Getting Reluctant Witnesses to Talk
by Michael Stone
Seven Practical Tips from a P.I.
As a private investigator, most of my working time is spent interviewing people—witnesses; police, fire, and rescue personnel; victims; all kinds of people. One of the first things I learned as an investigator, as well as in the ten years prior to that as a newspaper reporter, is simply this: no one has to talk. The second thing I learned is that if enough people don’t talk, I’m out of business.
Fortunately, most people I try to interview willingly agree to do so. Then there are those people, a small minority, who simply will not talk under any circumstances. They don’t want to get involved in a dispute between neighbors, or they’re the victims of a crime and I am working for the defendant’s lawyer, or they or someone close to them is on the opposing side of a potential civil suit.
Finally, there are those people who are reluctant to some degree but can be persuaded to talk if you approach them the right way. Here are some suggestions to get reluctant witnesses to open up.
• Get personal—slightly. Don’t be a phony, but making a personal connection helps. If the witness is wearing a University of Wyoming t-shirt and you know anything about Wyoming, you’ve got an opening. However, if you’re making initial small talk, don’t bring up controversial topics. Find something in common with them. Flattery can easily backfire. Be conversational—you aren’t an arresting officer and this isn’t a deposition.
• Be prepared. Read all reports and documents on the case, particularly any prior statements the witness made to anyone. You might even do a quick court background on the witness to get some insight into their general credibility or lack of it. Find out their relationship, if any, to all other parties involved. All of this can give you some idea of what they are likely to say and why. It also makes you sound knowledgeable about them and their situation. It lets them know you’re not going to waste their time.
• No steamrolling. People who feel pressured tend to back away and shut up. With reluctant witnesses you’ll hear, "I don’t think I have to talk to you" or "I don’t want to talk to you." My response is, "The decision is strictly yours." You can usually see the person’s face relax or hear their voice lighten up on the phone. They feel a sense of control and that empowerment tends to put them at ease. It also shows some empathy on your part.
• No strict rules. Work with the witness on the interview details. People usually are most comfortable at home at a time convenient to them. They relax in familiar surroundings, such as at a kitchen table or on a living room couch. If possible, give them the option of where and when they’ll be interviewed.
• Give them a motive. A reluctant witness is like a sales prospect. You have to sell them on the interview. Remind them that you’re there to get at the truth so the case can be properly handled. Most people relate to that. You’re just asking them to do the right thing. Put them in your client’s situation. Wouldn’t they want someone doing exactly this for them? Appeal to their sense of fairness.
• How to question. Avoid a strict, scripted approach. Open-ended questions encourage the witness to talk. For instance, instead of "Did you see that the traffic light was red?" try, "What do you remember about the traffic light facing north? How do you remember that?" You probably want to hear their story more than just get a lot of grunts to a series of yes or no questions. You don’t have to let them drone on forever, but people like to feel that what they say is important. Cutting them off to move on to the next pre-arranged question defeats that. Sometimes they just want to vent. Letting them blow off a little steam to a patient and sympathetic listener gets more results.
• Take what you can get. I usually set up interviews with a phone call. The witness may ask for time to think it over or want to talk to their spouse or a friend first. When I get this reluctance, I move right into my line of questioning and conduct the interview on the phone, even if it’s abbreviated. Witnesses usually get more reluctant the more time they have to think about it. There’s nothing worse then setting up a tentative interview for two days later and then having the witness call you a day later to cancel.
When it comes to witnesses talking, yes means yes and no means no. But "maybe" should mean yes if you work with them the right way. A lot of it is common sense and boils down to treating people the way you would want to be treated. I remind reluctant people I’m just doing a job and I’m not out to cause them problems personally.
Put them at ease, be up front with them, and then listen. Most people have more of a story in them than even they think and that story wants to get out.
Michael Stone has been a private investigator in Denver since 1985, and a Rocky Mountain News reporter prior to that. He has published four mystery novels with Viking-Penguin. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 316-0287.