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Interviewing: The Closed-Ended Conundrum

A store manager frantically calls you on Saturday afternoon to report a large theft incident at one of your stores, so naturally you turn on your investigative mindset and start firing away questions. “What did the guy look like?”, “How much stuff did they take?”, “What other employees were there?”, “Why didn’t you lock up the $1,000 leather coats?”

Although it may seem that these questions will provide the most immediate results, it also limits the scope of your inquiry. Of course, these details may be relevant and helpful to your investigation, but they may not be the right way to get there. Urgency of an investigation could be a variable that impacts the types and sequence of questions we ask, as we may need details more quickly in a case that involves an imminent threat. However, the purpose of this article is to stay within the scope of investigative interviews where the ultimate goal is to obtain as much reliable information as possible.

In order to support that goal, it’s necessary to obtain actionable intelligence and provide a platform for the interviewee to give us as much as information as they are able. With this in mind, we need to understand the importance of what questions we ask, when we ask them, and what the perspective of the interviewee is when being asked.

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What could be wrong with asking “what did the guy look like?” After all, part of our investigation includes identifying the culprit. The problems with this question are multiple, especially if they occur in the beginning of the interview when the interviewee has yet to provide us an uninterrupted narrative. First, the interviewer has already stated within their question that there is “the guy” which suggests to the interviewee that it was a single male actor responsible for the theft. If the interviewee initiates the conversation stating, “there was one guy that came in…” then it would be more appropriate, but it’s not for us to suggest.

Additionally, when the interviewer starts off with a question like this, they may also be working in contradiction to the interviewee’s attempt to recall the incident. Maybe “the guy” isn’t the context of the incident they are envisioning at the time, but instead it’s the loud noises they heard, the open emergency exit door, the vehicle parked at the curb, or the security tags alarming on the way out. Asking a question out of context of the interviewee’s current mindset may not only contaminate their response, but also makes it more difficult to recall.

Asking for a description of the subject is obviously an important part of the conversation, but there is a more effective way to obtain information than asking in a leading fashion. Even a helpful, truthful witness may unintentionally withhold information because they are only answering the questions that were asked. There is a major difference between initiating an interview with “Could you tell me what happened?” and “What did the guy look like?”.

Memory Retrieval

We’ve written several articles for Loss Prevention Magazine that highlight memory contamination and fallibility. These are commonplace issues that investigators may face, ranging from “I don’t remember” responses to eliciting false information from a cooperative witness. It is important to also recognize that the questions we ask—and the order in which we ask them—may also facilitate more productive recall of the incident.

Let’s take an example of you wanting to know about somebody’s weekend. If we take the closed-ended question approach, “What did you do for dinner on Saturday?”, the interviewee is then triggered to only respond with the location or type of meal they had on Saturday. This focuses their memory, in the moment, on details specific to this event—what they ate, where they were, who they were with. It’s possible that the interviewee goes through a mental checklist when answering this question, withholding perceived irrelevant details or those that do not fit within the scope of the question. For example, if asked “What did you do for dinner?”, the interviewee may not feel prompted or even immediately recall that they went to a bar for a nightcap after dinner. This detail wasn’t required to answer the question, so why volunteer it? A slightly better approach may be use of the open-ended question, inquiring “could you tell me about your Saturday night?”

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A Better Approach

Now that we’ve highlighted some of the issues with our favorite closed-ended questions, let’s visit a more effective approach which may provide us with more information and subsequently, more details. The best sequence to these fact-gathering interviews is most likely initiating with an open-ended question, probing further with expansion questions, clarifying with echo questions, and identifying details with the closed-ended question. To make this simple, we can break down our conversation with the store manager after the shoplifting incident using the approach outlined here.

Open-ended question. Initiating with this type of question prevents contamination by the interviewer and allows the interviewee to tell their story based on their recollection, in the order in which it comes to them. It also provides limited guardrails to the scope of their answer.

Could you tell me about what happened yesterday?

“I was working by the registers, and I saw a large group of people come in and go right toward the leather coats. They started shouting and then spreading out. Customers were getting scared and then all of a sudden, this group just ran out of the store with a bunch of merchandise. It was crazy!”

- Digital Partner -

Expansion question. Following up to a narrative is done best with expansion questions, as the interviewer can take any section of the story and inquire to learn more about it. These questions also prevent contamination and place the burden back on the interviewee to provide more details.

Could you tell me more about when you saw them come into the store?

“Like I said, there was a ton of people that came in at once which startled me. I heard a lot of noise, so it caught my attention.”

Echo question. When the interviewee uses subjective language, it is important to use their same words in the form of a question to allow them to define it for us. We may have a different perspective of these descriptive words and should not make any assumptions.

What do you mean by “a ton of people?”

“There had to be at least five people, because that’s how many I saw get into this red car.”

What do you mean by “a lot of noise?”

“They were just shouting across the store to each other. I don’t know what they were saying.”

Closed-ended question. Finally, once we have a wider scope of information from our interviewee, then it would be more appropriate to ask our closed-ended questions to get more intimate details. Remember, these can be very useful questions but only if used in the appropriate context.

You mentioned you saw them get into the car; do you know what type of vehicle it was?

“It was a red minivan; I think a Dodge.”

The Takeaway

Resist the urge to “interrogate” when your goal is to obtain as much information as possible. Patience, silence, and allowing the interviewee to recreate the context of the event is more likely to produce more accurate information. There is a time and place for the direct question, but most likely, it’s not where we want to start. My recommendation: be a better listener and you’ll be amazed at the information you may have been missing.

Click this link and answer questions about this article to earn CEUs towards your CFI designation or to learn more about the advantages of becoming a Certified Forensic Interviewer.

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