Tactical empathy: Safety is all in the approach


The greatest human act, I think, is to change someone’s mind so that you change their behavior for the better. Peace officers do that routinely and never think much about it!

(AP photo)
(AP photo)

In 1983 I wrote my first book, Verbal Judo: Word as a Force Option (Charles C. Thomas), because I had discovered as an officer on the streets that the greatest “rhetoricians” in the country are correctional and police officers — not politicians or professors.

I am convinced after teaching peace officers for 26 years that many of them burn out or lose their edge because they truly fail to appreciate their huge contribution to society. It is through the skillful use of presence and words that officers save inmates and citizens from themselves and others. We literally redirect behavior with words.

I was an English professor for ten years before pushing a squad, so I could hardly believe what I was seeing on the streets, repeatedly witnessing young deputies and officers persuading people, often twice their age, to choose civility over violence. I saw them talk angry, distraught, often violent people out of fist fights, knives, and guns.

When I would ask, “How do you do that?” I rarely got more than a shrug and a “been there, done that” type of response.

The answer is tactical empathy
One of the courses I taught as a college professor was Classical Rhetoric, the art described by the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, as that of ‘finding the best verbal or non-verbal means of persuasion in any given instant.’ I reread Aristotle and found the answer the best officers, police and corrections, exhibited unconsciously — “The Rhetorical Eye.”

The most skilful peace officers think differently than most people. This difference is tactical empathy — an officer’s ability to think from another’s point of view even while in the act of communicating.

Aristotle put it this way: There are five elements that constitute what he calls ‘The Rhetorical Perspective.’ These are Purpose, Audience, Voice, Perspective, and Organization (PAVPO).

Most of us enter unarmed into verbal discourse because we only know two of the five elements in acronym PAVPO, our Perspective and our Purpose.

If we know only these two, we are truly not ready to persuade anyone of anything.

‘A’ is for Audience
The best officers are somehow tuned in to the “A” of the acronym, their Audience. Three things are critical regarding audience sensitivity:

1. People are different than us, no matter how close they may be to us, and the moment we fail to appreciate this difference, we become ineffective in persuading them.
2. Because of our authority and visibility, people change as we enter their presence and we need to be prepared to watch for this change if we are to remain safe.
3. Audiences are made, not found.

Aristotle’s point is we make our audiences by the way in which we approach people and how we communicate.

This fact also explains why if an officer approaches an inmate expecting him to resist, he will, but if he approaches exuding peaceful expectations, the subject will become more peaceable. The speaker is the most powerful force in the scene and the best officers reconstitute the violent audiences they encounter, again and again. Often it seems like magic!

But it really isn’t magic. Once the officer has his audience fully in mind — empathy — he then is able to become who he has to be to handle the situation. That’s the V in the acronym.

‘V’ is for Voice
The officer must adopt the proper Voice(s) for the person in front of him. This is his verbal personality, or how he is heard by the other. If an officer has to look and sound sensitive, he does. If he has to intimidate, he can do this too.

The best officers can play a hundred roles and take on a hundred faces to achieve the goal at hand. We know that delivery is 93 percent of effective communication and it is this Voice step where the proper professional face (or persona) is found and used. Remember this face is defined as the best face needed to win. This is not insincerity — it is the essence of acting correctly to accomplish the professional purpose(s).

‘O’ is for Organize
The “O” in the acronym PAVPO refers to how the speaker Organizes the verbal delivery, beginning, middle and end. The most effective officers I have watched begin encounters differently than most and they remain aware of the event ‘as an event’ with its own structure. Their presence and words tend to prime the pump for success, for compliance, cooperation, and even collaboration. Many of the rest of us — and I was one when I started — create resistance just by how we approach or in our opening words.

The secret of your control, your power, lies in how you shaped your communication!

People usually treat you as you expect them to
When you approach an inmate, unless it is a dangerous situation, why not approach them cordially and clearly? It’s polite, professional and buys you some time to look and see what’s what without getting into an argument. It primes the pump for success, for compliance, or cooperation.

In Verbal Judo / Tac Com we define professional language as that which is conducive to compliance (language which generates resistance is unprofessional). Brilliant officers seem to remake their violent audiences by shaping their communications to foster cooperation. They approach people and open these encounters with professional civility, they also control the movement and direction of the discourse so it does not spin out of control.

How to close an event is another critical rhetorical consideration. Officers who leave people better than they find them at their worst’ are safer because they ‘soften’ the desire for revenge.

One of the reasons that Verbal Judo or Tactical Communication has survived so well over the last 26 years is this rhetorical component that makes the course unique among communication courses. When you think from the other’s point of view you find the best verbal and non-verbal means of persuasion. If you only think like yourself, you fail. Use the ‘rhetorical eye’ — PAVPO — whenever you wish to influence another to move in a certain direction. It will be your path of success!

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