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Available translations: English العربيّة

Six principles for effective interviewing

Graphic: NHRI staff talk with a woman in hospital


  1. Prepare as much as possible
  2. Establish a rapport with the interviewee
  3. Be thorough
  4. Be objective
  5. Keep control of the process
  6. Listen actively

PRINCIPLE 1: PREPARE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

The more an investigator prepares for an interview, the better the interview will go.

Good preparation:

  • Helps investigators focus on the most important evidence
  • Makes it more difficult for a witness to be misleading or evasive
  • Demonstrates the investigator is competent and professional
  • Helps establish a rapport with the witness.

The investigator should do as much research as time allows in order to learn as much as possible about the issue/s under investigation and the person being interviewed.

PRINCIPLE 2: ESTABLISH A RAPPORT

The more an interviewee feels the investigator empathises with them, the more forthcoming they are likely to be. Of course, not everyone will respond positively during the interview. The interviewee may distrust you or be frightened. They may feel they are losing face by being questioned. They may have no respect for you or the NHRI.

Regardless of the circumstances, the interviewer should make every effort to build a rapport. This process should start when the investigator first makes contact with the interviewee. Investigators should try to address any concerns the person may have about the interview.

The investigator should also be empathetic, polite, respectful and appropriately inquisitive, regardless of any personal feelings they may hold towards the individual.


Graphic: The Chairperson of Sri Lanka's NHRI talks with a man on the street


PRINCIPLE 3: BE THOROUGH

Investigators need to cover all relevant areas of questioning during the interview. They can be rightly criticised if they shy away from difficult or sensitive issues. All relevant issues must be canvassed during the interview, however intrusive, embarrassing, pointed or personal. This may include questions that go to the competence or integrity of the interviewee.

PRINCIPLE 4: BE OBJECTIVE

Investigative interviews are part of a process that seeks to determine the facts of a situation. It is imperative then that the investigator keeps an open mind at all times. If they have already decided what the person is going to say, or have made some other judgment about the person, that attitude will inevitably be reflected in the interview. In this case, the investigator will not focus on the answers as they are given; they will hear what they want to hear.

The interviewee will quickly realise if an investigators has made up their mind, which is to their benefit if the investigator is on their side. It also benefits the interviewee if the investigator is too polite and avoids tough questions. Likewise, the interviewee will become defensive if it is clear that the investigator has already decided that they are at fault for something.

Leading questions and unnecessarily aggressive cross-examination can also indicate a lack of objectivity. Questions that suggest the answers or otherwise guide a witness should normally be avoided, as should being overly sceptical or disrespectful. However, an investigator should always ask for clarification if an answer is ambiguous or simply doesn't seem to add up.


Graphic: NHRI staff visit a woman held in detention


PRINCIPLE 5: CONTROL THE PROCESS

The investigator is in charge of the interview and should determine all aspects of the process – as far as possible – to ensure the best possible outcome.

It is up to the interviewer to decide:

  • When and where the interviews takes place
  • Who should be present
  • How long it will last
  • The issues that are relevant and those that are not
  • The focus of the interview
  • What questions must be asked
  • How the interview will be recorded
  • The pace and tone of the interview.

This will be a challenge in many situations and impossible in others; for example, in an active conflict zone. In less volatile circumstances, however, the investigator should try to determine the interview process as much as possible. Any reasons that prevent this from happening should be documented.

PRINCIPLE 6: LISTEN ACTIVELY

There are times in an interview where an investigator may not really hear what the interviewee is telling them. There can be any number of reasons for this: laziness, lack of training, lack of competence, not preparing adequately or having already made up their mind as to what the interviewee will say.

Investigators must listen closely to an interviewee at all times, respond to the information they are given and ask follow up questions to clarify issues or address inconsistencies.



Image credits

  1. NHRI staff talk with a woman in hospital - National Human Rights Commission of Nepal
  2. The Chairperson of Sri Lanka's NHRI talks with a man on the street - Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka
  3. NHRI staff visit a woman held in detention - APF