The art — and value — of listening

by Brian Mc Vey

Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I talk more than I listen. My old man lovingly nicknamed me variously as The Lip, The Lipper and The Yapper. For some people, listening is difficult; for others, listening comes easily and it is a quality characteristic that they’re known for. 

For those in law enforcement and with all the listening that officers do, you’d think that we’d be good at it. Wrong! In fact, most people are not. Research in Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience suggests that we generally remember 20 percent of what we hear and 50 percent of what we see and hear. This means that when you are receiving directions or being presented with any kind of information, you aren’t hearing the whole message. The same goes for whom you’re talking to. Turn on any major news outlet and you will see a panel of men and woman talking over each other all day. Have you seen this behavior on the street?  

Any officer will tell you that they are a good listener. But, odds are, their spouse will tell you differently. Unfortunately, listening is a lost skill in our social media age. We constantly scan the internet for what we want to see and hear, and then we look for a stage to say, “Look at me.” Listening is something that costs nothing yet is worth its weight in gold.

Great officers I worked with were great listeners; they were patient and seized the needed information by simply listening. Officers need to get information from witnesses, victims, offenders and that “Nosey Nancy Neighbor” who sees everything on their block.  Many of my mentors are excellent listeners. They not only sense what was going on, they also could listen and filter out the noise and listen to the whispers. When you don’t listen, you don’t know what you are missing.

As you know, a lack of communication between you and others in your department not only can hurt feelings and lead to lower morale, but also, more seriously, increase the risk of officers getting seriously injured or killed. To sharpen listening skills, you need persistence and repetition. Here are a few suggestions from a mentor that have helped others become a better listening officer. 

  1. Resist the temptation to monopolize conversation. Before you speak, make sure the other party has had a chance to make their point. Officers are lied to daily; try to listen so you can filter out the truth.
  2. Don’t fake attention. It’s usually quite easy for a person to recognize that our “uh-huhs” are really “OK, let’s get this over with; I am hungry.”
  3. Listen for facts. When officers truly listen, we can retain and understand the overall facts, which makes the job much easier.
  4. Be alert to nonverbal clues or body language. Try to not only listen to what a citizen is saying, but also to understand the attitudes and motives that lie behind the words. Listen and watch for gestures, posture, facial expressions and tone of voice.

Brian Mc Vey was a Chicago police officer injured in the line of duty in 2012. He is a proud father, adjunct professor and writer. You can reach Brian at

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