Use Interview Skills of Accident Investigators to Learn More and Get Better Answers

Learning from others’ experience is a critical skill. Typically we do this by asking questions.

But it turns out that how we ask questions, and how we interact with the person we’re asking questions of matters, a lot.

Cognitive interviewing is a collection of techniques that help people express what they experienced and observed. These techniques, sometimes known by other names, are used by a number of professionals in fields where witness or participant recall of information and accuracy is especially important. This includes police departments, emergency medical professionals, and accident investigators.

The cognitive interview technique is one in which the idea is to help the person being interviewed (their person with the knowledge), realize they have that knowledge and help them express it.

When to use this

This technique is helpful in a training setting where you’re trying to transfer knowledge or you sense there is a learning gap. Experts don’t typically recognize their expertise and can find it difficult to recall what it was like to be a beginner. They often, unintentionally, skip a lot, as they don’t always know what is important to the novice.

At the core, you need to change how you ask questions to get better answers. If you’ve been on IRC for any length of time or browsed StackOverflow, this isn’t news to you.

For our purposes we can think of cognitive interviewing techniques simply as guides for our behavior, which in turn can make us more effective when learning from others. These skills are not magical, but they are special. They help us bypass a very natural inclination to give short, less thorough answers.

This process can be thought of as almost a negotiation. They don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know what they know. So, as you proceed you eventually meet in the middle forming a bit of an equilibrium.

An advantage to the cognitive interview technique is that it doesn’t have especially rigid structures, primarily you just keep in mind the objective. This can make it seem more ephemeral and harder to learn for some though.

First off, you should know that I wasn’t formally trained in these techniques. What I’ve supplied below is a cross-section of skills I learned in the field in conjunction with research I learned from later. This combination has proven fairly effective for me, and I hope it can do the same for you.

This is not an exact process for the simple reason that people are not exact processes. Knowing more about peers and being able to activate our empathy here is key.

An example

Have you ever had the experience where someone looked at a log file and said something like “Oh, it’s just that process crashing, just restart ?” and of course, wanting to learn, you’d ask, “How did you know that?” or “Where does it say that?” and often the reply will be “It just does” or “It says so.”

Many times, it doesn’t really read that way. The person who has identified the problem, has used potentially years of skills and expertise to distill the complexities of the problem to a solution.

They may not even be aware they’re doing it.

Note here that I call these people experts, that doesn’t imply that you dear reader are not an expert, simply that this person happens to be an expert in this particular thing.

By applying some of the techniques we’ll talk about here, you help them verbalize that knowledge and help transfer it.

There is no one total or complete “Cognitive Interview,” there are several techniques. This means they can be used as it fits the situation or time constraint.

It can be tempting to think that you, as the explorer, since you are seeking, are the one that needs to do the cognitive work. After all, you’re “digging” right?

This isn’t really the case. The person with the first-hand knowledge, the person who was there during the event, the explainer, is the one who should be doing most of the mental work during your questions.

Your mental work as the questioner will be to decide which tools in your interviewing/questioning toolbox are appropriate to use based on the situation and your evolving knowledge of the person. This is another place where can activate our empathy.

So let’s break down some of these techniques:

Uninterrupted recall

When most people ask questions in an interview or information gathering context, they tend to interrupt a lot. And they usually do so with questions It’s not that they’re trying to be rude, it’s typically that they’re focusing on guiding the process to get their questions answered. Guiding the process by applying the techniques here is the right idea, but doing it by interspersing more questions, actually makes the whole thing less effective.

Since the person who observed, or even participated in the event has the first-hand knowledge, they’re the ones that should be using more of their cognitive function.

This technique boils down to not interrupting someone when asking about an event. Research indicates that interrupting, while not only rude, can prevent the person being interviewed from actively participating in answering the question. When this happens you’re at risk that they’ll simply answer your question in short form instead of expanding on it and giving you the information you might really need to know.

So by not interrupting they’re likely to tell you a larger number of more accurate things!

Encourage them to tell you everything

This one might seem a lot like the last one, but often times the people you’re asking questions of won’t know all the details of what would help you. They have their own expertise, different from yours, and neither of you may be especially aware of what that is.

To prevent a situation where the interviewee glosses over the things you might want to know and to prevent you from having to enumerate everything you need to know, encourage the person to tell you everything.

How to do that? Simply ask them. You typically already know your colleagues so adjust this to fit you and them, but something as simple as “Please tell me everything you can about the process, even if you think it’s unimportant.”

Tailor the questions

You don’t simply need to regurgitate the same questions to each person every time you use these techniques. Use what you know about your colleagues and activate your empathy. Whenever possible, tailor your questions to suit each individual.

This is a much more difficult technique, but the more you know about the person you’re interviewing the easier this will be.

In research this often gets called “witness compatible questioning.” It simply means that people are different and will respond differently to different questions. It’s important to keep that in mind.

Encourage “I don’t know”

You want accurate information typically when you’re performing this process. You want recall, not fabrication. It’s not that your colleagues are purposefully making things up to deceive you, but there can be a lot of social pressure to “be the expert” or have all the answers.

At the same time, having someone guess the reason for something, typically won’t do you any good. Research has shown that guessing can occur in questioning any time, even if someone wasn’t told to guess. Encourage them to say, “I don’t know” if they don’t know.

“Its OK to not know all the answers here. Let me know if you don’t know something, so I know where to do more research” for example.

You did it!

That’s it! These are some of the core cognitive interviewing skills. There are more, which we’ll talk about in a future installment, but these are the ones that interviewers depend on most often in their toolbox.

If you want to learn it the way the NTSB does, they actually offer a class of their own.

Not sure how to use these? Want to practice? Shoot me an email and I’ll help where I can.


Koriat, A. and Goldsmith, M. (1996) ‘Monitoring and control processes in the
strategic regulation of memory accuracy’, Psychological Review, 103: 490–517

“Cognitive Interviewing for Accident Investigators – IM401S.” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),

Fisher, Ronald P., Stephen J. Ross, and Brian S. Cahill. “Interviewing witnesses and victims.” Forensic psychology in context: Nordic and international approaches (2010): 56-74.

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