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Types of questions

If possible, the individual should be asked to give a chronological account of the incident(s) in question. Generally, open-ended questions should be used, for example: ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ or ‘Tell me more about that.’ The individual should be allowed to tell his or her story with as few interruptions as possible. Further details can be elicited with appropriate follow-up questions, such as: ‘How big was the cell?’, ‘Was there any lighting?’ and ‘How could you go to the toilet?’ Asking too many questions too quickly might confuse the individual, or even remind him or her of being interrogated.

Leading questions are avoided wherever possible, because individuals may answer with what they think the health professional wants to hear. This is especially important when interviewing for medico-legal purposes, where the testimony may be challenged in court. Closed questions, which provide the interviewee with a limited number of options and, particularly, list questions, can cause confusion in the individual and might create unnecessary inconsistencies. For example, an individual might be asked, ‘Were you arrested by the police or the army?’ limiting the answer to a choice between the two. If he or she was arrested by a special task force of soldiers and policemen working together, it would be difficult to give an accurate answer without appearing to contradict the health professional. This could in turn create inconsistencies between statements.

The pace of the interview must be dictated by the individual. Even if there is limited time for the interview (such as in a police station or prison), the interviewee should not feel rushed. It is better to focus on a few specific points than to try to cover too much ground in too little time. If there are many interviewees to be seen over several days, each should be seen once or twice for a substantial period of time, rather than several shorter sessions.

In a clinical setting, the interviewer should allow enough time between appointments to allow for this and for sufficient time to write up his or her notes. It is good practise to write up the notes of each interview at the end of that session, as various aspects of the individuals’ accounts may become confused if the interviewer attempts to write up all the interviews in a later single session, and details may be forgotten.