Investigative Interviewing Group

Investigative Interviewing Group

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The role of improvisation in effective investigative interviews . . .

Founder & Chief Consultant at Sykes & Burrows, Co-founder & Consultant at LEADDS

How important is it for interviewers to develop improvisation skills? While a great deal of focus, logically, is placed on developing an interviewer's skills in structuring an interview, in asking the "right questions", in organising and introducing evidence into the interview, to some degree in deception detection, and other fundamentals, I am curious about the group's opinion or experience in being trained in improvisation to develop improved reaction times, fluidity of conversation, enhanced cognitive performance from both interviewer and interviewee, better & more natural rapport, improved emotional environment that is more conducive to honest information flow from interviewees, etc.

  • Comment (14)
  • July 10, 2012
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  • Ian H.


    Ian H.

    Managing Director at Forensic Interview Solutions Ltd

    Short and sweet view from me Stephen; for 'improvisation' read 'flexibility', a vitally key quality of an effective interviewer for me. In recent times I've encountered an alarming number of practitioners resorting to writing out 50+ questions during the planning and preparation phase (PEACE) so insecure are they and lacking in 'conversational confidence'. I'm not convinced you can 'train improvisation', even less so with regard to contribution to deception detection.
    Wish I had a pound (dollar?!) for every interviewee saying words to the effect of: 'Oh no, not yet, don't tell me about that yet, I'm not at that bit yet!' Prescriptive investigations! Not everyone is (or has the ability to be) an effective interviewer?

  • Stephen G.


    Stephen G.

    Founder & Chief Consultant at Sykes & Burrows, Co-founder & Consultant at LEADDS

    Cheers, Ian. Yes, it essentially means flexibility and the ability to really get in tune with the person you are conversing with, to be quick-minded and be able to turn things around on the edge of a razor, to be fluid in behaviour and conversation while staying highly acute with all your senses, highly aware of your surroundings, focused broadly (I know that seems a contradiction in terms but I mean focused holistically on the subject and not concentrating on only one thing like a race horse with blinders on), and to be highly astute to the tiniest details of what is being said, being omitted, being said non-verbally, etc.

    I think you really nailed it when you spoke about insecurity. Over-preparation and rigid adherence to a plan regardless of how ineffective it proves to be is the mark of insecurity. And it reads that way to the interviewee as well.

    Can it be taught? YES!!!! Can anyone be an effective interviewer? NO!!!! But everyone can learn to be better. Everyone can improve their ability to hold effective conversations and to read the people they are interviewing better (and not just for deception). But it requires a fresh approach to training. Just like a really skilled interviewer can seamlessly crack a subject and get them to open up by conversing with ease and with a stealthy natural control, a really skilled trainer can crack a training participant and open up potential s/he may not have known s/he has. But at the end of the day, effective investigative interviewing or good interviewing of any kind is not for everyone.

  • Des B.


    Des B.

    Sgt in An Garda Siochana

    A good interviewer needs to plan and be prepared for the 'scud' as it can present just as you sit on the couch to talk or getting ready to close. I like the idea if flexibility as the person being interviewed, in particular a child, does not know your model of interview, will in some way know why there are there but not how it will happen. Rapport is key, if you need to meet the child prior to the interview to build rapport, we recommend it as long as details of conversation are documented. We don't listen enough and therefore miss our cue to explore what was said.

  • Stephen G.


    Stephen G.

    Founder & Chief Consultant at Sykes & Burrows, Co-founder & Consultant at LEADDS

    Thanks, Des. Listening is essential . . . listening and observing to "hear" everything that is said and what is often meant when nothing is said.

    I will take part of a comment I made in another group about the same topic. Combine preparation with a lot of excellence in conversation management and add in a good dose of humanity, humility and humour and you have the beginnings of a recipe for effective investigative interviewing. But as Ian pointed out earlier, the interview can quickly become a rigid, two dimensional Q and A session with a lot of Q and very little valuable A, or no A at all. Rigidity and strict adherence to a "script", regardless of changes in dynamics or contextual issues related to the subject's personality or to specifics of cognitive and/or emotional load at the time of the interview based on various circumstances, will never serve to build a workable rapport or to hone in on the specific trigger points that will get a subject to open up and to open up with a reasonable degree of honesty.

  • Nichols (Nic) J.

    Nichols (Nic)

    Nichols (Nic) J.

    General Partner at Parrent Smith Investigations and Research

    I absolutely love this forum. The free flow of ideas, and the encouraging atmosphere I find simply marvelous and I am always delighted when I see that someone has started a string.

    Regarding training, when Stephen earlier said "...Yes, it essentially means flexibility and the ability to really get in tune with ..." I have found for myself that the mirror neurons, those located in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex are heightened in activity and acuteness of action by the practice of insight meditation, Vipassana. I have been an active meditator for almost as long as I have been a licensed investigator (40 years) and the "revving up" of my mirror neurons (MNs), those that allow us to "feel" what others feel and that account for much of our ability to be empathetic, have as much to do with my success in a interview as does my rhetorical preparation, in my opinion.

    I began encouraging new investigators that we have hired over the years to give this practice an opportunity to enhance their interviewing skills and most have reported an increase in their ability to generate rapport more quickly, quicker response to the subtle shifts in emotion and cognitive processing that the interviewee is experiencing and a greater ability to apprehend the shift into and out of "deception mode" by the interviewee.

    After I have prepared for an interview , i.e. reviewing my notes to myself, any staff comments, et. I usually set aside 10-15 minutes for a period of mindfulness meditation before I actually started the interview. I have discovered for myself that if I do this, the interview has more natural flow and the interview takes on a more collaborative "feel", with far less resistance by the interviewee to difficult issues, such as possible guilt if the interviewee is at risk.

    Just thought I'd share a process that might be useful to those of you willing to give it a shot, For those of you that do not meditate or if you have any questions in that area, I'd be glad to share with you my experience in that area, so please feel free to give me a call or drop a line and I'd be delighted to share with you whatever help I might be able to render.

    best regards to all,


  • Claire M.


    Claire M.

    Detective Constable at Greater Manchester Police

    Totally agree with flexibility I think its the quality that makes competent interviewers stand out. I find myself biting my tongue seeing reams of questions being written out in interview plans. Maybe its a confidence thing, we need to teach people to trust in their own cognitive ability and make themselves think on their feet.

  • Ann S.


    Ann S.

    Associate at The College of Policing

    But how do we encourage interviewers to take on board the importance of everything said above. Far too often officers are in too much of a hurry to get the interview done, they clock watch, they rush the victim, or get annoyed because they are not getting the answer they want from their questioning! and then there is a suspect in custody now! i must do the interview now! We try and try again to encourage officers to have a different perspective and train many of the aspects mentioned in previous comments above, but only a few see the light, only a few allow the 'penny to drop'. Many are frightened of the crossed examination in court about their inteview, many will not want to pre-plan or pre-meet their victim and have a conversation due to fear of not being able to handle themselves in court. There are many other aspects that prevents interviewers from conducting an efffective interview. I agree with Claire that it is a confidence thing and people need to be able to feel free to trust their own cognitive ability - however with pressure from management and the clock ticking - this creates the anxiety.

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