Talking Them Down

Sometimes you can use finesse to gain compliance and stop a situation from escalating into violence.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Want ads for our profession often say, "Excellent communication skills required." And with good reason. An officer's ability to avoid escalating a situation is precious. An officer's ability to de-escalate or completely defuse the situation is priceless.

As officers we generally don't suffer fools gladly. So when it comes to dealing with a loud-mouthed Adam Henry, we sometimes have a tendency to get right back in the jerk's face, telling him where and how to stick it. But repress that urge.

Interpersonal skills are a huge priority when you are engaged in a profession that ensures contact with everyone from highstrung, strung-out dopers; to low-down batterers; to high-brow celebs; to out of their friggin' mind wackos. Indeed, words are a viable use-of-force option, capable of escalating or de-escalating many volatile situations.

With the foregoing in mind, here's some food for thought on chewing the fat.

Suppress Your Machismo

There will always be exceptions (See "Alpha Commands" on page 16), but the bottom line is that you are the authority figure on the scene. Your uniformed presence can be enough to induce anxiety, resentment, and fear in others, any of which can be cause enough in the minds of some to challenge you. Recognize what you might be in for. Hostility can be nonverbal, verbal, personal, and downright assaultive. In law enforcement, it isn't unusual to encounter direct escalations from one to the next.

Getting citizens on the same page as you can be an uphill battle. So when heading into uncharted waters such as calls or traffic stops, it's incumbent upon you to do what you can to keep things on an even keel. Remember, shifting gears from a palliative approach to a more assertive one can be swiftly accomplished. But doing the reverse-going from Officer Hard Ass to Officer Nice Guy-might be a harder sell.

The Golden Rule

And when it comes to selling to the emotionally compromised, try the...soft sell.

Consider it preventative maintenance. It helps to retain your own calm and depersonalizethe antagonistic language you're apt to hear on the street.

Adhering to the Golden Rule helps, too. Knowing your emotional triggers can help prevent you from provoking those of others.

Here's a good exercise. Th e next time you talk with someone, be conscious of your tone and manner. Listen to what and how you communicate and evaluate it as objectively as possible. Is there a hint of sarcasm? Are you overly dogmatic? Do you talk down or otherwise come across in a condescending manner? If your interpersonal skills are lacking, it's in your best interests to improve them.

One approach is to try mirroring. By subtly mimicking the body movements and posture of the person you interact with, you encourage a dialogue. People feel more comfortable dealing with those who are similar to themselves.

A huge exception is when the person is off the wall, screaming, yelling, and generally being a belligerent ass. Th en a two-fold approach might be in order. First, lower your own voice, speak quietly but assertively. Make sure that whatever you have to say is important enough for the person to want to hear it. Second, remind them that you will deal with them in a respectful manner, and you'd appreciate it if they'd reciprocate the posture. Of course, not everyone will prove to be susceptible to the suggestion.[PAGEBREAK]

Dealing With the EDP

Asking questions accomplishes two things. First, it shows that you're interested in helping them. Second, it forces them to at least momentarily focus on something other than their anger. Of course, there is always the possibility that they're just a little nuts...

But you'd be ill-advised to call them on it, especially as some agencies will document

any complaint they file against you with the same attention to aggrieved detail that they would any other citizen. It is estimated that 17 percent of the U.S. population has some manner of physical or mental disability, so it's very likely that you

will be dealing with such individuals more often than you might anticipate. While I was not one for placating the implacable or kissing ass when dealing with bonafide jerks, I did have an uncanny ability to get compliance out of society's more compromised souls.

Perhaps it was a case of "It takes one to know one" (I've been known for my occasional eccentricities). In any event, it was easy to forgive many of their trespasses. Recognizing that they are often incapable of being held responsible for what they say or do took ego out of the equation and allowed me to approach such individuals as softly as possible.

Your most eff ective tactic is to gain trust. One way to go about doing this is to show genuine empathy. You may have to humor the occasional delusion, but don't get caught patronizing them.

Often, this will mean fl at out saying "No" to their requests, but always with the explanation that 1) You can't do what they are asking, and 2) for you to say otherwise would mean you'd be lying to them-and you're not going to lie to them. While this may frustrate their wishes, at some level they will generally respect and appreciate the candor.

By responding to such individuals appropriately and compassionately, you are more likely to gain their trust and cooperation.

Don't refer to mentally impaired individuals by their liability, e.g., "schizoid," or "paranoid." As the old joke goes, just because they're crazy doesn't mean they're stupid.

You can acknowledge their compromised condition, inquire about medications, but refrain from being overly intrusive. Indeed, developing a rapport with such individuals often means dealingwith them on their own terms (so long asit doesn't compromise good officer safety practices). Asking them how they wish to be characterized and how you can communicate with them most effectively will go a long way toward making sure that the two of you are on the same page.

It also might help to draw others into the situation, so long as they are familiar to victims or are knowledgeable about their impairment. Again, your ability to finesse prospective assistance will dictate your success in such scenarios.

Conflict Resolution in the Field

Most cops have been there. You get a message that says, "You're needed in the watch commander's office." In the moment you hear those words, you will know what it's about: Th at SOB called and beefed me. Here's one way to cover your ass against such complaints.

Most cops know intuitively, instinctively, and intellectually when someone is angry with them. Not acting on this knowledge is where they undermine themselves.

When you have such a situation, call in a field supervisor. By getting a third party or arbitrator on the scene, you give the aggrieved citizen an ear, someone he or she can vent to. Giving voice to their frustration can help mollify them without your necessarily feeling that you've had to acquiesce.

Besides, the sergeant can either calm them down or really piss them off , thereby making you look like a nice guy by comparison. Finessing problems sometimes means looking beyond yourself.[PAGEBREAK]

A Rewarding Skill

As Scott Fountain, a former Detroit, Mich., police officer notes, "Paying razor sharp attention to your surroundings and having excellent communications skills were not just good habits to have working in that environment; your life depended on having them."

Good communication skills are bargaining tools that can enhance your credibility. More than one undercover officer has actually bartered a dealer down on the price of his product before arresting him.

Reports of your ability to communicate with people will get passed on to your peers and supervisors, formally or informally.

The worst thing that can happen is for you to become the benchmark for poor communication skills.

Conversely, your ability to finesse situations will result in recognition of your ability to do so. Larger agencies, in part, are paying a greater premium for officers who can interact with a variety of people and circumstances.

Th e gift of gab saves lives and opens doors. If you are particularly skilled, you can gravitate toward rewarding assignments such as crisis negotiations units or becoming a department spokesperson.

By developing good interpersonal skills, you will acquire tools that will reward you throughout your career, both on the job and off .

Alpha Commands

There are times when a little finesse will go a long way toward smoothing ruffled plumage and gaining cooperation from a subject. Sometimes it's good to let people think they're in charge, and to take actual control only when absolutely necessary. It saves a lot of torn clothing, scuffed up noses and knees, and court battles.

Of course, you should constantly assess each situation, so as to not be taken by surprise, and you should always try to watch all the indicators for planned aggression on the part of those you're dealing with.

Then there are times when you've got to take complete charge and do it quickly, alienated affections be damned.

Never overplay your hand. Don't say you're going to do something, then not do it. Such conduct can variously smack of cowardice, ignorance (most often, of the laws you're ostensibly enforcing), or an inability to control one's emotions. One area where cops undermine themselves is in threatening to take someone to jail if they do something (One more ___outta ya, and I'm taking you in."), and then failing to do so.

Studies have proven that alpha commands can be particularly effective in highly charged situations. By presenting an assertive presence, you can engender respect, gain compliance, and mitigate use of force.

Knowing when to use which approach isn't always easy to figure out, so lean on the experience of other officers on your force. Watch what works for others, and then see if it's compatible with your nature and skill set. If it is, then use it. If it isn't, either adapt your game plan to accommodate such a tack or look for viable alternatives. Common sense and the golden rule often work wonders.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
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