March 12, 2024 | Emily Pritt

Empathy in Action: Winning Over Hostile Witnesses in Incident Investigations

In root cause incident investigations, one of the most challenging yet crucial aspects is questioning witnesses. Whether it’s a minor mishap or a major catastrophe, getting to the bottom of what happened requires adeptly navigating through various perspectives, including those of potentially hostile witnesses. These individuals may be reluctant to cooperate, harbor biases, or even actively oppose the investigation. However, with empathy, it’s possible to extract valuable insights even from the most difficult witnesses. Here’s how to do it:

1. Establish Trust and Rapport

Before delving into the heart of the matter, it’s essential to establish a rapport with the witness. Begin by introducing yourself and explaining the purpose of the investigation. Assure them that their cooperation is crucial for preventing similar incidents in the future and that the investigation aims for improvement rather than blame. Show empathy and understanding towards their concerns or reservations.

  • Introduce Yourself: Start by introducing yourself and explaining your role in the investigation. This establishes transparency and clarity about your intentions.
  • Explain the Purpose: Clearly articulate the purpose of the investigation, emphasizing that it aims to prevent similar incidents in the future rather than assign blame.

2. Maintain Professionalism and Neutrality

During questioning, maintain a professional demeanor and avoid displaying any signs of frustration or aggression, even if the witness is being uncooperative or hostile. Keep your questions neutral and refrain from making assumptions or accusations. The goal is to gather factual information, not to incite defensiveness or hostility.

  • Remain Calm: Stay composed and level-headed throughout the questioning process, even if the witness becomes confrontational or hostile.
  • Stay Objective: Avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions based on personal biases or preconceptions. Keep your focus on gathering factual information.
  • Use Neutral Language: Frame your questions in a neutral and non-confrontational manner to avoid eliciting defensive responses from the witness.
  • Respect Boundaries: Respect the witness’s boundaries and personal space during questioning. Maintain a professional distance and refrain from engaging in overly familiar or intrusive behavior.

3. Use Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions encourage witnesses to provide detailed responses, rather than simple yes or no answers. Start with broad inquiries to allow the witness to share their perspective freely. For example, instead of asking, “Did you notice any anomalies before the incident?” try asking, “Can you describe what you observed leading up to the incident?”

  • Avoid Leading Questions: Refrain from asking leading questions that could influence the witness’s responses or suggest a particular narrative. Instead, stick to open-ended inquiries that allow the witness to provide their own perspective.
  • Use Neutral Language: Frame your questions in a neutral and non-leading manner to avoid biasing the witness’s responses. Keep your language objective and non-confrontational.
  • Be Specific: Ask questions that are specific and targeted toward the information you need to gather for the investigation. Avoid vague or ambiguous questions that may confuse the witness.
  • Allow Silence: After asking an open-ended question, allow the witness time to formulate their response. Avoid rushing or interrupting them, even if there are pauses in the conversation.

4. Active Listening

Listen attentively to the witness’s responses, paying close attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues. Validate their contributions by nodding or acknowledging their input. Reflecting back on what they’ve said demonstrates that you’re actively engaged and encourages them to continue sharing their insights.

Active listening is a crucial skill in root cause incident investigations, enabling investigators to gather accurate information and build rapport with witnesses. Here’s how to effectively use active listening techniques:

  • Show Nonverbal Cues: Demonstrate engagement through positive body language, such as nodding, leaning forward slightly, and avoiding distracting behaviors like checking your phone or fidgeting.
  • Paraphrase and Summarize: Reflect back on what the witness has said by paraphrasing their statements or summarizing key points. This confirms understanding and encourages the witness to elaborate further.
  • Use Minimal Encouragers: Offer minimal encouragers such as “uh-huh” or “I see” to signal your engagement and encourage the witness to continue sharing their thoughts.
  • Avoid Interrupting: Refrain from interrupting the witness while they are speaking, allowing them to fully express their thoughts without feeling rushed or dismissed.
  • Listen for Emotions: Pay attention to the emotional tone underlying the witness’s words, acknowledging and validating their feelings without judgment or criticism.
  • Empathize with the Witness: Demonstrate empathy by acknowledging the witness’s experiences and emotions, expressing understanding and support for their perspective.

How to Address Resistance with Empathy

In cases where witnesses display outright resistance or hostility, it’s essential to approach the situation with empathy and patience. Acknowledge their concerns or frustrations and reassure them that their input is valued. Avoid escalating the confrontation and instead focus on de-escalating tensions through active listening and respectful communication.

5. Redirect Negative Energy

Redirecting the conversation away from negativity or blame towards constructive problem-solving is essential for fostering a productive and forward-thinking atmosphere during root cause incident investigations. Rather than dwelling on past mistakes or assigning fault, the focus shifts towards identifying root causes and implementing preventative measures to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Furthermore, acknowledging the witness’s role in contributing to a safer work environment reinforces their sense of ownership and responsibility. By recognizing their input as valuable contributions to the investigation process, witnesses are empowered to actively participate in finding solutions and implementing preventative measures.

6. Document Thoroughly

Throughout the questioning process, maintain detailed notes of the witness’s responses, including any notable observations or insights. Accurate documentation is essential for compiling an objective and comprehensive incident report. Ensure that all information gathered is recorded accurately and impartially. By prioritizing active listening, the investigator fosters a more empathetic and effective communication process, ultimately enhancing rapport and trust between themselves and the witness.

Having a second person or device dedicated to note-taking during the questioning process enhances the investigator’s ability to focus on actively listening to the witness. This strategy ensures the investigator can concentrate fully on the witness’s responses, enabling them to pick up on verbal cues, nuances, and emotions that might be overlooked if their attention is divided between listening and writing.

7. Follow-Up and Closure

After concluding the questioning session, thank the witness for their cooperation and reiterate the significance of their contribution to the investigation. Assure them that their input will be taken into consideration during the analysis phase. Follow up with any additional questions or clarifications to ensure a thorough understanding of the incident.

In conclusion, questioning hostile witnesses in root cause incident investigations requires a delicate balance of empathy, professionalism, and assertiveness. By establishing trust, maintaining neutrality, and employing effective communication techniques, investigators can navigate challenging interactions with witnesses while uncovering valuable insights essential for preventing future incidents. Ultimately, fostering a culture of transparency and collaboration is key to the success of any incident investigation process.

More on Empathy and Investigations

I highly recommend your participation in our upcoming 2-day Effective Interviewing & Evidence Collection course, as well as the dedicated sessions at the Global TapRooT® Summit with a new psychology track focused on psychological approaches to root cause analysis and incident investigations.

I’ll be leading breakout sessions on Your Crisis Management Plan and Advanced Emotional Intelligence (EI), where we’ll delve into the crucial role of empathy within the realm of emotional intelligence. This session promises to provide valuable insights into enhancing empathy skills for more effective incident investigations. Plus, Barb Carr and I will address how non-verbal communication guides your investigative interviews.

If you’re ready to get started NOW, head over to TapRooT® eLearning Pathways where Barb and I have developed a brand new Investigative Interviewing Course Bundle, self-paced with a TapRooT® Pathways Certificate of Completion!

Reach out or follow me on LinkedIn for more TapRooT® RCA insights, and I hope to see you at the Summit!

Interviewing & Evidence Collection, Investigations
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