Good Listening Skills Key for Investigators

listening skills investigators By Meric C. Bloch, CCEP-F, JD, CFE

Excerpted from Meric’s new book, Investigative Interviewing: It’s Not Just What You Ask, But How You Ask It—A Q&A Guide

What does “active listening” mean?

An effective investigator is an active listener. An active listener tries to grasp the meaning of what is being said, and also what isn’t being said. He signals acceptance to the interviewee which, in turn, sends a message to the interviewee that it is okay to speak. He shows genuine interest, but he does not inject his opinions, value judgments and criticisms.

An interviewee’s response to a question leads to two possibilities. You need to be alert to concrete information in order to develop an objective explanation for the matter under investigation. You also need to be alert to abstract information in order to sift out emotional, nonspecific, and sometimes misleading information. Abstract information can also be the basis for additional questioning that leads to concrete information.

So how do you communicate active listening to the interviewee to encourage complete answers? By taking each of these steps:

  • Maintain a body language—posture, movement, gestures, and facial expressions—that signals your active participation in the interview.
  • Maintain eye contact to help the flow of information. Eye contact signals that you now expect an answer.
  • Maintain a positive silence. Silence can be perceived as a sign of rejection or displeasure. But if used effectively, it can show you accept the interviewee and that you control the interview.

Interviewing requires more than just asking good questions. There are multiple dimensions to human communication. You can use each of them to your advantage.

What prevents effective listening?

Sometimes, we focus more on asking questions rather than listening to answers. Learn to listen more effectively. Here are some common barriers to good listening:

  • Thinking you know the answer. You think you already know what the interviewee wants to say. You may impatiently cut the interviewee off or try to complete the sentence. Let the interviewee complete the answer and wait a few seconds before beginning your reply.
  • You want to “help.” You are likely thinking about how to solve what you believe to be the interview­ee’s problem. You may miss what the interviewee is actually saying. Instead, give your whole attention to the interviewee. You can give better advice if you take the time to understand the interviewee first.
  • Competing with the interviewee. You think that agreeing with the interviewee during a heated discussion signals weakness. Those who take this approach challenge every point the interviewee makes. This can be a barrier to good listening, and also frustrates the interviewee. Instead, try to voice active agreement when you do agree.
  • Being a big shot. You have an ulterior motive and this reduces your effectiveness. Having an agenda other than to simply understand what the inter­viewee is saying means you will not be able to pay complete attention. Instead, make a mental note of your internal motives while listening. As you become more conscious of them, let them go and listen more closely.
  • Words trigger your response. Red flag words or expressions trigger an unexpectedly strong associa­tion in your mind, often because of personal beliefs or experiences. The interviewee may not have actu­ally meant the word in the way you meant, but you may be distracted by the red flag and won’t notice what the interviewee actually meant to say. If you hear a word or expression that seems like a red flag, ask the interviewee to confirm whether he meant to say what you think he said.
  • Forgetting that language is personal. Words have a unique effect in the mind of each person because each person’s experience is unique. Don’t assume words or expressions mean exactly the same to you as they do to the interviewee. If you aren’t sure, con­firm the meaning the interviewee assigns a word.
  • Missing the forest for the trees. You pay such close attention to detail that you miss the overall meaning or context of a situation. Instead, ask the interviewee for the overall context as well as spe­cific details. This gives you an accurate picture of how the details fit together so you understand the interviewee’s thoughts. Open-ended questions are generally effective for this purpose.

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