Mind Your Language

January 31, 2017

In a recent article published by Calibre Press, the question was asked: Why do police officers perform certain acts that they have been clearly told not to do? It’s author, Jim Glennon, referred to cases in which officers have jumped into a suspect’s car despite being told not to in training (training vs. learning). The article raised some interesting and important questions about how police are trained.

Words Matter

There are probably several reasons why cops do not like to let people “get away,” which I do not intend to go into here. However, this question from the article highlighted for me something that I have researched and taught to other instructors over the years: “Why did he reach into a car when all training tells you not to do it?” (My italics.)

My answer is: language.

As a firearms instructor with a UK police service, I have researched and studied the effects that our language has upon individuals. Based on Glennon’s article, I believe it would be useful to provide a brief insight into the effect that our language has upon students, officers, and indeed, the public.

I have studied the area of neurolinguistics for more than 20 years, together with many other areas of research into education, communication, psychology and training. Recent studies and findings in the field of neuroscience are now helping to put some science behind things that I learnt many years ago, which I continue to use and develop today.

Put very simply, every time we perform an action, neural pathways are created in the brain. Over time, through practice, these pathways become stronger, thereby making the action easier, more consistent, and less reliant upon conscious thought. Think about learning to drive and how you progressed from your first attempt until now—practically driving without thinking about it. That is due to neural pathways being built over time and practice.

Now it starts to get interesting. Neuroscience studies have shown that the pathways that are created by performing an action are reinforced, and can even be created by mentally rehearsing or visualising the same action. (There is a suggestion that even observing an action has this potential). This is why mental imagery works. The more we think about, imagine doing, or rehearsing, an act, reinforces the neural pathway for that action. This in turn makes our performance stronger and we become more competent at performing it. (Bear in mind: This applies equally to a positive or negative action.)

So what does this have to do with language?

Plenty. How many times have you told students not to do something like: “Don’t attempt to jump into a car that is trying to get away”? It’s a completely sensible instruction.

But now try this: Don’t think of a pink elephant. The likelihood is that you just did.

What’s Said vs. What’s Heard

The brain it turns out has some trouble processing a negative. It must mentally process the thing you are being told not to do, as if it is doing it, and then consider not doing it. The issue is that you have already thought about a pink elephant before you process that you should not think about it.

I believe therefore that telling a police officer not to jump into a vehicle causes them to mentally rehearse jumping into a vehicle. More than that, I believe that the more you tell them not to do it, the more you reinforce the pathway making them more likely to do it.

Repeatedly I hear instructors using the term “don’t” in a variety of situations: “Don’t worry about the qualification shoot,” for example. Or: “Don’t anticipate the gun going off” (meanwhile, you have probably explained what anticipation is, told them how they are anticipating, and I have even witnessed some instructors physically demonstrating anticipation as a dry drill). This really reinforces a negative pathway. No surprise then that on the next shoot the student goes right ahead and anticipates the gun going off.

The instructor’s response is often: “You’re not listening.” Actually, they are listening. It’s we, as instructors, who aren’t communicating optimally.

Repeatedly I hear very experienced instructors, who have the best intentions for their students, using language that is not the most appropriate for communicating the message they want to send. For example, aside from “don’t,” we often use the words “try” and “if.” Although these don’t impact as strongly as “don’t”, they do give people, at an unconscious level, permission not to succeed.

Try and press the trigger in a smooth consistent manner to break the shot” is akin to telling a teenager, “Try and be in by 11.00 p.m.” When they get in at 11:30 p.m. and say, “I tried to get back in time,” they have done exactly what you asked: they tried. “If” means they may, or may not, do something. It’s their choice.

So, what’s better? Simply say something else. I often replace “try” with “work.” “Work to press the trigger.” Or: “You must press the trigger.” “If” is simply replaced with “when.” It tends to be more directive: “When the subject refuses to comply, you will …”

Regarding “don’t,” just tell them what you want them to do. Rather than: “When a driver in a vehicle attempts to drive off, do not attempt to stop them, jump on the vehicle or get in their way,” simply state: “When a driver in a vehicle attempts to drive off, step away from the vehicle, move to a safe position and call it in. Remember your safety, and the safety of those around you, is paramount.” You are now creating the appropriate neural pathways in response to that given situation.


Using language like this will require you to practice, and notice when and how you use it. However I’ve found over the years that using the right language has a direct impact upon learning, student progression, and performance. As a final thought, aside from students, how do we communicate with members of the public?

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