The Most Important Question to Ask

When taking a statement, many of us don’t pay attention to the answer to the most important question. Or, we might not ask it at all.

In training, investigators FLETA, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy, says the most important question is the “Framing Question”:

“In your own words, can you tell me what happened?”

That’s it! Sounds easy, right? It is anything but.

The skill comes when you listen intently to the answer and respond – after they have finished – with follow up questions.

You must not interrupt the person. Allow them to completely ‘play back’ the memory. Encourage them to keep talking until there is nothing more they have to say. It turns out our brains best recall things if we can speak without stopping.

Take good notes. Look for holes where follow up question are needed. In Auto Liability, listen for speed, look out and avoidance. After they have finished, ask why questions: Why did you not slow down? Why did you not see the other vehicle? Why did you not attempt to change lanes or take other avoidance maneuvers? Why could you not avoid this crash?

In injury claims, listen carefully to descriptions of the injuries and the causes of them. Follow up with questions like: Why did you not immediately seek treatment? What visible signs of injury were there immediately after the crash? When did you know you were hurt?

FLETA studies and their deep experience shows that the most accurate, complete and truthful answers are given the first time the question is responded to, and the quality of the memory and testimony degrades both by the day and the number of times the story is retold.

So, be quick to take the statement and get it right the first time. 

The key point of the ‘Framing Question’ is that by allowing your interviewee to fully play back the description of the incident without interruption, they will be more truthful and more likely to include their own culpability in the statement.

FLETA trains every investigator to ask this question FIRST – before even the identifying information: that’s how important they think the question is.

What’s the most important question?

“In your own words, can you tell me what happened?”