10 steps to improving your high-risk communication

Dennis L. Conroy, Ph.D.
Provided by KRM Law Enforcement Training Division

There are times in every police officer’s career when they are faced with the choice of intentionally shooting a person or not. Officers use deadly force only as a last resort and only to save his own life or that of another. Sometimes the people shot by police officers have a long criminal history and sometimes they are first offenders — regardless, police officers shoot because they see no other choice.

The way we communicate in high-risk situations can give us an option. It is another tool in our bag. This doesn’t mean that officers should put themselves at risk — it’s not like the old cowboy movies where the good guy never shoots until after the bad guy has already shot and missed. Here, officers are sometimes forced to shoot first to protect their own life or that of another.

After every shooting there is some amount of second-guessing by superiors, courts, and the media. The aftermath of a shooting is often more destructive than the act of shooting itself. People don’t become police officers because they want to shoot someone. It’s a tremendous blow to the individual doing the shooting as well as the one shot.

There are also times when an officer faces an exceptionally difficult choice about whether or not to shoot. These times might involve the elderly or children who are threats to the officers’ safety. It might be during those times that the officer wishes to have that one more tool in the bag.

During high-risk communication emotions are paramount. There is often very little logic involved anywhere in the communication. Yet few officers are trained to converse in "emotion." The vast majority of emotional communication is nonverbal; we attach meanings to sentences or paragraphs without quite knowing why.

The nonverbal communication is often instinctive and based in culture. We grew up knowing how phrases sounded when they were intended to have an emotional impact. We learned that “Fine, go ahead” might not always mean what the words would indicate. If the tone is changed, it might really mean something like “Don’t you dare!” Therefore, it is important we go beyond the infamous “Just the facts, ma’am” that we heard so often. It is important we pay attention to all aspects of the communication.

Here are 10 steps to making your high-risk communication more successful:

1. Personalize the interaction. Introduce yourself to become a person to the person at risk and make them feel as though you see them as more than a job.

2. Ask for little favors and build on successes. Ask them to step away from the bridge railing rather than immediately to surrender. If they have a gun or knife, ask them to point it down at the ground rather than at themselves.

3. Respect their spatial needs. Don’t move in closer than they are comfortable with. Allow them this measure of control and it is easier to obtain control in other areas where it may be more important.

4. Take your time. The longer the situation lasts the better your chance for a successful resolution. The crisis mode is an intense mode and difficult to maintain over long periods of time.

5. Maintain appropriate eye contact. Don’t stare, but don’t be reluctant to look at the individual. This will help you build credibility and resolve the situation.

6. Continue to restate your offers of assistance. The person in crisis may not hear or understand you the first time. The crisis mode in which they are operating may interfere with their cognitive functioning.

7. Speak slowly. Work to slow the tempo of the situation. As you speak slower there will be a tendency for their tempo to match yours.

8. Stay focused on the individual you are dealing with.

9. Treat the person in crisis with dignity and respect. Treat them as you would like to be treated if you were in their situation or as you would like one of your family members treated in that situation.

10. When you have resolved the situation successfully continue to treat the individual as above. This is one of the main points they will remember and it will make your job a lot easier next time.

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