Blue Line

CONFERENCE – Silence can be golden

March 11, 2016  By Gord MacKinnon

1028 words – MR ___ BL CONFERENCE >>>

Silence can be golden

by Wayne Vanderlaan and Gord MacKinnon

One of the areas we emphasize in our “Non-Accusatory Interview Technique” (NAI) course is the importance of silence.


Even with the advent of social media, we still live in a “conversational society” where much of our socializing revolves around talking in order to connect and interact with each other.

If you’ve ever been in a room with a gathering of people, say an office party or meeting, you will have experienced the general “buzz” of conversation around you along with your own conversation. If you think back you can probably recall a time when all conversation stopped by coincidence in such a setting.

The silence that follows quickly becomes uncomfortable and is usually broken by laughter and a burst of conversation that quickly fills the silence. It is rare, to be sure, but has probably happened to us all at some time.

The point is, silence makes us uncomfortable when we expect there to be conversation. We all have a tendency to “fill up” that silence by immediately returning to conversation.

In an interview setting, silence can be a powerful tool. So much so that, when your witness or subject all of a sudden goes silent during an interview, generally speaking you should not be the one to re-start the conversation. Let the witness do it. There are several good reasons for this.

First and foremost, we like to point out that in human behavior, everything happens for a reason. Think of the last thing that you did for no reason. Having trouble? We posed that simple question to interview classes for years and have never received a positive response. The reality is, the faster we accept the fact that everything happens for a reason, the easier it is to understand how to use the power of silence in our interviews.

When an interview subject suddenly goes silent, the first thing we have to ascertain is why. The most common reason is that they are trying to decide whether to tell us something. Quite often, this is a turning point in the conversation and the thing they are considering telling us is extremely important. Listen carefully to what comes next because it is often truthful. After deciding, the subject may start talking again in a rush and the information, once started, will be hard to stop.

The second most common reason that a subject goes silent is that they are deciding how to tell us something. This usually involves them structuring a sentence of carefully selected words in their head and then attempting to present the end product as fulsome and truthful. The scripted nature of this conversation will be obvious if you look for it and realize what has just happened. The information that you get under these circumstances is usually full of half-truths and justifications, rather than the fulsome account that we spoke about above.

Regardless of what comes after a period of silence, the point is that it is likely to be very important. This is all the more reason why you should avoid re-starting the conversation if possible.

Keep in mind that you do not necessarily know why the person went silent and, more importantly, you do not know what they might say next. Think of it as a fork in the road; the subject can decide to become truthful or can go down the road of deceit. The lapse into silence is simply a pause while they decide which road to travel.

At times, the silence comes at a point when you and your subject know what is going to be said, or at least you think you might. The subject is the only person who really knows what’s coming. The absolute worst thing you can do at this point is bail them out by saying what you think they were going to say. They will likely just agree with you, which can be problematic when you are trying to get a statement entered as evidence in court.

The last thing you want is for a defense lawyer to point out that their client agreed with what you said and didn’t offer any information. This is especially problematic when it comes to interviewing children.

When an interview room goes quiet, the silence hangs there between you and the subject and quickly becomes very uncomfortable. There is psychological pressure on both of you to fill up that silence. This is where patience, training and the ability to read your subject become very important.

A concern that has been raised in the past is that if you allow the psychological pressure brought on by a period of silence to build, it may lead to a break in rapport. On the contrary, by rushing in to start up the conversation, you as the interviewer are in danger of seeming confrontational and impatient rather than impartial and patient.

It is important to allow the subject that silence and give them the opportunity to decide what to say next. This is all part of the rapport-building process that is so important in any interview, whether it be a witness, suspect or an accused.

Think of this example of an interview with a suspected child abuser.

SUBJECT: “She has always been melodramatic and tends to get hysterical. She was starting to get louder and more upset and ……………. (long pause)”

INTERVIEWER: “You shook her?”

Think of how much better this interview could have been handled using some of the information mentioned above. Think also of how much better the evidence would have been in court if the interview subject had been allowed to complete their thought.

Sadly, this is an example of how real life interviews are being conducted to this day. Too often, interviewers let their subject off the hook due to their own lack of comfort with a period of silence. As the band sang in “Enjoy the Silence”:

We will look at building rapport and using silence at the Blue Line Expo. Hope to see you there.

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