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Proper Persuasion

​Movies and television consistently portray interrogators as insensitive, aggressive brutes who use verbal threats, physical force, and false promises to get the information they seek. Think Jack Bauer of 24. But the process of interrogation has evolved significantly over the last few decades, so images associated with the word do not always accurately represent current tactics. A proper investigative interview does involve questioning, but it is not conducted in a forceful or threatening way. 

There are a number of important techniques an investigator should cultivate to achieve the ultimate goal of the interview: eliciting the truth from the subject. Maintaining a nonaccusatory tone is critical; the subject must feel comfortable disclosing important facts. A particular line of questioning should be followed to keep the interview from feeling like an interrogation, but also to convince the subject that it is in his or her best interest to tell the truth. Finally, the use of positive persuasion is a cornerstone of the investigative process. This technique includes seven steps, and the second step, the development of persuasive statements, is highlighted in this article. Examples of interview techniques taken from a real-life scenario are included throughout to illustrate how the interviewer can use these best practices to conduct successful investigations.​


A defining characteristic of a properly conducted interview is a nonaccusatory tone. Questions should not be asked in a forceful way, and are not necessarily designed to elicit incriminating information, but rather to give the subject an opportunity to tell their side of the story. A successful interviewer will go to great lengths to maintain an objective and nonjudgmental attitude and encourage the subject to do 80 percent of the talking. 

Various factors affect an investigator’s success in motivating a subject to reveal incriminating information. One of those factors is the subject’s perception of the investigator. The investigator’s credibility and ability to gain a level of trust from the subject will play a pivotal role in influencing a subject to want to tell the truth. The more qualified and confident the investigator appears to be, the more credibility the subject will give to the statements of the investigator. The investigator’s ability to be empathetic and understanding will enhance the likelihood that the subject will begin to trust the investigator. Successful investigators have the innate ability to see things from the subject’s perspective.  ​

Initial Questioning

Investigative interviews often consist of three basic types of questions: biographical, investigative, and behavior provoking.  

The first line of questioning involves collecting biographical information such as the subject’s name, address, marital status, and job responsibilities, for example. These inquiries also help the investigator to develop a rapport with the subject and discern his or her normal patterns of behavior. Normal behavior patterns can be defined as the behavior the subject engages in when providing truthful answers to the questions asked by the investigator. Investigative questions are those that elicit the details of the subject’s alibi and details regarding the issue under investigation. Finally, behavior-provoking questions elicit the opinion of the subject, thus reflecting their attitudes and perceptions regarding the victim, the consequences that may be associated with the misconduct, and the severity of the issue under investigation. 

For example, in a case involving the theft of a cash deposit, the investigator may ask the subject a behavior-provoking question, such as “What do you think should happen to the person who stole the deposit?” The subject may respond by saying, “I don’t know, I guess it would depend on the circumstances.” This response illustrates that the subject perceives the consequence as flexible, meaning that he or she believes that the decision regarding consequences has not been made. Furthermore, it shows that the subject believes the disciplinarian may take the circumstances of the perpetrator into consideration when doling out punishment.

If the subject is in a supervisory position, the investigator may ask, “As a supervisor, what things do you take into consideration when making decisions regarding an employee who engaged in misconduct that warrants disciplinary action?” The subject may say, “It depends on their attitude. If the employee expresses an understanding that what they did was wrong and expresses remorse, I would take that into consideration. But if the employee views the misconduct as inconsequential, I would have to increase the severity of the consequences.” These answers provide insight into the subject’s psyche and will be instrumental in the development of persuasive statements in the second phase of the process. 

If the investigator reaches the conclusion that, based on the information developed during the investigative interview, the subject is withholding or falsifying relevant information, moving to the second phase may be warranted. Phase two is the clarification phase, which involves positive persuasion. 

Investigators are rarely required to move to the positive persuasion phase and do so only to clarify or resolve inconsistencies. 

Positive persuasion consists of a variety of persuasive statements offered by the investigator to motivate, influence, and persuade the subject to want to tell the truth. The questions asked during the positive persuasion phase are designed to elicit the truth from a subject using logic, sound reasoning, understanding, empathy, rationalization, and minimization. ​

Positive Persuasion 

Positive persuasion consists of seven steps including overcoming resistance, addressing the subject’s fears, and establishing details. The centerpiece of the seven steps is step two, the development of persuasive statements.

There are three building blocks essential to the development of effective persuasive statements. They are: allowing the subject to save face; understanding how and where the subject is shifting the blame for their actions; and understanding what types of behavior the subject perceives as being worse than the crime in question, which will enable the investigator to offer a credible contrast.

The following real-life case example illustrates these three building blocks. A female employee named Mary embezzled $20,000 from a pharmacy where she was employed as a cashier. She stole approximately $150 per week in increments of $50 over a period of three years. Mary rang up false returns on her cash register to cover the money she stole from the register.

Mary was married and had recently given birth to twin boys. Her husband had been laid off from his job for more than a year and was no longer receiving unemployment compensation. During her interview, Mary denied stealing any money from the pharmacy but stated that if someone was stealing money from the pharmacy “they would deserve a second chance depending on what they had to say about it.” 

Following are the details of the interviews with Mary about the crime. They illustrate positive persuasion techniques that helped investigators elicit the truth from Mary.

Save face. Investigators are most successful in the art of persuasion if they can tap into the subject’s preexisting justifications or rationalizations. These rationalizations will allow the subject to maintain a credible psychological excuse for his or her actions. The investigator should try to use the same rationalizations revealed during the interview to uncover the perceived justification for the act. This information provides the investigator with credible-sounding justifications that will appeal to the subject’s distorted perception of the situation. 

In this instance, Mary said that her husband recently lost his job and that they were having difficulty “keeping their heads above water,” especially since the twins were born. She also stated that she cashed some personal checks from the funds in the register, even though she knew it was against company policy. Mary also stated that she witnessed other employees cash checks in this manner and did not think the policy forbidding this behavior was being enforced.  

By developing these rationalizations in the persuasive statements, the investigator will appear sympathetic to the subject’s situation. However, the investigator’s words will not legally justify the suspect’s behavior. In Mary’s case, the investigator said:

“Mary, I understand how difficult things are these days.  The economy is tough for everyone. Companies are merging and, as a result, good hard-working people like your husband are losing their jobs through no fault of their own. It’s hard to make ends meet when a two-income family becomes a one-income family. Just because a person makes a mistake in judgment does not make that person a dishonest person or a thief. I think the reason honest people like you do this type of thing is because they are thinking about the well-being of their family and sometimes just act out of desperation. However, sometimes we run into people who are simply dishonest and get jobs for the sole purpose of trying to find ways to rip the company off. They will take as much as they can and think of no one but themselves. Now, you don’t seem like that type of person to me. In the short time I have had a chance to get to know you, Mary, you seem like a nice person, a loving mother, and a reliable employee. But sometimes life circumstances get the better of us and even the most honest person may make a mistake in judgment and do something that is out of character for them. That’s what I would like to think about you, Mary, but I can’t know that for sure unless that comes from you.” 

By appealing to the subject’s justification for her actions that she implicitly revealed in earlier answers about her struggles, that statement could motivate the subject to want to tell the truth. 

Shifting the blame. Eliciting the truth from a subject requires a shift in blame so that the burden is taken off of the person who committed the crime. During the interview, Mary stated that she witnessed other employees cashing personal checks from the register funds and that the company did not strictly enforce their policy prohibiting this behavior. The subject’s perception suggests that she would not have embezzled any money from the company if it was more diligent in enforcing its own policies. Her perception also suggests that she would not have embezzled for three years if the company had had better auditing controls and discovered the fraud earlier. She is essentially blaming the company’s poor controls for her embezzlement. The statements she made in the interview imply that it’s the company’s fault. The interviewer appealed to this shift in blame by making a statement similar to the following:

“Mary, I’m sure when you started working here the last thing you thought you would do is take money without authorization from the company. But after you started working here and saw other people cashing personal checks with the register funds, you decided to do that as well. If the company had been more diligent about enforcing their policies forbidding employees from cashing personal checks with register funds, you would have never started doing this. I think there was a time when you needed the money and had forgotten your checkbook at home. My guess is you took the money and planned on putting a check in the following day; but, since no one said anything about there being a shortage in the drawer, you just never got around to putting that check in to cover the money you removed. If the organization had better controls you would have not continued to do this for three years. This should have been caught early before things got out of control.”

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Credible contrast. Building block number three is for the investigator to offer a credible contrast, or a crime more serious than the issue under investigation. During Mary’s interview she acknowledged cashing personal checks from the funds in the register and witnessed other employees doing the same. There is a strong likelihood that Mary was trying to convince herself that she was going to try to pay the money back some day because, without this rationalization, she would have to look at herself as a thief. Another credible contrast, given the nature of this investigation, would be to compare stealing money to stealing drugs from the pharmacy and then selling them on the street. Using this information the investigator developed the following statement:

“Mary, after your husband was laid off, you probably had a hard time paying your bills and needed extra money just to makes ends meet. I think at the beginning you had the intention of paying the money back, but things just got away from you and before you knew it you were in too deep. Sometimes we just get into bad habits and we don’t know how to stop ourselves. The important thing is to understand what type of person you are, Mary. Are you an honest person who just made a mistake in judgment, or are you a thief who got the job here to rip this place off and maybe get involved in more serious things like taking drugs from the pharmacy? I have talked to employees working here at the pharmacy in the past who were taking drugs from the pharmacy and selling them on the street. I certainly don’t think you are that type of person, Mary, but these days you just don’t know for sure. I am doing everything I can to give you a chance to straighten this situation out and explain what your intentions were. I think you always had the intention of paying the money back, but things just got away from you–and now you’re scared and don’t know what to do.”

Motivating a subject to want to tell the truth is at the heart of these investigative techniques. Most subjects do not think of themselves as bad people regardless of the seriousness of their offense.

Mary, for instance, does not want the company to think she is a thief who got the job at the pharmacy just to embezzle $20,000. Mary hopes the company will understand that she is an honest person and good employee who used bad judgment, due to circumstances beyond her control.  

Most people perceive themselves as the victim and want someone to understand their pain. Mary knows she is not going to simply walk away and not suffer any consequences. She knows that she is going to face consequences, but she would like the decision makers to understand the extenuating events before any decision is made. 

It should be stated that investigators cannot absolve the subject of wrongdoing. Investigators should also make it clear to the subject that they are not promising any leniency. A statement such as the following should be made by the investigator.

“Mary, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that just because you tell the truth and say you are sorry that nothing will happen to you. I would be a liar if I said that. I’m not the one who is going to make that decision. However, the decision makers will make the decision based on the information I put in my report. The only information I have in my report at this point are the cold, hard facts that show what happened. I don’t have anything regarding your explanation or whether you are sorry about this. That has to come from you. I think you understand at this point that the decision makers are going to have to make a determination with or without your explanation. Mary, what frame of mind do you want them to be in when they make that decision–thinking the best about you or thinking the worst?”

Shortly after the investigator provided this explanation, Mary confessed to the crime. The investigator explained that the purpose of these investigative interview techniques is to resolve a situation as quickly as possible while getting all the underlying facts necessary to the investigation. Using positive persuasion to motivate a subject to desire to tell the truth allows a person to acknowledge their wrongdoing and at the same time avoid humiliation and maintain some dignity. It is a humane way to deal with the difficult problem of work-related misconduct with an employee. Subjects may not remember all that the investigator said, but they will remember how they were treated. 

David M. Buckley is a senior instructor at John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., where he is on the board of directors. He has been teaching interviewing and interrogation techniques for more than 30 years and is the author of How to Identify, Interview & Interrogate Child Abuse Offenders and coauthor of the book, Electronic Recording of Interrogations.​

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