Successful Interviewing

By James R. Ryals, Commander

Long Beach, California, Police Department

This article originally appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 1991.

Interviewing is one form of communication used extensively by law enforcement. Whether used to screen applicants, to elicit information from a witness to a crime, or to obtain a confession, a good interview can have a significant impact on the organization. However, if conducted improperly, the interview may be rendered worthless or can result in serious negative consequences for all involved.

There are certain guidelines to follow when conducting an interview. By adhering to the following basic rules, the interviewer can reduce many of the problems that might arise because of a faulty interview.

    • Develop a plan of action. The interviewer should review pertinent data and develop questions that will elicit the information required to complete the task at hand. For example, for applicant interviews, questions should be tailored to gather information that accurately evaluates the potential employee. On the other hand, questions posed to witnesses of a crime should be designed to obtain facts to complete an accurate report. For the most part, interviewers should prepare areas of inquiry in a general way to keep the interview flowing. Previously prepared questions tend to “drive” the interview in a particular direction, which limits the type and amount of information gathered.
    • Conduct the interview privately. While this basic rule is often times difficult to follow, depending on the circumstances, every effort should be made to minimize distractions during the interview.
    • Put the interviewee at ease. Emotions and stress play a big part in any type of interview, and the interviewer will have a difficult time evaluating a nervous person. Starting the interview casually with nonthreatening conversation can have a calming effect. By defusing negative feelings and reinforcing positive ones, the interviewer can deal with the emotions exhibited by the interviewee.
    • Let the person being interviewed do the talking. One of the biggest mistakes the interviewer can make is to talk too much. Accurate evaluations of applicants or gathering crucial information regarding a crime depends on letting the interviewee talk under controlled conditions. The interviewer should control the interview, not dominate it.
    • Perfect questioning techniques. Knowing how to ask questions is just as important as knowing what questions to ask. Also, making questions easy to understand is critical. This allows the person being interviewed to concentrate on answering the questions, not on trying to decipher what they mean.
    • Select questions carefully. Use closed-ended questions (yes/no answers) sparingly because they only require a short answer and usually only confirm factual data. Open-ended questions force the interviewee to talk and elaborate on the matter at hand. For example, when interviewing witnesses to a crime, the interviewer should ask the witnesses to relate in their own words what they saw. This allows the interviewer to better assess the reliability of the information obtained. Interviewers should refrain from asking hypothetical questions of potential employees. Such questions tend to evaluate the applicant’s ability to guess what answer the interviewer wants to hear. The best guesser then gets the job. Questions posed to potential employees should center on what the person has already done that relates to the position applied for by the applicant. Leading questions, which contain the answer, and loaded questions, which ask the person interviewed to choose the lesser of two evils, should always be avoided.
    • Be a good listener. A good interviewer is a good listener. Interviewers must discipline themselves to focus on what is being said and how it is being said. They should not look ahead to subsequent questions or begin to analyze an answer before the person finishes. Nor should they anticipate what the answer will be.
    • Don’t challenge answers given. Interviewers must keep emotional reactions private and should not let personal feelings interfere with the interview. There is time to document problems after the interview.
    • Stay in control. During an interview, some people try to digress from questions asked. Proper preparation is the key to maintain control of the interview and to ensure that it does not get off course.
    • Take brief notes. Notes allow the interviewer to recall important details revealed during the interview. However, while making notes, the interviewer should not lose eye contact with the person. Excessive note-taking causes the person being questioned to slow down responses in order to accommodate the interviewer.
    • Conclude the interview properly. It is the responsibility of the interviewer to signal the end of the interview. This can be done by simply closing a notebook, standing up, or announcing that the interview is over.
    • Write a summary immediately following the interview. This helps the interviewer to recall important information should questions arise later.
    • Learn from experience. Critiquing helps to identify areas that need improvement and to develop interviewing techniques.

These basic rules are merely guidelines to follow when conducting an interview. While they will not alleviate all the problems that can arise during an interview, they will assist in developing the skills required of a successful interviewer.

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