The power of a handshake!

cop shaking hands Frank Borelli posted what I think is an important article over at www.officer.com titled It’s just a handshake, right?

“…Do we shake hands with everyone we meet?  Oh, HECK no.  We have to interact with plenty of shady characters and it just doesn't make any sense to let them get hold of us.  This is a simple matter of officer survival and I think we all can identify those folks who we DON'T want to shake hands with by a number of things: their appearance, their body language, why we initially interact with them, their known history, etc.  Let's face it: we don't want to shake hands with the bad guys.  It simply makes no sense.  On the other hand...

How many perfectly "normal" people do we meet, whom we have no reason to suspect of anything, but we still maintain that reactionary distance and don't shake their hand?  Plenty.  On the one hand this is a very smart thing to do.  "Better safe than sorry."  On the other hand, every rejected handshake can be taken as an insult to that person we don't shake hands with.  Every insult ONE of us makes reflects on ALL of us.

So, am I suggesting we simply shake hands with everyone we meet?  Again, oh, HECK no; however, I think there are plenty of people we meet that we can interact with in a manner they find less disrespectful or stand-off-ish.  Further, I think that if we are mindful of how such a simple act of shaking hands (or not) can reflect on us as a profession, we will (subconsciously) begin to apply that awareness to other behaviors as well.”

Ironically in fitting with Frank’s important article, this week there was a discussion started on my LinkedIn group with the following question:

Do most Police Officers have a chip on their shoulder and why? In my experience, most of the Police Officers I have come in contact with have some sort of chip or attitude about them when dealing a suspect or potential suspect and when talking to me about nothing in particular. I have a good idea of why this is but I'm curious to hear what everyone's thoughts are?

I thought this was a great question, because the topic of cops and the attitudes towards the public we are, perceived to have, has come up a lot lately and has been one I have thought about often times over the years with a focus on how do we get better at influencing outcomes in a more positive way, in any situation in which there is a clash between opposing wills and hence concern for officer safety as well.

Now whether we call it a chip on the shoulder, bad attitude, standoffish, over confidence or just plain lack of social skills I have certainly seen it in our ranks. Is this negative perception of law enforcements “attitude” a reasonable one? If so is it intentional on the part of cops or is it learned behavior taught through training and the circumstances surrounding police work? Are we cops aware of the attitude we exude while we work the streets and interact with people? As we interact with people does the strong autocratic take control approach make us safer and more effective or does the more tactful yet still tactical approach yield better, more effective results when it comes to safety and street level effectiveness? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind we need to think about and consider throughout our ranks.

Cops are intimidating!

Just recently I was speaking with someone very close to me who now had aspirations of becoming a cop who tells me; “I am a bit nervous to start working because a lot of cops are intimidating, a lot of them won’t even speak to you when you say hello!!!” Keep in mind this person has been around cops all his life and he loves and respects cops. I was a bit taken back but realized what he said was true as I had experienced it myself from other cops and I realized that I too have sent many an unfriendly and inapproachable glance (both intentionally and unintentionally) towards others, over the years myself. I have also had the conversation come up numerous times over the years with people who are pro-cop but question our approach to things at times.

A week after this conversation my son, my wife and I were in a restaurant and two uniformed cops walked in. They spoke to no one as they walked by and sat in the corner isolated from all in the restaurant. I am sure their intent was to seek good positioning which is a smart tactical thing to do. They were taking a break from a detail they were working at a nearby stadium event. A few minutes later I got up to use the bathroom and had to walk by the two cops. As I did so I smiled and nodded as I approached the cops to say hello, they did not know me and I was off duty. I reached out to shake hands with the cops closest to me and he just sat there and looked at my hand and refused to shake it. The other officer reached out with a smile, nod and hello and I continued the conversation and told him I was on the job. The initial non responding officer upon hearing I was a cop immediately extended his hand and had a slightly embarrassed look on his face. The total contact was probably less than a minute but there were some pretty powerful thoughts and emotions running through my mind and I am sure theirs as well at least initially. I am a cop and what I initially thought of when this officer looked directly at my hand and refused to shake it, was, what a jerk and I was slightly embarrassed myself as my son and wife were observing the interaction.

When I returned to our table they mentioned the initial slight as well and commented what was his problem, referring to the officer who initially appeared to be rude! I explained it was probably an officer safety concern on his part because he did not know me. They both retorted he is still a jerk! Why, do some cops act, like that, they asked? I thought, instantly a judgment was made in the negative in less than a minute of interaction. I personally got over it when he finally reached out. I went from what a jerk to, the officer meant nothing by it and he is ok. However, others including those near and dear to me were not quite so forgiving, the impression was made and it was not a good one. In an instant the damage was done.

What messages lies in a handshake and how powerful are they as we accord with people day to day as we carry out our duties? Could a handshake help you deescalate a situation or does it put you more in jeopardy as you close distance to do so? In their book the Definitive Book of Body Language Alan and Barbara Pease analyze the handshake:

“Shaking hands is a relic of our ancient past. Whenever primitive tribes met under friendly conditions, they would hold their arms out with their palms exposed to show that no weapons were being held or concealed. In Roman times, the practice of carrying a concealed dagger in the sleeve was common, so for protection, the Romans developed the lower-arm grasp as a common greeting.

The modern form of this ancient greeting ritual is the interlocking and shaking of palms and was originally used in the nineteenth century to seal commercial deals between men of equal status. It has become widespread only in the last hundred years or so and has always remained in the male domain until recent times. In most western and European countries today it is performed both on initial greeting and on departure in all business contexts, and increasingly at parties and social events by both women and men. “

How do we balance officer safety and the important need to win the hearts and minds of the people we serve? How do we recognize the difference of a threat verses the vast majority of people who mean us no harm? I understand safety concerns, distance, relative positioning and watching deadly hands, etc. The officer in the above example did not have a look of concern. He made no effort to distance himself nor did he take a position of advantage in any other way. His initial look was one of contempt and what the hell you bothering me for. At least this was my perception! Now I cannot read this guys mind but I do know what I was thinking about the non-verbal signals he was initially sending out. And herein lays the problem with something as simple as a handshake and its powerful meaning. Body language is a two way street and he was completely unaware of the non-verbal communication he was sending out.

Example: The handshake and de-escalation at the street level

Just recently I responded to back up fellow officers who were responding to a domestic dispute between a father and son. The responding officers were handling the situation very well and had tactically separated the parties involved and were questioning the two involved. They were courteous and professional yet maintained their tactical awareness throughout the encounter. One of the parties was a young man in his early twenties and as I watched I could see he was still in a state of high agitation. He was breathing deep and bouncing up and down on his feet as the officer left him to go and talk with the other officer to get the other side of the story. I acknowledge the officers glance that I had him covered and observed the person look over at me and shake his head left in and right several times in a NO gesture. What he was shaking NO about I was not quite sure so I went over to him with my hand extended to shake his hand and introduced myself. He looked down at my hand and immediately said; Oh! And had a surprised look on his face and then completed the interaction with how are you sir as he reached out to return the hand shake. I noted he instantly stopped breathing deep and his happy feet subsided. His voice which was initially loud and excited slowed down and softened. I then just let him talk as the two other officers made a decision about how to proceed. The incident was resolved peacefully. I am not trying to say the handshake solved the problem because it did not. The situation was handled by the two cops who solved the problem in a safe and effective way. I am trying to say that I saw a very different person before the handshake than after the handshake. We inevitably reshaped this young man’s thinking at least for the moment.

I think we do often times create a gap between the cop and the citizen. Some of the reason for this lays in our attempts to remain safe and go home at the end of our shifts and that is understandable. But all too much of it stems around something else perhaps ego, cynicism and not quite understanding our mission. Maybe it’s partly human nature or maybe it’s partly to blame on our profession and how we train and prepare cops for the street. These factors we can learn to control. I used to think the circumstances of the job and what we do created this attitude, but over time I realized that 95% of what cops do is positive and rewarding work and less than 5% is dealing with the worst of the worst. So the job itself is not the problem.

We as cops must recognize the environment and climate we find ourselves as we move call to call and from contact to contact. We must learn to recognize the signs and signals of danger as well, as, those signs and signals meant to inspire trust. This is not always easy when wearing a uniform and a potential target to those rare people who would do us harm. We do however need to make the effort to recognize the differences and act accordingly.

It is said, it’s easy to live in the negative and hard work to stay in the positive. To steal Churchill's words..."For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else” ATHOUGH I am a cautious optimist. You can be tactful and tactical at the same time all you have to do is make the effort. You lose nothing and most probably gain the advantage through how you interact with others. Our strategy, operations, and tactics affect the moral, mental and physical dimensions of conflict, it is time we cops understood this at a much deeper level.

What role do social skills, things such as a handshake play in our efforts to reshape conflict and gain peaceful resolutions? Do these methods have an effect on shaping attitudes of friend or foe and enhance safety, or are they just another Pollyanna, view and politically correct effort to appease the public and putting cops at risk or do these methods really work at defusing situations?

Alan and Barbara Pease dedicate 15 pages in their book to handshake styles and their meanings. They conclude with:

Few people have any idea how they come across to others in initial meetings, despite the fact that most of us are aware that the first few minutes of that meeting can make or break a relationship. As a cop you have chosen to be in an interpersonal world that is ripe with emotions. Emotions drive the choices people make to be positive or negative. Is your attitude towards others affecting positive or negative outcomes in those you meet?

When we deal with people as cops we should be looking for and reading non-verbal signs and signals but we must as well, be self aware and cognizant of the signals we give off as well. Using our verbal and non-verbal communication skills is as powerful a tactic as, distance, relative positioning, watching deadly hands or any other tactical method and technique you can think of to help you shape and reshape the climate of the situation. The key lies in recognizing this and then making the effort to use your social skills that includes non-verbal communication in combination with your physical tactics. Like any other skills, you must train and condition yourself if you are to be effective at combining the cognitive abilities with the physical.

Stay Oriented!

Fred