The Great Pretender: Reflections on Interview Simulations

About a week ago, I presented my annual two- day Employment Investigations Training through Minnesota Continuing Legal Education. This is a terrific opportunity for me to teach in a lengthier format than I usually do, and to experiment with new material. This year, the second day presented three simulated interviews based on a case-overview Since it was our first year using this format, there were a few glitches, but for the most part, the feedback was terrific.

Conducting simulated interviews in front of 100 people is daunting for a number of reasons, the least of which is the high probability that something unexpected will happen and I, the interviewer, will publicly deviate from adhering to all of the wonderful skills and protocol I have been recommending to participants. Inevitably, it happens. Inevitably, the benefit of having the audience as “coaching partners” outweighs the awkwardness. This year, after a full day of interviewing actors in a “blind” case, I found myself noticing some nuances of interviewing that I thought I’d share with my readers.

Pacing

While watching a “real time” interview might not be entertaining, it does provide an opportunity to experience the importance of pacing. As we “feel out” our interviewee, we begin at a careful and relatively slow pace, attempting to mirror the most comfortable and least threatening pace for the interviewee. Once the interviewee has had an opportunity to begin to tell his or her story, we can “move things along” or slow things down by the timing of our probes. A one word probe, echoing an ambiguous phrase by an interviewee slows them down and presses for more detail, while, “and then what happened?” signals that it is time to move along. Similarly, as we begin to “deconstruct” any inconsistencies or flaws in the statement of our interviewee, we can use a sudden change of pace to disrupt what may be a complacent recitation, to try to throw someone off their line of thinking, or to put pressure on the interviewee. Taking up delicate subjects in a slow, measured manner can signal to an interviewee that you are not rattled by discussing difficult situations, increasing the likelihood of candor.

Staying With the Interviewee

What I notice when role playing that I don’t notice while doing “real life” interviews is a tendency to begin thinking about my next question far too early. After asking a question eliciting information, the tendency to “jump ahead” makes a focus on listening to the answer a second priority to the invention of a new query. While the pressure of performance is not a factor in real life, it does cause me to think that this may be a subtle habit. The discipline of good interviewing is all in the listening, so the solution is to allow oneself, as the interviewer, to pause after each answer if the pause is needed to formulate the best question. Intentionally staying with the information as it emerges promotes objectivity and sensitivity to subtle aspects of the information being conveyed.

The Importance of “Time Between”

Although many investigations are conducted under some kind of time pressure, simulating three interviews back-to-back highlights the importance of “sink time,” the time between interviews when interviewers can engage in analysis and reflection. The value of even fifteen minutes to prepare a quick matrix of facts boosts interview productivity immensely. While not all investigators have the flexibility to extend their efforts over weeks, or even many days, it is appropriate to advocate for sufficient time to get perspective on the data flowing from witnesses, to compare versions of events, and to consider subjective impressions. Pursuing interviews one after another creates a crowded cognitive arena that reduces one’s ability to ask thoughtful questions and to drive towards a clear picture of the facts.

The Importance of Human Connection

It is a point I try to make over and over when helping people hone thier interviewing skills:  if the person being interviewed believe what they have to say will matter, they will tell you more than if they feel as though they are being “used” to gather information.  It is always interesting to get feedback from the actors who invariably confess that they ended up being far more forthcoming than they had intended to be.  No matter how many investigations we have done, nor how trivial or important a particular investigation is, the simulations underscore the importance of connecting with the interview subject and “ripening” the atmosphere to get the most information available.

While the challenge of doing these “live” interviews is undeniable, it is great to have the opportunity to show others techniques and methods that otherwise don’t come to life.  There are lessons to be learned in every interview we conduct, even those that are simulated.

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