7 Steps to a More Informative Interview: The Cognitive Interview Process

Kenneth R. Lang, M.S.

In February’s issue of Death Investigator Magazine, we explored the importance of the cognitive interview and how this methodology can help to improve the quality of interviews in criminal investigations. As eluded to, there are seven specific steps to complete a cognitive interview effectively. The cognitive interview is not just for victims and witnesses, but detectives can also use it when interrogating suspects. Regardless of whom you employ it with, it is essential that the investigator follow the sequential order of the process to enjoy the benefits of more detailed interviews.

First, begin your interview with a professional greeting and attempt to establish a rapport with the interviewee.1 Too often investigators jump straight into questioning, often formulating closed-ended questions to elicit the minimally required information to meet an immediate investigative need. Providing that time permits, establishing a rapport with the interviewee builds a needed trust between the investigator and the interviewee that will enable a better conversation between the two. Establishing a rapport will further enhance the probability that the interviewee will contact the investigator and provide them with further information at a later time.

Second, you will want to take the initiative to explain the goals of the interview.1 The investigator should be cautious with the information they share with the interviewee, ensuring they do not jeopardize the investigation by divulging any critical facts of the case. Nonetheless, providing a primary explanation for the interview without ‘revealing your hand’ helps to set the stage for the interviewee.

The third step captures a free narrative from the interviewee.1 An interviewer initiates a free narrative with an open-ended question and then encourages the interviewee to speak without interruption. Study’s show that most police officers will interrupt an interviewee’s answer in about 7 seconds.1 When using open-ended questions, investigators should restrain themselves from interrupting the interviewee to ask clarifying questions. Such interruptions will derail an interviewee’s intended comments, unintentionally keeping the information from detectives. Investigators should allow the interviewee to ramble while jotting down notes about the facts and topics requiring clarification.

Fourth is the questioning segment of the interview.1 Once the investigator feels the interviewee has finished with the free narrative, the investigator should now ask their questions to bring about clarification and explore topics in depth. During this stage of the interview, the interviewer should continue to use open-ended questions and the free narrative form to gather broad answers and only use closed-ended questions with specific facts such as yes/no questions.

During the fifth stage of the interview, an investigator may want to consider asking the interviewee to recall facts and events in a varied, extensive retrieval order.1 For instance, the interviewee most likely recalled the events in a free narrative in chronological order. However, you could change the temporal order or the perspective of the interviewee. One example of changing the temporal order would be to ask the interviewee to recall the events backward, from the most recent incident to the first. Or, you may want to change the perspective of the interviewee by asking them to imagine themselves in a different role. For example, to have an interviewee recall the layout of the interior of an unfamiliar place where they were victimized, you may want to consider asking the victim to remember the interior as if they were in the market for buying the property. By changing the temporal order or perspective, this tactic will sometimes cause a memory jog and elicit information that would have been otherwise untapped.

Sixth, summarize the information that the interviewee has offered to you, be sure to include all the relevant and irrelevant information they shared with you.1 Keep in mind that interviewees will sometimes presume that because you are a law enforcement official, they will assume that you already know what you need to know in a criminal case. Free and open communication is essential to deriving the required information to complete your investigation. Additionally, facts that seem irrelevant at the time of the interview may become relevant at a later point in the investigation.

Finally, the seventh stage of the cognitive interview process is the closing.1 This stage is a natural moment when the investigator can continue to develop the rapport between them and the interviewee, thank them for their participation, and provide them with a business card for contacting in the future. Investigators should use caution when explaining the direction of the investigation so as not to compromise the investigation. A simple statement of “we’re continuing to work the case” should be sufficient when parting ways.    

The cognitive interview process is one in which can help to provide a plethora of information in an investigation when the steps are employed in a manner that is inviting to the interviewee. It is essential for the investigator to hesitate and not interrupt the interviewee during their free narrative, and even more important for the investigator to utilize one of the varied, extensive retrieval strategies to trigger memory jogs. These methods used in conjunction with one another will undoubtedly help detectives to enhance the information developed in an investigation.


1Milne, R. & Bull, R. (1999). Investigative Interviewing: Psychology and practice.

Chichester, West Sussex, England: Wiley


Kenneth R. Lang, M.S. is a retired homicide detective, assistant professor at Glenville State College, editorial board member for the Internet Journal of Restorative Justice, author of several true crime books, consultant, and a Ph.D. candidate.
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