Conversation Management

Eric Shepherd devised Conversation Management in 1983 as an approach to investigative interviewing that could maximise spontaneous disclosure from suspects, victims and witnesses. Since then Conversation Management has stood the test of time and diversity of application, emerging as a proven ethical, effective approach to ‘finding out’ that yields evidentially sound outcomes. Conversation Management is a tool that is applicable to any investigative interviewing context. It combines empirical research findings in cognitive and social psychology and sociolinguistics, with research into reflective practice, skilled practitioner performance, counselling psychology and psychotherapy practice.

Conversation Management has core features. Awareness of the dynamics of conversation. A commitment to ethical conversation – respecting and treating the interviewee as a conversational participant rather than a “question-answering machine”. Acknowledgement of the many mental, emotional, motivational and contextual barriers to disclosure that constitute ‘resistance’. Techniques that facilitate the willing and the resistant to disclose – in words and through other modes of expression and description – in ways that simultaneously aid the individual’s recall of both core and peripheral detail and enables the interviewer to register and remember fine-grain detail.

When used in conjunction with the information capture capacity of SE3R and the monitoring tools of BASELINES and ASSESS+, Conversation Management overcomes barriers to disclosure and immediately reveals anomalies – gaps, jumps, missing detail, lack of specificity, inconsistency and contradiction – and potentially significant changes in expressive behaviour occurring prior to, during, and following disclosed detail or lack of disclosure.

Practitioners of Conversation Management are secure in the knowledge that their approach to interviewing is founded upon the findings of objective, academic research – not ‘pop’ psychology or assertions concerning the existence of categorical “lie signs” and the power of “lie detectors”. Fundamental to Conversation Management is the scientific – and commonsense – recognition that there are many possible causes for oddities in what people say and behaviour change.

To interpret oddity and behaviour change as evidence of guilt and a desire to deceive may be convenient but it is dangerous. It will inevitably invite challenge and the risk of litigation by the aggrieved or wronged interviewee. When this happens there will be a demand for the interviewer – and the institution employing the interviewer – to produce objective, peer-reviewed published scientific evidence to support the interpretation that guilt or deception is the only explanation for the observed oddity or behaviour.

Conversation Management views oddity and behaviour change as invitations to take timely, reasoned action – within or outside the interview, or prior to a subsequent interview. The conversation and conduct of the practitioner and the interviewee, and the fine-grain content of the exchange constitute the evidence: evidence that is complaint- and litigation-resilient, able to withstand scrutiny by ombudsmen, courts, and tribunals.

As a result of Eric Shepherd’s work with the Home Office Working Party on Investigative Interviewing the UK police service’s national model of interviewing incorporates principles and elements of Conversation Management. Conversation Management now extends across the entire framework of investigative interviewing. Officers and civilian investigators now receive progressive training in Conversation Management – from the basic tier, through advanced investigative interviewing, to the top tier interview advisers.

Forensic Solutions have designed and delivered Conversation Management training and Conversation Management based investigative interviewing systems to a wide range of institutions in the public and private sector within and outside the UK. In the financial services sector institutions dealing with claims – insurers and third-party administrators – have commissioned Forensic Solutions to implement Conversation Management and its associated tools on a bespoke basis into call-centre and field operations. These institutions now have systems, procedures and processes for screening claims in a manner that simultaneously enhances customer satisfaction and reduces exposure to fraud. In the case of larger operations the savings of these institutions are measured in millions of pounds.

Forensic Solutions is in a unique position concerning Conversation Management. We are the originator of Conversation Management with professional academic and practitioner qualifications, backgrounds and expertises in applying psychology in diverse working contexts to the processes of investigation, investigative interviewing, and comprehensive capture, analysis and assessment of fine-grain detail. These all set us apart from others who simply provide training in ‘conversation management’, and who do not have the necessary professional understanding of, or training in, the fundamental psychology underpinning Conversation Management and how it fits within the investigative process in a given working context.

Conversation Management is not “cognitive interviewing” – the excellent approach to interviewing originally developed by Geiselman and Fisher to enhance memory retrieval using key techniques (e.g. context reinstatement; reverse order recall). We are trained practitioners in cognitive interviewing, with experience applying it in forensic and therapeutic contexts, in appeal cases, and have contributed spaced cognitive interviewing to the published literature. Proper cognitive interviewing necessarily takes time. It has to go at the interviewee’s pace and is particularly suited to the vulnerable victim or witness. Research has consistently indicated that cognitive interviewing – unlike Conversation Management – is not appropriate for interviewees who are resistant – unwilling to disclose in detail or who seek to deceive by engaging in non-disclosure and non-specific disclosure. This poses difficulties for the application of cognitive interviewing as a fraud-screening tool. In time-constrained call-centres it is unlikely to be ‘proper’ cognitive interviewing as applied in police, forensic, and therapeutic contexts. We believe that Conversation Management is the more suitable interviewing tool – able to be applied within time-precious settings and applicable to any interviewee irrespective of his or her motivation.