Motivational conversation for community building

Use this process to better connect and engage with the communities you serve


This article originally appeared in the July 2021 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Community review of police policy; Relationship-based policing, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

Community building is a foundational aspect of good policing. In today’s modern society where traditional media, activist groups and proactive individuals supply a constant stream of information on social media, law enforcement must establish a core relationship with the multifaceted communities where we provide services. Motivational conversation is a process that can help your agency improve its relationship-based policing.

At its core, motivational conversation is about creating conversations that lead people, groups, communities and organizations in the desired direction of positive change. As with any relationship, it takes honesty, commitment and effort to achieve meaningful connections.

Historical expectations of community building

We must be proactive in creating engagement by not allowing a conflict-minded entity to obstruct our need for relationship-based policing.
We must be proactive in creating engagement by not allowing a conflict-minded entity to obstruct our need for relationship-based policing. (Getty Images)

The expectation of law enforcement community building has been with the profession since Sir Robert Peel presented his nine principles for modern policing in 1829. Three of the principles are particularly relevant to relationship-based policing: 

  • The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions (legitimacy, compliance).
  • Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public (cooperation, de-escalation).
  • Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police (foundational for relationship-based policing).

Ask versus tell

Motivational conversation begins with the use of questions to create dialogue that will move a person, group, or entity in a specific direction. This is the “ask versus tell” approach to conversations. It is very easy for police to “tell” people what they need to do to achieve positive change. The challenge is to “ask” a question when we feel the need to “tell” someone what to do.

The asking is not from a position of potential weakness (will you do this task for me?), but from a position of inquiry that leads to the goal (how can this task be accomplished?). We must use the same approach when building community relationships. Too often we “tell” communities what needs to be done instead of “asking” what needs to be done to achieve a common goal. Asking leads to genuine dialogue, which over time will move a community and a police agency in the right direction.

Creating questions

Questions should be open-ended where they cannot be answered with only a one- or two-word response. Use the following process when creating questions for community engagement:

  • Intent: Does the question lead the community in a specific direction?
  • Conversation: Do the questions create valuable conversations with a community?
  • Relationships: Do the conversations with the communities build genuine working relationships?
  • Results: How can I measure/quantify that we are heading in the right direction for everyone involved?

The Intent-Conversation-Relationships-Results process for creating questions will create the engagement and goal-oriented solutions that we strive for in our community-building efforts. This process is also good to use when speaking to line personnel, administrative staff, executive teams and organizations. Once you have incorporated this process into how you create questions, it will become second nature and it will improve your ability to influence others.

Perspectives to consider for community building

In addition to motivational conversation, we must evaluate three perspectives when engaging with the community:

1. Societal worldview: A successful society must have productive interaction between various parts of government, societal groups, religions and the economy. Each part of society functions together to contribute to the success of the whole. The components of the societal worldview can include law enforcement, the court system, social assistance programs, city/state/federal services, community groups, religious institutions and schools (public/private).

We play a role in creating an atmosphere for our communities to ensure the societal worldview is accessible and applicable to them. If a community does not believe that the different public and private components of a successful society are accessible to them, then that community will have a suspicious mindset of the societal worldview. Our role is to move a suspicious mindset to one that contributes to the productive interaction of public and private institutions.

2. Conflict mindset: This occurs with groups or individuals. Emphasis is placed on the source of differences among individuals or groups. Conflict can be based on politics, availability of resources/opportunity, group affiliation and more. Some individuals and groups find comfort in perpetuating these differences, which inhibits communication and as a result, prevents goal-setting and problem-solving.

When engaging with communities, consider the following factors involving the conflict mindset of groups and individuals:

  • What groups inflame the differences between law enforcement and the communities they serve?
  • How can law enforcement take an active role in building bridges with those communities?
  • How can law enforcement begin the conversation with the groups whose intent is to create conflict?
  • What are the consequences of not engaging?

As law enforcement professionals, if we leave a void of communication with communities due to a conflict mindset, it is reasonable to expect that some other person or entity will replace us in that important role. We must be proactive in creating engagement by not allowing a conflict-minded entity to obstruct our need for relationship-based policing.

3. Personal lens: All of us have personal experiences and value judgments that shape our one-on-one interactions.

Assess the following:

  • How does our personal lens allow us to judge the values of other groups?
  • How can our judgments impede or promote bridge-building with those groups?
  • How do our value judgments of other groups affect our societal worldview and conflict mindset?

Our personal lens may be difficult to objectively assess. We each have experiences and judgments that we used to view the world. However, the questions above can provide us some evaluative assessments of our perspectives. Additionally, the questions can be presented to those who know us well. The resulting answers can be validating and/or unexpected.

Community building questions and goal setting

Leading people can be positional (rank) or relational. Motivational conversation occurs in a relationship-based interaction between law enforcement and communities. The following provides a template for the types of questions to ask to create the groundwork for community building that will involve goal setting as part of the intended process. Modify the questions to suit your agency’s specific needs.

What is our reason for engagement?

  • What is the reason for attempting this process?
  • What are the benefits of engagement?
  • What are the consequences of not taking action?
  • If we do not attempt engagement, what group or entity will? Will that other group create engagement or conflict?

What skills can be brought to the table by each side?  

  • Are there people in the groups that have commonalities?
  • Who are the collaborators in each group?
  • What individuals can be counted on to promote a common goal, especially when there is conflict among the groups?

What perspectives (societal worldview, conflict mindset and personal lens) does each side bring to the conversation?

  • What is the most significant perspective that must be contended with to create a conversation for change? Is the assessment accurate or is it the result of a personal lens perspective?
  •  How will the predominant perspective affect engagement between groups?

What is my role?

  • What are my responsibilities as an individual, a representative of my profession and a representative of affiliated groups?

Who can be counted on for help or guidance?

  • Can help be found within my group or can it be found with the community that is being engaged?
  • Is there a third party that can be contacted to help?
  • What can I learn so I can be a resource for others in this process?

How will conflict be resolved?

  • Will there be a set of informal/formal rules to address conflict?
  • How will conflict be handled which is created by your group?
  • What is the expectation of handling conflict for the group you are connecting with?

These questions are intended for both law enforcement and the community that is being engaged. Use them as a starting point to have a better outcome during the community-building process. It is recommended that this questioning process be provided to the leaders of the involved group. It could be a key icebreaker for dialogue while laying out the expectations for each side by utilizing the intentional questioning process.

NEXT: 4 ways officers can improve neighborhood relationships

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