I've been posting for a few days on this topic of how to get truthful feedback. Here are the links to Part 1 which poses a question, Part 2 about how to seek face-to-face feedback, and Part 3 which is about a questionnaire virtually designed to elicit falsehood.
Today, I want to look at the most challenging of all truth-finding situations, the police investigator.
This is a situation that makes the work of commercial interviewers of all sorts look like absolute child's play. People generally volunteer to talk to us, most times we actually pay them. The worst downside they are likely to experience is cognitive dissonance or perhaps embarrassment, possibly boredom.
The legal investigator, of course, is faced with someone highly motivated to lie for a number of reasons, social, cultural, psychological and rational. Everything is working against them.
This is why I found a recent presentation I attended by Donna M. Pence, a retired Special Agent who is now an educator, so totally absorbing.
If I was marketing her course, I'd probably call it something like impossible interviews, but she called her topic "When getting the truth is critical: Interviewing techniques used by law enforcement professionals".
One of the most interesting things Ms. Pence mentioned was the length of time spent preparing for, setting up, and actually interviewing.
There's the interview-before-the-interview, which is designed to develop a sense of who the subject is, how they respond to non-threatening questions, and even what their general comprehension level is. Then they seek to understand the answer style when under pressure, in a state of fear or anxiety. The protocol she teaches is called PEACE: Preparation, Engagement, Account, Closure, Evaluation.
She was very clear that every question asked has to have a defensible purpose that will withstand questioning in court. No "fishing expeditions" allowed. This is a key difference from insight research work -- our questions need to have a purpose, and do, but we are almost always going on a fishing expedition.
Like a good insight seeker or facilitator, the good law enforcement interviewer sets the stage in terms of the environment, privacy, clothing, tone and manner, the actual interview space. They consider gender, ethnic and racial matching (matching or deliberately unmatching).
Unlike insight researchers, they are often seeking to disarm or destabilize. We saw her shift roles and accents like a skilled actor, and honestly, I was really glad I wasn't interacting with her professionally, so to speak!
The level of detail required to support criminal charges is, in her words, "excruciating". So one thing that is probably true from TV is the phrase "let's go over this again".
I truly loved some of her phrasing. Let me give you an example:
"I've never called anybody a liar. I say, 'I think you're not being as truthful as you could be.' Or for a good ole boy, 'That dawg won't hunt'"
My top takeaways
These are approaches that we can all learn from, whether you are interviewing, or just trying to be a better communicator.
 Cognitive interviewing -- show the subject that you see them as an individual with a unique set of needs. In turn, present yourself as an identifiable person. Depersonalizing reduces the amount of information you will obtain/receive.
 Interact meaningfully -- don't just ask a list of predetermined questions.
 Communicate empathy -- see the situation from their point of view.
 Give your undivided attention -- convey that you want to listen and can be trusted. Give reassurance and support.
 Let them talk until they run out of steam.
Why does anyone talk to them?
The most amazing part, for me, was Ms. Pence's answer to my question of why anyone really talks to them, despite her persuasive methods. Her answer provided telling insight into the human condition.
For the most part, she says her tone is clear, calm, slow and matter-of-fact. She has often interviewed people who have violated foundational cultural taboos, such as child molesters, rapists, murderers. She says things like, "You can't offend, embarass or surprise me", "I'm not going to be upset at anything you tell me. I've talked to many people in your situation".
While people are initially motivated to talk to get themselves out of trouble, if possible, they also want to give their side of the story, to provide an explanation for what happened.
We all live the existential problem -- we are alone in our own experience. The ability to share that inner world -- even a little bit -- is a powerful drug. I often wondered how law enforcement officers get people to tell them the truth, and I think this is the essence of it: empathy.
And on a less sobering note, if you meet someone like Ms. Pence in a police station, you are in serious big trouble, because she is one amazing interviewer.
Donna Pence recommends the book, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, by Dr. Paul Eckman
All of the graphics in this post were created by me, based on diagrams presented by Ms. Pence.
I heard Ms. Pence speak at the annual QRCA conference. If you love qualitative methods, you should join us sometime.