WRITTEN BY: Captain Mike Schentrup (RET)
Let’s face it, 99% of our job is talking to people, whether its community contacts, victims or witness to a crime, confidential courses, and of course suspects. Obviously, the better we can communicate, the better a cop we can become. Its that simple. You want to be great, learn to a great communicator.
I recently retired after 25 years at my department, most of those years spent in investigative units. I’ve conducted thousands of interviews and interrogations over those years. I’ve attended probably a dozen interview courses myself and I have taught several thousand cops how to conduct successful interrogations.
Having said that, I always knew the secret of how to successfully interrogate. I understood that empathy is the “secret sauce” when it comes to being a great interrogator. The suspect had to believe that I was not judging them and they had to think that I understood what they were going through. Sometimes justifications were given to the suspect to allow them to say to themselves, “This detective gets it; he understands me.”
What I didn’t realize until later that empathy is the “secret sauce” in being a great communicator, period. And as I stated, if 99% of our job is communicating with others, than being great at it is pretty important.
Here’s a couple things you can start doing immediately to improve your empathy.
- Start any communication with a victim, witness, and even a suspect with a empathetic statement, such as “I am sorry you are going through this” or maybe for the victim of a violent crime, “I am so sorry this happened to you and I want you to know you are safe now.” Yes, you should even use these with suspects! Empathetic statements instantly create a small connection and can open up the lines of communication.
- Assume when someone is being short or discourteous to you, that they are experiencing a very bad day. The fact is we don’t know; they may have just left the hospital where their mom is on the ventilator. Or they about to evicted from their only place to live. Let’s just everyone the benefit of the doubt. (BONUS: It’ll make you a happier person overall!)
- Let them talk. Great communicators are great listeners. Now this is the hardest thing, especially for me. And it can be tough for our understaffed patrol divisions, who are going call-to-call. But when interviewing victims, witnesses, or suspects, take your time and let them talk.
- Ask lots of open-ended questions. Use phrases like, “tell me more about that” or “explain that more to me” to get more information. My buddy Jon Rappa call these “compellers” and I love the term.
It’s not rocket science that people are going to want talk more with those they have a connection with. And in our job, we have to communicate with those who don’t trust the police or victims who maybe even reluctant to report their attack (i.e., victim of intimate partner violence).
If you want to be a great cop or if you’re the boss and you want a department of great cops, teach them these few tricks. Send them to some good interview schools. There are some people who are innately empathetic, but for the rest of us, like me, we can learn.