Ask. Tell. Make. Cops are trained to command presence and use their body language and vocal tone to do so. When interacting with subjects on the job, this helps you gain compliance and obtain the information necessary to determine your response to a particular situation. When interacting with your loved ones, this approach is often less effective. Has a spouse or family member ever told you, “Don’t talk to me like I’m a suspect!” during a conversation? If so, this article is for you.
Common communication missteps
At work, your communication with subjects is strategic, with an often distrustful attitude as a means of officer safety. This is very different than the goal of communication with your loved ones, which is to connect, foster trust and convey support. Different communication goals mean different communication strategies are needed.
Remember that it is not a competition about who had the worst day or who deserves to feel a certain way. The goal is to connect with your loved one.
Cops are used to guiding conversation toward a specific goal. Any unnecessary information is abruptly cut off, and the subject is redirected to provide only what is necessary for the task at hand. Additionally, stumbling over words, talking around a subject or providing extraneous information are often viewed as indicators that the subject is lying or attempting to mislead you. The reality is that your loved ones may exhibit some of these communication behaviors without any malicious intent. If you are interpreting your interactions with them through work-mode lenses, chances are that you will modify your vocal tone and body language to convey suspiciousness or frustration, which can intimidate or overwhelm loved ones. This can inadvertently create a communication loop that will result in a loved one shutting down or becoming defensive and/or argumentative.
Multitasking while communicating with loved ones is a no-no. While you may be able to juggle several tasks and radio traffic on duty, the reality is that many of these things are on autopilot. Doing something repeatedly creates a habit. This means that our brains process the information differently than when we are intentionally concentrating on something new or different. Communicating with your loved ones is not a task-oriented activity … it’s connection-oriented. Each interaction is an opportunity to connect, foster trust, make them feel heard and understood, and convey genuine care and concern. You cannot connect with someone while multitasking. Think about a time when you wanted to talk to someone while they were engaged in another task, such as reading something, typing an email, scrolling through their phone and so on. What was the underlying message conveyed when they didn’t make eye contact or stop what they are doing to listen?
Effective communication with loved ones
Active listening is a simple but not easy skill to acquire. It involves being attentive, listening to the message beyond the words and understanding (not necessarily agreeing) with the person’s perspective or how they are feeling about something. A situation that upsets them or causes distress may be vastly different from the things you experience on duty. That’s OK. Remember that it is not a competition about who had the worst day or who deserves to feel a certain way. The goal is to connect with your loved one.
Much of the time, we humans just want to be heard and understood. If you are having difficulty understanding why your loved one is feeling or responding a certain way, shift your focus to connecting with the feeling they are verbalizing or conveying during that interaction. Are they feeling sad, angry, frustrated, anxious or happy? Chances are that you’ve felt the same emotions at some point in your life. Although the circumstances may be different, sadness is sadness,
anger is anger, anxiety is anxiety, and so on. Think about a time when you felt a similar emotion. How would you want your loved one to respond if you were feeling the same way? You would probably not want them to respond in a judgmental or dismissive way. Instead, you would want them to validate how you were feeling and convey support.
One last thing to keep in mind — cops are problem-solvers by nature. While this may work for on-duty tasks and interactions, your loved ones are not problems that need to be solved. Often, they just need a sounding board. In some cases, the issue may not need solving. Rather, they just need to work through what they are thinking and feeling to make sense of things. By jumping into problem-solving mode with a loved one, you might inadvertently invalidate and dismiss their feelings and/or their own ability to work through their problems. The next time your loved one comes to you with an issue they are having, it can help to ask, “Do you need me to help you or hear you?” Their response will take out the guesswork and let you know what they need from you.