Clean Interviewing

Over 10 years ago I was invited to adapt Clean Language into a form of police video interviewing for vulnerable witnesses. We already had an adaptation of Clean Language for use more conversationally in teams and groups, and this was to be an exciting new application.

When interviewing witnesses like young children or adults with learning difficulties, it is particularly important that the questions asked do not lead them in any way. It has been shown that unclean questions can lead to false memories and unsound witness statements.

Clean questions are an ideal tool for gathering prima facie evidence that can stand up in court. They need to be delivered carefully and gently and to be interspersed with questions that aren’t necessarily ‘Clean’ but that fit logically with the witness statement so far.

For example, if a child says “He grabbed me and pulled me to the ground.” An interviewer could ask cleanly:

What kind of grabbed?
What happened just before he grabbed you?
And after he pulled you to the ground, what happened next?

Or logically:

When he grabbed you, what time was it?
Whereabouts were you? Where were you on your way to?
Was this person known to you or a stranger?

When interviewers use the questions this way they can build up a clear model of what went on, piece by piece, based around the witnesses memories. This process also helps witnesses to piece together their memories and pick up details that had dropped into their unconscious.

One of the things that is crucial in police interviewing is that interviewers understand the assumptions they make that lead them to ask unclean questions.

For example, in the above incident the actual interview went like this:

He grabbed me and pulled me to the ground.
What time of day was it?
Lunchtime
What did he look like?
I don’t know
You don’t know? (said incredulously)
No I didn’t see him
Oh, you didn’t see him? (said mockingly)

When we unpacked the interview, the misunderstanding hinged on whereabouts and how the child was grabbed. The policeman had assumed he’d been grabbed from the front and because he didn’t ask a clean question, he thought his assumption was fact. In the moment of losing curiosity and becoming contemptuous, he lost rapport with the child who then stopped participating in the interview. What had actually happened was that the child had been grabbed from behind, by his hoody which was pulled over his face and down to the ground.

Clean questions act as a buffer between interviewer and witness. They reduce interviewer bias and gather fresh robust information from the witnesses.

Since that project at Sheffield Police Training Centre, Clean Interviewing has been used with corporate clients, students, whole staff teams, research projects, recruitment, assessment centres, appraisals, mediation and conflict resolution.

We now offer training in Clean Interviewing which utilises our 10 years of experience. This consists of 2 days of clean interview principles, live practice, coaching in-the-moment and application.

The training is suitable for interviewers, researchers and recruiters wanting to add Clean to their research tools as well as for Clean Facilitators who want to know how to adapt their clean questioning skills for interview purposes. For more information, click here.

Caitlin Walker

Caitlin is the founding director of Training Attention and developer of Systemic Modelling. Author of From Contempt to Curiosity, she is the architect of innovative projects that transform workplaces, classrooms and communities.

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This Post is posted by Caitlin Walker

Caitlin is the founding director of Training Attention and developer of Systemic Modelling. Author of From Contempt to Curiosity, she is the architect of innovative projects that transform workplaces, classrooms and communities.

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