Effective interview techniques: how to get the information you need

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Like professional investigators, lawyers often need to obtain information from individuals. A successful outcome for the client may depend on it.

Here, we give an overview of how to interview like an investigator, as well as the methods, means and mannerisms that will deliver the best results.

What is the most common interviewing method?

In the 1970s and 80s, a spate of false confessions in high-profile, serious criminal cases led many to question whether the existing police interviewing framework was too confrontational and opaque, with a focus on human behaviour that was either unreliable or misinterpreted. In response, the Government commissioned a comprehensive review of police interviews that revealed serious flaws in the means used to question individuals and secure confessions.

According to Professor John Baldwin, who published a report on police interviews in 1992: “The main weaknesses that were identified were a lack of preparation, a general ineptitude, poor technique, an assumption of guilt, unduly repetitive, persistent or laboured questioning, a failure to establish the relevant facts, and the exertion of too much pressure.”

This report led to the creation of a new investigative interviewing framework known as the PEACE method. Developed by a team of law enforcement professionals and psychologists, including Professor Baldwin, PEACE has since been incorporated into UK policing and is now part of the basic level of instruction for all police officers in England and Wales. The private investigative sector has also followed in adopting the model.

What does PEACE mean?

The PEACE method is a non-accusatory investigative interviewing approach that prioritises information gathering over securing a confession.

Preparation and planning

Engage and explain

Account, clarification, challenge



How does PEACE work?

PEACE is a form of investigative interviewing, which aims to “obtain accurate and reliable accounts from victims, witnesses or suspects about matters under police investigation”, according to the UK’s College of Policing. Based on research into cognitive psychology and memory, PEACE places a greater emphasis on securing quality information from an interviewee, rather than tricking, intimidating, or oppressing them into a confession.

To achieve this, PEACE requires the interviewer to adopt a more informal, conversational approach – one that allows the interviewee greater freedom and space to explore their memory and recall details. As such, PEACE moves away from the question-and-answer interactions that are epitomised in the interrogation rooms of TV and film, to a more open structure in which the interviewee talks and the interviewer listens.

According to a study by Dave Walsh and Ray Bull for the British Psychological Society, PEACE interviews were “associated with the securing of full accounts, including confessions”, although the study stressed the importance of adequately training officers in the key skills needed for each stage of the PEACE method.

How does the PEACE method question a suspect?

The PEACE method uses an ‘hourglass’ style of questioning. First, an interviewer asks open questions to stimulate the interviewee’s memory and get the conversation flowing. They then follow with ‘closed’ or targeted lines of enquiry, before concluding with more open questions.

The justification for this order centres largely on increasing the reliability and accuracy of the information the interviewee provides. Initial open questions should give the interviewee space to ‘Tell, Explain and Describe’ (TED), without restriction, interruption, or direction. At this stage, the objective should be to give the interviewee time to search their memory and recall as much information as possible, without having any recollections ‘contaminated’ by the interviewer.

The information gleaned from open questioning informs the second stage. At this point, the interviewer may use targeted questions to clarify certain details, obtain specific facts, or explore inconsistencies. Questions here are often referred to as the five W+H questions, otherwise known as: who, why, what, where, when and how.

Concluding with more open questions can lighten the atmosphere, particularly if an interviewee has had to explain inaccuracies or relive upsetting incidents. This may make an interviewee more amenable to supplying further information if required.

What is the ‘hourglass’ questioning technique?

The ‘hourglass’ technique supports better recall of an event by allowing an interviewee to provide information as they remember it.

Stage one: Open questions, e.g. “What happened last Thursday night?”

Stage two: Closed/ targeted questions, e.g. “What colour was the car?”

Stage three: Open questions, e.g. “Is there anything else you can remember?”

Good cop or bad cop: which does PEACE prefer?

It depends. The PEACE method places significant importance on building a sense of rapport between interviewer and interviewee. Although it is important that the interviewer remains calm, professional and in-control, the interviewee must also feel relaxed enough to give information freely and as they recollect it, without feeling pressured into agreeing to details or giving facts that they believe the interviewer wants to hear.

Interviewers should also be empathetic and aware of any areas of questioning that may cause distress. Often, the information an interviewer requires relates to incidents that may be embarrassing, traumatising, or even illegal. If an interviewee is in a heightened emotional state, they may become defensive, obstructive, or less reliable. As such, interviewers should avoid pressing an issue or repeating questions in a way that may increase the negative emotions of their interviewee.

Persistent questioning, however, is not unreasonable. If an interviewer believes that the interviewee is withholding key details, they can continue to explore that subject, providing this is done in a calm manner.

How is an investigative mindset typically defined?

An investigative mindset is typically defined by the ‘ABC approach’, which is the recommended mindset for those undertaking investigative questioning:

Assume nothing

Believe nothing

Challenge everything

How do you prepare for a PEACE interview?

Good preparation is the cornerstone of the PEACE method and integral to its success. Without adequate preparation, an interviewer may enter the interview room with biases, preconceptions or misapprehensions that could hinder their judgement and make any subsequent lines of questioning less effective.

Before an interview, interviewers should gather all available evidence and materials, whether CCTV footage, email correspondence, or the accounts of other witnesses. Following careful examination of this material, an interviewer can build a picture of the event, including what is known for a fact and what is conjecture, as well as highlight any gaps. Analysis should also extend to better understanding the interviewee, as a tailored interview increases the likelihood of building a rapport. At this stage, an interviewer may wish to prepare a few questions based on what they already know. These should, however, be as open as possible and an interviewer should be ready to deviate from these questions based on any new information given.

With adequate preparation, an interviewer should be able to define their aims and objectives. These will include what they want the interview to achieve, whether that is corroborating evidence or disproving narratives. Remember, however, that securing a confession is not a viable objective under the PEACE method.

How does the PEACE model work remotely?

When conducting interviews remotely, using the PEACE model requires additional considerations. Although preparation, questioning and evidencing remain largely the same, physical cues and a sense of control work differently. Helping the interviewee to feel calm is, arguably, a little easier as the interviewee may feel more comfortable in their own environment. However, there is also a risk of the interviewee becoming disengaged and distracted – after all, who has not lost their focus when on a long video meeting? The presence of other individuals in the interviewee’s room may affect the behaviour of the interviewee or limit the amount of information they are willing to give, while, for the interviewer, visual cues are harder to spot on video and can go unnoticed. As such, building rapport between the two participants can be more complex online compared to in-person interactions. Further research and development of this technique is therefore required to make it more compatible with online communication via video.

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