Questions with, ".. can you say .." are defective. Know how to properly structure questions. In my book, "Getting the Truth," (available at Store) I define lies as partial truths - there is a modicum of truth in every lie. As we grow up, we hone our ability to lie (tell partial truths) by including some truth in our statement. We convince ourselves that a statement with some truth is not a complete lie. So, when someone answers a question that contains, "..can you say .." with a, " I can say ..," we can't rely on their response because there is some truth in it. We can "say" anything, but that doesn't make what we say the complete truth. People who wish to deceive, seize on the opportunities presented by defective questions to tell partial truths. Thus, you can’t rely on responses to poorly constructed questions. The old adage, “Garbage in, garbage out,” applies. So, what’s a well-constructed question?
As we put together our interview strategies, we need to think about asking the right question, the right way, at the right time. Questions need to be structured correctly to be effective. They need to be simple, precise, using only mutually understood words. And, we have to ask them at the right time. If any of that is missing, we can’t rely on the response.
As explained in the above paragraph, deceptive people will take advantage of ill prepared questions by telling partial truths. Therefore, our question strategies need to minimize the subject’s ability to tell partial truths. We are looking for the complete truth and our questions need to make it very difficult for the deceptive to provide us with answers that appear to be truthful when in fact, they’re not. It’s a very subtle process to detect skillfully worded deceptive statements. President Clinton’s, “It all depends on what ‘is’ is,” statement provides us with an example. Deceptive people are wordsmiths, and we, as interviewers, need to use that trait to our advantage. We do that by forcing subjects to give us precise responses using mutually understood words that can’t be misinterpreted. Keep in mind that truthful people will not intentionally provide partial truths. Typically, truthful responses are simple and precise. Truthful people want us to discover the complete truth. Deceptive people don’t.
The response, “I didn’t do it,” when it stands alone without explanation, contains the components of a truthful response. But you can rely on it only when there is no doubt about what “it” is and it is consistent with the evidence and circumstances. And, the context matters. Was it blurted out? Was it in response to a question?
The question that contains, “ .. can you say ..,” is a contaminating question. Contamination is anything that affects the response. There are times when we may wish to employ intentional contamination, where we try to influence a statement one way or the other. In this article, I limit my discussion to unintentional contamination – necessary for fact-finding situations that we regularly encounter as investigators and auditors.
Unintentional contamination can occur as we walk into the interview room; as we begin the questioning process; the type of interview room itself; noises inside and outside the room; etc. One on one interviews are by far the best, since a second interviewer will contaminate. If Human Resources requires a representative to be present, ask that they sit silently and out of subject’s sight. We can’t control all of the unintentional contamination. The way we present ourselves, our choice of interview rooms, our question strategy, our question structure, how we ask our questions, when we ask our questions, and our question presentation are controllable. We need to consider how each of these decisions/actions affect the subject’s responses and include those considerations in our strategy.
I regularly employ a powerful technique that addresses many of these issues. It also provides a report, a written statement, that can’t be improved upon since it records the interview and the subject’s statement. Once I’m in the interview room with the subject, I introduce myself with minimal conversation. I may ask the subject non-threatening questions about their full name, address, time with the company, etc. During this time I’m calibrating the subject to determine his/her communication patterns. A communication pattern will include speech rhythm, eye contact, voice inflections, eyebrow movement – in short all that occurs both verbal and non-verbal. Later, I will compare that foundational pattern to his/her communication patterns when answering threatening questions. For this process, I will use a plentiful amount of non-lined plain copy paper.
After that short introductory session, I will then tell the subject I will handwrite my questions and ask him/her to respond in their handwriting. I typically use different color inks for my handwriting and the subject’s. I will start with the command, “Tell me what happened.” I will also leave the room, telling them I will wait outside, and to notify me when they complete the response. This further minimizes contamination. I’m not sitting there fidgeting, looking at my phone, or distracting them in any way. It also leaves them alone with their thoughts. This is a powerful technique. People tend to write things they won’t verbalize, especially when they are alone.
The command to write out a response to“Tell me what happened,” on an unlimited supply of plain white paper sets up a very complex process. The subject has to compose the response knowing where she starts will determine where she finishes.
We then have several pages of a handwritten explanation of what happened, produced with minimal contamination. I then look at that statement to see if there are signs of stress in the composition. I note areas of sensitivity – cross outs, rewrites, flow disruptions, different handwriting styles, etc.
To illustrate, look at the following picture of a statement I obtained using the above principles. The subject’s ex-wife accused him of taking personal checks made payable to her, forging her name, cashing the checks, and keeping the money. I minimized contamination. There is little that I said or did to influence his statement. It is harder to lie than to tell the truth. Deception requires a much higher thought process than truth-telling. Deception is therefore, more stressful. Here is a portion of his 5 page statement to me, responding to “Tell me what happened.:”
Note the handwriting changes dramatically when the subject writes, “She said to sign her name …” Something caused that difference in writing. Was the cause deception, the pen, or a noise in the room? The fact it occurs when he provides his main defense suggests deception.
My first question to him once I returned to the room was, “You wrote ‘She said to sign her name ..” – Please tell me about that.” Ask the right question, at the right time, in the right way. I asked that question in that way with those principles in mind. I wanted him to know his deception was identified immediately and to maintain the stress level following the difficult task of completing the statement. He later confessed to me that his ex-wife did not give him permission to sign her name. Just like in nature, water seeks its own level. There is peace in truth. While he lost his financial institution job, he was now on his path to rebuild his life.
My next step in the this statement-taking process is to ask him/her to define their words by asking, “What did you mean when you wrote …,”. For example, “What did you mean when you wrote, ‘I then started to begin making the entry?’” I then use their words, now mutually understood, when constructing my questions.
Well-constructed questions (commands) contain mutually understood words constructed simply and precisely. Again, the goal is to minimize contamination.
Were you ever at 765 Moross?
Better: Show picture of 765 Moross and ask, Were you ever inside that building? (“at” is not precise; “inside” is better – also subject may not know address)
What is your net worth?
Better: What does the phrase “net worth” mean to you? then, What is your net worth?
(define the word, then use the word once mutually understood)
When was the last time you saw Nicole? Better: When did you last see Nicole? (6 words vs. 8 words; also simple and precise)
Did you kill your wife?
Better: What happened to your wife?
“She was killed.” What do you mean? “Someone shot her” Did you shoot her? (“kill” needs to be defined)
What do you think happened? Better:What happened?
Do you know who took the money? Better: Who took the money?
(akin to “What can you say ..”; more precise)
Can you say you did not take the money? Better: Did you take the money?
There is much to learn in developing the skills necessary to conduct good fact-finding interviews. We need to minimize contamination. We need to know how deceptive people use the words in our questions to provide us with deceptive answers. We need to keep that in mind and employ strategies to overcome deceptive responses. We need to help prevent deception by asking properly constructed questions. We also need to know what kinds of responses to expect from truthful people so we know when we’re being told the truth.