The Power of Choice: Autonomy in the Investigative Interview

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If I tell my 3-year-old nephew that he has to eat his broccoli, he instinctively will resist the request. Maybe it’s because we’re both focused on the dessert that will follow, but like most people, when commanded to do something, we naturally tend to be skeptical and resistant to the request. The “command” creates a negative perception of the request itself (such as eating broccoli). Alternatively, providing a choice as a part of the request creates a different dynamic in the decision-making process. If I tell my nephew that he should eat his vegetables but can pick between broccoli or peas, he’s now in control of the situation. Depending on the level of cooperation needed, I could even ask him to eat his vegetables (because he wants to be big and strong), but he should decide how much he needs to eat to achieve that goal. The rephrasing of the request allows the “subject” to decide for themselves, which generally creates a more cooperative environment because they are empowered to decide.

Rational decision-making is an important part of the investigative interviewing process. Techniques that rely on emotionally overwhelming a subject or demanding compliance can result in inaccurate information, liability for the organization, and increased resistance. After all, it’s the subject’s decision to cooperate, to disclose information, to provide a statement, or to even stay engaged in the discussion at all. Demanding any of the above not only causes potential legal implications but also works directly against the principles of rapport development with the interviewee.

The Choice of Leaving

In most circumstances, interviews in the private sector are non-custodial, meaning that the interviewee is free to leave the conversation at any time. Although there may be disciplinary action taken for insubordination or failure to cooperate, employees are generally free to leave an investigative interview. In situations where employees are legally permitted to remove themselves from a conversation, it is important that investigators create an environment that promotes conversation.

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The setup of the interview room is a crucial part of this process. An improper setup, such as blocking the exit from the interviewee, will not only minimize the perception of autonomy for the subject but may also increase liability for the organization. An obstructed door or too many people in the room may create a perception of custody or forced compliance from the subject, resulting in legal implications and increased resistance. Interviewers should not only ensure the room is set up appropriately but also communicate (per company guidelines) the voluntariness of the situation. Some organizations will explicitly state that the subject is free to leave at any time, while others may simply remind the person that the conversation is voluntary. This becomes a critical consideration if the subject asks, “Am I free to leave?” or states, “I don’t have to sit here and talk to you!” Interviewers should be prepared to handle these objections with the appropriate, non-custodial response.

The Choice of Talking

“Tell me about yourself” should not be a demand for sharing personal information and may feel intrusive depending on the context in which it is presented. Imagine somebody approaching you while in public, and after introducing themselves, they simply request, “Tell me about yourself.” For most people, this will cause a moment of panic or uncertainty, while others may shut down completely, as they struggle to determine what is most important (or most entertaining) to share. Developing rapport should be an organic and natural process, where both parties are engaged in the discussion.

The power of choice can be illustrated in this portion of the interview by creating an environment where the interviewee decides what to share and to what extent. There is no requirement for the subject to tell the interviewer “What they do outside of work” or “What they do for fun,” although these topics may often be the result. Interviewers should initiate rapport but be aware of the areas in which the subject may feel more—or less—comfortable sharing. Any forced cooperation in this stage of an interview will only serve as a detriment to any rapport-building efforts made throughout the process.

The Choice of Disclosing

Although the interview may be focused on obtaining details regarding an incident, any desperation or demand for cooperation will often work against this effort. It may seem obvious that it is up to the person with the information to decide whether they want to share it. However, that dynamic can be impacted by poor interviewing techniques. An investigator who gets frustrated during an interview (which can happen) may come across as agitated, demanding, and desperate. This often results in implicit threats or promises, closed‑ended questions, and the revealing of evidence.

Instead, interviewers should be transparent and genuine during the conversation about their investigative process. In general terms, the discussion of the available investigative resources serves to inform the interviewee that there are many available tools to conduct a credible investigation that remove the sole reliance on a confession to “close the case.” Additionally, by providing the Statement of Transparency, the investigator communicates to the subject that the investigation will continue, regardless of their decision to share information. This statement provides the subject with the insight that the investigation is not fully reliant on their cooperation while also suggesting that the interviewer may uncover information after the interview has taken place. This combination will allow the subject to make a rational decision to provide available information.

The Choice of Providing a Statement

Obtaining a statement from the interviewee is an important part of the evidence collection process and serves as a valuable tool in memorializing the conversation. However, interviewers must remember that this is a voluntary step and one that must be communicated as such. Interviewers are often heard making claims such as “we need you to write a statement detailing what we discussed” which provides little choice for the subject. This type of request also projects desperation for compliance, suggesting that the interviewer or organization is in “need” of cooperation. Instead, an interviewer can inform the subject that they “have the opportunity to write down what we discussed.” Using “need” versus “opportunity” communicates two very different messages to the subject. The first of desperation on the part of the interviewer and the latter one of autonomy on the part of the subject.

A statement should only be obtained through a voluntary and willing process. Any command that dictates the statement content or even that it be written may pose a risk to the voluntariness of what was provided. Outside of the potential legal implications, statements obtained through a voluntary and transparent process tend to be less confrontational and more comprehensive in recapping what was disclosed. Ultimately, as my nephew will tell you, broccoli tastes better when you decide to eat it—versus somebody else forcing the issue.

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