In a previous article for Calibre Press we discussed the surgeon-like precision active listening can have in clearing up conflict in our marriages and partnerships. The benefits of listening, however, extend beyond our homes and right into the work place.
Here’s a proposition for you: knowing how to listen effectively to agitated persons in the field can significantly decrease the chances that you have to go hands on. You’re less likely to get injured, end up in Internal Affairs, or star in the carefully edited new viral video. It also adds to the pool of goodwill between law enforcement and the community, which is so important at this particular time.
Tactical Active Listening
So what does it mean to listen “effectively”? To answer this question we first need to understand what drives people to emotionally escalate.
While there are a number of things that could push people higher up the escalation cycle, none of them are as important as not feeling heard. The agitated people we contact on patrol on a daily basis may have a negative reaction to our uniforms, the inflection in our voices, or seeing us snap a pair of gloves on while taking the “I’m-not-playing” stance.
These are all factors we should pay attention to in our attempts to calm people down. However, nothing gets people more fired up when they’re already upset more than feeling that they’re not being heard.
In using listening as a method for crisis de-escalation, perception is reality. If the subject you want to calm down perceives you’re listening, then you get the closest thing to a magic bullet. From this standpoint listening is a de-escalation tactic, and it’s the single most effective tactic we have at our disposal.
Case in Point
Let’s use a common call for service to illustrate how to use listening as a de-escalation tactic. You’re dispatched to a disturbance involving a man and a woman. As you roll up you see your partner standing in between the two subjects, who are yelling at each other. It looks like things could go downhill at any second, so you take the male half aside while your partner interviews the female.
You’ve successfully got the male to focus on you instead of the female. Now it’s time to use listening as your tactic.
A brief point on the difference between thoughts and behaviors is in order. It’s perfectly acceptable to think whatever you want about this fellow. Thankfully, our thoughts are private. So allow yourself to have whatever brutal judgments you want—about the guy, the situation, how this call is keeping you from getting off on time, etc. What’s important in this situation isn’t your thoughts, but rather your behavior.
To effectively use listening in this situation, you could simply ask the male, “What’s going on?” Importantly, the tone and inflection of your voice must be congruent with the content of your speech. You have to sound like you’re really befuddled and concerned about why this silly goose is so upset. You’re message is, “I’m all ears.”
What do you think is going to happen next? Exactly! The male is going to unload his story on you. More times than not, the story will be peppered with his blaming, minimizing or denying his own contribution to this call for service, but that’s not the point.
The point is that you’re listening. You’re not listening to him because you think he’d be fun to hang out with and you want to be friends. You’re listening because it works to calm him down.
I sometimes here officers say, “Look, I’ve got three other calls holding for me and I’ve been to this house every day this week. I don’t have time to listen to this B.S.!”
Consider this: If you don’t listen to him, he’s going to get more agitated. Thus you’ll be there longer—especially if you have to put your hands on him.
Secondly, one of the truly beautiful aspects of using listening as a de-escalation tactic, is that it doesn’t take long. We’re talking 30 seconds to a minute, tops. That should be all it takes to communicate to this subject that you’re really interested in his version of events.
In fact, some people start to escalate again if you let them go on and on. Once you’ve gotten the gist of the person’s story, you just convey that to him. Something like, “Wow, O.K. That sounds pretty bad.” With that, say, 60 seconds of listening, and without the male subjects conscious awareness, you now have something invaluable for your effort to resolve this call ASAP: You now have credibility in the males eyes.
Simply put, people don’t want to hear any of our suggestions or directions if they don’t feel like they’ve been understood. Conversely, if people feel understood, they’re infinitely more receptive to our proposed solutions to their problems.
In the ideal world, officers would have unlimited amounts of compassion and empathy for those we come into contact with. In the world we currently occupy, however, sometimes a minute of being perceived as listening is the best we can hope for.