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Holding Crucial Conversations in Law Enforcement

By Charles “Chip” Huth
Captain, Kansas City Police Department

Police officers are frequently faced with challenging decisions that have the potential to dramatically impact the safety of the public and their fellow officers. They are trained to deal with some of the most stress-inducing circumstances imaginable, and a great deal is typically riding on how well they perform under pressure.

Among the most critical skills an officer must possess is the ability to artfully engage in high stakes conversations, both with members of the public and their colleagues. Police officers are confronted with the opportunity to courageously address serious issues that impact safety and effectiveness on a daily—and oftentimes—hourly basis.

Lacking the Skills

Years ago, as a newly promoted supervisor, I was assigned to lead a high-risk tactical operation. While briefing the team, I noticed a veteran officer about to embark on a dangerous auxiliary assignment who was not wearing his body armor. I immediately recognized his decision was in violation of department policy, was ill advised, and could have a disastrous impact on his safety and the safety of his teammates. I felt I should pull him aside and address the issue on the spot, but I was at a loss for how to approach him. Worried that I would bumble the conversation, I chose instead to ignore the situation and hope for the best.

While I recognized how potentially damaging my inaction could be, I simply lacked the necessary skills to guide me through what I knew would be a touchy discussion. When faced with the option of taking on this very important issue and risk appearing foolish or overbearing, or staying silent at great cost to the safety of all concerned, I lacked the confidence to make the right choice.

Unfortunately, in our business it’s not unusual for a police officer to witness a colleague doing something that is potentially career-ending—whether it be taking miscalculated risks or behaving disdainfully toward a citizen—and fail to address it directly.

Moment of Decision

Even in a profession ripe with examples of valor and bravery, there is often a moment of decision between recognizing that something important needs to be said, and having the ability to engage with others in constructive dialogue in the face of competing interests.

The thoughtful team at VitalSmarts has developed a comprehensive program that bridges that gap.

Importance of Training

Training in Crucial Conversations provides a helpful set of tools to police officers and supervisors who are faced with issues that challenge their commitment to acting for what is right. Effective communication is a life blood issue for any police agency; failure to engage in critical dialogue can erode trust, and systematically damage accountability.

The Crucial Conversations curriculum does an excellent job of exposing the reasons behind our failure to hold ourselves accountable for directly challenging issues on principle. Participants in the course learn the physiological and psychological mechanisms that help drive us to “silence” or “violence” when faced with perplexing issues. These intricate concepts are broken down and explained in simplistic and easy to digest language.

Applicable to Law Enforcement

Last month I had the opportunity to attend Crucial Conversations training. Immediately I recognized its validity for law enforcement.

During the training, we were taught how to look for Mutual Purpose when engaged in vital discussions. This act is imperative in law enforcement—a police department must gain both employee and stakeholder engagement to instill safety and security in the community.

In order for a police department to promote engagement, everyone must believe their opinions and ideas are respected and valued as relevant. I found the methodology presented in the training particularly helpful when one is seeking to disentangle the person from the problem—and remain objective and open to influence from alternative perspectives.

Taking Responsibility

One very important aspect of the training was personal accountability. The facilitator promoted this idea by encouraging us to take responsibility for holding these conversations—rather than expecting our superiors to handle the issue.

This practice is essential for law enforcement professionals, especially considering the autonomy of the average officer. Conversations around critical topics need to be handled at the lowest level possible due to the span of control in typical police organizations. Employees must feel empowered to take responsibility for seeking resolutions at the first opportunity.

To Better Serve the Community

Police officers are all about serving others. They are expected to model respectful and honorable behavior. This responsibility requires that they not only act honorably toward others, but also recognize opportunities to engage in critical dialogue to help others solve their problems.

Beyond learning to recognize the need to act (motivation), police officers must be equipped with a skill set to guide them along the path to action (ability).

The way in which police officers interact with and communicate with members of the public significantly affects the community’s prevailing opinion about the police. And certain critical interactions with the police—in life and death circumstances—occur in which poorly communicated intentions can lead to tragic results.

Training in Crucial Conversations skills provides a template to help drive accountability and communicate intentions and expectations in a way that invites cooperation, increases officer and community safety, and improves neighborhoods and communities.

Further comments from Crucial Conversations course facilitator Paul Luster:

A significant amount of peace officer training is anchored in principles of officer safety and street survival. Unfortunately, you do not have to watch any news broadcast for a significant amount of time to determine this training is not without great merit. Research has revealed that the daily pressure associated with high stress professions, such as law enforcement, can quickly lead to hypervigilance—a heightened startle response and abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli. Observing the world in this paradigm can often lead to a host of emotional and physical problems. When this occurs, a downward communications spiral is often observed. This not only affects peace officers professionally, but in their personal lives as well.

I have recognized this “downward spiral” in numerous co-workers as I have progressed through my own career. I realized department members were damaging relationships with citizens, peers, and loved ones simply because they lacked the skills to hold high stakes conversations in an effective and respectful manner. To put it simply, silence or violence was present in numerous conversations. I searched for a solution and found Crucial Conversations to be a perfect fit.

The response to Crucial Conversations has been overwhelming. Participants are excited to leave the training with a skill set specifically designed to allow high stakes conversations to occur in a manner that produces genuine results. Numerous participants have contacted me after attending the course indicating how well the skills work. They no longer resort to silence or violence, but rather utilize the skills to effectively share thoughts and opinions while encouraging others to do the same.

Paul Luster is operations supervisor at the Kansas City Police Crime Laboratory and also facilitates Crucial Conversations courses at the Kansas City Regional Police Academy.

One thought on “Holding Crucial Conversations in Law Enforcement”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Kerry Patterson’s article this week! Laughed hysterically, then blinked back a few tears. Very moving. Motivated me to be fully present and look for the lonely. Thank you!

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