Connecting with people in today’s social climate
Strategies for law enforcement officers to improve their interpersonal skills
By Tony Bertram, LCSW, CADC, CODP
“The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw
One night a shift supervisor asked me how they could improve their ability to connect with people in our social climate.
We go into law enforcement for a variety of reasons. The profession is passionate in many ways, whether it’s the structure, adventure, risk-taking, or camaraderie. But there is a need for us to develop effective interpersonal skills.
In this article, we’ll look at techniques that can be used on the street as well as in our personal lives – skills such as the application of empathy, avoiding bias, structuring our speech, listening, making guesses rather than questioning and solving problems in a collaborative way.
Avoid the "why," use more "how"
Empathic communication is not innate, but it can be learned and perfected with practice. It begins with being aware of our perceptions and allowing ourselves to try to avoid conflict, void our minds of assumptions and judgment, and settle into the concepts of respect and curiosity.
Many times officers in the field hear people in crisis say things like, “How do you know how I feel? You have no idea what I’m experiencing.” The response to this is, “I don’t know exactly what you’re going through. But I’ve experienced things in my life that allow me to understand pain, anxiety and distress.”
First, we must enter the conversation free from preoccupations or bias no matter how many times we’ve responded to the same house for conflict. Keeping a mindset of curiosity tends to curb our immediate judgment and can help block biases from creeping in. Curiosity allows us to ask the person, “Do you mind if we talk about how you got to where you are now?”
Avoiding the “why” questions and using more “how” questions can help a person engage. An effective strategy is to postpone the “why” questions as long as possible. This allows for collaboration to form.
A technique used in this first step is called “structuring.” A question that starts with, “Do you mind if we...” is a good example of structuring. This technique of asking permission can bring balance to a conversation and imply mutual control. It can also help to reduce or avoid “high grounding” (having the upper hand in the conversation), which results in a power struggle that sometimes manifests into physical conflict.
Second, officers tend to hear but may not fully listen. Listening involves more than just keeping quiet. Psychologist Thomas Gordon created a list he called the “roadblocks to listening.” Some of the roadblocks people put in place include directing, threatening, lecturing, shaming, labeling, reassuring and humoring. These roadblocks lead to an out-of-proportion relationship between the speaker and the listener. These roadblocks, as Gordon explains, are centered around the self and not the speaker, thus building an obstacle to exploration.
The next step to listening is recognizing the “feeling words” you hear from someone, then making a mental note (to be used later in the communication) that shows the person you’re invested and listening. For example, recall a feeling word you heard and then tell the speaker, “Earlier you mentioned feeling ‘distraught’ and ‘excluded.’ Talk more about that.” Using this type of recall is one of the essential parts of empathic communication.
Guesses improve connection
Third, make a guess and use open questions. Psychologists William Miller and Stephen Rollnick suggest making guesses can be an extremely effective way of connecting with people. It allows people to clarify, and clarification allows the person to be heard. It also creates the opportunity for the officer to deepen their understanding of the situation. Using guesses can reduce defensiveness, thus promoting collaboration. For example, “From what I understand, the past few days have been difficult for you.”
Additionally, guesses can level the playing field and remove the implied authority of the police, which can block people’s ability to share openly.
When we do have to ask questions, they should be open. Open questions can reduce defensiveness and promote disclosure. During the disclosure, avoid making assumptions about the person’s past and meet them where they are, not where they were or where they’re going. The question to ourselves during an interaction should be, “How am I interpreting this, and am I making assumptions?”
Fourth, consider the things that contribute to defensiveness and resistance in people. Transparency can go a long way when trying to connect with someone. For years law enforcement has been trained to not reveal its steps. In many situations this is unavoidable; however, when trying to connect with someone, you’re only adding to their resistance and anxiety by not informing them what’s going on.
Do not overpraise the person – it can be interpreted as condescending, so it’s best to avoid speaking like a parent. This type of speech can be triggering and may result in conflict.
Do not contradict the person or take an opposing position. Suggest options and tell the person what you’re proposing. Don’t rule out asking the person to resolve the situation or proposing a resolution. Allowing subjects to contribute to the solution can reduce their feeling of being directed. This is especially important with Generation Z. Talking down, using heavy control talk or threatening consequence is relatively ineffective with this generation. Better results come from sharing control. This does not mean giving up your position. A neutral approach with acknowledgment of their feelings about an event goes a long way.
Lastly, when trying to communicate with a delusional or psychotic person, do not attempt to convince them that their beliefs are not true. Whether the person is experiencing a psychotic break or their psychosis is substance-induced, simply use the phrase, “I’m listening.” Investigate their delusion or hallucination and its content in a subtle way. Ask the person, “Is it possible I may see things differently than you at this time?”
Additionally, when speaking to someone who appears psychotic, do not smile, as it could be misinterpreted – the person could feel mocked. When their speech becomes disorganized, kindly interrupt them and ask permission to clarify specific words that they use. Be gently skeptical. Treat the person respectfully by paying attention to the components of their communication such as tone, volume and speed.
Consistency is what we all should strive for. We are regularly tested in our ability to stay consistent, which, if not maintained, can lead to a loss of interpersonal effectiveness, resulting in the dismissal of all the good you do.
The culture of police work shapes us as we manage the pressures and ever-changing expectations of our society. Managing the interpersonal interactions that surround us day after day requires ongoing commitment.
Thanks to Chief Luis Tigera for supporting this article.
Empathy, Normalization and De-escalation: Management of the Agitated Patient in Emergency and Critical Situations, 1st ed. Massimo Biondi, Massimo Pasquini, Lorenzo Tarsitani, eds. Springer, 2021
Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd ed. William R. Miller, Stephen Rollnick. Guilford Press, 2013
About the author
Tony Bertram, LCSW, CADC, CODP, has 24 years of experience working with crime victims and offenders, 14 years as a former police officer and 10 years as a social worker. For the community, he provides mental health crisis intervention, addiction services and circuit court advocacy. For the department, Tony provides mandate training, assists the Detective Bureau with investigations and engages in wellness counseling with the members of the department.