Communication skills and your survival

Failing to understand that humans are in a constant state of communication can be deadly

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

“For law enforcement professionals, communication skills are the most important of all the skills necessary to succeed in your profession.” I’ve been saying that for years.

Understanding this reality is a must for law enforcement officers. Being effective at communicating generally means you will be successful. Being lousy at it usually results in poor interpersonal relationships, citizens complaints, and possibly even injury or death on the street.

A very real truth: The human animal is in a constant state of communication.

Communication is much more than verbal information transferred between individuals. It is the complete package: body language, proxemics, paralinguistics, and even what is missing in the immediacy of the situation at hand. The human animal is always communicating. Whether we mean to or not, we’re always saying something the people within our auditory or visual field. Understanding this is essential.

In my Arresting Communication classes, I begin by asking each student to stand in front of the class and answer a series of questions:

1. Why are you here?
2. Are you an effective communicator?
3. Why aren’t you better?
4. What’s the most important of all communication skills?
5. What skill do most people lack?

All simple questions, but the answers — and their delivery — reveal a great deal.

The first question confuses most, since very few of them requested to attend, and the assignments by their respective agencies weren’t clearly communicated by their bosses. So the answers are usually along the lines of “I dunno,” “I have no idea,” “Beats the hell out of me,” “I found a memo in my mailbox,” and — my personal favorite — “I pissed off my sergeant!”

I generally follow up those answers with this question: “Any citizen complaints lately?”

At least one-third of participants will admit they’ve had some sort of negative citizen interaction — never their fault, by the way — which led to a negative interaction with their immediate supervisor — again not their fault — which then condemned them to attend the class — which, by the way, is never viewed in a favorable light.

As to whether they are effective communicators, probably 80 percent or more answer with a variation of, “Yeah, I think so.” But when pressed, most admit that at times, they have problems communicating.

The follow-up to those admissions is “Why aren’t you better?” and there are many different answers to that. Among them:

• “I’m impatient”
• “People don’t listen”
• “I tend to be in a hurry”
• “I don’t have time to listen to every little concern people have”
• “I’m tired of listening to the same old bullshit”
• “My sergeant is an asshole”
• “I hate dealing with assholes”
• And, finally, the most honest of all…“I just don’t give a damn!”

Question four, concerning what they believe to be the most important communication skill, also elicits a variety of answers, including: patience, speaking clearly, getting others’ attention, focusing, and treating people with respect. But the vast majority of respondents cite listening as the most important.

And finally, when asked which communication skill they think most people lack, the number one response — again by a wide margin — is the ability to listen.

Therein lies the problem. Cops too often view communication as a one-way activity meant to direct and control others.

“When I talk, if they do what I tell ‘em, the world is right. The problems occur when people don’t listen. Why don’t they listen?” The answer is that for the most part, people are lousy listeners. Unfortunately, many cops are just as bad or even worse. And male cops, well, generally they’re the worstest.

The Webster’s dictionary definition of Communication is “an act of transmitting a message, exchange of information, to make known.” Even that definition misses the point as it doesn’t put the most important meaning first. “An act of transmitting a message” and “to make known” both imply a one-way activity. The most important phrase in the definition is “exchange of information,” for it alone describes a two-way process: sending and receiving.

Notice that I didn’t say “talking and listening.” This is because those two words don’t adequately describe the reality of the communication process. Sending a message is not primarily accomplished through verbal channels (talking), nor is receiving a message primarily accomplished by hearing the words (listening).

Words are used, certainly, but the key is in how they are being delivered — what is the sender’s tone? Inflection? Rate of speech? What about the body? Is there eye contact? Shifting of weight, scanning with the eyes, shuffling of the feet, crossing of the arms? Do these signals validate or contradict the spoken words?

The same issues need to be considered when receiving a message. As you listen, what are your eyes saying to the sender? What about your body, does it reveal your inner thoughts? Did that tug on the ear say something? What about the hands sliding into your pockets or brushing the pants? Did you just reveal a thought you would rather have kept hidden?

I know these explanations and examples look pretty rudimentary in print, but unless you truly understand them in the real world, your career and your life may be in jeopardy.

Think about it: What are you communicating to someone who may be intent on attacking you? Are you projecting an air of tactical confidence, or are you communicating that you’re easy prey? Are you communicating professionalism and awareness, or are you coming across as a victim? And what are you missing about the other person’s communication?

Pick any of the videos featured in the Street Survival Seminar that have captured officers being murdered on traffic stops. Analyze the communication between the officer and the predatory criminal before the attack on both a verbal and nonverbal level. What did the eventual murderer communicate to the officer during the face-to-face interaction? Did he say he was uncooperative, agitated, nuts? Did he comply with orders or challenge and ignore them? And, what did the officer communicate to his adversary? Did he say that he was confident or did he come across as insecure, hesitant and oblivious to danger cues? Did he communicate that he was tactically sound or did he communicate that he was a victim?

Learning how to communicate effectively is not difficult but few officers or agencies seem to make it a priority to master this most important of all law enforcement skills. As managers we react only when there is an interaction crisis: a problem between colleagues, line personnel and supervisors at odds, or a citizen complaint.

Cops communicate for a living. How often do we really, truly, train for it? Are we proactive or reactive? As supervisors, do we practice good communication skills with those we charge with accomplishing the mission? Do we expect them to communicate better with the public than we do with them? I admit I’m sort of a freak about this subject but I do believe communicating effectively can be the difference between success and failure — life and death. Train with that in mind.

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