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Asking the Hard Questions

It may be, as W. H. Auden wrote, that to ask the hard question is simple. But who asks the question, how the question is asked, how to get the subject to answer the question, and how to interpret that answer may not be so easy. Those are among the challenges that face any security professional who tries to get information about a case from witnesses and suspects. The keys to success are proper planning and mastery of effective interviewing and interrogation techniques.

PLANNING. An investigator should never begin either an interview or an interrogation without a strategy. Elements include deciding on an approach, studying the facts of the case, establishing timing, finding an apt setting, and knowing what you hope to gain from witnesses and the specific sequence of questions you will ask.

Approach. Inexperienced investigators often start by questioning everyone who has anything to do with the incident in question. But more experienced professionals tend to winnow down the list of interviewees.

For example, if nine tellers and a bank manager had access to a vault from which money is missing, the investigator might benefit from first interviewing the bank manager. He will know the tellers’ schedule, financial condition, and other information that might show which tellers were more likely than others to have relevant information or be the culprit. Of course, the other tellers can be interviewed later if the initial focus does not point to a clearly guilty party.

Knowing the facts. Sometimes skilled interviewers do not see the need to do their homework. They think that they can get what they need out of the interview process. This is a mistake.

Mastery of the facts surrounding the case is essential for several reasons. First, if an interviewee senses doubt on the part of the investigator or picks up on an error, the investigator’s credibility will be undermined and the guilty person may become more confident that he or she can get away with the crime, making a confession less likely.

Second, when an interviewer is armed with corroborating evidence, he or she is more likely to know where the gaps in knowledge are and how to formulate questions that are most likely to lead to additional information or to an admission of guilt.

Third, the well-informed investigator will be more likely to recognize when information given in an interview may be false or misleading. This knowledge can be used against an interviewee who is lying.

As a part of the fact-gathering process, investigators should visit the scene of the crime whenever possible. Seeing the crime scene will drive home the little details, and that knowledge can be used to show the witness or suspect the extent of the interviewer’s familiarity with the case, which may help to pressure guilty parties into telling the truth. Investigators should also review investigation reports and other statements, examine physical evidence, evaluate circumstantial evidence, and obtain background information on suspects.

Interviewers should not be afraid to take notes into the interview. Referring to documentation increases the likelihood that interviewers will spot inconsistencies in their subjects’ statements, and as with all of the other preparations, it may help to encourage subjects to be truthful.

Timing. It is best to conduct an interview as soon as possible after the event, while the recollections are still fresh in the person’s mind. For an interrogation, however, it is best not to rush the interview until the interrogator is armed with all the evidence.

It is critical to allow sufficient time in which to conduct the interview. Early in my career, I was working on a case involving missing company cash. I began one of the interviews at 4 p.m., eager to get to a playoff game for the company’s softball team, which started at 5:30 p.m.

My mind was not focused on the interview, and I felt pressure to finish quickly and get to the game. The suspect, who turned out to have a checkered juvenile past and was experienced in adversarial interviews, sensed my time pressure and simply waited me out.

Ultimately I did reinterview the suspect and obtain a confession, but I learned a valuable lesson: If you do not give yourself sufficient time, you hand an advantage to the suspect. Or stated more generally: Each interrogation is a two-way process in which the subjects are also reading the interrogator. They will read opportunity if they sense any discomfort on the interviewer’s part. Therefore, within the legal limits of what is permissible, everything about the interrogation, including the timing, should be set up to give the interviewer the upper hand and to make the subject feel at a disadvantage.

When setting up interviews with potential witnesses, it is standard practice to give the subjects advance notification and even to try to schedule a time that is convenient. The advance notice gives subjects time to reflect on their observations and knowledge. Moreover, as a practical matter, investigators often have to conduct many interviews for a single case, and scheduling may be the only feasible way to accommodate the interviewer and the various subjects.

The interrogation of the prime suspect is another matter, however. It requires making a strategic decision: If investigators want the element of surprise on their side, they should simply call the suspect in for the interview without a moment’s notice, though it may be necessary to make arrangements with the suspect’s supervisor ahead of time to ensure that the person’s position or duties are covered and that the person will be available.

Some investigators find, however, that telling the suspect that an interrogation date has been set increases the pressure, forcing him or her to “sweat out” the wait. Of course, the likely success of this tactic depends in part on the type of case and the personality of the suspect.

Setting. In all situations, an interview should take place in a private place, both to protect the suspect’s reputation and to keep disruptions to a minimum. Investigators may need to make special arrangements to provide the proper atmosphere, such as conducting the interviews outside of normal business hours or doing the interviews in a hotel room or restaurant. I’ve even used my car.

What the investigator should look for in a site varies depending on whether the investigator is conducting an interview or an interrogation. Interviews should be held in friendly, familiar, and comfortable surroundings and be convenient for the person being questioned. The goal is to put people at ease to the greatest extent possible since they are voluntarily providing information.

Interrogations should take place in a setting that is as uncomfortable and unsupportive for the suspect as possible, giving the investigator the advantage. The investigator needs to control the situation and make the suspect feel that control. For that reason, it’s almost never a good idea to interrogate a suspect in his or her home or office. A bland conference room without distractions will usually suffice.

It is, however, important to respect the suspect’s legal rights. For example, to avoid future claims of unlawful detention, the person must feel that they have the right and the ability to leave the room at any time. Therefore, there must be an unlocked door, and the person’s path to it should not be impeded.

Observers. It’s often a good idea to have a third-party observer on hand. For example, a male investigator should generally not interview a female subject alone. That sort of arrangement sets the stage for the woman to allege improper or harassing conduct. In fact, a good strategy is to have a female investigator interview all women, in which case an observer typically isn’t necessary.

Another situation in which it is wise to have a third-party observer on hand is when one company employee, such as an in-house investigator in the legal, HR, or security department, is interviewing another. In that case, the observer can verify information that arises from the interview and can corroborate that the interviewer didn’t do anything unethical or in violation of policies. Human resources representatives often fill this role.

This observer is not there as an advocate for the subject. In some cases, such as when subjects belong to a union, they may be entitled to have such an advocate sit in on the interview. Before interviewing any worker covered by a collective bargaining agreement, it is important to consult with legal counsel to ensure that the proper guidelines and procedures are followed.

Overall, whether to have an observer present is a tough call. Generally, I don’t use them during fact-gathering interviews, because there is no confrontation. But if the interview becomes an interrogation, I will call someone in to observe the questioning, when it seems warranted, or to hear the confession repeated for the record after it has been obtained in the course of the questioning.

I typically keep an associate right outside the interview room door precisely for that reason. That person isn’t actively participating—she’s doing other work—but she’s right there and can hear when she’s called, because I leave the door slightly ajar. Even if I don’t summon that person into the room, she is close enough to counter any allegations that I yelled at the subject, for example.

In one case involving manipulation of company records, I was interviewing a female witness. I did not completely close the door, and my female colleague was just outside. I did not feel the need for an observer.

As the interview progressed, it became clear to me that the interviewee had knowledge of the incident and was protecting the main suspect. I made the tone of the questioning more accusatory. The subject became confrontational, suggesting that she would allege improper behavior on my part if the questioning continued along confrontational lines.

At that point, I summoned the female colleague who was right outside the door. We eventually got the subject to reveal what she knew about the scheme, and she never accused me of inappropriate behavior.


Over the years, two interviewing and interrogation techniques have emerged as the most widely accepted: kinesics, and the Nine Step Approach developed by John E. Reid & Associates. The two share some common elements, but each has a different view as to which kinds of observable behaviors are most characteristic of deceptive subjects, and which interview methods work best to provoke such behaviors in the guilty parties.

I use elements of both. I also use a variety of other methods, as discussed later. Here’s a brief look at what the techniques entail.

Kinesics. Kinesics interviewing recognizes and interprets a range of verbal and nonverbal, conscious and unconscious behavior that subjects typically exhibit under interrogation. The more definite the pattern into which a subject’s observed behaviors fall, the more confident the interrogator can be that the subject is being evasive or untruthful. But no single behavior standing alone can serve as absolute proof of a finding. The interviewer must look at the cumulative message of behaviors.

The interrogator can frequently infer deception by paying attention to the following elements.

Verbal behavior. Verbal behavior includes not only how the words are spoken, but also what accompanies speech, such as stalling and hesitation or suspiciously excessive politeness or eagerness to cooperate. It also includes the nature of the communication, such as responding with another question, repeating a question verbatim, or trying to lend credence to a response by invoking God or religion (“I swear to God”). Real or contrived memory lapses also are grouped under verbal behavior.

Divergent answers. The answers given by guilty and innocent subjects who are asked standard interview questions tend to fall into two distinct patterns. When asked, for example, “Can you explain why your fingerprints should be found on that desk where the money is missing?” the innocent person will likely say something like, “It’s not possible because I did not do it.” The guilty party, on the other hand, will likely offer some excuse for touching the desk, such as, “I needed to use a pen and so I opened the drawer to see if I could find one.”

I once investigated a case where someone was sending threatening letters to a company CEO. We narrowed it down to two or three suspects, all employees of the company. During the interview with the leading suspect, I took out one of the letters, which was in a plastic evidence bag, and laid it on the table. The paper was covered with dust that revealed fingerprints, and fingerprints were visible on the letter. I then asked him, “Is there any reason your fingerprints would be on this letter?” This conveyed to the subject that the investigators had done their homework.

The suspect told a flimsy story about taking a piece of paper out of his desk, which he said must have been taken by the person who wrote the notes. Eventually he admitted to writing the letters. (It is, incidentally, legal to use trickery to get confessions. More on this later.)

An interrogator might also ask, “How do you think you would do on a polygraph test about this incident?” (It is acceptable to ask a person this question but not to make someone take a polygraph test except under strict guidelines set forth in the Employee Polygraph Act.)

The innocent subject will normally say something like, “Fine, no problem; I’d pass.” The guilty person might try to explain why he or she would do poorly (“I’m always nervous”) or take issue with the legality or admissibility of the test.

Of course, responses such as “I’m always nervous” and questioning the legality of polygraphs are not ironclad indicators of a person’s culpability. An innocent person could well try to explain why he or she would fail a polygraph test.

Nonverbal behavior. Encompassing the whole spectrum of body language, nonverbal behavior usually manifests itself as a reaction to a difficult or probing question. Interviewers should pay close attention to body language.

If a person is sitting in an upright and relaxed position at the beginning of the interview, but crosses his arms every time he is asked a “hot,” or provocative, question, that is a nonverbal indicator of deceit. Or, if a woman rubs her nose every time she says, “No, I didn’t do it,” and it is the only time during the interview that she makes this gesture, it is a good indicator that she is lying.

The essence of identifying telltale nonverbal behavior is to look for patterns and responses to the hot questions compared to the person’s demeanor during nonthreatening questions. By contrast, the subject who rubs her nose once or randomly might have an itch.

The Reid Technique. Reid & Associates offers training programs on interviewing and interrogation techniques. The technique always begins with a nonaccusatory interview, and when appropriate it moves into the interrogation stage. The interrogation stage is based on nine components. These nine steps, in abbreviated form, are as follows. (Reid’s materials offer a more comprehensive treatment of these issues and readers are advised to consult them before using these techniques.)

Positive confrontation. The interrogator first adopts a dominating accusatory position—directly stating confidence in the subject’s guilt—and evaluates the subject’s reaction. The interrogator then uses what Reid calls a “transition statement” to get the subject to admit guilt.

A transition statement is a reason articulated by the interrogator for conducting the interrogation—since the interrogator has already expressed certitude that the suspect is guilty, he or she must offer another reason for the interrogation. Transition statements might probe why or how the person committed the crime.

Theme development. The interrogator helps the suspect develop “themes” that minimize or justify the crime. Chances are that the suspect has already rationalized the crime, so he or she will likely be a willing participant. Specific themes, according to Reid, include saying others would have done the same thing, minimizing the moral seriousness of the offense, and suggesting that the employer can easily bear a few incidents of theft.

Handling denials. Here the interrogator discourages the suspect from denying his or her involvement. Nonverbal indicators of an upcoming denial include leaning forward in the chair, extending a hand, trying to catch the interrogator’s eye, or opening the mouth. Verbal indicators include asking for permission to speak.

After hearing a request to speak, for instance, an interrogator should interject a comment that will discourage a denial. In Essentials of the Reid Technique: Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2005), the authors describe such a method: “This type of comment should begin with an accentuated reference to the person’s first name (e.g. ‘Joe!’), followed by something like, ‘Before you say anything else, let me explain how important this is’ or ‘Listen, I want you to understand this.’” These comments should be supported by gestures such as the removal of eye contact and holding up a hand to make a “stop” signal.

Overcoming objections. As defined by Reid, an objection is a statement that is proposed by a suspect as an excuse or reason why the accusation is false, such as claiming not even to own a gun when accused of armed robbery. Investigators must sweep away these objections.

If, for instance, a person claims not to have committed a robbery because he doesn’t own a gun, that objection can be overcome in this way, according to Essentials of the Reid Technique: “I’m glad you mentioned that, Joe, because it tells me it wasn’t your idea to do this—that one of your buddies talked you into this, handed you the gun, and then the whole thing happened. You see, Joe, if you did own a gun and carried it in that night, ready to use it, to kill somebody if they got in your way, that’s one thing. But if the other guy stuck it in your hand, to use it just to scare everybody, that’s something else again….”

Attention. Obtaining and retaining the suspect’s attention is yet another key technique. The interrogator must recognize the point at which the suspect is psychologically poised to withdraw from the interrogation, at which time the interrogator can use physical closeness and verbal techniques to command the suspect’s attention.

Becoming quiet and avoiding eye contact are two signs of tuning out. The suspect’s face will become expressionless, and he will cross his legs.

Techniques to regain attention include the investigator’s moving his or her chair closer to the subject, but in a gradual, unobtrusive way. At the same time, the interrogator can move into the suspect’s line of vision to reestablish eye contact.

Passivity. The interrogator must know how to handle a suspect’s passive mood, an indication that the subject is ready to confess. Interrogators should resume the theme of why the person committed the offense, watching closely to see whether the suspect is accepting or rejecting the reasons the interrogator is proposing.

Alternative questions. To obtain an admission of guilt, the interrogator asks a question with only two possible answers, both of which are incriminating. Such a question might be, “Did you take money every time you worked or only when you needed it?” Another example: “Did you spend all the money on entertainment or did you use some of it to pay the bills?”

Detailing events. The investigator must draw the incriminating details out of the suspect to develop a full confession and to resolve discrepancies in the suspect’s story. Methods of doing so call for initially avoiding inflammatory terminology while teasing out the story; an interrogator might ask, “How many times did you use the knife?” instead of “How many times did you stab her?” according to one of the examples provided in the Reid materials.

Written statements. In this stage, interrogators must convert an oral confession into a written confession. It is vital that such statements be structured in such a way that they support the suspect’s truthful admissions and the voluntary nature of the confession. Faced with written confessions on the witness stand, defendants often deny having written them or claim to have been told what to write. Therefore it’s a good idea to have the suspect include details that only he or she would know.

Other techniques. Although the kinesics and Reid methods are widely recognized as effective, no single approach to interrogation holds the entire solution. Each suspect, each case, each interrogation or interview is unique, and the more tools one has at hand, the better the chance of solving a case. In any event, the investigator must develop a personal repertoire of interrogation skills that are both comfortable to use and effective.

There are many other types of verbal and nonverbal techniques used by interviewers. Many of these involve slowly increasing the pressure on the subject. The interrogation process rests on the premise that, under stress, someone who is lying or holding back information will experience internal turmoil and that this internal conflict will manifest itself in a series of verbal and nonverbal clues. An effective interviewer knows how to turn up the heat, further increasing the verbal and nonverbal indicators.

One important caveat: Interrogators must remember that they are using a powerful but imprecise tool in the questioning process, so they must use it responsibly and only when circumstances call for it. A good interrogator can get an innocent subject to confess just to relieve the pressure. Ultimately, however, the goal of interviews and interrogations is to discover the truth, not to gain a false admission.

With that in mind, here are some other effective techniques:

Silence. Wait suspects out. Most people are uncomfortable with silence and will begin talking just to break the tension. Getting them to say anything is better than silence, because they may well reveal something new or rephrase something they said earlier that will make the meaning clearer.

Empathy. Empathize with the subject, perhaps by sharing a personal experience. The goal is to minimize the subject’s shame about the behavior so that he or she will admit to it. The interviewer might say something like, “Anyone in your place would have done the same thing.” A gentle touching of the arm or a pat on the back reinforces an interviewer’s display of empathy.

Appeal to emotions, spirituality. Often suspects are desperate to unload the burden they are carrying, and interviewers can prod them by appealing to their emotions, religion, spirituality, or morality. For instance: “I know this has been bothering you, because you’re a good person. If you get it off your chest you’ll feel better.”

Mention symptoms of guilt. Another way to increase the pressure on suspects is by pointing out that they are manifesting telltale symptoms of guilt. For example: “Your mouth seems very dry, and you keep crossing your arms when I ask you about the missing money. Those are indications that you are not telling the truth.”

Be ready to strike. Seek an admission when the subject exhibits a willingness to cooperate or appears ready to confess. One good sign that the subject is getting to this point is when he or she asks, “What’s going to happen to the person who did this?” The interrogator might respond, “Are you saying you did it?” Or, using the more empathic route, the interrogator might say, “It depends, because this may have been a mistake made by an otherwise good person.”

Convey omniscience. After asking a question, suggest that the answer is already known. To illustrate: “I have already interviewed a number of people about this situation, and we have a lot of evidence, so I want you to think very carefully about your answer.”

Offer a chance to lie. Give subject an opportunity to lie; suggest a scenario that you know is incorrect and see whether the subject agrees.

Take focus off suspect. Another effective tactic is to ask the subject for his or her judgment about the crime. This might include asking subjects how they would have committed the crime or why someone might have committed the crime. They should also be asked what should happen to the person who committed the crime. Innocent people will generally suggest a harsh punishment while guilty parties will recommend leniency.

Use trickery, deceit sparingly. It is legally acceptable to provide false information or to suggest evidence that does not exist. And in Frazier v. Cupp (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court held that lying during an interrogation is permissible. The key is to be careful that you don’t undermine your credibility by suggesting something the suspect knows is not true and be careful that the lie or deceit would not cause an innocent person to confess.

Virtually every investigation requires interviews or interrogations. Mastering the techniques for each is an unparalleled way for getting at the truth.

Edward McDonough, CPP, CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner), is the director of security for Tyco Fire and Security and a member of the ASIS Professional Certification Board.