Interview Tips for Private Investigators
- February 08
- by Stephanie Irvine
Private investigators interview people for a number of reasons. Investigators could be conducting interviews for something as benign as a background check or they could be interviewing to get information about a crime or missing person. With that said, most private investigators will agree that no matter the purpose of the interview, interviewing a subject is an art. It’s not always easy to get the information you need out of a person. However, with the right interviewing techniques and questions, investigators can usually get the information that they seek. To make things easier for PIs, we’ve pulled together some tips and input from experienced private investigators that will help you get what you need out of a subject during an interview.
It is best to have done some research into the subject and situation (crime, circumstances of missing person, background, etc.) so that you are not going into the interview room with the subject knowing more than you do. Knowing who you are interviewing and their role in the investigation is critical, as is knowing what questions to ask. Those questions vary depending on the investigation, but having a thorough understanding of the situation can point investigators in the right direction.
Private Investigator Michael Horner, who does pre-employment background investigations for a law enforcement agency, often has to interview candidates as well as their partners, family members, and neighbors as well as current and former employers. He explained, “I've found that some intentionally lie or omit information. Some omit by accident. Some don't think some information is relevant. It helps to have a lot of the answers to the questions before asking which helps to determine if they are lying.” The more information you have going into an interview, the more you will be able to test your subjects and the reliability of their answers.
Coming to the interview room prepared puts you as the investigator in a position to know the answers to the questions you are asking and determine if a subject is lying. Even if a subject is confirmed to be lying, knowing that they lied and their motive behind doing so can give you an important lead in your investigation.
Investigator Gilbert Jimenez explained, “After 30,000+ interviews/interrogations I can say this: Everybody lies. Everybody. You will hear/read 100 lies today and will tell 10 yourself. The key is in knowing which lies are important and why they are telling them to you.”
Establish a rapport and be polite
While certainly there are circumstances in which a stronger approach may be warranted, several investigators recommended a more level-headed approach. Investigator Adam Nowick emphasized, “Rapport, rapport, rapport.” This sentiment was echoed by several other investigators as well.
Private Investigator Ford J. Salas cautioned against being tough on subjects, saying, “Being polite can make the job easy. In contrast, tough guy act is unnecessary most of the time. In doing so, you instead discourage or irritate your interviewee, and that won’t be good for you.” As the saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and for many investigators, this adage rings true in the interview room.
Canadian Investigator Soulat Arshad from Facts Investigations advised, “Never ask questions in point form making it feel like an actual interview, use a discussion-based strategy, let your subject speak for themselves. With experience, you will develop a strategy called beat around the bush until your subject is comfortable enough to give you the answers to what you're looking for.” Taking the time to have an actual conversation with your subject will make them feel heard and therefore more likely to share information with you. Arshad continued, “I'm never direct about my questions, especially when you're expecting lies for answers. If I ever do need a direct answer to a question, I always build up to it. You cannot start an interview with ‘Are you the murderer?’ The answer will be no 99% of the time.” While it may seem like a waste of time, a subject will rarely reveal anything of importance without some sort of trust built between them and the investigator.
Listen With a Poker Face
When interviewing a subject, investigators may wonder if they’re asking the right questions. While an investigator absolutely needs to ask appropriate questions, often it’s not so much about what they’re asking as it is about what the subject is saying. One key to a good interview is to listen to the subject — and do so without giving away what you’re thinking.
Dale Papes of Northstar Investigations and Security, LLC in Cleveland, Ohio observed, “Some investigators are so impressed with themselves for coming up with such ‘phenomenal questions,’ that they never shut up and let the person answer! Don't ask 500 questions because you think they're great… try to ask 3 questions that will get you the answers that will ‘add meat’ to your investigation.”
The idea that investigators need to listen more continued as other investigators chimed in. Private Investigator Scott MacLean offered the following advice: “I would caution all investigators conducting interviews to focus on your listening skills. The subject of your interview will fill in ‘pregnant pauses.’ Don’t answer your question for them. Lastly, don’t show any reaction to any nefarious comments. If there are issues, address them last or circle back to them. If you react harshly to the first previously known or developed nefarious information, you will intimidate the subject from providing additional information later.” If you’re in a rush to do the talking, you may not be leaving enough time for the subject to answer fully.
Don't ask 500 questions because you think they're great… try to ask 3 questions that will get you the answers that will ‘add meat’ to your investigation.” - Dale Papes, Northstar Investigations and Security
It’s also wise to observe your subject’s level of intelligence. Never assume you’re the smartest person in the room. Private investigator Jeff Rehorn explained, “[...] learn to control your emotions and facial expressions. Many have been in that seat before and know how to read you as well.”
Additionally, don’t be afraid of being quiet. PI Adam Kusinitz explained, “[...]People are naturally uncomfortable with silence. Ask the question and then shut up. People will answer the question then pause. If you wait a bit longer, they normally add and add info because they feel they didn't answer. That's when you get the good info. If you ever watched a couple on a first date, they don't stop yapping vs an older married couple who can sit quietly and just enjoy each other's company.” Allow the subject to fill the silence if they feel the need to.
Ultimately, investigators should listen carefully for clues and not give away their reactions to what they have learned.
Behavior and body language
It’s important to know what to expect when it comes to body language. Understanding the most tell-tale signs of typical nervousness versus being untruthful can prove to be valuable in an investigation. In relaying his interviewing tips, investigator Michael Horner also offered that “body language and facial expressions can tell me a lot.”
With four decades of experience, veteran PI Jeff Rehorn advised, “you have to take notice of culture and environment. Learn body language, breathing, and always ask questions you know will be answered correctly before you ask the tough questions. Watch and learn the words they use. I took a course in handwriting analysis. It’s not used that much anymore, but you can ask questions and have the questions answered in writing. After a while, you’ll be able to use those writings as a gauge to do follow-up interviews.” It’s vital that investigators keep track of the context of the case and their surroundings as well as how the subject interacts with these factors.
By not only listening to the subject but also paying attention to their behavior, investigators can interpret important tells that give clues to the real story and get the investigator closer to closing the case.
Document and record
Another important tip is to document and/or record the interview. Be cognizant of recording consent laws as you may need consent to record, depending on the laws of your state or province. However, having a record of the interview with video or audio whenever possible can prove to be incredibly valuable for the investigation. Not only can the lead investigator look back on the interview, but other investigator associates can review and offer their input.
Additionally, a record of the interview gives investigators the ability to go back and rewatch or re-listen, perhaps catching information they missed when the interview was occurring. Finally, be sure to follow up. There is nothing wrong with conducting a second interview if necessary.
Finally, though this does depend on the type of case, recordings could be beneficial in future court proceedings as well. Investigators should take notes to document important statements during the interview in case they could be used as evidence later on.
Interviewing for today and tomorrow
One advantage investigators have over potentially difficult subjects is the ability to advance and refine their interviewing skills. Investigators can do this by networking with other investigators and sharing their techniques, reading, observing, and participating in training programs.
Many private investigators hailed the Wicklander-Zulawski training program as the gold standard in interviewing training. Investigator Scott MacLean also recommended the book Spy The Lie. Although many interviewing techniques are learned through experience, there is something to be said for going the extra mile.