The Use of Follow-up Questions to Elicit Admissions

Written By: Reid
Jul 01, 2000

An earlier web tip offered guidelines to interpret a subject's verbal behavior (Sept. 1999). In addition to assessing the truthfulness of a response, verbal behavior also provides insight for asking follow-up questions. The fact that the subject's initial response to a question contains an identifiable behavior symptom often indicates that the subject is not comfortable telling an out-right lie. Under this circumstance, asking a follow-up question frequently results in an admission or further meaningful information.


Many times a deceptive subject avoids an out-right lie to the interviewer's question through evasion. An evasive response relies on the interviewer making an unwarranted assumption as to what the subject meant to say within his response. Once a question is asked, there is a natural tendency to fit the response into a preconceived expectation of an answer. If the response does not directly answer the question, our mind fills in the gap and places the answer into a "yes" or "no" category, even though the subject's response merely implies a definitive position

As a young parent I asked my kids a series of questions just before they left for school. One of them was, "Have you brushed your teeth?" Invariably, I received an affirmative answer, which was the literal truth. However, over the years I have learned to follow-up that "yes" answer with the question, "Have you brushed your teeth today?" Oftentimes, this follow-up question resulted in the child rushing up to the bathroom to brush his teeth. There are numerous examples of evasive responses, but the following dialogue illustrates the basic formula for asking a follow-up question to an evasive response. That is, agree with the subject's initial statement but re-ask the question in its original form.

Q: "Did you have sexual contact with your step-daughter?"
"I consider her the same as a natural daughter. I can't believe she would say such a thing."

"I understand, but what I was wondering is whether or not you had sexual contact with your step-daughter?"
"Sexual contact? No. I wouldn't consider it sexual contact."

A common mistake interviewers make in asking a follow-up question, under this circumstance, is to modify the initial question, often making it more specific. It is important to remember that it was the original wording of the question that caused the subject's behavior, and it is that question which should be re-asked. To illustrate this, consider the following interview of a father who sexually molested his step-daughter by rubbing his bare penis against her vagina:

"Did you have sexual contact with your step-daughter?"
"I consider her the same as a natural daughter. I can't believe she would say such a thing."
"I understand, but did you put your finger in her vagina or fondle her breasts at all?"
"Absolutely not! I can't believe that anyone would think that I'm a child molester!"

Memory Qualifiers

When a subject's response contains a memory qualifier such as, "I believe," "To the best of my knowledge," or, "At this point in time" it is often productive for the interviewer to re-phrase the original question as a hypothetical one. The following dialogue illustrates this:

"Did you leave your house at all last Friday night?"
A: "Not as far as I remember."
"Is it possible you may have left your house last Friday night?"
"Well maybe for just a short time. That's right. I did go to the store around 7:00."

Interviewers who have received training in asking a bait question should consider the subject's use of a memory qualifier as a good indication that if a bait question is asked addressing that activity, that the subject will acknowledge the activity. Subject's who incorporate memory qualifiers within their response are basically telling the interviewer, "If you can produce evidence that I did this, then I will acknowledge it."

Addressing Specific Denials

A response that contains a specific denial addresses only a narrow aspect of the interviewer's question. For example, if a job applicant was asked, "Have you ever been asked to leave a job?" a specific denial would be, "I've never been fired from any full-time employer." The interviewer needs to recognize what the applicant is not denying. In this instance, the applicant may have been asked to leave a position under a mutual agreement, which is paramount to being fired. A second possibility is that the applicant may have been fired from a part-time employer. It is, therefore, important to ask follow-up questions which address both of these possibilities. The following is an example of this, where the investigator wants to establish the subject's access to a handgun:

Q: "Do you have any handguns in your home?"
A: "I've never purchased a handgun in my life."
Q: "Have you received a handgun as a gift?"
A: "No."
Q: "Have you received a handgun in trade for something else?"
A: "No."
Q: "Are there any handguns in your house that belong to someone else?"
A: "Well, my dad has an old .45 from the army that he keeps here."

Clarifying Estimation Phrases

As the name implies, an estimation phrase offers a personal opinion usually as to length of time or how often something occurred. Often, deceptive subjects will use an estimation phrase to hide incriminating information. When a subject's response includes an estimation phrase, the interviewer should ask a follow-up question which suggests a more incriminating answer as the following examples demonstrate.

"When is the last time you've experimented with an illegal drug?"
A: "It's been a long time."
Q: "Have you used any this week?"
"Oh gosh no. It's been 4 or 5 weeks -- ever since I started looking for a job."

Q: "How often did you and your wife fight?"
A: "Not that often."
Q: "Would it be maybe three or four times a week?"
A: "No. Maybe twice a week."

Q: "When is the last time you saw Linda?"
A: "It's been quite a while."
Q: "Did you see her at all yesterday?"
A: "No. I think it was two days ago."

This same follow-up technique can be used effectively when a suspect delays his answer to a direct question. A delay before answering a direct question often indicates that the subject is debating whether to tell part of the truth, or a complete fabrication. By suggesting an incriminating response before the subject verbalizes his answer, it becomes much easier for the suspect to tell part of the truth as the following dialogue illustrates:

Q: "During your meeting, did your hand come in contact with your secretary's thigh?"
A: "Um..."
Q: "Were you massaging her thigh with your hand?"
A: "Oh no. It was really just kind of a light touch and I didn't mean anything sexual by it."
Q: "How long would you say your hand was on her thigh?"
A: "Let's see ..."
Q: "Was your hand on her thigh during most of the meeting?"
A: "Oh gosh no. Ten, maybe 15 seconds at the most."

Subjective Terminology

An interview question should be phrased in such a way as to transmit a single, clear meaning. Therefore, it would be improper to ask a subject, "Did you engage in internal espionage against the United States." This is an ambiguous question because it requires (or assumes) that the subject knows what espionage is and that he can differentiate between internal and external espionage. Consequently, a subject who sold classified information to a foreign company may experience little anxiety when denying this ambiguous question.

Similarly, when a subject's response contains ambiguous terminology, the interviewer must not assume that the subject is attaching the same meaning to words as the interviewer. Therefore, when a subject incorporates subjective, technical or legal terminology within a response, the interviewer should either have the subject define the meaning of the word, or pursue the area with questions that transmit a single, clear meaning.

Returning to the examples under Evasive Responses, the first dialogue concluded with the following statement by the subject, "Sexual contact? No. I wouldn't consider it sexual contact." This response contains subjective terminology (sexual contact) and requires clarification. Because the response implies some contact, an appropriate follow-up question to ask at this point may be, "Tell me about the contact you have had with your step-daughter's vaginal area?"

In the second example, within this same section, the subject responded, "Absolutely not! I can't believe that anyone would think that I'm a child molester!" The term "child molester" is obviously subjective and will be defined quite differently by a Child Protective Service investigator than a father who is having sexual contact with his step-daughter. When a subject uses descriptive or legal language within a response it is often productive, as a follow-up question, to have the subject define the term. In this instance, the subject may describe a child molester as a person who abducts children and forces them to engage in perverted sexual acts. Conveniently, of course, this definition does not apply to the compliant, non-invasive sexual contact the subject had with his step-daughter.

The Universal Follow-up Question

The easiest lie to tell is one that is based on a partial truth. This is especially effective if the truth is somewhat incriminating. Too often, once an interviewer hears the subject make an admission against self interest, the answer is accepted as the whole truth. This is rarely the case. Consequently, our final suggested follow-up question is what we call the universal follow-up because it applies to many possible responses during an interview. Very simply, once a subject makes an admission against self interest, the investigator should ask the same question excluding the admission, e.g., "Besides for that...", as the following dialogue illustrates:

Q: "Has your driver's license ever been suspended?"
A: "Unfortunately, yes it was. Back when I was 17, I had too many speeding tickets and it was suspended for three months."
Q: "Besides for having it suspended when you were 17 has your license been suspended any other time?"
A: "Actually, there was another incident which is kind of complicated because it involved a DUI where it was suspended for six months. But I have it back now and everything is straightened out."
Q: "Besides for those two occasions, has your license been suspended any other time?"
A: "There was just one other time, again for a DUI, and that one was for 12 months. I just got my license renewed last month, which is why I'm applying for a driving position."

Many suspects who lie during an interview escape detection by offering minor admissions which the interviewer accepts as the whole truth. Returning to some earlier examples, under Memory Qualifiers, the universal follow-up question to ask in this dialogue would be, "Besides for going to the store, did you leave your house any other time that night?" Within the dialogue for Specific Denials, an appropriate follow-up question to ask is, "Besides for that .45, do you have any other handguns in your home?" The rule, simply stated, is that anytime a subject's response to an interview question contains an admission, no matter how insignificant, the universal follow-up question should be asked.

In summary, when a subject's verbal response contains a behavior symptom indicating possible deception, the interviewer should pursue the area with follow-up questions in an effort to learn more of the truth. Through experience, we have found that the follow-up questions suggested in this web tip are often beneficial in developing admissions or more meaningful information.

Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy this article. In those instances, the following Credit Statement must be included "This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. 800-255-5747 /" Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Toni Overman