s a great tactical use of time!

When it comes to dealing with cooperative subjects — people who are trying to give you a clear, honest, and accurate account of an incident or who are truly trying to help provide information for you — strategic silence can be a helpful catalyst to better recall. In these scenarios, sitting silently for a short period after the subject’s answers gives them time to recall anything else that might surface in their memory and helps avoid interruption, which can have an overall detrimental impact on interviews.

Dr. Ed Geisleman — a UCLA psychology professor and experienced interviewer who trains law enforcement — suggests that approximately four seconds should be a long enough pause to avoid an abrupt halting of the recall process and short enough to avoid being uncomfortable.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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