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The Non-Confrontational Approach

May / June 2019 (click here for printable version)

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The Non-Confrontational Interview

John E. Reid and his colleague, Northwestern Professor of Law Fred E. Inbau, developed the non-confrontational interview as an integral part of any questioning of a subject in the 1960’s.

All investigators understand that the initial contact with a subject (victim, witness or suspect) should be a non-accusatory, non-confrontational interview the purpose of which is to develop information – to give the subject an opportunity to tell their story, and to provide any information they may have as to the who, what, when, where, why and how of the issue under investigation. This information can then be assessed in relation to the available investigative facts and evidence.

In the second edition of the Reid, Inbau book, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, published in 1967,the authors recommend that during the interview process the investigator should “assume a neutral position and refrain from making any statement or implications one way or the other until the subject discloses some information or indications pointing either to his innocence or his guilt.”

Reid and Inbau suggested that the following question areas should be part of this interview:

  • Ask the subject if he knows why he is being questioned

  • Ask the subject to relate all he knows about the occurrence, the victim, and possible suspects

  • Obtain from the subject detailed information about his activities before, at the time of, and after the occurrence in question

  • Ask the subject if he ever thought about committing the offense in question or one similar to it


In all investigations we teach that the initial contact with any subject should be a non-accusatory, non-confrontational Behavior Analysis Interview Interrogation should only take place when the investigative information indicates the subject’s probable involvement in the commission of the issue under investigation.

The Non-Confrontational Interrogation

When an interrogation is deemed to be appropriate, there are multiple ways to begin the process. The investigator can use a statement indicating the subject’s involvement, such as:


  1. “As a result of the investigation that we have conducted, and considering the information you gave me during our interview, the investigation indicates that there are some areas that we need to clarify.”

  2. “The results of our investigation indicate that you have not told me the complete truth about (issue)”

  3. “As you know, we have interviewed everyone in the area and you are the only one that we cannot eliminate from suspicion.”

  4. “I have in this file the results of our investigation into the (issue). The results of this investigation clearly indicate that you are the person who (committed the offense).”


On the other hand, the interrogation process may begin without making any statement about the subject’s involvement, but simply beginning with what we call a “third person theme.” This is what is commonly referred to as the non-confrontational approach.

A third person theme is a real or fictitious event about the investigator, friend or past case depicting a similar type of offense to that of the suspect's and the emotional state or extenuating circumstances that led to the act. One of the benefits of using a third person theme is that it does not encourage denials because it is not specifically directed at the subject’s behavior. The following example illustrates a third-person theme.

Joe, the reason I want to talk with you today is that you remind me of a fellow we had in here a couple of weeks ago. He was young and ambitious and a real go-getter. By working his way up the ladder at a bank, he went from clerk to teller, and finally he was promoted to auditor within a period of 8 or 10 months. Everything seemed to be going well for him. He had a loving wife, two lovely children, and they were in the process of moving to a newer home in a nice subdivision. One day, while he was balancing the books, he noticed a teller had failed to record a $6,000 deposit. This was the amount the fellow I’m talking about needed to complete a down payment on his new home. On the spur of the moment a decision was made to take the money. I don’t think I have to tell you what happened next. The bank noticed the shortage after the customer called. This young auditor came under suspicion, and I remember him sitting right where you are, telling me how sorry he was for taking the money. The reason you remind me of him is that, just like him, you have a lot going for you. You are intelligent, ambitious, and are basically very honest. I think what happened to you is that on the spur of the moment you decided to do this to help pay bills for food or maybe clothes for your family. . . .


As this example illustrates, the third-person theme should somewhat parallel the present suspect’s circumstances or motivation. Although the story should have a “happy ending,” such as the person deciding to tell the truth, the investigator should not imply leniency as a result of the other suspect’s confession.

One of our previous Investigator Tips, “What words should I use when I start an interrogation” provides a discussion of the various factors to consider in determining which approach to use.

In our training programs and written materials, we teach the non-confrontational approach for both interviews and interrogations.



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