We’re hearing about it almost every day from pundits and politicians: Cops need training in “deescalation.” It’s a point, by the way, I whole-heartedly agree with.
Where I part company with most of these self-appointed experts is in just what “deescalation” means and how it can be applied (or not) in real life. Deescalation doesn’t mean what or work the way, I’m afraid, our critics think it does. But regardless we do need more training on it.
When human beings are raging, for whatever reason—drugs, alcohol, psychological disorders, or plain old molten anger—there is no sure-fire tactic or technique that will be able to calm each and every case down. That’s because each person and circumstance is unique.
For more than 25 years I’ve been promoting this principle: True and effective communication skills are the most important skills for those involved in the law enforcement profession to master. Unfortunately, in our profession, realistic and street-applicable communications training is the most overlooked, misunderstood, and undertrained skill set.
Following are five strong suggestions from what we teach at Calibre Press.
1. Understand your true Professional Goal: Control, redirect and influence other people’s immediate behavior.
That’s it. Sounds too simple, but think about it. We are almost always dealing with other people’s behavior, which is very often dictated by their emotions. And our job is to reason with them. Redirect and control whatever behavior is dysfunctional, painful, counter-productive to peace, and/or dangerous.
For example: If someone is beating the hell out of another, we need to stop them from doing that. If they are lying, we are trying to get them to tell us the truth. If they are speeding, a stop and a ticket is designed to make a positive change in their driving habits. If their bike was stolen and they are upset, we are trying to display empathy and calm them down so we can gather the facts. If they are victims of an assault, our goal is to make them feel safe.
All this amounts to one thing: Officers need to be human behavior specialists. Something which we almost never correctly and realistically train …
2. In order to accomplish your professional goal you must therefore begin by Controlling your own Emotions and Behavior! Officers must contain the IDIOT that resides in them. Everyone has an IDIOT living inside them and if two IDIOTs are engaged, nothing good can come of the interaction.
The biggest obstacle to remaining professional and do what’s necessary to engage and develop rapport is when officers take what others say and think personally. If an officer’s authority is challenged or they are treated as though they have less worth that the citizens, too often police officers resort to exercising their given authority rather than remaining an objective party outside of the conflict.
When I taught Interview & Interrogation I used to give officers some advice about the constants of interactions. Two of those things were: 1. Never go into an interview with your own value system; and 2. Learn how to truly listen with the eyes and ears, because people will literally tell you how to get them to confess; they will give you their motivations and who they want you to believe they are.
(Both hold true for hostage negotiators also.)
Know that if you view the other person’s behavior and beliefs through the paradigm of your own values, listening, and understanding who they are and being able to empathize with them becomes almost impossible. You need to leave your world-view aside for the moment. As Jeff Shannon brilliantly puts it: “Write their biography.”
3. In order accomplish the preceding points, police officers have to be Expert at Understanding, Recognizing, and Dealing with Stress: Both theirs and the citizens’. Again, such training is almost completely ignored in the profession.
Stress affects everything: evaluation of situations, judgement of others, our thoughts, emotions, and thus subsequent decisions and behavior. If stress negatively impacts any of those things, flawed assessments beget poor decisions, which will often result in irrational behavior.
Stress is the number one reason officers do things they shouldn’t. It is the number one reason police officers die! From hitting the gas in the squad unnecessarily to moving in towards a challenging subject, stress effects valuations, decisions, and behavior.
Stress causes officers to be diverted from their professional goal. They lose focus and allow personal feelings to hijack professional behavior. This is where we see officers making quick decisions before having all the facts, misreading others, becoming overly aggressive, profane, and sometimes violent.
Stress training should be a constant in all organizations and stress behaviors a perpetual discussion among the ranks.
4. Realize that Time is Almost Always on Our Side! (Not always, but almost always.) The officers who are the best at developing rapport and deescalating the irrational have learned how to slow that clock down. Hostage negotiators and Interview & Interrogation specialists are particularly good at this.
Some simple realities: Moving in too quickly speeds up time. Make rash decisions and being overly aggressive does also. Recognizing that people are emotional beings who always want, even if unconsciously, to be listened to and viewed as if they have worth and value can slow it way down.
5. Have a Stages System and Conscious Routine when you find yourself dealing with irrational people.
In our Read, Recognize & Respond Seminar we advocate the following Five Stages:
- Engage: Effective communication skills are a must at the beginning of an interaction.
- Consider: Don’t be in a hurry to make a decision. Don’t let bias or your negative emotions sway you from what is actually happening. Truly listen to the other person(s) with both eyes and ears. Understand the nuances of listening to words and what their meanings are in context.
- Decide & Resolve: Your decisions must be made free of personal feelings. They need to be based on what you know and an objective evaluation of all you know.
- Communicate Your Determination: Explain why you made the decision in a professional manner and display an unbiased judgement.
- Follow-Through: Stay confidant in your decision and move forward. This does not mean listening has to stop, but professional presence and tones should be part of you carrying out your decision.
Using this, in most—no, not all, but most—cases will help officers stay focused and avoid being diverted when confronted with belligerent, insulting, degrading, and even threatening people.
While nothing is perfect, expecting common sense and an untaught, untrained skill-set to magically kick in under cases of high stress is not only ridiculous, it’s unnecessary. Training and planning on a conscious level is the key.
Learn about people. Learn about stress. Master your craft. And make no mistake: Your craft is people.