The Trusted Network of Private Investigators
Find an Investigator
Find an Investigator

Focusing on Your Interview Technique: The Cognitive Interview Process

Editor's note: This article was written by an industry professional and guest contributor. The views and opinions in this article are of the author and do not reflect the views of PInow. If you are interested in becoming a guest contributor, send an email to [email protected].

focusing-on-your-interview-technique-the-cognitive-interview-processFocus on your interview technique to increase the quantity and accuracy of information you receive. Interviews provide facts, identify leads to additional evidence, support physical evidence and are critical to the investigation. Experienced investigators often fail to adequately assist victims, witnesses, and suspects in recalling an incident, which reduces the quality of information received. To gain the most from an interview, prepare in advance, avoid bad habits/tendencies, and use cognitive interview techniques to gain accurate information to improve the quality of your investigation.

Even experienced investigators often fail to prepare properly for an interview. It is critical to spend a few minutes to prepare for the interview process. Review any physical evidence you have already collected. Prepare a simple outline with a few questions to focus on the information you want to obtain from the individual. Identify interview techniques you will use to assist the interviewee with memory recall of important facts about an incident. Advance preparation reduces tendencies to use less productive interview techniques.

A common problem with the interview process is the tendency of the investigator to shortcut the interview process in an effort to “get to the facts”. Shortcutting deviates from standard interview and cognitive investigation methods.

Avoid these common tendencies to shortcut the interview process:

  • Interrupt the interviewee; redirect their attention to another topic or time period during a narrative response. This reduces the quantity and quality of information received.
  • Jump in and ‘assist’ the witness or victim in recalling facts. This alienates the interviewee and potentially leads to inaccurate conclusions.
  • Ask closed, short answer, “fill-in-the-blank” questions as the primary interview method. Opt instead to use open-ended questions. Interviewees will not freely share information or feel a need to recall information when asked closed, short answer questions.
  • Selectively listen to statements made be the interviewee. Investigators miss or discount important information the interviewee may provide if they selectively listen. Further, Investigators reduce their ability to recall information from the interview.

The cognitive interview process is proven effective in several studies to increase the amount of accurate information recalled by witnesses by 60% or more.

Over time, investigators tend to develop shortcut habits that reduce the quality and quantity of information they obtain in an interview. Shortcutting the interview process is contrary to proven cognitive interview techniques.

The cognitive interview process is proven effective in several studies to increase the amount of accurate information recalled by witnesses by 60% or more. Cognitive interviewing is a simple 5-6 phase process that centers on three psychological processes; communication, cognition (memory recall), and social interaction (rapport building).

Phases and techniques of the Cognitive Interview Process

About Cognitive Interviewing

Cognitive interviewing is a 5-6 phase process that centers on three psychological processes:

  1. Communication
  2. Cognition (memory recall)
  3. Social interaction (rapport building)

The cognitive interview process is proven effective in several studies to increase the amount of accurate information recalled by witnesses by 60% or more

  1. Introduction - Introduce yourself to the individual to be interviewed, state the purpose of your interview and emphasize the importance of them providing information. This mentally prepares the interviewee to become an active participant and is the first step in establishment of rapport.
  2. Establish rapport - Spend a few minutes getting to know the interviewee. Listen and look for commonalities that you can use to establish rapport. Listen carefully and thoughtfully to the interviewee and show empathy where appropriate.
  3. Interview - To start, encourage a narrative response e.g. “Tell me what happened.” Maintain rapport with active listening. Resist the urge to interrupt them. Ask them to diagram the scene to aid in memory recall. Have them restate what occurred from another person’s perspective that was present during the incident. Instruct them to close their eyes and visualize a person or scene they are describing.
  4. Follow-up - Clarify facts or details where needed. Ask neutral, non-leading questions. Always ask the interviewee if there is any other information they can recall about the incident that was not covered. To improve recall, ask the interviewee to restate the incident in reverse chronological order.

    Tip: If you are interviewing a suspect, listen for discrepancies between the first narrative account and the reverse chronological order version. Other questions that will assist the interviewee’s recall is to ask them to describe the environmental and psychological factors, e.g. “What was the weather like that day?” “How did you feel at the time?”
  5. Challenge - if the interviewee gave contradictory information or you are interviewing a suspect, challenge any contradictions you noted during the interview phase. Be respectful and listen carefully. Maintain neutrality in your questions and responses to encourage them to provide more information.
  6. Closing - Remind the interviewee the importance of the information they provided. Continuing the rapport you have established will encourage them to contact you if they remember additional information.

Interviews are critical in gathering facts about an incident. A small investment of time in preparation greatly improves the investigator’s performance during the process, which results in a better quality investigation. Experienced and inexperienced investigators improve their interview process with advance preparation, when they avoid the tendency to shortcut the interview, and they implement cognitive interview techniques to improve the interviewee’s memory recall about an incident.


McLeod, S. A. (2010). Cognitive Interview Technique. Retrieved from

Bruce Holmes About the Author

Bruce Holmes is an experienced law enforcement officer with over 24 years law enforcement experience. Bruce is the owner of Holmes-Tech LLC, a company experienced in providing technology solutions for attorneys, private investigators, security professionals as well as a founding partner of ProPiAcademy, a Top Private Investigator Training Program that provides online education for private investigators. 

Become a guest contributor

This article was written by an industry guest contributor. If you are interested in submitting a guest post or have an article suggestion, send an email to [email protected].

Search Articles

Follow PInow

PI News Round-Up Newsletter

Private investigator news, business tips and events delivered to your inbox.

Newsletter Archive →

Article Categories

Join PInow

Reach more clients and grow your business.

Join Today

  • Nationwide Network
  • Local Search Optimization
  • Website Templates

Read Member Testimonials →

The all-in-one software for process servers, at work or on the road.

Learn More