Remember attending the Police Academy, regardless of how long ago? The emphasis, like most law enforcement training back then, was on defensive tactics, emergency driving, shooting and a plethora of other mandatory skills to “get the job done”, as one academy instructor told me. Yet, I don’t think I ever heard the term, ‘interpersonal skills.’
It has always been assumed in this profession, if you made it through the hiring process and graduated the academy, certainly, you must know how to talk to people. Well, that’s wrong for a myriad of reasons.
When most law enforcement officers attend the academy, they are young, lack life experience and have had limited or no job experience. While they have probably been taught manners by their parents, such as when to say, “Please”, and “Thank you”, they surely never learned how to effectively communicate in high stress and volatile situations. Nor did they probably have adequate experience deciphering, deescalating or defusing situations in which the other person was suicidal, homicidal, or emotionally disturbed.
Just because a law enforcement officer puts on a badge and a uniform, they don’t automatically become a psychologist, a priest, or an experienced hostage negotiator.
In law enforcement, especially today, interpersonal communication is vital. In fact, it is required operational procedure. Yet, without proper experience and training, officers will default to the communication patterns used in their personal lives. They will not rise to the occasion. Sound familiar? Every law enforcement training instructor has said, “You will not rise to the occasion, you will revert to your training!”
Think about the many calls to which you have been dispatched where the suspect was pushing your buttons? How did you respond? Did you act “tactically”, or did you react emotionally? Like in Transactional Analysis, did he hook your child? In other words, did he get your goat? Surely, you are not a robot; you’re a human being with feelings. That is why training is so important unless you are master of interpersonal communication. Truthfully, most officers are not. However, if you are open-minded person and can overcome your personal biases, you can certainly be on your way to be an effective communicator in any situation.
As I remember, the mantra in the academy and field training was, “Ask them, Tell them, Make them!” That was my training lesson on compliance. As a recruit officer, I thought that sounded cool. However, I had conflicting thoughts on the subject. Do we really have that much authority to make someone do what we want, when we want? It did not seem like a very scientific approach to handling day-to-day encounters with the public. It made me question the phrase, “Protect and Serve.”
When I thought about the “Protect” part, it seemed like it would be fun. However, the “Serve” part was quite confusing. Did we really serve the community? Some veteran officers were heavily into the “Protect” part of the job but not so much into the “Serve” part. In fact, things usually went south in hurry when suspects were told, then made, because, let’s face it, people don’t like to be ordered around or forced to do something.
Often, I used to hear that old tough guy phrase right out of a spaghetti western or a Clint Eastwood movie, such as “We can do it the easy way, or the hard way!” Sadly, Clint Eastwood never showed! On the contrary, such phrases often prompted a drag-out fight just on principle alone, especially with a felon with prison time under his belt.
The situation would soon be deescalated when a smart senior officer, or a good supervisor, who was culturally sensitive or street savvy and knew how to relate to the suspect or his family.
Officers and supervisors who can deescalate almost any situation, like previously mentioned, are competent, good communicators with strong interpersonal skills. It is more than just knowing the right thing to do, and it is an extremely valuable skill for the streets. A person who just knows the right thing to do when it matters. Scientists, like Paul Ekman, the psychology professor for which the TV show, ‘Lie to Me’, was based upon, would say these types of law enforcement officers were naturally intuitive.
For those who are not intuitive, effective interpersonal skills, like in this book, can be learned. In fact, the less training or practice one has is better since that person can be taught the correct way to communicate in any situation. Many officers have bad habits and in accurate training which has caused them to make dangerous and counterproductive mistakes.
Thinking back, I can still hear my Field Training Officer (FTO) offering his wisdom. He would say, “Give a person five minutes and it can have a huge impact on the outcome of that call.” I recall my FTO and me responding to a “distraught woman” who called 911 because her adult daughter was threatening and suicidal. I can vividly remember walking into the daughter’s bedroom and seeing the young woman holding a razor blade to imminently cut her wrist.
Immediately, my FTO transitioned from a rigid field trainer, who seldom spoke to me on a personal level, to a skilled negotiator who demonstrated deep empathy toward the young woman. While the woman cried, he quickly created a verbal connection to convince the young woman to stop her suicide attempt and voluntarily accompany us to the hospital.
Watching my FTO was like watching a Hollywood movie, except this was real life. I wasn’t watching an actor playing a skilled professional; I was watching a skilled professional communicator in action. He was highly effective. His communication skills were highly effective. I wanted to be able to communicate with someone on that level. It was that experience and others like it that started me on my professional journey of using and refining my interpersonal communication skills. With each experience, I learned to convince people to comply.
Over the next fifteen plus years my skills were becoming more refined, more effective, and more utilized in a myriad of situations on the streets. Recently, my former FTO announced his retirement and I reminded him of his influence on me. He smiled in acknowledgement.
“Above all, it’s about going home at the end of the shift … “
We couldn’t agree more.
Ruben enjoys hearing from his readers – EMAIL
The preceding article has been written by Ruben Salamanca and Lou Savelli. Ruben Salamanca, an active-duty police sergeant in Kansas, is the Vice President of Homefront Protective Group, law enforcement training. Lou Savelli, President of Homefront Protective Group, is a retired NYPD sergeant. The authors can be reached through their company’s website, https://homefrontprotect.com
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