Interviewing the FBI way


micOver the last two issues, Jeff Rowe has been teaching us about interviewing. In his first article, Jeff talked about interviewing Tactics and Techniques: Drawing people out and getting them to speak from the heart. Last month, he focused on the Difficult Interview. This month, Jeff teaches us how to Interview the FBI Way.

Journalists and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have much in common. Journalists and FBI agents both research a subject before going out on interviews. Journalists and FBI agents both want truthful information from interviews.

It gets a little different after that; a journalist goes back to the office, studio or live truck to write a story; the FBI agent may handcuff the interview subject and cart him or her off to jail. But an FBI agent typically knows far more about the art and science of interviewing than the typical reporter, because he has honed successful tactics and techniques over decades of work.

Retired FBI Special Agent Joseph Stuart specialized in interviewing and taught other agents how to conduct successful ones. In his classes, Stuart immediately distinguishes between an interview, which he calls a "conversation with a purpose," and an interrogation, which he defines as "a confession against self interest."

In television police dramas, the antagonist often blurts out the truth in the closing minutes, just in time for a brief, happy closing scene that fades to the commercial break.

In reality, such confessions come rarely. Rather, Stuart teaches, the interview subject usually reveals the truth in small bits, one piece building on another. It's up to the interviewer to build rapport with the interview subject. Questions asked in an accusing tone are less likely to induce the interviewee to speak than questions phrased in more neutral tones.

The first step in a successful interview is to study the case, if you are an FBI agent; the background of the story, if you are a journalist.

The next step is to determine the best place for the interview. People tend to be most comfortable in familiar surroundings, Stuart says. Second choice is a neutral setting; third choice is the office of the interviewer. Wherever the site, Stuart says it's important that it be private, quiet, and free of interruptions.

Good journalists prepare a list of questions or talking points, but Stuart says the answers are just one part of what a person being interview reveals - if we know what to observe.

Just seven percent of communication is verbal content, Stuart says. Thirty¬eight percent is vocal - how the interviewee speaks - and 55 percent is visual. (See more on this below.)

Television interviews can be particularly unnerving for interviewees, particularly the first time. The lights, a big camera on a tripod, and the presence of another person - the photographer - can make it very difficult to put the interviewee at ease.

Stuart tells agents he trains that their introduction can set the tone for the entire interview. He suggests the straightforward approach always works best - introduce your- self, tell what you do, where you work, and what you want.

That last element is critical because it is the first step in rapport building, which Stuart defines as the "establishment of non-threatening common ground between the interviewer and the interviewee."

Here's Stuart's "rapport checklist":

Put the subject at ease.
Ask questions about his or her job, his or her family, his or her hobbies.
Address his concerns. A kidnapping suspect once began an interview with Stuart by saying "I don't want to go to prison." Stuart countered with "right now, my concern is getting that little girl back. Let's do that first." The tactic worked.Encourage him/her to talk.
Be an attentive, interested listener.
Communicate that you are human, too.
Be flexible and willing to let the interview digress a little.

To keep rapport alive, Stuart recommends:
•Refrain from give unsolicited advice .
•Avoid downgrading the other person's status.
•Allow the subject to finish rather than interrupting.
•Resist finishing sentences for the interviewee.
•Stay on the subject.
•Acknowledge the interviewee's concerns, rather than dismissing them. • Stay focused on the person you are interviewing.

In questioning, FBI agents are taught to begin with open-ended ques¬tions and build to more specific ones. That works well for journalists too.

FBI agents also are taught to close interviews by asking "catch-all"
questions:
•Is there anything else I should be aware of?
•Is there anything I forgot to ask?
• Is there anything else you want to tell me?

Sometimes those questions elicit the best information of all.

Determining if your interview subject is being truthful

Every day, juries in court try to determine if someone is telling the truth. As journalists, we cannot achieve the same finality of determination as a court. So we must learn to observe signals given by our interview sub¬jects as they respond to our questions. Here are some telltale signs devel¬oped by the FBI to determine if a person is being truthful or lying:

Behavioral signs
The truthful person:
•Sits upright but not rigid.
•Positions himself/herself in front of the questioner.
•Leans toward the questioner when making a point.
•Appears relaxed and casual.

The deceptive person:
• Slouches or leans back in the chair or sits unnaturally stiff in the chair.
• Positions himself/herself to the side of the questioner, rather than in front.
•Pulls elbows in close, folds arms in front, crosses legs.
•Exhibits rapid and erratic posture changes.

Verbal signals
The truthful person:
•Makes general, sweeping denials.
•Offers unqualified, direct, and spontaneous answers.