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Communicate Like an Adult

Written by Robert Roy Johnson

As a child, many of us ran a string between two tin cans to create a makeshift communication device. Or, we may have been fortunate enough to possess another childhood favorite, battery-operated Walkie-Talkies. Though also quite rudimentary, they were a vast technological leap from our tin can operation.

Now, as police captains, most of us are affiliated with law enforcement agencies equipped with the very latest in communication technology. When citizens need us, they merely dial 9-1-1; within moments, the police are there. If our officers need assistance, it is a radio click away.

So, while we now have at our fingertips state-of-the-art communication technology, has our personal communication style evolved, as well? Has our personal communication technique improved as much as our communication equipment?

How captains communicate within their command significantly impacts their effectiveness as leaders. Captains should examine their communication manner for habits reminiscent of childhood playground banter. Once these difficult-to-shed behaviors are recognized, try to leave the inner child behind in order to communicate and lead as an adult.

“My dad can beat up your dad.” Yes, as a captain, you do outrank your personnel. But they already know that. Constantly reminding your officers of your power communicates insecurity. Authority comes with the rank. But respect is earned. And your communication style determines the respect you will be afforded. Communicating by flexing your captain’s bars will merely engender a similar response. “Oh yeah? Well, my union contract can beat up your department directives.”

“I double dog dare you.” Nothing is accomplished with a communication approach that escalates tensions. Threats, intimidation, and bluster will likely result in having your bluff called. If you challenge personnel to go ahead and test your authority, they just might. In such instances, no matter who wins, everyone loses.

“I’m not letting you up until you say uncle.” There are circumstances under which silence indicates consent. When communicating about a matter under contention, occasionally it is advisable to back off a little bit to see if perhaps your message has been received and your viewpoint has prevailed.

While feedback is an essential component of communication, battering home your point and insisting on verbal affirmation that you have had your way may be humiliating for the other party. If they are complying, allow officers to save face by not insisting that they grovel with an acknowledgement of your authority.

“Nyah, nyah, ha, ha, I win.” And, of course, as the captain you will, more often than not, prevail. Presumably, your position was in the best interests of your officers and the department. Eventually, you hope your officers will recognize you insisted on the right course of action and will respect you for it. So, obviously, it is counter-productive to gloat about having been right. This will only lead to resentment and make it all that much more difficult the next time you implement policy.

“I’ll take my bat and ball.” As the ranking officer, you no doubt have the authority to take away a few privileges to achieve compliance. More than likely, this approach will only result in officers digging in and resenting you, or giving in and resenting you. Either way, effective communication will probably cease. Insisting that it be your way or the highway is not leadership.

“Get out of my room.” Petulantly ejecting personnel from your office when things are not going your way is not conducive to solving a communication impasse. Effective leaders find a way past their frustration. They talk things through to an acceptable resolution.

Finally, children, when not getting their way, often make faces, stomp their feet, fold their arms across their chests, or shake their heads violently from side to side. Captains need to be very mindful of those vestiges of childhood communication that creep into our own body language.

During interactions with personnel, folding your arms across your chest effectively communicates that you are no longer interested in listening. And, retreating to your office and shutting the door after authoritatively pronouncing, “This conversation is over,” is the childhood equivalent of stomping your feet and running away from home.

Mature, thoughtful, reasonable communication leads to mutually beneficial relationships and efficient operations. Be aware of any tendencies to resort to childlike communication habits. Remember that your officers are adults and expect to be treated accordingly. You are best able to accomplish this if you communicate like an adult. Your officers will respect this kind of leadership.

Robert Roy Johnson is a 38-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, currently at the rank of captain. A management consultant and speaker, he is an adjunct professor in Public Safety Management at Calumet College of Saint Joseph. He can be reached at robroyj@comcast.net

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2009

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