Rapport building in interviews and interrogations: Translating research to practice

In an interview setting, rapport building is used within an information-gathering approach that can be contrasted with more traditional accusatorial interview practices


By Dr. Laure Brimbal and Lieutenant Shawn Hill

Communication is a key mediator of relationships and can increase or diminish trust in relational settings. [1] Recently, interactions between the police and those policed have been at the forefront of national conversations, especially interactions involving underserved populations. How police communicate with the public has received increased attention by academics and law enforcement leaders seeking to put evidence-based practices in the hands of police officers. [2] Although scholars and practitioners cite communication skills as a key component for meeting the challenges faced by the law enforcement profession, [3, 4] very little training is typically devoted to these skills.

Translating scientifically tested communication techniques to practitioners can help improve practices and training at all levels of policing, from frontline officers to major crime investigators. Scholars of translational criminology have recognized how scientific evidence has struggled to reach line-level officers who often still rely on standard models of policing with little or no evidence to support their effectiveness. [5] In an effort to bridge this gap, this article introduces an evidence-based approach to interviewing and offers examples of how practitioners can use this approach in the field.

Rapport-building interview techniques are an example of scientifically tested methods that can be easily digested and put into practice by practitioners.
Rapport-building interview techniques are an example of scientifically tested methods that can be easily digested and put into practice by practitioners. (Getty Images)

Evidence-based rapport-building interview techniques

Research offers police effective communication methods to gather information. One such example is rapport building. Many studies have demonstrated the positive effect that building rapport can have on outcomes such as subject (referring to any individual being interviewed such as victim, witness or suspect) cooperation and information disclosure. [6]

Because police are dependent upon the public’s willingness to cooperate, evidence-based communication techniques, such as rapport building, offer a path toward more successful interactions between police and the public and offer an example of what translational criminology seeks to accomplish. [7] In interviews, interrogations and even field interactions, the techniques an officer uses have the potential to impact police-community relations, positively or negatively. Techniques like rapport building, if used responsibly, can have positive impacts on information gathering and police-community relationships, whereas interviewing techniques that are more coercive lack empirical evidence to support their use and can have harmful outcomes.

Rapport can be defined in many ways but generally includes elements of positivity, mutual attentiveness and coordination. [8] This article will use a broad definition adopted by Brimbal et al. [9] who define rapport as “the relationship between the interviewer and subject with a generally positive exchange; attentiveness toward one another’s concerns; and the importance of developing respect and trust”. [10] In an interview setting, rapport building is used within an information-gathering approach that can be contrasted with more traditional accusatorial interview practices.

Within an information-gathering approach, an interviewer uses rapport building and adopts an open-minded perspective, attempting to gain as much information as possible while maintaining the presumption of innocence. These techniques differ from accusatorial interview approaches which are closed-ended in nature and rely on control, deception, manipulation, and minimizing the consequences of confessions. Such approaches often include tactics like leading or rapid-fire questions, interrupting denials, and direct positive confrontation.

Although some rapport-building techniques could be used within a more coercive interview, the information-gathering approach is different in that the interviewer uses rapport as the foundation of the entire interview, as opposed to tactically advantageous moments throughout the interview. Research has shown promising results supporting the use of information-gathering approaches and rapport to increase information disclosure. [11]

Translating the research to practice

Translating and disseminating research findings to the law enforcement field are two core components of translational criminology. Rapport-building interview techniques are an example of scientifically tested methods that can be easily digested and put into practice by practitioners.

Information-gathering investigative interviewing models involve a generally respectful and accommodating approach towards the interview subject as well as the use of rapport-building and productive questions. Indeed, interviewing strategies such as rapport building and active listening, have shown beneficial effects on attitudinal (e.g., perceptions of rapport, trust) and behavioral (e.g., cooperation) variables, [9] outcomes that are commonly examined in procedural justice research.

Rapport-building techniques in an information-gathering interview can include:

  • Asking open-ended questions (e.g., “tell”, “explain”, “describe”)
  • Using affirmations (i.e., positive reinforcement, such as “Thank you, that was very helpful”)
  • Listening actively (e.g., use of encouragers, such as “go on, mm-hmm, etc.”, repeating keywords, echoing, evidence of turn-taking)
  • Summarizing a subject’s account to demonstrate listening
  • Using silence and avoiding interruptions to allow for subject disclosure
  • Expressing empathy (people’s ability to understand the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of another) without condoning illegal behavior
  • Allowing a subject autonomy (i.e., providing room for the subject to talk in the conversation)
  • Showing interest in the subject as a person
  • Displaying respect and patience
  • Using evocation to draw out an individual’s feelings and motives
  • Disclosing personal information and finding similarities with the subject

Law enforcement agencies around the world have begun using rapport-building interview techniques, most notably in the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden, [12] as well as in the United States in local and federal agencies with, for example, high-value detainees. Research on this topic has increased exponentially over the past decade [13] and sets the stage for expanding researcher-practitioner partnerships. By using rapport-building techniques in interviews, officers are able to put into practice effective evidence-based approaches to increase positive outcomes and take advantage of the work done by researchers in the field.

References

1. Thomas G, Zolin R, Hartman JL. (2009). The central role of communication in developing trust and its effect on employee involvement. Journal of Business Communication, 46(3):287-310.

2. Giles H, Maguire ER, Hill SL. (Eds.). (2021). The Rowman and Littlefield handbook of policing, communication, and society. Rowman and Littlefield.

3. Sklansky DA. (2011). The Persistent Pull of Police Professionalism. New Perspectives in Policing (Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety), March. Harvard Kennedy School. Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

4. Hill SL, Giles H. (2021). Police Culture: us versus them communication. In The Rowman and Littlefield handbook of policing, communication, and society (Eds.) Giles H, Maguire ER, Hill SL. Rowman and Littlefield.

5. Weisburd D, Eck JE. (2004). What can police do to reduce crime, disorder, and fear? The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 593:1.

6. Gabbert F, et al. (2021). Exploring the use of rapport in professional information gathering context by systematically mapping the evidence base. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 35:329-341.

7. Laub JH. (2011). Strengthening NIJ: Mission, science, and process. NIJ Journal, 268(10):16-21.

8. Tickle-Degnen L, Rosenthal R. (1990). The nature of rapport and its nonverbal correlates. Psychological Inquiry, 1(4):285–293.

9. Brimbal L, et al. (2021). Evaluating the benefits of a rapport-based approach to investigative interviews: A training study with law enforcement investigators. Law and Human Behavior, 45(1):55-67.

10. Duke MC, et al. (2018). Development of the Rapport Scales for Investigative Interviews and Interrogations (RS3i), Interviewee Version. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24, 64-79.

11. Alison LJ, Surmon-Bohr F, Shortland ND, Alison E. (2021). ORBIT: The Science of Rapport-Based Interviewing for Law Enforcement, Security, and Military. Oxford University Press.

12. Walsh D, Oxburgh GE, Redlich AD, Myklebust T. (Eds.). (2017). International developments and practices in investigative interviewing and interrogation: Volume 2: Suspects. Routledge.

13. Meissner CA, Surmon-Böhr F, Oleszkiewicz S, Alison LJ. (2017). Developing an evidence-based perspective on interrogation: A review of the US government’s high-value detainee interrogation group research program. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 23, 438-457.


About the authors

Dr. Laure Brimbal is an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Texas State University. She obtained her Ph.D. in Psychology and Law from the Graduate Center, CUNY. Dr. Brimbal’s research interests lie at the intersection of psychology and the criminal justice system, with an emphasis on research related to interviewing, and topics such as rapport building, lie detection, the use of evidence, and how to overcome resistance. Dr. Brimbal has also conducted several training evaluation studies in partnership with local and federal law enforcement agencies.

Shawn Hill is a lieutenant with the Santa Barbara (California) Police Department and a Ph.D. student at the University of California Santa Barbara in the department of communication. He is an NIJ LEADS Scholar, National Policing Institute Policing Fellow and a member of IACP’s Community Policing Committee. Lt. Hill recently co-edited The Rowman and Littlefield Handbook on Policing, Communication and Society. He is currently involved in the implementation and evaluation of intergroup interventions between the police and the public.

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