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Book excerpt: Communication is the name of the game

In this excerpt from “Leading the Small Police Department,” author Chief Gerald Garner breaks down how to battle the enemies of good communication

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The following is excerpted from “Leading the Small Police Department” by Gerald Garner. Chief Garner has spent his 53-year career seeking to disseminate leadership training. Click here to order a copy of this book.

Chapter 14: Communication is the name of the game

Inasmuch as you are a human being, it is practically impossible for you not to communicate. Sometimes you do it without speaking a word. You communicate through the affectionate look you give your significant other. You communicate something else entirely when you tell Sergeant White that yes, it’s OK that he takes off Friday night, while shooting him a look that says it is not so OK after all. (In this case, you may be confusing more than you are communicating.) You have to be just about unconscious not to communicate.

Communication is sometimes said to involve the exchange and, hopefully, comprehension of thoughts, feelings, ideas, and information. Clear and accurate communication is an absolute necessity for the health and effectiveness of your police organization. Excellent, two-way communication between you and your subordinates is a requirement for both efficiency and good morale in your department. The same requirement for good communication also applies to the relationship that exists between you and your boss and you and your community. Communication can be a big factor in determining whether you succeed as a police chief – or not.

A good leader recognizes the value of being a good listener. That is a trait of every effective communicator. He or she also studiously avoids committing some of the major errors that can kill effective communication. In addition, the exceptional leader has mastered the skills required of an individual who can communicate equally well in either the written or spoken word.

Effective communication makes for a more cohesive, productive, and content work group. As the leader of that group, you will set the standard for excellent communication practices. What follows will aid you in doing just that.

Enemies of good communication

In order to do anything right, it can be extremely helpful to know how not to do it. There are several, easily-identifiable stumbling blocks that you will want to avoid as you strive to be an excellent communicator. They include these communication killers:

Bias and prejudice. You are less likely to listen intently to what someone else has to say if you think you already know what he or she is going to speak because you dislike or distrust him or her. If you assume in advance that you are going to disagree with whoever is speaking because you’ve always disagreed with him or her in the past, it is unlikely that any useful communication is going to take place. The best way to overcome this communication failure is to try hard to set aside what has happened in the past and instead focus on what is being said (or written) now.

Rushing unnecessarily. You cannot help the fact that your job sometimes requires you to get things done in a hurry. But rushing when it comes to communicating a message can practically guarantee that the intended recipient will not get a clear picture of what you intended to communicate. Repetition is fine, but if you end up having to repeat your message you really have not saved any time. Try to slow down and get it right the first time.

Unclear message. At some point in your life, you almost certainly listened to or read a message and had not a clue as to what the message sender was trying to communicate. You don’t want to be guilty of the same communication sin. If your message is in written form, read it over repeatedly before you send it forward. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has no advance knowledge of what you are trying to say. Is the message clear? If you are speaking rather than writing, watch your audience for any indication of understanding, such as affirmative head nods. Ask if the message was understood. Be prepared to repeat, if need be, perhaps saying it a little different way.

Distractions, interruptions. Distractions can be physical or mental. A chiming cell phone or a chattering portable radio can make it hard for someone to concentrate on what you are saying. A mental distraction can interfere when you are already formulating what you want to say in response instead of actually listening to the speaker’s message. An interruption is just what it sounds like. Your goal should be to exchange information at a time and place when you and your communication partner(s) will not be sidetracked by other “stuff.”

Emotional involvement. This communication enemy can be but doesn’t have to be related to the bias and prejudice villain. If you just plain dislike the individual attempting the communication you are unlikely to get the message clearly, or believe it if you do get it. But when stress or other high emotions are involved even otherwise-clear communication can also suffer. This can happen, for instance, at the scene of a critical incident, such as an officer involved shooting. In such a situation, instructions may need to be repeated, perhaps more than once. It may also be an excellent idea to ask questions during a stressful situation to ensure that your meaning was comprehended: “Did everyone understand what they are to do?”

Inappropriate language. This goes well beyond the fact that you are going to turn some people off if you use profane or vulgar language. Not all inappropriate language consists of bad words. You also must stay away from using words unlikely to be easily understood by your audience. You should not address a gathering of your officers as if they were youngsters (even if some of them come close to being in that age group.) Neither should you author an all-hands memorandum apparently produced by a PhD for consumption by other PhDs. You are seeking to communicate clearly, not impress people with your vocabulary.

Based upon a lifetime spent communicating with other human beings, you probably can think of some other barriers to good communication. But those listed here are some of the worst offenders. Fortunately, in addition to avoiding those critical errors there are things you can do to ensure accurate, effective communication.

“You can’t expect your people to be doing something you won’t do yourself.”

How to communicate effectively

Effective communicators are, without exception, also known as good listeners. It also has been said that a good conversationalist is one who “shuts up and lets me talk about my favorite subject: me.” Be that as it may, it is no secret that you cannot be an effective communicator unless you put a lot of effort into truly hearing what the other party to the exchange has to say. And that gets down to the application of some basic listening skills. First of all, do not assume in advance that you know what the other party has to say. Let him or her speak freely. Try not to interrupt. Nod to assure the speaker to continue. Attempt to practice “full face listening,” that is, focus your attention and vision entirely on the speaker, and nothing or no one else. You should not be creating the perception that you cannot wait for the other party to cease speaking so that you can talk. Practicing full face listening takes some practice and concentration, but you can do it.

Listening skills certainly are vital to effective communication, but there is more you can do to ensure that accurate transmission and reception of information, thoughts, and ideas actually occur, such as:

Ensure that the message is clear. Whether your communication is written or spoken, as the message sender the obligation is on you to make sure that the message is a clear one. Keep it concise. Keep it as brief as practical. Don’t insert a fifty-cent word where a nickel’s worth of clarity will do the job better. Long, complex sentences are to be avoided like Ebola. Oral presentations that drone on and on are the equivalent of a slow and painful death and are also to be dodged.

Don’t try to force too many complex thoughts or directions into a single message. Your intended message recipients may lose your intentions and instructions in a sea of words, written or spoken. Tackle topics one at a time, checking to see if the first one was understood before starting off in a new direction. Remember that the average person’s attention span is not without limit.

Remember the value of openness and credibility. Someone who is not trusted or believed cannot be a very effective communicator. Confirmed liars may sometimes be listened to but what they have to say is likely not taken to heart. Your reputation for integrity will be most helpful when you are the one sending the message. Remaining devoted to the truth is perhaps the best way of being recognized as the excellent communicator that you are. Your consistent openness and accessibility will complete the picture of you as an effective communicator.

Two-way communication flow. If it is going to work, communication has to be a two-way affair. If you are the one initiating the message, whether it is written or spoken, your audience needs to have the ability to ask questions and, if necessary, seek clarification of the message. This process should continue until everyone who wants to has had a chance to respond. Diatribes, written or oral, that do not allow for response from the intended audience are far too easily misunderstood. As your department’s leader, you should encourage feedback from your people on just about any topic under the sun. That feedback may or may not change a decision you have made or a policy that is about to be implemented, but most people will appreciate that the boss was at least willing to hear them out. It’s just one more thing that a good chief does.

Calm and controlled approach. Keeping your message delivery unemotional and factual will contribute to its being comprehended. That’s not to say you cannot let your feelings show on occasion. Expressed emotions show that you are human. You certainly do not want to come across as a heartless robot. But staying in control of your expressed emotions to a reasonable degree oftentimes will remove a distraction as you work to communicate with those under your command. For example, if every time you address a meeting of your first-line supervisors you come across as angry, pretty soon that consistent anger may result in at least a part of your audience disregarding what you have to say. Save your emotions for when they are truly appropriate.

Repeat as necessary. There may not be a “magic” number of times a message has to be repeated before everybody “gets it.” Sometimes it can vary depending upon the message’s personal impact on the reader or listener. Nonetheless, you should be prepared to repeat important messages more than once, perhaps for the cop who hangs out on the night shift and is always quick to complain that “nobody tells me nuthin’,” almost certainly untrue. To be sure an important communication is received by all hands you may want to rely on multiple avenues to get it out there: memorandum, e-mail, orally, etc. That will make it a lot harder for that cop on the night shift to claim nobody told him nuthin’.

By exercising some sound communication habits you will increase the likelihood that important information is easily exchanged in your organization. There are, as noted, plenty of things you can do to help that effective communication take place. Telling the truth tops the list. Whether writing or speaking, choose your words carefully. Keep the more-distracting emotions (such as extreme anger) out of your messages. If you are communicating orally, listen carefully to your intended message recipients and encourage a two-way exchange. Make sure your message is a clear one. Use all of the communication means at your disposal and do not hesitate to repeat the message, as required.

A leader who cannot communicate successfully commands little more than the desk in front of him or her. That leader is not you. By communicating effectively with your people, you make it much more likely that your organization’s mission will be accomplished. An effective leader cannot ask more.

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Putting it in writing

An excellent leader is also an excellent writer. In his or her leadership role the leader will prepare written communications for a variety of audiences, ranging from elected officials to disgruntled citizens to the department’s employees. He or she will author letters, memos, e-mails, plans, orders, performance reviews, and other documents. These are all things that require some sort of permanent documentation. You as your organization’s leader will provide that documentation.

If you recognize writing as a difficult task for you, there are things you can do to become more comfortable while producing an excellent written product. If you have a university or community college in your vicinity, oftentimes you will find a writing course somewhere in the curriculum. There are also lots of books out there intended to aid the reluctant writer (an Internet search will help you find them.) But you also can get better at the written word by carefully examining examples of well-written documents of all kinds. Get a hold of some written works produced by people whose writings you admire to get tips on how it is done. You can gain a lot by emulating the good work of others.

As you contemplate composing your written message, try to place yourself in the shoes of someone who has no idea of what you are trying to communicate. Write and, if need be, re-write for that individual’s level of understanding of the subject. Be sure your choice of words is appropriate for your reading audience. Going through that mental exercise will help you get better at converting what you are thinking into the written word.

As with many things in life, you often get better at something by doing a lot of it. That holds true for producing the written word. Honestly critique your own work. It also can help to set something you have written aside for a few hours or a few days and then take another look at it. Something that seemed clear earlier may appear less so now. Read over your written product multiple times, first for content. Is the message clear? Will someone else grasp its meaning? Then, go back and dissect the document to be sure that spelling and grammar will pass muster. Make revisions, where needed. Then, give it one last reading before you send it forward. The same holds true whether you have created an e-mail, text, memorandum, letter, report, or some other version of the written word.

At some point in your career, you probably have told a young officer that you are known within your department and beyond by the written work you produce. Even more so, the same holds true for law enforcement leaders. With some diligence and close attention to detail, you can do this and do it well.

You can’t beat the spoken word

Face-to-face, oral communication skills are a prerequisite for effective leadership. You know that. You must get your message across clearly if you are to be a successful leader. This holds true whether you are speaking to a briefing room of five cops or an auditorium filled with 500 members of your community. Just as in writing, you get more comfortable and proficient at public speaking by engaging in public speaking. Many chiefs would agree that their own cops can be the toughest audience on the planet. If you can succeed in communicating orally with them, you can master speaking to any group in existence ... and you can.

Exceptional public speakers draw on words that are appropriate. This is as true when you are speaking to a roll call briefing as it is when you are addressing the Little Old Ladies Society. You are serving as a role model here, too, when you refuse to spout gutter talk. A police department is not a bank. But neither should it be a place where obscene language becomes part of the background noise.

The spoken word sometimes does the written version one better because speaker and listener can each pick up on cues – such as facial expressions and body language – from the other. That can make it easier for each participant in the exchange to grasp if the other party is understanding a message being sent. Questions can be asked and clarifications sought. The positive result should be better communication and the benefits it brings to everyone concerned.

When you are an effective oral communicator, you help foster an atmosphere in which there are fewer misunderstandings accompanied by the bad things that can result from them. That sort of positive workplace environment is what you are seeking as your agency’s leader. By setting the example as an effective communicator and expecting the same of your subordinate leaders you can make your police department a more enjoyable place to work as well as a more effective and efficient one.


Words, written or spoken, can harm and confuse others just as other words can inform and support. Words can depress morale as well as elevate it. Communication, or the lack of it, can help determine which way all of these things go.

As a leader, you rely on excellent communication to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of your law enforcement agency. You have learned that an organization where information and ideas flow smoothly is more likely to be an effective work group of well-informed and reasonably content people.

As a law enforcement leader, you must be a good writer and public speaker. You will have a difficult time succeeding as a leader without possessing both of those skills. You must be a patient and careful reader and listener, too. You must be able to comprehend the meaning of a message directed to you and then be able to send an easily-understood message of your own. That is what communication is all about.

Everyone in your organization as well as the citizens you all serve will benefit from your sound communication practices. That positive state of affairs is what every exceptional leader is seeking.

About the author

Gerald W. Garner is the chief of police for the city of Corinth, Texas. A veteran of 53 years in law enforcement, he has served as chief executive officer for police departments serving 9,000 people, 26,000 citizens and over 100,000 residents.

Prior to retiring, he served for 30 years with the Lakewood (Colorado) Police Department where he worked in virtually every leadership rank and assignment available in a municipal law enforcement agency.

Chief Garner holds a master’s degree in Administration of Justice. He has instructed for the FBI National Academy at Quantico and the International Association of Chiefs of Police in addition to numerous police academies, university classes, and law enforcement leadership institutes. He has authored 13 books and over 200 magazine and journal articles, all on various aspects of law enforcement leadership and officer safety.