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7 Tips for Telephone Interviews

Mark A. Anderson

Director of Training and Development

Anderson Investigative Associates

Getting to the truth in an interview is much more difficult over the telephone, but can be accomplished.

In over 30 years of doing criminal, administrative, and personnel interviews for the FBI, USDOJ, and several other entities running the gamut from job hiring to international terrorism cases, and everything in between, you run into all sorts of people and issues.  Ideally, the interviews in these cases are done face to face, but there arises occasions when the use of telephones is inevitable.

When completing these interviews, no matter where, whether in job interviews, disciplinary actions, investigations, audits, inspections, or with your kids; face to face interviews are the most revealing and effective method.  They allow the interviewer to create quality rapport, ask questions while observing body language and apply the full repertoire of techniques to arrive at the greatest quantity and quality of truthful information.  However, an in-person meeting is not always possible, especially at the initial stages of a process.

I hear the voice coming through the telephone receiver, but I am not sure the person at the other end is telling the truth. Without visual cues, detecting deception becomes more difficult, but not impossible. Deep budget cuts have forced many companies to use the telephone to conduct business instead of face-to-face meetings. Mastering skills to detect deception over the telephone and elicit information safeguard against people who intend to lie or take advantage of you.

Several tips will be addressed to help determine the veracity of the person at the other end of the telephone.  These techniques will be particularly helpful for interviewing professionals who have to conduct telephone inquiries.  Remember, no deception technique is 100 percent reliable and it is usually the employment of several of these techniques where you exponentially increase the probability of detecting deception.

As interviewers, there are many times when you engage in phone conversations to accomplish the work of your office.  Surveys indicate a significant uptick in the use of electronic technology, be it telephone, Skype, or video conferencing to accomplish office business, up to subject interviews in organizations.  Although often used in the initial phase of business processes, it is being increasingly employed throughout the work flow with greater frequency.

Many of these initial inquiries may be addressed quickly and telephone interviews can help to determine the future course of these matters quickly and efficiently.  But to be abundantly clear they are not effective, nor recommended for wrongdoer interviews.  Think of it in your own life, is it not much easier to lie or mislead someone on the phone compared to doing it in person?  If you claim to not know what I am talking about think of the telemarketer calling at dinner, the pesky relative, or any number of salespeople.  Oh, now you remember?

Step-by-Step Progression through the Interview

Each telephonic engagement should be completed using the same techniques that are employed when the interview is conducted in person.   Introduction and establishment of rapport are essential in conducting successful telephone interviews.  In any communication lacking face-to-face contact, your tone and demeanor, as well as, the use of soft language will be critical.  One of your major responsibilities is to evaluate the people you interview as to the credibility of information and knowledge of events they have.  Without face-to-face contact, this evaluation is severely hampered.

An effective format for interviewing via phone should be consistently employed:

1.      Introduction/Identification:  Identify yourself, your position and your organization.  Since the personal display of identification is not possible, provide a call back number for verification of your official function.  Being on the telephone you should try to make sure you are talking to the right person.  As part of introduction and rapport ask personal identifying information to effect that identification.  Make your purpose clear to the interviewee.

2.      Rapport:  The language to enhance rapport in telephone interviews includes: “I am seeking your assistance…,” “We need help with clarification on…,” “We need your assistance to resolve…”  Rapport is enhanced by the initial use of non-threatening questions concerning background.  Because this is a telephonic interview, don’t minimize the importance and necessity of rapport.  As in any interaction, we must establish a behavioral baseline of the interviewee.

3.      Questions:  Questioning should follow the same steps for an effective interview in an in-person interaction.  It is even more important to use good open-ended questions to start and allow the interviewee to tell his/her story in a narrative response.  Remember general to specific with focus on “what do I need to know?”  Yes/No questions provide very little opportunity to measure deception.  Minimize their employment.

  1. Summary and Close: The summary is very important here because of the limited sensory modalities present to observe what has been said.  Because we are going only on the spoken word, an effective conversational summary will likely elicit additional information and ensure understanding.  The close should end with open lines of communication and consent to a face-to-face appointment if needed.

Telephone interviews are most effective when obtaining additional information from an individual with whom a relationship has already been established, or just straight forward informational interviews.  We should progress through, introduction, rapport, questions, summary and a close.  By employing this interview template, we help to ensure maximization of results and that all bases are covered.

Document the Story

Getting to the truth over the telephone is trickier than in a face-to-face interview, but it’s not impossible.  Formulate a good open ended question, ask the interviewee to tell the story of what happened.   Then don’t interrupt, think of your next question, or drift off…..listen, with all of your senses.  It is a continuation of what you would do in person; initiate with the open-ended questions and hold off with the specific questions until necessary.” Recognize that each time you interrupt you will begin to cause the interviewee to truncate their answers because they are waiting for you to interrupt again.

Taking detailed notes ensures you have an accurate account of the conversation, and provides prompts for further questioning. Draw a vertical line down the page, recording what the subject is saying on the left side and making notes of any questions you have on the right.  This way you can avoid interrupting with questions but have something to refer to when you’re ready to question further and obtain all necessary specifics.  This technique also allows for ongoing summary and demonstrates your investment in listening.

You will obtain a lot more if you let people talk, particularly about themselves, and when they do they provide plenty of sub-vocals to encourage further elaboration.  Sometimes “uh huh” is our most valuable word in the interview room.  It indicates we are listening and it encourages them to go on.

Identify Inconsistencies

When the interviewee has finished relating the story, you now possess a list of questions to fill in the missing information, time lapses, and inconsistencies. In this phone scenario, another useful tool after the interview is to ask the interviewee to write down everything they have just said, including all the details that are important to the story, and send the written account to you.

As you might imagine, when you’re using this technique in an interview where you question details of the account, the person’s written story and their telephone story are often at cross-purposes and definitely contain some inconsistencies.  Liars have a hard time keeping their story straight and this is where you see that fact come into focus.

The inconsistencies in the written and verbally related stories are what are referred to as “lead generators” on which you have the opportunity to follow up to get clarification. In the absence of a face-to-face interview, inconsistencies identified over the telephone can lead an interviewer to a better understanding of the truth and go a long way toward reaching a resolution.

Always Establish a Baseline

We must always establish a behavioral baseline during an interview because each person is unique.  A behavioral baseline must be established during the first minutes of a conversation. A baseline consists of verbal patterns and paralinguistic cues of the person to whom you are talking. Each person is different, so the need to establish this baseline exists in every interaction.

The best method to establish a baseline is to engage the person in social pleasantries such as the weather or other neutral topics and observe the person’s speech patterns and paralinguistic cues. As is the case in any rapport building, it is essential to “peel away the layers of the onion” and drill down to more personal and meaningful issues.  This activity gets the person talking and builds trust.  The baseline is established during the part of the interview when the person you are talking to has no reason to lie. (Note:  If the person is lying here, this is a clue you are in for a bad day.)

Later in the interaction, you should be listening for any deviations from the person’s baseline behavior. Deviations from the baseline indicate a degree of anxiety or stress, which can indicate deception. Various factors can cause anxiety, including deception. One deviation from the baseline does not indicate deception. Look for a cluster of baseline changes before concluding deception. Deviation clusters typically occur during deception and these occur verbally and non-verbally.

Listen for Response Time

Liars have longer response times than truth tellers. A study was completed by John Reid and Associates and the National Security Agency several years ago that showed response latency averaged .5 seconds for the truth teller, and 1.5 seconds for the deceiver.  Truthful people simply answer questions; however, liars typically need extra time to formulate their answers, to ensure that they appear truthful, and that their answer is believable to the listener.

A person’s response time to those difficult questions can be compared with the baseline response time established at the beginning of the conversation. If the response time is longer, then deception is possible. Truthful people could take longer to answer a question if the question requires thought.  This delay is that pause you feel in your gut, when the answer just takes too long and you think, “that just wasn’t right.”  At the very least these issues need to be explored with further questioning.

To reduce the possibility of false positives, use the “Well” technique. When you ask someone a direct “yes” or “no” question and they begin their response with the word “well,” it means they are about to give you an answer they know you are not expecting. This technique only works with direct “yes” or “no” questions.

Listen for Word Fillers

As indicated previously, liars need time to construct believable answers. To gain extra time, liars often use word fillers such as “umm,” “ah,” and “uh huh” before responding.  Another method liars use to gain extra time is to answer a question with a question or ask the speaker to repeat the question.  Truthful people seldom need extra time to answer simple questions, nor need clarification on them.

Using this technique is less effective in today’s society because cell phone reception can be spotty requiring the need to ask for the question to be repeated.  Again, no one technique can detect deception. Look for clusters or deceptive indicators, after taking into account your behavioral baseline analysis.  If you are like me, you have friends that use “ummmmms” and “ahhhhhs” all the time.  To reiterate; this is all related to the baseline so establish it well.

Actively Hear Evasive Answers

Those who choose to deceive have difficulty providing direct answers to direct questions.  Liars will use a variety of techniques to avoid answering direct questions.  If you suspect deception, ask the person a direct “yes” or “no” question.  If the person does not provide you with a direct answer, then the probability of deception increases.  If the person pauses before answering the question, the probability of deception significantly increases.  If the person answers the question with the word “well,” deception is likely.  These responses form a cluster of cues that indicate a high probability of deception.

In all of these areas, quality active listening is absolutely essential.  In general, we are much better at talking than listening.  I like the line that I still hear my father saying, “we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.”  I don’t know about you, but I have some relatives that don’t get that.  We need to focus all of our energy and attention on what is being said, and how it is being said.  Despite the fact that on the phone we can’t observe non-verbal indicators of deception, the fact is that trained interviewers are much better (percentage wise) at detecting deception via the spoken word.  So while listening, don’t be eating, chewing gum, playing Tetris, or reading your email…..focus!

There is so much more that we could talk about in the arena of telephone interviewing.  Techniques to increase closeness, focus the interviewee, and to make the call more personal are all things that could be pursued.  This area is just like any other in interviewing; the more we know and understand, the better we will be at deploying those techniques and gaining success.

The Seven Tips For Telephone Interviews that we have covered here are:

  1. Step-by-Step Progression through the Interview
  2. Document the Story
  3. Identify Inconsistencies
  4. Always Establish a Baseline
  5. Listen for Response Time
  6. Listen for Word Fillers
  7. Actively Hear Evasive Answers

Additional techniques to conduct telephone interviews, as well as, detecting deception can be found in other blogs that I have written that appear on our website.  They are also contained in most blocks of instruction that Anderson Investigative Associates teaches.

Additionally, I have a three page handout on “Verbal Tips for Telephone Interviewing for Developing and/or Maintaining Rapport.”  If you would like a copy, just send an email and request that handout.

Anderson Investigative Associates customizes training to your specific needs.  If you have any questions, or would like to discuss the above blog or any training need, please reach out to me.

If you have additional questions or comments, give me a shout.  In the meantime, be well and stay safe out there.

Questions?
(912) 882-5857