Building Rapport During an Interview

Written By: Reid
Jan 01, 2000
Interviews in the popular television show Dragnet were often preceded with the admonition, "Just the facts ma'am." The emotional detachment displayed by Sgt. Friday, however, is generally not conducive to eliciting meaningful information from a subject. People are more comfortable telling the truth to someone whom they trust and can relate to. This is precisely why an investigator should spend the first several minutes of an interview developing a rapport with the subject. For the purposes of an investigative interview, rapport can be defined as "a relationship marked by conformity." If proper rapport has been established, a subject should feel comfortable discussing the issue under investigation in a question and answer format. Questions addressing the issue under investigation should not be asked until the subject's behavior reflects this relationship. Some behavior symptoms that indicate rapport are an uncrossing of the arms, a forward lean or comfortable posture in the chair, longer, more detailed responses and head nodding in agreement with the investigator's statements.

Identifying the purpose for the interview

Upon first meeting a subject the investigator needs to identify the issue under investigation. While the following introduction accomplishes this goal, it may create other problems: "Because of the prevalence of insurance fraud and the suspicious nature of this fire I need to question you to find out if you had anything to do with starting it." A truthful claimant would likely be offended by this very direct approach whereas the deceptive claimant would predictably become guarded. A more tactful way of introducing the purpose for the interview would be, "I'm really sorry about your loss and I want to process this claim as quickly as possible. As part of that process I must ask you some questions concerning the fire. Is this a convenient time to or would you like to schedule a time to come in to see me?" This approach is much more likely to set the stage to develop rapport for several reasons. First, there is no implication of involvement on the part of the subject -- the interview is perceived as a required formality in processing the claim. In this regard, an investigator should avoid using the phrase "I need to ask you some routine questions" when introducing an interview because it arouses suspicion in many subjects. Substitute phrases to consider using include, "to clarify circumstances", " to assist in our investigation" or "to help process your claim." The stated purpose for the interview should be perceived as either beneficial to the subject (to help resolve the subject's status) or as a required act by someone other than the investigator, e.g., "before we can close this case the department requires us to interview anyone with possible information."

As a second point, the proper introduction offered the subject a choice of being interviewed now or later. All innocent subjects, and the majority of guilty ones, will agree to be interviewed at the present time (a suspect who puts off the interview without good reason should be viewed suspiciously). The principle of offering the subject this choice is that it diminishes the investigator's perceived control over the subject. Rapport is difficult to establish if a subject believes that he has no choice but to answer an investigator's questions. Psychologically, by offering this choice, the investigator is delegating some power to the subject, which is an essential element of rapport.

Asking introductory questions

Once the purpose for the interview has been identified, it would be the unusual subject who would immediately feel comfortable responding to questions concerning the investigation. Therefore, the the investigator should proceed by asking non-threatening questions. As previously stated, the purpose in doing so is to get the subject accustomed to the question/answer format of the interview. This will also provide the subject an opportunity to assess the investigator's personality and demeanor. Subjects will feel most comfortable talking to someone who appears pleasant, organized and non-threatening. At the same time, the investigator should make assessments of the subject. These would include the subject's normal level of eye contact, his communication skills, intelligence and general nervous tension.
Introductory questions should appear to have some relevant purpose. For example, it may be suggested by the investigator that he needs to establish some basic information about the subject. From that point the following questions may be appropriate:

"How long have you lived at this address"
"What is your marital status"
"Do you have any children"
"Where do you presently work"
"What do you do at work"

These questions are actually topical areas designed to spawn further conversation. When appropriate, the investigator should ask sincere follow-up questions to draw out the subject's response. Using a few of the above questions, the dialogue may go as follows:

Q: "How long have you lived at this address?"
A: "We've been here for almost 15 years now."
Q: " This is a nice place. Did you build it?"
A: "No. I think it was about 5 years old when we bought it."
Q: "And you are presently married?"
A: "Yes."
Q: "What is your wife's name?"
A: "Barbara."
Q: "She's not here now?"
A: "No. She works second shift at Johnson Controls so she won't be home until about 11:00."

This conversation should continue for a minute or two until the investigator recognizes that the subject is comfortable with the interviewing process. It is recommended that the investigator avoids asking introductory questions which do not appear to have any relevant bearing on the investigation. Under that circumstance the suspect may become suspicious that the investigator is attempting to force rapport. Examples of these questions would be, "What kind of movies do you like?" "Who is your favorite author?" or, "Who do you like for the super-bowl this year?" The suspect, after all, knows that the investigator wants to discuss a crime with him and it is inappropriate to get into these unrelated areas.
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