Introduction to Workplace Investigation Interviewing Techniques
Part IV — The Most Effective Question Types
By Matt Rose
Interviewers often struggle with knowing how to ask the right kinds of questions. An investigative interview is not as formal as a deposition. But it is more formal than a dinner conversation. The magic lies somewhere in the middle. An effective investigator will put the interviewee at ease in order to elicit as much information as possible. The investigator must also maintain professionalism so that the interviewee responds seriously and honestly. Utilize these types of effective questions when preparing for and conducting your interview:
- Open-ended questions: Start with open-ended questions – what we call the “funnel method.” Investigators must allow witnesses to openly and freely provide information. The investigator must resist the urge to lead the witness or suggest what to say. Asking open-ended questions is the best way to accomplish these tasks, as open-ended questions simply seek a narrative. A good investigator should focus on open-ended questions that seek the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Also, a good investigator should focus on asking short, to-the-point questions such as “Who told you that?” and “What did she say to you?” and “Where were you during this conversation?” and “How did that make you feel?” and “What happened next?” Remember, a good investigator will resist the urge to tell a witness what to say and will instead listen to a witness. The best way to do that is to ask simple, open-ended questions.
- Singular (non-compound) questions: Proper interview questions should be phrased in a manner that the witness clearly understands. As such, asking compound questions, which can be confusing, should be avoided. Essentially, a compound question consists of many questions disguised and combined into one question. For example, “Who told you that and what did she say?” is an example of a compound question because it simultaneously seeks information about “who” made the statement and “what” was said. These questions need to be avoided because they can be confusing, convoluted, and elicit information improperly. Good investigators avoid compound questions, and instead, ask pointed and opened-ended question with a singular focus.
- Ask questions and then utilize the power of silence: A good investigator talks less and listens more. To do that properly, investigators should utilize singular, non-compound questions and then allow the interviewee plenty of time to respond. Do not rush an interviewee and do not interrupt. When a witness stops talking, good investigators exhibit patience before asking the next question. In fact, to get the most out of an interview, utilize the power of silence. That is, remain silent after a witness finishes their response and give the witness an opportunity to speak further. Many experienced investigators will tell you the best follow up question in an interview is no question at all. Allow the witness to fill the void of silence by speaking more and providing more information. More often than not, an investigator who utilizes the power of silence for a moment prior to asking the next question will reap the benefits.
Be sure to read the other articles in this series:
- Part I — Physical Setting: The Importance of “Setting the Scene”
- Part II — First Impressions Matter
- Part III — Admonitions: Getting It All Out There in the Most Effective Way
- Part IV — The Most Effective Question Types
- Part V — It’s All in the Details
- Part VI — Do Not Forget Your Closing Questions
Matt Rose is an Associate Attorney with Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corporation. His practice focuses on conducting workplace and Title IX campus investigations.
The foregoing is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, nor should be construed as such.