Showing empathy to a subject during an interview can sometimes be a difficult and confusing task for the interviewer. Done the wrong way, it can lead to potential justification of a subject’s actions or damage the credibility of the interviewer. If empathy is projected appropriately, however, it builds a stronger foundation of human connection and allows the subject to disclose information in a more comfortable environment.
We have seen that interviewers often struggle with this balance of projecting empathy without suggesting leniency. If a rationalization is presented in a way that suggests consequences are minimal, or the subject’s actions are justified, the interviewee may feel that they can confess to a crime without any punishment. This perception of leniency has led to several problems, including false confessions and wrongful terminations when a subject is incentivized to admit to something just to escape the room. The removal of intent through the interview process could also impact the ability to suspend, terminate, or prosecute the subject. This is often seen in cases where the words “mistake” or “accident” are included in a subject’s statement, which most likely came from the interviewer’s attempt to rationalize. Ultimately, showing understanding for the subject’s situation must be different than demonstrating justification for their actions.
It is also apparent that many interviewers have a difficult time identifying an appropriate story to share that resonates with the subject for serious crimes. Interviewers struggle when tasked with attempting to show understanding for a subject who committed a crime that we are unable to relate to or have empathy for. In the law enforcement setting, this could be a sexual assault or child abuse case, and in the private sector, it may be a case of discrimination or sexual harassment. Attempting to have empathy for a person who has been engaging in these behaviors feels like an impossible task. An interviewer stating, “Sure, you’ve been harassing employees and making discriminatory jokes, but I understand” isn’t the most authentic or truthful statement.
Rationalization stories that parallel the actual crime may contaminate a confession provided by the subject. Sharing a story of a prior case in which a subject committed refund fraud may indirectly provide details about the current investigation to the subject. Later, if a confession is obtained, it will be hard to determine if the subject knew details of the crime because they committed it or if they just reiterated information from the rationalization story.
In “Jail Inmates’ Perspective on Police Interrogation” (Journal of Psychology, Crime & Law, 2019), Hayley Cleary and Ray Bull shared two specific areas that suggest the importance of showing empathy: sympathy/perspective-taking and humanity/integrity. Similar to our practical experience, there is a profound positive impact during an interrogation when an interviewer develops a foundation of rapport and builds a human connection with the subject. Ideally, the interviewer should be genuine and sincere in their dialogue with the subject while showing empathy and understanding for the difficulties the interviewee may be facing.
We want the subject to be able to disclose information that may be embarrassing or pose serious potential consequences. It is imperative that an interviewer be respectful and show empathy and understanding to provide a venue for these discussions. It is also important that this is done in a way that preserves intent, does not minimize the consequences, and prevents the likelihood of contaminating a confession.
We have created a strategic approach to identify the appropriate stories to tell. Considering that the goals of creating rationalization stories are to preserve intent, project empathy, and prevent contamination, it is imperative that we empathize relative to the motive and not the crime.
Reasons. The first step in this structured process is to identify what potential reasons the subject may provide for their wrongdoing. These should not be excuses or explanations for the evidence, but rather what their personal rationalization may be. For example, in an embezzlement case, the subject may eventually confess and state, “The company should have paid me more in the first place,” or “It was just too easy; nobody ever paid attention to those accounts.” Maybe we have a sexual harassment investigation, and we anticipate the subject telling us, “I didn’t think it would offend anyone,” or “I just got caught up in the moment and regretted it immediately.”
Rationalization Topic. Now that we have anticipated the potential reasoning for the crime, we need to break each of these down to the core topic. Ignoring the actual crime and focusing on the rationale will be a major separation between rationalizing the motive and the act itself. Let us refer back to our two case examples: embezzlement and sexual harassment.
Reason: “The company should have paid me more in the first place.”
Topic: disgruntled or underappreciated
Reason: “It was just too easy; nobody ever paid attention to those accounts.”
Reason: “I didn’t think it would offend anyone.”
Topic: misplaced humor
Reason: “I just got caught up in the moment.”
Story Prompts. The final part of our process is to identify stories that relate to the rationalization topics. Investigators should no longer be focused on the crime itself or the reasoning, but rather should identify rationalizations relative to the core topic. If we use the same examples, interviewers should develop rationalization stories for the following: disgruntled, opportunity, misplaced humor, and impulse. The stories are now directly related to the topics and should not contain elements of the actual incident.
In fact, once an interviewer identifies appropriate stories that discuss “impulse,” they should be able to use that same story in a different case but with the same topic. Now, a rationalization story that discusses how a person made an impulsive decision to go on an expensive vacation may relate to the embezzlement suspect who impulsively stole money from their company.
Ideally, this strategy to identify appropriate rationalization stories should help interviewers remove the concept of having to relate directly to the crime. Regardless of the severity of the case, the interviewer should attempt to have empathy for the pressures or feelings the subject felt. It is of upmost importance, however, that interviewers do not justify the offense or suggest that the rationale serves as an excuse and removal of consequences. Empathy, human connection, and showing compassion are essential elements of any sensitive conversation, an interview serving as a prime example.