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It’s All about Context: Part 2

In our last column, we began the discussion of how context affects the conversation and the questions that can be asked during it. It’s important to understand that context changes as a conversation evolves. What might begin as a discussion about fast-food restaurants evolves into a discussion about the different restaurants and finally focuses on a single restaurant chain. Because the context has evolved into a discussion about a single chain, it might be appropriate to ask the other party, “How many times have you eaten at McDonald’s in the last month?” There is a tacit admission from the second party that he has eaten at McDonald’s even though he has not verbalized it. So asking the question assumptively is clearly appropriate. Lacking a context for the conversation about restaurants, it would be better to ask, “Have you ever eaten at McDonald’s?”

The Individual’s Mindset

Context is not only about providing the subject matter of the discussion, but also revolves around the individualÕs mindset as the conversation evolves. For example, an individual with something to hide will be threatened by a conversation where a truthful person views the topics and questions with nothing more than interest.

In a recent case relating to a large fraud, a manager was asked to have a conversation with one of the authors of this column. Since being asked to come to the corporate part of the facility was unusual, he was at first suspicious and extremely defensive. However, it wouldn’t necessarily be unusual for the individual who is innocent to be somewhat nervous until he discovers the context of the meeting. But in this situation, the individual was concerned that his fraud had been uncovered, and instead of mere nervousness, he exhibited suspicion and defensiveness in his questions and answers.

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As the interview developed, the conversation moved from biographical information to background information relating to his promotions and business-development practices. His overall attitude changed from suspicious and defensive to boastful as he talked about how he had brought about the significant increase in business over the last several years.

As the conversation wound its way closer to the topics relating to the fraud, his attitude changed from boastful to fearful with his answers becoming shorter and more evasive as the conversation moved closer to the fraudulent activity. So an interviewer must manage the changes in emotional and psychological mindset of the subject as he progresses through the conversation and its contextual change.

The non-confrontational interview we advocate does several things extremely well. First, it provides a context for the conversation relating to the investigation of company matters. Second, it affords the interviewer an opportunity to assess the subject’s behavior during the presentation of a monologue describing what the investigator’s job is. During this monologue the same words are viewed very differently by innocent or deceptive individuals. The innocent person has done nothing wrong and perceives the investigator’s monologue as a simple description of what he does for a living. The innocent person views the conversation with interest, and this is supported by his open posture and non-threatened demeanor. However, the dishonest individual experiences the conversation in an entirely different fashion. For him the conversation is a disquieting and fearful experience as he comes to the realization his dishonesty may have been discovered.

Biographical Information

Although the admission-seeking interview can take many paths, the process almost always begins with confirming biographical information and establishing a behavioral norm for the individual. Confirming the biographical information is essentially a neutral context that is collaborative in nature. The interviewer and the subject are simply working to confirm information that is already known. For the interviewer, there are several other purposes that are in play.

First, the interviewer is looking to establish the behavioral norm of the individual under this given set of circumstances. Essentially, the interviewer is looking to confirm how the subject answers truthful biographical inquiries. Here the interviewer develops a behavioral context that he will use to compare against later topics, questions, and words.

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Second, the interviewer is looking to identify how the person looks, talks, and acts when retrieving short- and long-term memory information.

Finally, these inquiries allow the interviewer to overcome any initial nervousness and to establish control over the direction of the conversation.

For the subject, this portion of the conversation is collaborative in that he is simply working with the interviewer to confirm what in most cases is already known. This might not be true during a field interview where an officer has approached an unknown individual with little or no background information available to him about the person. In that case it is possible that the subject is not providing accurate information because he has something to hide. With the exception of the field interview, other investigative interviews will already have accurately identified the subject and developed some biographical information about him or her.

It is possible that the subject may exhibit some level of nervousness whether he is truthful or untruthful at this point in the conversation. Often because the full context of what is going to be discussed has not been laid out, there is a level of uncertainty that manifests itself as nervousness. One might equate this to going to the dentist. Very few people enjoy their visits to the dentist because of the possibility of potential unpleasantness in the form of filling a cavity. However, the initial nervousness and uncertainty diminishes almost immediately after the dentist informs his patient that he has no cavities. Just a few minutes of discomfort while cleaning the teeth, and the visit is over until the next scheduled appointment.

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Rapport Building

The context now shifts from a neutral collaborative discussion of biographical information to eliciting more personal data. Depending on how this shift is done, it may elicit rapport, suspicion, defensiveness, or even aggression in the subject. The purpose of this conversation is to begin the process of rapport building.

Rapport involves establishing trust between two parties and begins by identifying common experiences between the individual and the interviewer. The time spent here can be valuable for the interviewer in several ways.

First, it establishes reciprocity between the subject and the interviewer. Reciprocity is essentially an obligation that requires a repayment. For example, if you are invited to dinner by a friend, there is an unspoken obligation to repay that debt at some point. Here the debt is allowing the interviewer an opportunity to speak about himself after the subject has had his opportunity; the introductory statement is introduced.

Second, it provides the interviewer a context relating to the individual’s personal life and what is important to him or her.
Third, it may also suggest rationalizations that minimize the seriousness of what the person has done, thus protecting the subject’s self-image.

Creating a context of trust and safety occurs over time and is generally not something that happens in a few short moments. Rather it is like putting building blocks in place. True rapport occurs in the moments just before the subject makes his first admission and is the result of making sure all the building blocks are in place. At that point the individual finally feels comfortable enough with the interviewer to share derogatory information about himself. An example of this would be how we might tell a story that is embarrassing about ourselves, but we only do so when we are comfortable with the people around us.

At the beginning of rapport, the context is one of sharing information that is not embarrassing or threatening to the individual’s self-image. The interviewer is simply expressing interest in some portion of the person’s life experiences that may in some way match his own. This could be as simple as a discussion of the inclement weather the subject had to travel through to get to the interview. A shared experience, which could be a person, place, or thing, creates a linkage between the subject and the interviewer providing the foundation for full rapport to develop.

Your favorite person in the world is yourself, and to have another be interested enough to inquire about your life experience can be quite flattering. At the end of the rapport building, the interviewer hopes to achieve a context where he is viewed by the subject as either neutral or in a somewhat favorable light.

As we have seen, the context between two individuals will vary as the conversation precedes and different topics are covered. It will also vary based on the perception of the individual and the threat the topic being discussed poses to their self-image. In part three of our discussion, we will focus on the transition of context that occurs during the admission-seeking interview and how it is viewed by both the interviewer and subject.

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