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Answering Questions Posed During Interviews: “The Time/Responsibility Continuum”
Mark A. Anderson
Anderson Investigative Associates

In the multitude of interviews that we complete as interviewers (investigators, auditors, inspectors, or human resource professionals, etc), one would think that interviewees don’t know we are the ones asking the questions and not them. But like the many unexpected things that occur during the interview, it doesn’t always go according to our plan. Despite our best laid efforts, as General Eisenhower has said, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.” This is why we need to have completed enough planning to be adequately prepared to respond to questions that our interviewee will ask. The need for responding to their questions is because it provides a great opportunity to build rapport and foster communication, while at the same time not compromising our ability to maintain control. It will actually serve as a control initiator which facilitates our gaining credibility. Ultimately, handling these questions well will increase the elicitation of truthful information in our interviews.

One of the things I have come to learn about these interviewee’s questions is that I see them repeatedly across the interview landscape, so employing adequate planning to have responses vs. answers prepared for these eventualities is imperative, and we can repeatedly deploy them in our interviews. When we respond vs. answer, we don’t answer the specific question posed, but respond in a way to focus the responsibility back on the interviewee. These responses should become a part of your repertoire for conducting effective interviews and in most cases are satisfying to the interviewee and allow a return to the issue at hand or refocus on a matter requiring more information.

One of the issues encountered repeatedly in the area of interviewee questions, are questions that are future-based and placed on you the interviewer the responsibility for resolving. Listen to some of these questions, and there are many more: “Will I go to jail?” “What is going to happen to me?” “Will I lose my job?” “How bad is this?” “Will my family be told?” “Are you going to tell my boss?” “Does my wife have to know?” This is an abbreviated list of these types of questions. We must employ our best active listening skills to detect when these gems are being launched onto the interview landscape so that we can effectively handle them. We must employ all of our senses and the information gained during planning to listen, not just hear, what is being said by our interviewee. These questions pertain to the future and shift the responsibility for an answer or information to us. Our goal should be to bring the focus back to the present and return the responsibility to the interviewee, because we gain nothing from staying in the future with the responsibility squarely on us. Staying there minimizes our control and takes the focus off the objectives that we are there to discuss, and rather focuses on eventualities that neither participant can control.

We as interviewers have very little power, responsibility, or authority in the future, this belongs to prosecutors, judges, juries, supervisors, and decision-makers. Resultantly, the most common response to these questions from us as the interviewer is either a negative contraction or no answer at all. We might hear, “I can’t tell you what will happen.” “I don’t have anything to do with those decisions.” “That isn’t anything I deal with.” “That is up to the attorneys”. Even worse is when we don’t answer at all and just move on with our next issue or agenda item. The negative content of these responses appear to take power away from the interviewer and place it elsewhere. In many cases we don’t have the legal authority to answer some of these questions, which is why we want to redirect this question back to the present and return the responsibility for resolving the situation to the interviewee. The reality is that in the interview room, in the present, we are the most powerful person in the interviewee’s life, and these negative answers potentially mitigate the power and authority that we have in the interview room. In some cases, if we answer with these negative contractions enough, the interviewee might question why he is talking to you and ask to talk to someone else; someone with authority.

To prevent this from occurring, when we hear (active listening) these questions, we must do two things; (1) shift the issue back to the present (in the interview room), and (2) shift the responsibility for resolution back to the interviewee. How do we do this? When the interviewee says, “Am I going to go to lose my job?” We respond with, “None of us can predict the future, but I know that when people tell the truth and lay all the information on the table it is much more favorable for them. In addition, it gives you a chance to explain why this happened and it allows you to play a part in the decision-making on this matter as it pertains to you.” This response by us brings the issue back to the present and shifts the responsibility back to interviewee to re-engage and provide additional information. By bringing the situation back to the here and now, this returns us to the position of power and control that is needed to obtain truthful information in the interview room. This is an example of a response vs. an answer, and in most cases, this response will satisfy the interviewee; foster more open communication, and return to your interview objectives.

There are several ancillary benefits to this approach. To the interviewer, bringing the issue back to the present serves to return power, control, and authority to him/her. Additionally, investing in this approach of theme development increases our credibility and thus our appearance of honesty and integrity to the interviewee. Benefits perceptively recognized by the interviewee includes an increase in hope, by being provided a chance to resolve the issues at hand; to secure some control over their destiny; and to actively participate in decisions about their future. All of our transitional responses in this shifting arena should be directed to accomplish one or more of these benefits.

These actions by you as the interviewer accomplish several possibilities. With orchestrating this move back to the present, you shift the paradigm experienced by the interviewee, which results in their having to recalculate their approach, giving you an opportunity to maintain control and move ahead with your strategy to obtain the truth. This can be done by directing questions pertaining to the investigation or toward the interviewee (theming). This further can be accomplished by returning to themes and moving the interviewee toward submission. If as you adjust and adapt to the circumstances it may be necessary for additional presentation of evidence coupled with theming. (Any questions on these terms or techniques: themes, evidence presentation, active listening, etc. I would be happy to answer for you personally or in another blog.?

As can be seen from this one new tool for your tool box, several avenues to re-direct and positively motivate truth-telling can be accomplished from this technique’s effective, recurring implementation. As you continually practice its implementation, this approach will become second nature and very beneficial.