Forensic Friday: The Art of Questioning

One of the keys to my job and, indeed to most aspects of life, is asking questions.  People ask questions every day, indeed, probably, every hour of their life.  Some people are good at asking questions of others whilst others are resoundingly poor at it.  Obviously, question asking is a key part of the tool kit of anyone working in forensic accounting and, it would be fair to say, that sometimes the difference between a good investigation and a bad investigation can come down to the person in the chair asking the questions in that investigation.

I, it feels like at least, have spent a career asking questions.  First as a litigator, then working in insolvency and investigating the conduct of company directors and now in my current role.  Over those 15 years I have come up with a process that I go through when I am preparing for an interview that I thought I would share as my contribution to the art of questioning.

1. Plan, plan and then plan some more

I have met some barristers, particularly, who have done so much questioning in their time that they can pick up a brief and know exactly what questions they are going to ask just by the type of case it is.  I am not a subscriber to this approach.  I do subscribe to, in fact, the reverse approach.  My process before an interview is to spend as much time as is available to me to prepare for the interview to come.  That preparation can take the form of pre-reading the available documentation to researching the person I am going to talk to.

Taking the time to plan means that when I walk into the interview I know the path that I want to the interview to take and the subject matter that I want to make sure I cover.

2. Despite all of the planning, avoid the temptation to write out every question

When I started out in the law I had the approach of writing out everything that I intended to say: whether by way of court submissions, in a speech or in an interview.  As time has gone on I have gone away from this approach to the point that I know avoid this practice as much as I can.  I find that if I write out all of the questions I want to ask that has a deleterious effect on the flow of the interview because I become slavish in my focus on getting through my list of questions.  Without a list of questions BUT with a clear idea of the subject matter I want to make sure is covered I find that I have more flexibility and that suits how I like to interview.

3. Don’t interrupt: ever

I prefer interviews to take the form of a conversation rather than an inquisition and I am adamant that the best course in any interviewing scenario is just to let the interviewee speak.  It is a funny but true fact that people tend to reveal more in a conversation that they are comfortable having then when they are being harangued by constant questioning.  By the same token that means that at times you have to avoid the temptation to interrupt the person that is speaking which is a more difficult skill to master than I, certainly, ever realized.

4. Avoid questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”

The problem with these types of questions ought be obvious: the ability to answer yes or no, in isolation, affects the flow of the conversation and means that the interviewer has to spend more time speaking.

5. Always recap and reconfirm

In most interviews you will have received a lot of information and, unless you have recorded the interview your notes will never be as good as you think they are.  That being the case, before the end of every interview I do I put to the interviewee a summary of what my understanding of the key points of the interview have been and ask the interviewee to confirm that I have not missed anything.  This approach leads to either confirmation that my understanding is correct OR leads to the interviewee reiterating the factual matters that they believe to be important.  This is an easy and effective note to finish the interview on.

Asking question is one of the best parts of my job and it is an art that people develop over time.  The forgoing works for me: what works for you?

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