Silence; A Powerful Tool for Interviewers


Missing person! Abduction! Headlines in a small town that a young, attractive female went missing during her routine jog in the area caused fear among the citizens. The husband of the young female reported that he brought their two young children on errands in the morning while his wife went for a jog, but when he returned home, she was nowhere to be found. After making phone calls to family and friends, the distraught husband called the police and a massive investigation was underway.
Numerous agencies were involved, roadblocks were set up and the police were questioning everyone in the area. The husband provided a written statement surrounding the events and was then questioned in detail by me and my partner. His statement as well as his responses and demeanor during the interview brought suspicion that more happened than he initially reported and that he was holding back information. After a couple hours of questioning he stated he was tired and wanted to go to bed. With nothing to hold him on, the interview was ended for the night, but the investigators worked throughout the night.
The next morning I checked on the husband, maintaining rapport, and letting him know that there were some issues we were concerned with regarding his statement and his responses during the interview. He stated that he had nothing to hide and was not holding back any information and elected to take a polygraph test. The polygraph was arranged for the following morning. My partner and I picked him up in the morning the next day, along with his father who he wanted to have with him, even though the husband was in his late 20's. It was approximately a 45 minute ride to the polygraph office during which there was a lot of small-talk and rapport building.
The husband took the polygraph test and ultimately failed. He was then questioned in the "accusatory style" of polygraphers and adamantly stated he was not lying and that he had nothing to do with his wife being missing. He peeled off his attachments to the polygraph machine and stormed out the door. I had excellent rapport with the husband and asked him if he would be willing to talk with me further about this test and why he failed the polygraph. He agreed and he was questioned further in the presence of his father. Ultimately, more information was gained and a clearer picture developed that much more occurred than he claimed, but he stated he wanted to end the interview and go home. Still, with nothing solid to go on we started that 45 minute drive back to his house.
Upon arrival at their house, his father got out and asked his son if he was going to come in. He stated he wanted to stay in the car a few minutes and his father went inside their house. No music was on in the car, no police radio was on, nobody said a word for about 10 to 15 minutes until the silence was broken by the suspect who stated..."Wes, what if it was an accident?" My response..."Then we just need to know what happened." That was the beginning of a complete confession which led to the body of his wife in a neighboring state and his ultimate conviction in court for killing her.
The power of silence...having the discipline to plant the seeds and stay quiet until they germinate is powerful during criminal interrogations. It is also powerful during investigative interviews with victims and witnesses. Ask an open ended question such as, "Tell me everything that happened..." and let them talk without interruption. When the come to what appears to be the end of their initial narrative, wait, look at them expectantly and more often than not additional details and information will come forward without you saying another word. 
Silence is uncomfortable for everyone within the interview, but what we perceive as silence may be a commotion of conflicting thoughts, self-talk and rationalization within the mind of the suspect, and by letting them work through that on their own often leads them to providing more information. If the interviewer is impatient and interrupts the silence and that thought process with additional questions, you may be disrupting what is going on in their head and pull them away, resulting in lost information. 
In many of the videotaped police interrogations I review, I frequently observe this. The detective asked a really good question, which either prompted a response from the individual and then he was silent, or maybe there was no immediate response at all, but it is apparent the suspect is thinking. As I am watching the video, waiting for the suspect to speak, the detective speaks breaking the silence! Who knows what may have been said by the suspect had the detective been a little more patient and developed the ability to be comfortable with silence.    
Until next time, stay safe, and when appropriate, stay silent!


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