The rapport conundrum: Can police interviewers be empathic and polite with suspects and elicit investigative-relevant information at the same time?

by | Jul 31, 2019 | 0 comments

Gabrina Pounds is Senior Lecturer in Discourse Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. For the last ten years her research has focused on the communication of empathy and person-centeredness in professional contexts, including medical consultations and police interviews.

Garbina PoundsIn this article, Gabrina presents research that she conducted in collaboration with a Constabulary in the East of England, examining the forms that rapport-building takes in a sample of authentic interviews with suspects (ISs). The research focused specifically on the suitability of empathic and polite expressions with respect to the wider interview aims and practice. The findings were translated into a Global Rapport Memory Aid that Gabrina would be happy to share with interested Constabularies on request. She is also available to deliver, free-of-charge, awareness-raising workshops based on her findings. The content of the workshop would be discussed and agreed with interview trainers in advance and could be incorporated in any existing police interview training.


The role that empathic communication plays in police interviews has been widely discussed in previous research, particularly with reference to interviews with witnesses and victims of crime (Dando, Wilcock and Milne 2008) but also in the case of interviews with suspects (Meissner et al. 2012; Alison et al. 2013). Some of these studies have shown a link between rapport building and the effectiveness of the interviews in gathering relevant investigative information. Oxburgh et al (2014), for example, detected a significant increase in information gathering in interviews combining rapport with appropriate questioning style, while Alison et al. (2013) observed a direct link between rapport building and effective information gathering in interviews with suspects of terrorism. This link was further confirmed by a recent PhD study conducted by Pankhurst (Newcastle University) [1], supported by N8 PRP (Funded Studentship). The study found that “positive behaviour by the interviewer” (specifically an empathic approach) in interviews with suspects of sexual offences increased the information obtained.

However, what exactly is understood by ‘rapport’ or ‘empathic approach’ in a police interviewing context?

According to The College of Policing’s guidelines, rapport is mainly built at the “engage and explain” stage of the interview[2] . At this point, suspects are given clarification of their legal rights and of the reasons for the interview and its objectives. They are reassured, for example, that they will have the opportunity to explain their involvement or non-involvement and are encouraged to voice “anything they feel is relevant”. Police interviewers are also trained to use rapport-conducive strategies throughout the interview such as: active listening, checking understanding and using appropriate non-verbal behaviour and question style (not “unfair or oppressive”). Interviewers are additionally advised not to allow “personal opinions or beliefs” to affect treatment of suspects, not to assume that “all suspects are going to lie” and to avoid using “a raised voice or inflammatory language”. Rapport is overall defined as “being genuinely open, interested and approachable, as well as being interested in the interviewee’s feelings or welfare”.

Clarke and Milne (2001) argue that police interviewers build rapport when they show “equality signs” (explained as: “matching suspect’s style and not belittling or talking condescendingly or ‘above’ the suspect. Being polite, respectful and courteous”) and “displaying empathy” (explained as: “exhibiting a non-judgmental, open-minded, understanding and concerned approach”).

However, these communicative goals are quite abstract and context-dependent and, therefore, difficult to operationalise and assess in the context of actual interview practice, particularly as far as empathy and politeness are concerned. How may they be translated into actual verbal statements or responses?

Research aim

The study aimed to investigate the following two main questions in particular:

  1. What does “displaying empathy” and being “polite and respectful” in ISs actually mean?
  2. To what extent are these expressions compatible with investigation-relevant information gathering?

Methods and findings

In order to address these questions, a qualitative, discourse-pragmatic linguistic approach was initially used to analyse a sample of forty authentic ISs and identify what forms of empathy and politeness, if any, were represented in this corpus. This initial investigation highlighted a number of salient communicative domains, including: Responding to suspects’ expression of feelings (empathic responses), adjusting communication style (i.e. forms of alignment through register choices and use of humour), managing positive and negative regard and formulating potentially face-threatening statements.

In the second part of the study, the nature and appropriateness of relevant examples identified in the interview corpus were examined in consultation with experienced police interview trainers and officers and with reference to the specific functions and structure of ISs. This process was essential in differentiating between empathic and polite forms that are compatible with investigative information retrieval (e.g. Is there anywhere that you went to that night that I can investigate? Or You said you were angry. Can you describe your feelings further?) and those that are not (e.g. You seem to be a very patient and thoughtful person. Or Didn’t that make you feel desperate?)

In summary, the research highlighted the underlying bi-functionality of rapport in ISs, demonstrating how particular forms of empathy and politeness may be used to build rapport, whilst maximising information yield at the same time. The understanding gained from this research was used to formulate and illustrate recommendations for good practice that may be used to support interviewers’ work in this complex area. The main findings were summarized in the form of a memory aid sheet that would provide quick and easy reference during interviews.

Invitation for further collaboration

The research presented in this article highlights the value of cross-collaboration between linguists and police practitioners in the domain of police interview practice.

Please get in touch if you might be interested in including the findings from this research in police training and practice at your Constabulary. This could lead to further collaborative work, building the evidence basis for the effects of this training on the participants’ subsequent interviewing practice. For this research, it may be possible to apply for N8 PRP funding, if a suitable call becomes available.

For more details about the research findings and/or to receive a copy of the full article on this research, please contact Dr Gabrina Pounds at:

[1] Gary Pankhurst: Interviewing Sexual Offence Suspects: The Impact of Organizational, Professional, and Personal Factors on Eliciting Information. In: N8 PRP Feature article Dec 28-11-2018 and 7-12-2018.

[2] Within the PEACE model of investigative interviewing used in England and Wales, including the following stages: Planning and Preparation + Engage and Explain + Account (+ Clarification and Challenge) + Closure + Evaluation