Eight Ways Police Can Improve Their Active Listening Skills
By Tim Hardiman, staff, American Military University
As police officers, we talk to people every day. But how well do we listen? At work officers deal with complainants, witnesses, suspects, people involved in car accidents, and aided cases. Off-duty we interact with family, friends, neighbors, and the PTA. Listening better can improve our performance at work and the quality of relationships at home.
Common Listening Problems
John Kline, former Provost of Air University, identified several problems with listening in his book, Listening Effectively. He explains that because things are repeated so often, we feel no urgency to really listen to information at any one time. Parents, teachers, spouses, and advertisements deliver the same messages over and over. We have become conditioned to believe that we will listen the next time they say it.
In his TED Talk, “5 Ways to Listen Better,” Julian Treasure identifies a related problem – the fact that so much of what is said is recorded. He traces this problem back to the beginning of writing but claims it has been exacerbated by our many devices that make audio and video recordings. Our reliance on these mean that we don’t expend the energy to really listen at the time someone is speaking.
Another problem Klein identified is we concentrate on our response rather than what the speaker is saying. In a Psychology Today article, Caren Osten Gerszberg asks: “Are you really listening, or just waiting to talk?” She claims that while we think we are listening we are often just “considering how to jump in and tell our own story, offer advice or even make a judgement.” For example, if we are thinking ahead to what we’re going to ask next in an interview, we could miss a valuable piece of information.
Klein also identified that we are liable to “hear what we expect to hear rather than what is actually said.” This can adversely affect an investigation when instead of really paying attention to what a subject is saying, you hear the answer you have become accustomed to. For example, you could miss a subject’s confession to a crime because you are expecting to hear more denials.
Learn to WAIT
Klein writes that talking when we should be listening is another roadblock to communication. This can involve unnecessarily jumping in with a response when the speaker is not finished, or cutting them off mid-sentence. When we are talking we are not gaining information.
In her class on detecting deception, Janine Diver uses the acronym “WAIT” – Why Am I Talking – to help investigators keep from talking when they should be listening.
If a police officer is so busy telling people what to do, he may not hear valuable information regarding the incident he is policing. Police officers like to, and often need to, take charge but they should be willing to accept information from other people too.
Active Listening Techniques
There are other concrete techniques that investigators can use to listen better and obtain more information from their interviews. Active listening skills are a key component of both law enforcement and non-law enforcement activities. They are talked about in texts and classes for topics as diverse as crisis negotiation to sales to leadership. Gerzberg claims that active listening “improves our relationships by promoting trust, reducing conflict, and increasing our ability to motivate and inspire those with whom we’re communicating.”
Klein states that hearing is the reception of sound, but active listening is the attachment of meaning to the sound. Hearing is passive, listening is active.
There are eight aspects of active listening. They are:
- Paraphrasing: This is when we rephrase the speaker’s statement using our own words. This demonstrates to the speaker that we are listening and understand what they are saying. It gives them the opening to clarify their meaning if what we say is inaccurate.
- Emotional Labeling: When we label the speaker’s emotions we find the feelings the speaker is describing or that their story is indicating. “It sounds to me that you are [angry/hurt/sad/disgusted/embarrassed/etc.].” This allows the speaker to acknowledge these emotions and possibly explain their cause. Once we get past emotion we have a better chance of developing facts. This skill can be especially important to officers interviewing victims of crimes who may be traumatized. We need to help them get through the emotion before they can help us by providing the facts we need.
- Reflecting or Mirroring: Repeating back the subject’s last few words is a sign that you are listening and encouraging the speaker to continue. The simple act of repeating that last phrase or statement is an excellent way to have them elaborate on a topic. If a witness is describing what they saw, reflecting or mirroring may elicit more detail.
- Effective Pauses and Silence: We tend to find silence during a conversation uncomfortable and often move prematurely to fill it. There are several reasons why a subject may have stopped talking. They may be gathering their thoughts or regrouping emotionally. They may be working up the courage to continue to a sensitive, painful, embarrassing or incriminating part of the incident. They may be “asking” for permission to stop. If you jump in to the silence you grant them that permission. Let the silence linger and see what comes next. If they are really finished with their story they will let you know.
- Minimal Encouragers: Minimal encouragers can be verbal or non-verbal. They include the sounds we use in everyday conversation like “hmm,” “uh-huh,” or gestures to continue. A gesture can include nodding or a “go-on” rolling gesture of the hand. It lets the speaker know, without interrupting, that you are still listening and engaged.
- “I” messages: “I” statements take the onus off the speaker and put it on you. When you are labeling emotions, you assign feelings to yourself rather than to the speaker. “You’re angry” can be interpreted as confrontational or an accusation. “It sounds to me like you’re angry” is more conciliatory. It suggests that the anger is your inference rather than a statement about the speaker.
- Open-ended questions: When you need more information ask questions that encourage the speaker to elaborate without boxing them in. One of the best open-ended questions is “Can you tell me more about that?” You can combine an open-ended question with a summary (described in the next). For example, “So you said you were on your way to the store when the incident occurred. Tell me more about that.”
- Summarizing: This is retelling the story, or part of the story, in your own words. Let the subject know what you have heard. When and how often you do this depends upon the length of the narrative. Encourage the subject to correct, clarify and add details. Subjects being interviewed as part of an investigation are often intimidated and they may hesitate to correct your misinterpretation.
Remember to RASA
A shorthand way of remembering some of these techniques was explained by Julian Treasure in his TED Talk. The acronym is RASA, which means essence in Sanskrit, stands for Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, and Ask.
- Receive means to really pay attention to the speaker.
- Appreciate what they are saying by using little noises. This is what we earlier referred to as “minimal encouragers.”
- Summarize the other person’s statement. Treasure recommends using the word “so” to indicate that you are interpreting their words.
- Ask for additional or clarifying information. This indicates interest and may get you additional information. Remember what we said about the preference for open-ended questions.
The value of active listening skills isn’t restricted to law enforcement. They also apply to people who work in business. Sue Shellenbarger wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal on improving listening skills. In it she made these points:
- Plan in advance of an interview or conversation to limit the amount of time you speak to 10 -20%.
- Drop assumptions that you know what the other person will say.
- Paraphrase what you think the speaker said.
- Use pauses to reflect or draw out more information.
These active listening techniques are easy to implement – anyone can use them. They will help you gather more information during a criminal investigation and can also help you communicate in your personal relationships. Who knows? If you really listen, maybe your loved ones won’t have to tell you “one more time.”
About the Author: Tim Hardiman is a 23-year veteran of the NYPD. He retired as an Inspector serving as the Commanding Officer of the 47th Precinct in the Bronx. Hardiman has extensive investigative experience having served as the Commanding Officer of the 71 St. Detective Squad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Special Victims Squad. He is currently an Associate Vice President in Business Development for Law Enforcement Outreach team at American Military University. He can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu.