Sun Tzu Series Part 8: Interpersonal Communication: Doing What We Know How To Do, Better…in the Tactical Realm of Conflict | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

Know yourself and know your enemy. You will be safe in every battle. You may know yourself but not know the enemy. You will then lose one battle for every one you win. You may not know yourself or the enemy. You will then lose every battle. ~Sun Tzu

In the last post Sun Tzu’s Series Part 7 Methods: Create Unity and Gain the Advantage with Tactical Communication we discussed communication and its value to the friendly situation. Another important component of tactical communication is, interacting and talking with your adversary. Developing a strategy to deal with difficult people, to find a better way to deal with conflict, chaos and uncertainty and deny our adversary the opportunity to achieve their own goals and deny them the ability to survive on their own terms. To do this we must master the fundamental use of communication and understand its tactical value and affects on the people we deal with. Simply put we must talk and listen to those we deal with in an effort to first learn more about the individual and his motives and then leverage any opportunity to gain cooperation and compliance. To win without escalating conflict!

When unavoidable confrontations occur,  confrontations Sun Tzu would describe as; armed conflict  or direct confrontation, in other words dealing with unreasonable, uncooperative, hostile individuals or violent confrontations. These are frequently the type of situations we respond to; violence has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur. Domestic violence, barricaded persons, hostage taking, robberies, breaking and entering, assaults, road rage incidents, vehicle stops and pursuits are just a few examples that come to mind. In these conflicting circumstances which is often filled with uncertainty, complexity and chaos how can we put ourselves in a better position to leverage opportunities and bring about a safe resolution?

Sun Tzu says: “Seeking armed conflict can be disastrous. Because of this, a detour can be the shortest path. because of this problems can become opportunities. Use the indirect route as your highway. Use the search for advantage to guide you. When you fall behind, you must catch up. When you get ahead you must wait. You must know the detour that most directly accomplishes your plan.” Utilizing interpersonal communication skills is a critical “tactical method” to utilize in resolving conflict, even in heated scenarios. We must sharpen this skill in order to survive and win!

Interaction and the Flow of Communication

When two people meet, in conflict, under adversarial conditions, they often times converse, they actually have a conversation. During this conversation valuable information can be learned and leveraged to gain control. This interaction between foes consequently causes individuals to modify their thinking to some extent. These mental modifications affect the decision making process, and are modified further based on perceptions and reactions to what’s being said. There is flow of communication in society, just as there is a flow correlation in how people interact. We experience communication all around us in the internet, email, traffic signs and signals. These communications via signs and inanimate objects help us keep pace and flow with the rapidly changing world and we seem to focus intently on these forms of communications.

Communications in its natural state, “person to person” something seems gets lost in the interaction and translation, we hardly make an effort to hear what’s being said and the words we use in response just jump off the tongue with no strategic thought as to what effect they will have on the flow of conversation and the adversaries situation. Just think about the last time you introduced yourself, to someone, shook hands and exchanged names, a second after, you do not even remember the person’s name. This habitual response to communication in everyday life can and will affect your abilities on the street dealing with conflict. We must do what we know who to do, better if our goal is to leverage opportunities in conflicting situations.

This flow, tempo, or give and take of communication, although a bit unpredictable when emotions are high, can greatly effect the outcome of an encounter. We can learn so much from this interaction and flow of communication, its benefits are; gives you more time, and the ability to learn more valuable information. This information gives you ability to position yourself and get a better understanding of the climate (what’s going on?) and hence an opportunity to change it. You can, through your words and listening skills, bring calm to a chaotic and complex situation, just as the improper use of talking and not listening can take a calm situation and make it complex and chaotic. There is a fine line here, a balance between our words, how they are perceived and responded to. We must understand communication and its effects on people. Communication (two-way) is valuable resource, that’s always on hand and should be applied by every officer in the field as a tactical method of resolving conflict.

Conflict is Inevitable

In his book “Leading Through Conflict” Mark Gerzon describes conflict like this; “None of us escapes conflict. It is everywhere: there is the organization that is divided over its strategy and role; there is the community that is divided by race, economics, religion, or politics; there is the home torn apart by chronic feuds between parents and children, siblings, or in-laws; there is the country broken apart by civil strife. There are the “hot” conflicts (strong emotions, loud voices, visible tension) – all too obvious. And then there are the “cold” conflicts (suppressed emotions, tense silence, and invisible stress). All toll conflict comes to us in many forms.” Conflict can manifest and escalate in any of these types of scenarios we attribute to, the daily stresses of life. Another definition of conflict; “The essence of conflict is a struggle between two, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other, a clash between complex adaptive systems.”

Whether you are dealing with “hot” direct conflict where emotions are high or the “cold” conflict where emotions are more hidden within an individual. Both examples give rise to resistance, obstacles and challenges. We have all seen calm situations turn hot and hot situations turn cold or calm by the use and powerful effects of words.

In keeping with the strategy of advancing our position, winning and success in resolving the situation without escalating it further. We must use the powerful method of communication which includes active listening and two-way conversation. This in my experience has been by far the most successful tactical skill a law enforcement and security officer can possess. If you know how to communicate effectively you can change the balance of a dynamic confrontation, deescalate the situation and win, by taking an angry or uncooperative person and gaining voluntary compliance with words.

Factors that Affect Tactical Communication and Interaction with Adversary

Two-way communication allows you to interact with your adversary as well as isolate your adversary’s own thought process. In other words you get your adversary to think about what it is, he/she is doing. While we talk and listen, we think, about what we are hearing and we think about the words coming out of our mouths and how they might be perceived. This process gets an individual(s) to rethink and reconsider their actions. How the messages are delivered have great impact on how they are received and can greatly assist us in a safe resolution.

The Power of Words

Remember the quote :”Sticks and stones may break my bones but, names will never hurt me?” These words are still currently used today by parents trying to teach there kids restraint in a sometimes cruel world. I know what the hell does this kids quote have to with violence and direct confrontation your probably thinking? Bare with me. The quote is false in the sense that words and how they are perceived have caused more violent reactions than putting your hands on someone.  I know this from first hand experience and anyone in our line of work can attest to the power of words in fueling emotional responses and violence…. Words greatly effect our response as well as our adversaries. For this method (tactical communication) to be successful you must know yourself, know your stuff and what you intuitively believe are, your adversary’s motivations. You must know what factors affect the psychological and physical environment, as well as the climate of the situation on both the friendly and adversarial side of the encounter.

Staying Mentally Calm

We as protection professionals (law enforcement and security alike) must possess mental calmness. The lack of calmness is habitual; it’s a natural and a learned response to dealing with conflict. Aggression and one-sidedness only escalate the situation. Conflict is known to cause us to see things in a biased way. Because of this biased way we only see parts of the situation and our orientation is flawed, our ability to act is ineffective. We must control our emotions and not succumb to our one-sided view.

Delivering the Message

Metal calmness affects your demeanor and how you are perceived by your adversary. How you say it, and or what you say, can get you varying results. Its not necessarily the message but how the message is delivered that gets results (Positive or Negative). The tone and volume of your voice also should be considered. If you are shouting and ordering your adversary around when a more relaxed form of communication would be more likely to have a positive influence, you may escalate the situation. . So look, sound, act and be professional. Your appearance, how you look and act will have a profound effect on the end result of the situation.

Make clear statements and ask clear, simple and concise questions. These questions and statements you make are in an effort to take control of the situation by giving control back to the subject. In giving control, I mean, the perception of giving control. To understand conflict is to understand that those emotionally charged individuals have somehow lost control of some segment of their lives, thus bringing them to the point they are at. You’re, being summoned to resolve the situation. Making them feel they have some control of the outcome, of the situation goes a long way at getting cooperation and compliance.

A great tactical method to always remember is; to treat people like you want to be treated. Keep your “ego” out of the equation. Don’t make it personal and remain “mentally calm” in the face of adversity. Remember the ultimate goal is to win without fighting. There is just no room for an emotional reckless response; they cost to many good people their lives.

Lack of Understanding and Poor Communication Skills:

“You must win your battles without effort. Avoid difficult struggles. Fight when your position must win. You always win by preventing your defeat.” ~Sun Tzu

As a young rookie police officer I can remember conducting vehicle stops and getting into confrontation after confrontation, which lead to complaints and reprimands. This was not all the time but, it was happening more frequently than I expected as a new police officer. I remember being perplexed by this; after all, my goal was to be a professional. I was stopping vehicles to keep the road safe and more importantly, if warranted by facts and circumstances to dig a little deeper and find some more serious crimes. So I knew, the motoring public was made up of mostly good people coming to and from work and my goal was not to cause a confrontation. But confrontations were indeed taking place.

Most folks you encounter are pleasant and do what they are asked and go on their way, without so much as a question. Others would ask questions and my method (as I was trained) was “I ask the questions! You provide the answers.” Instructors who had worked the street taught all of us to take control; “The police control the situation!”

I would explain my actions and the Chief would give me the usual, just go out and do your job like you were trained! I thought “my training” told me that when you encountered an individual in any context you had to take “control” of the situation. My interpretation of control at the time based on training and experience was one of “I ask the questions and you provide the answers” and as long as that was the way things went I was fine. But when the proverbial “What are you stopping me for? I did nothing wrong, question and statement were posed. Things took a turn towards me gaining control based on my interpretation of control, which was back to “I ask the questions and you provide the answers.” I would ask fellow veteran officers for advice and they would say hey, you’re doing your job and if you are doing your job, people will complain. Don’t worry about it, just go out and do what you’re doing. I noted some of these same well respected officers were having confrontations and receiving complaints as well.

Reading this you can see this method of keeping people in the dark, does not work with people who know they have a right to know, and want to know, why you have encountered them. In hindsight not a very successful strategic or tactical approach! What the hell were we doing wrong? Was it wrong? Is this the best way of protecting and serving or were we mishandling people?

Knowledge, Understanding, and the Evolution of Tactical Communication

I decided to do some research into responding and dealing with dangerous encounters and read about hostage negotiation and their methods which were very successful in resolving dynamic conflict. In this research I kept seeing the words, empathize, use deception, treat the person with respect, even if you do not respect what they have done and make them think they have control. I also happened upon an article in “Police Magazine” on a book titled; “Verbal Judo the Gentle Art of Persuasion” written by a former cop George Thompson. The books methods were about controlling the outcome of every dispute…in the home, the classroom, the boardroom. He used law enforcement examples he personally experienced, to make his point. The methods of communication are simple and the lessons valuable in winning cooperation and compliance on the street.

Verbal Judo taught a simple method of communication that will deescalate even the most difficult person you encounter. I say simple method, but obviously we must do the work at understanding conflict, the moral, mental and physical realms, and the psychological and physiological responses. Most in our professions do not take the time or make an effort to understand the dynamics and complexity of conflict, nor do they teach enough of it in training as a profession. This is another hurdle to get over and another mindset shift to be made, but a crucial one at that.

This methodology called “verbal judo” or what we call tactical communication works and works well. It gives instant results. I know because I have used these methods for the past seventeen or eighteen years in a variety of situations; one on one field interviews, car stops to heated domestic disputes to barricaded subjects, knife wielding subjects etc, with success. The methods are based on a simple premise of human nature and practice the golden rule of “treating people like you would like to be treated” or how you would want your family treated if they were encountered by the law enforcement or security professional.

The method is simply designed to give the perception of control back to the person encountered. The adversary never has control, only thinks he does. You are controlling the situation with tactical communication and a strategic and tactical methodology of employing it. Yes communication as a reliable tactical method to gain compliance! To win, without adding to conflict!

Here is the Method:

• Meet and Greet

• Identify yourself and your Agency

• Give Reason for Approach

• Ask the Subject for a “Justified Reason” for the infraction

• Ask for identification

Keeping in mind, my original ineffective method of dealing with difficult people, take look at how this five step method of communication works. “Hello my name is Fred I am a police officer with such and such police department and you are? John…Nice to meet you today John, I am stopping you, for speeding(???) you were traveling on Main Street a 30 MPH zone at a speed of 55 MPH. John do you have a reason for traveling at this speed; is there an emergency of some kind I can help you with? No… Well John, can I see your license and registration? Yes you can…. Thank you, john I am going to check your driving history and background, while doing this, I would like you to stay in your car and wait for me to come back to you. Please do not get out of your car because it is unsafe with the traffic and I do not personally know anything about you and will not know your motive for getting out, as I have asked you to wait here. This five step method of “meet and greet, identify yourself and your agency, give reason for approach, ask person for a justified reason, for the infraction and then ask for identification”

This methodology works wonders in a variety of situations. With a few sentences people I encountered relaxed and voluntarily complied with my requests. Why? In a few seconds they knew why and for what reason they were speaking with me. They knew who I was and that, I was just doing my job. They had the perception of control through communication and  the fact that I appeared to be a reasonable person. In a few short sentences an rapport was built and this rapport  forms a simple human response of cooperation. 

Obviously you must not use a canned speech or cookie-cutter approach and the words you use must fit the situation, but this method works and works well. The confrontations I had been experiencing almost stopped completely. I say almost because there are some people out there who just do not get it, and cannot ever be told or are motivated for more sinister reasons and will attempt to harm you. Yet even in the vast majority of dealing with difficult people a little adaptation and interaction in a calm manner resolved most of these situations as well.

This method of communication works because it’s based on the mental dimension of conflict and focuses on avoiding what triggers emotional responses, like the feeling of lack of control and uncertainty on the part of the subject stopped. The method gives the perception of control back and you seem like a reasonable person, not an emotionally removed, ego driven, uncaring law enforcement or security officer. Not a true characterization of the majority cops and security professionals I know, but we have all heard it just the same?

Another Soft Ball, Approach? NO IT IS NOT!

Now for those no believers out there who think this is a softball approach method to communication and controlling a complex, uncertain and rapidly changing situation. Let me put in a perspective you may personally understand. You come in the station at the end of your shift and the lieutenant says come over here, I want to talk to you about how you handle that arrest, earlier tonight… the person you arrested said, you twisted his arm and jerked it behind his back while handcuffing him for no reason. He is down the hospital getting medical treatment. Go write the report NOW! Before you go home… I do not want to hear  what you have to say, go write the report NOW! No excuses, write it now!

Similar to my encounters early in my career, I can bet this type of conversation towards you, would cause some form of internal conflict and effect individual and organizational morale, especially if it’s the common method of communication this particular lieutenant employs??? The method of communication utilized can have a profound effect on the outcome of a given situation. Use it to gain the advantage! See the bigger picture and the details within and WIN!

When Words and the Golden Rule Don’t Work

I cannot end this article without also discussing the issue of when words and the golden rule do not work. There are those people we meet in our professions who despite our best efforts to negotiate a safe solution to a particular problem, just do not give in. They continue to escalate the situation and their obvious emotional state is bordering on assaultive behavior. There words and actions (body language) are being perceived by you as escalating the situation to direct physical conflict.

When this is your honest assessment you must adapt your tactics and ratchet your own words and actions to a heightened level, either verbally,  physically or better yet a combination of the two to gain the initiative and control the situation. Some people we meet are what we call NO PEOPLE and perceive the golden rule as a form of weakness, a weakness to be exploited. This calls for words and actions that show we mean business and that they will not get their way. Sometimes it even requires slang and swears  delivered in a loud manner along with physical control tactics to snap the person into compliance. This at times is the only way to ensure your message is understood and gain control. Just make sure its used as part of a strategy based on the situation and not just a normal response based on ego. Its also important to remember when we have to use louder tones and words some people deem as fighting words, our actions can be perceived by witnesses as harsh and excessive and can at time tarnish a reasonable response. So make this tactical method an exception and not the rule and be prepared to explain it as a tactical response to the actions and words of an escalating situation.   

Words Lead to Adaptability

Good tactical methods are based on the probabilistic view of conflict. We must be able to cope with uncertainty and operate in an ever-changing environment. We must be flexible and responsive to changes in the situation based on the three dimensions of conflict; the mental, moral and physical. Communication as a tactical method works and works well, if you are willing to find opportunity in problems and adapt to the situation.

There are no fixed rules that can be applied automatically, as every situation is different. We must constantly strive to be aware and base decisions on what happening now. Do not fight yesterdays battle… use your experience to recognize the signs and signals of escalating or deescalating conflict and adapt to the situation. As one tactics manual put it: “The leader who frantically strives to remember what someone else did in some slightly similar situation has already set his feet on a well-traveled road to ruin.” Communication as a tactical method works and works well, yet like any other tactical responses we must understand where and when it applies and where and when it does not. Open minds, a willingness to learn, evolve and adapt our approaches helps us weigh and respond to the risks and uncertainties we face.

“The path of knowing, in terms of Sun Tzu, does have a beginning. It begins when we appreciate the fact that as human beings, we are endowed with leadership…the impetus to take action in our world. It begins when we appreciate the inevitability of conflict that arises along with taking actions. It begins when we appreciate both the subtleties that lie at heart of all conflicts and the need to take whole rather than grasp partial victories. It begins when we realize what we don’t know, and we desire to know in new and different ways. The path of knowing helps us learn something profound about ourselves and the world around us and why they don’t always get along and what we can do about that.“ ~ The Rules of Victory How to Transform Chaos and Conflict, Strategies from the Art of War

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