Cops and Aristotle: Rhetorical perspective revisited

In 1983 I wrote my first book, Verbal Judo: Words as Force. As an officer, I have discovered that the greatest "rhetoricians" in the country are cops, not politicians or professors. It is through the skillful use of presence and words that officers save people from themselves and others — quite literally redirecting behavior with words. The greatest human act, I think, is to change someone’s mind so that you change their behavior for the better — and peace officers do that almost routinely and never think much about it!

After teaching peace officers for 26 years, I am convinced that many of them burn out or lose their edge because they truly fail to appreciate their huge contribution to society. Here’s what I know: Our unique service in 'Protect and Serve' is that we think for others in the moment as they might think for themselves 48 to 72 hours later. The great officers I learned from all across this country had this communication ability, and I want to revisit it for you.

As someone who had been a Professor of English for ten years before pushing a squad, I could hardly believe what I was seeing on the streets night after night. I repeatedly witnessed young deputies and officers persuading people, often twice their age, to act with civility instead of violence. I saw them talk angry, distraught and often violent people out of fist fights, knives, and guns!

When I would ask, "How do you do that?" I rarely got more than a shrug and a "been there, done that" type of response. One of the courses I taught as a professor was Classical Rhetoric, the art described by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle as that of 'finding the best verbal or non-verbal means of persuasion in any given instant.' I reread Aristotle and found the answer the best cops exhibited unconsciously — the "Rhetorical Eye."

The most skilful peace officers think differently and draw on a skill most people don’t have except by chance and accident. "Tactical Empathy" is an officer’s ability to think from another’s point of view while communicating.

Aristotle put it this way: there are five elements that constitute what he calls "The Rhetorical Perspective." These are PERSPECTIVE, AUDIENCE, VOICE, PURPOSE, and ORGANIZATION. Most of us enter unarmed into verbal discourse because we only know two of the five elements in acronym PAVPO, our PERSPECTIVE and our PURPOSE. If we know only these two, we are truly not ready to persuade any one of anything.

The best officers are somehow tuned in to their AUDIENCE. Four things are critical regarding Audience sensitivity:

1. People are different from us, no matter how close they may be to us, and the moment we fail to appreciate this difference we become ineffective in persuading them.
2. When we enter a scene, because of our badge, uniform or marked unit, people look up and WATCH us act.
3. Because of our authority and visibility, people CHANGE as we enter their presence and we need to be prepared to watch for this change if we are to remain safe.
4. Finally, because of these first three, the critical fourth: AUDIENCES ARE MADE, not found.

Aristotle’s point is that we make our audiences by how we approach people and how we communicate. Combine this insight with recent drama research which suggests that whatever an actor puts forth on stage is reflected three times back in intensity to the actor; this fact partially explains why we tear up watching a movie even though we know it is only a story.

This fact also explains why when an officer approaches a subject expecting him to resist, he will. If an officer approaches a subject exuding peaceful expectations, the subject will become more peaceable. The speaker is the most powerful force in the scene, and the best officers reconstitute the violent audiences they encounter again and again.

Often it seems like magic, but it really isn’t. Once the officer has his audience fully in mind — empathy — he then is able to become who he has to be to handle the situation: the V in the acronym. The officer must adopt the proper VOICES(S) for the person in front of him. This is his ‘verbal personality,’ or how he is heard by the other. Here, I add ONV’s — other non-verbals — because this step involves a chameleon-like ability to put on the right face and the right voice to accomplish the goal of the discourse: the PURPOSE. If an officer has to look and sound sensitive, he does. If he has to intimidate, he can do this too. They are the same skill. The powerful officer can play a hundred roles and assume a hundred faces to achieve the goal at hand.

We know that DELIVERY is 93 percent of effective communication and it is this VOICE and ONV step where the proper professional face or “persona” is found and used. Remember this face is defined as the best face needed to win. This is not insincerity — it is the essence of ‘acting correctly’ to accomplish the professional purpose(s).

The “O” in the acronym PAVPO refers to how the speaker ORGANIZES the verbal delivery, beginning, middle, and end. The most effective officers begin encounters differently than most and they remain aware of the event ‘as an event’ with its own structure. Their presence and words tend to prime the pump for success, for compliance, cooperation, or even collaboration. Many of the rest of us — and I was one when I started — create resistance just by how we approach or in our opening words.

For example, think of the difference on a car stop between asking for the Drivers License first or fifth, as we do in the Eight Step Meet & Greet Tactic we teach in Verbal Judo. If you ask for it up front, you get "Why, what did I do? Who are you?" If you ask for it in Step 5 — after 1) An appropriate greeting, 2) Identifying yourself & your department, 3) Explaining the reason for the stop and 4) Asking if is there any justified reason for such behavior — the driver has nothing to say. You save an argument and sound professional all at the same time. You also are safer because you have bought five to seven seconds of assessment time and you have not allowed the driver to reach anywhere he wants in the car. The “secret” of your control — your power — lies in how you shaped your communication.

But it doesn’t have to be a vehicle stop. Anytime you approach another — unless it is a dangerous situation — why not use the same opening? It’s polite, professional and buys you some time to look and see what’s what without getting into an argument. It primes the pump for success, for compliance, or cooperation.

In Verbal Judo/Tac Com we define Professional Language as that which is conducive to compliance. Language which generates resistance is unprofessional. The brilliant street officers who seem to remake their violent audiences use such “peace language” and tend to shape their communications to foster cooperation. They approach people and open these encounters with professional civility. They control the movement and direction of the discourse so it does not spin out of control, and they definitely bring encounters to a positive close.

How to close an event is another critical rhetorical consideration. People remember best what is said last. Officers who ‘leave people better than they find them at their worst’ are safer because they soften the desire for revenge. Many of you reading this are such officers and you have had people whom had to arrest say to you later (sometimes years later), “Thank you. You treated me as a man, you treated me fairly.” Many of you have had such subjects watch your back in a bad scene. And it is all because of the WAY IN WHICH YOU HANDLED IT!

One of the reasons that Verbal Judo or Tactical Communication has survived so well over the last 26 years is this Rhetorical component. When you think from the other’s point of view you find the best verbal and non-verbal means of persuasion. If you only think like yourself, you fail. Use the ‘rhetorical eye’ — PAVPO — whenever you wish to influence another to move in a certain direction. It will be your path of success. It is your true service to this nation, and we thank you!

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.