A Refresher on Objective Documentation
I work with a lot of other investigators as an investigations coach, and they often send me their information, and one of the things I sometimes find is the use of subjective language instead of remaining objective.
Example of an investigation situation to document
I’ll give you a bit of an extreme example. This is only happened to me once in my career and I’d like to think I became good enough to avoid these issues. Occasionally you can be in the midst of conducting an interview with somebody, and that person becomes quite agitated. They become annoyed, belligerent, maybe rude. Now what language and words am I using when I’m describing the behaviour? I’m using all subjective language to characterize their behavior, based on my interpretation.
Let’s look at a scenario. I’m in the middle of an interview and the person I’m interviewing slams their fist on the table, and calls me a bunch of names. They stand up abruptly and their chair flies across the room and hits the wall, they storm to the door and they open it, turn around to give me another piece of their mind. They are swearing and calling me names and slam the door behind them.
Now I have to document what happened. I’ve seen many situations where what gets documented is something along the lines of:
“Subject became rude and belligerent, made inappropriate comments to the investigator, was insulting to the investigator, pushed their chair into the wall aggressively, stormed out of the room loudly and abruptly…”
Here is what you should be documenting:
“Subject suddenly banged their fist on the table, stated to the investigator, ‘You’re a bleep bleep bleep (As an aside, it’s not the first time I’ve been called a bleep 😊), I’m not going to bleep bleep you anymore’. The subject stood up causing their chair to hit the wall, went to the door opened it and turned to face the investigator stating, ‘You’re a bleep bleep bleep’, and slammed the door as they left.”
Now we are objectively documenting what the person said. Anybody reading this will make their own conclusions or inferences around what that means. Most people would read that and say wow that person became very upset, angry, belligerent, rude, and said inappropriate things. However, by keeping your documentation objective, you maintain your position of being an objective party and being unbiased. (If you have had some particularly negative experiences, read our article on vicarious trauma).
If you start writing things down or documenting things, particularly in a report, that the person was rude and inappropriate, or insulted the investigator, that gives people something to work with to suggest maybe you had it against the person and maybe the outcome of the investigation was influenced by the fact that you “didn’t like this person because they insulted you”. Good investigators always maintain their objectivity both in terms of how they interact with people, and in terms of what they document. It’s important that we use objective language.
Another thing to avoid in reports are the sort of the adjectives that make something even more significant in our mind. For example, “Overwhelmingly people agreed on X.” When we use words like overwhelmingly, it is an emphasis we don’t need to use. It’s good enough to say, “The majority of people said X.” When we use words like this it can open us up to be criticized as biased. Good investigators want to maintain very objective and factual language in their reports. Doing so will reduce the likelihood of being accused of any kind of bias, and frankly, it’s just more professional.
I will say just to finish this off, when a situation with an agitated person occurs, the most important thing an investigator needs to do is maintain their calm. (Read: How to De-Escalate a Difficult Person). You don’t meet a bad attitude with a similar bad attitude. You don’t rise to that level. As people start to go up, you want to be going down to bring them down to try and de-escalate their behavior.