Effective verbal communication in use of force situations

Defensive tactics skills and verbal communication skills should not be an either/or option


One of the most critical skills a law enforcement officer must develop is effective verbal communication. Whether it is in the context of the use of force, crisis communications, interviews and investigations, or information exchange, ineffective communication is a significant detriment to positive outcomes. In this article, I will specifically focus on some of the essential components of verbal communication officers should deploy during a potential use of force incident.

Do not take it personally

One of the most common mistakes inexperienced or unskilled officers make is taking insults or verbal defiance personally. This is illustrated often through post-incident video or body-worn camera footage, where it is clear the officer is getting upset by the tone of their voice and their actions. This should not be construed as officers needing to be devoid of emotion. Instead, when officers understand their objective is about achieving a goal or handling a situation – and that it is not about their experience of that situation – the chance of effective verbal communication increases exponentially.

If verbal de-escalation is still possible, it is vital to remember that listening is an essential part of the equation. (Photo/PoliceOne)
If verbal de-escalation is still possible, it is vital to remember that listening is an essential part of the equation. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Actively listen

It is easy to get stuck in verbal command mode. There is undoubtedly a time and place for that; however, if verbal de-escalation is still possible, it is vital to remember that listening is an essential part of the equation. Merely taking some extra time to allow an upset person to vent may be the very thing that de-escalates the situation. Furthermore, actively listening can often key the officer into what exactly is causing the problem. Finally, listening is typically one of the first steps in the rapport-building process.

build rapport

Speaking of building rapport, it is critical to define what it is and its role in the de-escalation process. Building rapport is not developing a new best friend. It is merely establishing the ability to listen and work with another person to achieve an objective effectively. Building rapport can be accomplished by actively listening, by using the subject’s first name, by acknowledging the perspective of the other person, or myriad different ways unique to the incident.

Adapt and overcome

Flexibility is imperative to verbal communication. Too many situations reach a stalemate in which the officer continuously says the same thing while the subject consistently refuses to comply. Officers should learn to recognize these stalemates and be ready to adapt accordingly. When an officer understands their end goal and that there is generally more than one way to achieve it, they become more willing to try different approaches.

recognize when verbal de-escalation is not appropriate

Over the last several years, the concept of verbal de-escalation has been widely discussed. Some have cast it as merely a buzzword, while others realize it is a vital tool the modern law enforcement officer can use to deal with the variety of situations they face.

It is important to remember that there are situations in which verbal de-escalation is not appropriate, such as when physical force is already eminent to protect someone from death or harm. If drugs, alcohol, mental illness, or a severe medical issue is taking place, verbal de-escalation may make a time-sensitive situation even worse. The bottom line is recognizing when not to use verbal de-escalation is just as important as knowing when to use it.

Balance your skills

Defensive tactics skills and verbal communication skills should NOT be an either/or option. To be a valuable officer, you must be reasonably skilled in both. Most officers have probably seen the imbalance between the two and noticed how ineffective that can be. For example, the officer who is skilled at physically controlling people but can raise the intensity of a situation without reason by their inability to communicate verbally. Conversely, most officers also know a cop who can talk to people effectively and with great empathy but are almost useless when it comes to helping out in a use of force situation.

We must stress the importance of both of these critical skills. If an incident can be resolved without the use of force, this is by far the superior option. If force must be used, it should be used skillfully, efficiently and reasonably. We must consistently train in these areas, so they stay sharp and effective.

Train hard and be safe!

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