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Inside IAI Elite Training Days 2023

Held in San Antonio, Texas, the International Association of Interviewers (IAI) Elite Training Days was a deep dive into the art and science of the interview and challenged attendees to think beyond the status quo. At the end of the two days, it was clear to me that interviewing is evolving quickly and that it’s a good thing. If you are a law enforcement or a retail loss prevention professional and are “all good” with the training you received ten-plus years ago, or even five-plus years ago, chances are you have been left behind. Many of us sink our teeth into one way of doing our jobs, especially interviewing, and, like a stubborn dog, refuse to let go. We have some success with a technique and hang onto it like a safety blanket. It’s time to rethink this.

Truly successful interviewers have naturally been using many of the techniques that the IAI speakers covered. Science backs up what you’ve known to be true all along: You will be more successful if you have true empathy, can develop a relationship, and recognize your biases. Old techniques that stress dominating the subject or overwhelming them with the case and investigative techniques have been proven less effective than connecting with the subject on a human level.

Is interviewing going “soft”? The answer: interviewing is getting better.

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The two days in San Antonio included speakers from the FBI, RCMP, and psychologists who have studied interviewer behavior and the impact of our behavior on subjects. These included:

  • Christopher Wilson, PsyD, director of Being Trauma Informed and expert on relationship-based interviewing
  • Jeff Kukucka, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Towson University
  • Dave Thompson, CFI, president and partner at Wicklander-Zulawski
  • Bruce Pitt-Payne, LSM, CPII, LPI, RCMP retired, owner and lead trainer for PlayFair Investigative Consulting and Training
  • Erica Adkins, PhD, ABPP, associate professor at Denver University specializing in military psychology, and an expert on vicarious trauma
  • Colton Seale, CEO – Pyxis Academy, retired FBI agent, and former member of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group
  • Gil Zamora, retired San Jose sketch artist and owner of Mindful Interviewing

A particularly raw session on a hostage situation was presented by two law enforcement officers, Ken Cyzen, CFI, Lt. Kane County Sherriff’s Office (retired), and David Wolf, Commander, Kane County Sherriff’s Office. Shellie Cartwright, an ER nurse who was held hostage for several hours at a hospital in a suburb of Chicago, bravely described her actions and emotions during this traumatic experience. Although at times hard to hear, the session drove home the need for field interviewers to be aware of their impact on witnesses and subjects.

Each session had takeaways that I felt any practitioner could use immediately in their profession and make them rethink their current interview strategies.

I’m hoping my takeaways for the LP Magazine readers will spur them to update their training or, at the very least, be curious about the research in the field.

One speaker made me reevaluate some of my past practices. As an interview practitioner, I had learned to control the conversation during an interview and that increasing mental stress for the subject was an effective means of getting them to the point of submission and eventually confession. Elements such as building rapport or listening to the subject were minimized due to time constraints or the need to control the conversation. I’m now rethinking this approach.

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The session “Science Supporting Relationship-based Interviewing,” presented by Christopher Wilson, PsyD, delved into why humans have evolved to make connections as a means of survival and how this instinct can affect our interviews.

IAI Executive Director Tony Paixão and Christopher Wilson, PsyD

Connections have kept our species alive for thousands of years. When we sat around the campfire as hunters and gatherers, there was safety in the group. When a group member was cast out, it meant almost certain death. If they were cast out, their brains kicked in with defense mechanisms, and they had two options: they could fight the bear or run from the bear. Neither option was great, so staying in the group was optimal.

This need to survive, and the use of connections to other humans in the group to do so, has imprinted on the human brain over eons and wired us to seek it out in our modern-day interactions.

We now live in an era of relative safety, with few bear attacks. However, according to Wilson, physical and mental threats activate the same brain centers and produce fight-or-flight instincts. How does this apply to the interview room?

- Digital Partner -

Wilson stated, “When we are in an interview, we don’t want people to fall into fight or flight. We don’t want them to fall into their reflexes. Defense mechanisms make an interview more difficult. On the other side, social engagement inhibits or dampens defense circuitry.”

There is a perceived threat in an interview, and whether it’s a threat to the subject’s livelihood or social stigma, it is real. It’s our job to form a social connection with the interviewee to decrease the threat. Otherwise, we may have to deal with the ramifications of a missing connection, which can manifest in one of the following ways: avoidance, an urge to leave, arguing, shutting down, or befriending the interviewer.

As I think back on past failed interviews, I can clearly remember subjects who reacted in some of these ways, and it was likely due to my inability to form a connection.

There is science behind building rapport, which must be genuine and not faked. Our brains are constantly scanning for threats, and, according to Wilson, when the brain maps a threat, it becomes hyper-vigilant. A hyper-vigilant interview subject is not the best subject; they may interpret the situation and conversation with a negativity bias, which will, in turn, make your interview more difficult.

Lastly, Wilson stressed that our facial expressions and tone of voice must be genuine to connect. Exuding humanity and honoring that subject’s experience is key to a connection. It’s not always easy. Preparing yourself for the task of connecting with the other person is fundamental. Doing research ahead of time and game-planning with your team will help.

Many of the Elite Training Days speakers echoed the sentiment of Wilson that interviewers need to be flexible and aware of their effect on the subject. Our biases, inability to connect, and even closed-ended questions are all sources of ineffective interviews.

I look forward to IAI Elite Training Days next year in Chicago. I anticipate learning new ways to enhance the interview for the interviewer, subjects, and witnesses. For those passionate about improving their skillset and staying on top of new research, this is a can’t-miss experience.

Tony Paixão, CFI, executive director at IAI, expressed this passion well, “We work throughout the year to deliver a range of credible, dynamic, and engaging educational opportunities for the investigative interviewing community—ETD 2023 was the perfect culmination of these efforts. Every presentation was rooted in evidence-based principles and provided actionable takeaways for attendees to make an immediate impact in the field. When a conference can be equal parts educational, collaborative, and actionable, we can call that a success!”

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