One of the most critical aspects of the legal profession is communication, to transmit ideas and information from one mind to another effectively. Communication consists of three major components: sending, receiving and feedback. Consider, for a moment, things you do when you talk to someone on a telephone. While you are talking, you are also listening for feedback for assurance that your message has been received and understood. What happens when you hear nothing for a few seconds? You may think your call has “dropped” unless the person on the other end provides you with some indication that they are listening. The same thing happens during face-to-face communication. The effective interviewer is one who has learned to ask questions, listen, observe and provide feedback in a way that encourages the interviewee to keep talking.
Get It Rolling
Most interviews in our profession involve eliciting information from a subject or witness. Many of these interviews are essentially adversarial, involving persons who are skeptical of our motives, afraid for their own interests or simply nervous. Your first objective should be to find common ground through which you may relate to the interviewee. As an investigator, my first question is generally, “May I get your full name?” This simple question may be taken in many directions to find common ground, such as, “Oh, I used to know a fellow by that name!” or “That sounds European. What is your ancestry?” A few relaxed minutes talking about things unrelated to the topic at hand may produce very nice results later on.
Once communication is established, the interview topic is broached using very broad, open-ended questions. Questions or requests, such as, “Tell me what you saw” or “Tell me what happened” are most effective. Questions that begin with how and why are generally open, requiring explanation. This is what you want. At this point your effort is to simply get the individual talking. Control the temptation to interrupt the speaker to get fine details. During this stage of the interview, we want to get the big picture.
As the interviewee begins to relax and talk, we provide certain signals that tell him/her that we are listening, appreciate what they are saying and understand not only their words, but what they mean to say. We use non-words, such as, “Uh-huh,” nods of the head, facial expressions and words or phrases like, “Oh, I see” or “Really.” We call these minimal encouragers. We may also repeat or paraphrase the last few words of the speaker. For example, if the speaker says, “It was a dark and stormy night,” we may follow with “Oh, a dark and stormy night” or “Bad weather, huh?” This tells the interviewee that we are not only hearing, but actively listening.
Fill in the Blanks
The big picture stage of the interview consists mainly of open-ended questions designed to get the interviewee talking, while we guide the conversation gently in the direction we wish it to go. Eventually, the interviewee will get to the end of their story. Here, we will take over and repeat the story back to them, just as they told it to us. We will now fill in all the blanks and obtain the fine details by asking closed ended (short-answer) questions, such as, “What color was the car?” or “What time did that happen?” Get the details of any nonspecific information. For instance, if the interviewee indicated he/she was with a friend, ask who the friend was. If they say something was a couple days later, ask exactly how many days. If they say they were coming back from the store, make sure you ask which store and why they were there. During this stage, allow them to make corrections, additions or amendments to the story while still in the interview. This is an important stage and should not be rushed, as a detail changed at a later date could jeopardize the entire interview. Often, an interview will move between the big picture stage and the fill-in-the-blanks stage several times before the interview is complete.
One of the greatest inhibitors to effective interviewing is note-taking. Most interviewers begin immediately to take extensive notes. This is a major mistake. During the big picture stage of the interview, take notes sparingly. Write only things like times, dates, names, numbers and other things that might be difficult to recall later. Spend your time and effort listening intently and observing the individual’s body language. The time to take copious notes is during the fill-in-the-blanks part of the interview, while you are retelling the story to the interviewee.
Wrapping It Up
Finally, we come to the end of the interview. At this point, we ask one last catchall question. The intent is to make the interviewee feel comfortable to add any last comments or information they may feel pertinent. We may have failed to ask a particular question or they may have something else they wish to disclose. My favorite catch-all is, “Is there anything else you think I should know?” Another might be, “Is there anything I forgot to ask?” or “If you were in my place, what else would you ask?” More than once, I have had this catch-all stage turn into an entirely new interview.
Effective interviewing is the art of eliciting information in a way that encourages the interviewee to talk to us, even though it may be against his or her best interest. To become skilled at interviewing is to become an excellent communicator. As we hone our skills at asking questions, listening, observing and providing feedback, we will be able to bring successful conclusion to those things that matter most to our clients.