Our Secret Formula for Winning Witness Statements

In Uncategorized by Josh Austin

What do a good priest, therapist life coach all have in common? They can all talk to a complete stranger for five minutes and gain their trust. Why? Because they are experts at empathizing. They are experts at social dynamics.

The ability to gain trust is critical for private investigators and attorneys as well. Here’s a closer look at how I use empathy and social dynamics in the process of obtaining a witness statement:

First, I’m up front with who I am and what I do, as no one likes to be led-along. You lie, you die when it comes to building a relationship. But I don’t get to the why I’m calling/talking to them just yet. Instead, I almost always start with the fact that I’m not there to sell them anything, and this is in regards to an accident, but that I am not the police, and they are not in any trouble in any way. That is critical because many witnesses are wary of talking to anyone in the legal world for any number of personal reasons. Often I like to use the phrase “there was someone who was hurt pretty badly in an accident, etc on this date, and they are asking me to follow up and sort out what happened…did you see what happened?”. I use the word “they” so that the witness feels like I’m not just trying to “get something” from them. Instead, I’m just doing my job…and everyone can relate to that. I’m appealing to the same way they feel when they have to deal with a possibly uncomfortable situation with a customer, guest, etc. If I get a positive reaction at this point in body language or voice and confirmation that they have information, I move forward.

I almost always change the conversation briefly to gain some breathing room. Complimenting them works because it is one of the most effective ways of bridging a conversation, as long as it is done correctly. I pick something easy. Shoes, purse, car, a taste in music, coffee, whatever that person is doing, wearing, eating, driving, can create a bridge. I then follow up with the bridge question: “Where do you think we get our sense of style/taste in that thing”. That is where I gain the trust/like factor. I specifically use the word “We” instead of “I”, so that it does not feel like an interrogation. I’m asking their opinion early, and empathizing with them that they are human, and acknowledging that their opinion is valuable. I’m appealing to their desire to communicate and have a genuine back-forth, and setting them up for the type of conversation we are going to have. If I can get them to give me that buy-in early on something small, I will get the same cooperation in the statement. Or I give them value by telling them about something new/cool. Basically, I make a friend as quickly as I can. On the phone you can ask about their day, what they do, what they had for lunch, their commute, whatever…and empathize from there. This only has to take 10-15 seconds, but it’s a critical part of the process. There is one caveat here, if I feel like they are pressed for time, and not happy with being bothered, I avoid any banter and get right to it. I need to control the interaction and sometimes that means getting things done as quickly as possible. Time is critical. It’s the most valuable thing we have, and I don’t want the witness to feel like I am disrespecting it.

Then I ask if I can ask them a few questions, about the incident. I tell them their time is valuable, I appreciate it, and I will be brief. “I don’t want to take up a lot of your time, I know you are busy, but I’d like to ask you about the accident if you have a couple of minutes.” Again, I empathize with the fact that their time is just as valuable as mine, and that I appreciate getting it from them.

The last thing I ask before getting into the state is if I can record it, off-the-cuff style, by assuming the close: “I’m going to record this for my notes, is that OK?”. I’m empathizing here too, while also leading the interaction. I’m aligning with the witness by appealing to their subconscious / helpful nature by essentially saying: “I’m human just like you. I can’t write that fast, and I need some help…will you help me by allowing me to record this?” That way they aren’t taken off-guard by the “do you give me permission to record this statement” question once we begin.

Then, it’s all business…but I stay in the same conversational style of rapport. I get down to brass tacks and get all of the information I possibly can that could be beneficial to the case, while staying in the conversational frame. I give praise at the end and tell them they did a great job. Often by the time we are done, the witness is so happy to have been helpful, they don’t even notice they just spent almost 20 minutes talking to a complete stranger, and they are thanking me for my time. This sets the witness up for success if they are needed later, as they now know they will have another conversation, and their brain says “I like talking with that person.”

The next time you talk with a stranger, try a couple of these tactics to see how they respond. Have other good tips? Add them in the comments below. And thanks for reading!