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Conversation or Interrogation?

One of my colleagues touched on an important issue of police marriage in the article, Marriage Before the Job: Really?!. Althea Olsen stated many officers at the ILEETA conference her and her officer husband spoke at were in a tailspin over turning off the officer part of themselves when they arrive home. What an interesting outlook. Very few other jobs have the same reaction: It's not what I do; It's what I am. What makes police work different from many other occupations is how the training, the values and philosophy and the behaviors learned at work become ingrained in the officer. Officers literally become one with the job.

One of the ways this is expressed in police relationships is in communication style. In the academy and then later on the street officers are taught to control situations. When they come on-scene they need to exert power, control and authority. This is how already crazy situations do not further erode into chaos. There's a reason officers are called peacekeepers.

Officers are trained to use command presence. It is a tone of voice, a stance and a look in the eye. It's an important tool in dealing with conflict. Often, it is what keeps an officer alive. Command presence works. It becomes ingrained through training and practice and it is effective in controlling people. It's about survival. But what happens when an officer gets into a conflict with his or her significant other? What if they do not have any other weapons in their arsenal when dealing with a disagreement? Often, police spouses make statements, such as

  • You're interrogating me
  • I'm not a criminal
  • Is this a discussion or an investigation?

"Without realizing what's happening it can become a permanent part of your personality," says Bob Vernon in an article about command presence and it's affect on relationships. "It's easy to begin using this powerful tool inappropriately."

In my time around officers, I've heard them describing others as being uncooperative and noncompliant and they were talking about a spouse not a suspect. Just like different levels of professional contact require awareness and various levels of response, communication with loved ones is most successful when steps are taken to make the communication as appropriate as possible. I even hesitate to use the term "conflict management" in reference to relationships because managing a conflict sounds too much like a grab for control and an attempt to solve the conflict with power and coercion. It doesn't imply give and take and an equality of thoughts, perceptions and feelings which should exist in relationship communication. Command presence can assist in survival on the street, but following a few key steps to communicating with loved ones will assist in survival of a relationship.

A course in conflict resolution recommends these eight steps for healthy communication:

1) Know thyself and Take Care of Self

Self-awareness and care are essential. Being aware of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally can assist with helping listening skills and the ability to clearly express needs. Also, being aware when command presence and tactical coping skills are creeping into an inappropriate conflict can help diffuse the habit.

2) Clarify Personal Needs Threatened by the Dispute

First, each person needs to recognize what needs they feel are being threatened and how the perceived threat is affecting their behavior. Being able to articulate the actual reason for the conflict, for example, She wants me to help out around the house more, can help ease the fight or flight hypervigilance officers often feel when confronted with an unknown, unspecified threat.

3) Identify a Safe Place for Negotiation

In order to have a constructive discussion, both parties must feel safe and have the discussion during a time that is acceptable and appropriate. Trying to discuss an important matter while he is dressing to go to the station or she is trying to put the kids down for a nap wouldn't be appropriate. Also, back to command presence, make sure you don't let the cop stance creep in. Neither party wants to feel they are being backed into a corner. Keeping a neutral posture and maintaining equality in body positioning can keep things comfortable. Establishing ground rules, such as only one person will talk at a time or the ban on discussions while he or she is in uniform can be helpful.

4) Take a Listening Stance into the Interaction

Going into a conversation with your wife is not the same as going into a dispute resolution between two citizens. No matter how much you wish, one of the solutions will never be, if we can't work this out one of the parties will just be going to jail. Entering the conversation with an active listening stance can do wonders for understanding and being understood. Active listening responses should include: encouragement, clarification, restatement, reflection and validation.

5) Assert your Needs Clearly and Specifically

It is easy for an officer to revert into interrogation mode and also for significant others to feel like they're being interrogated when blaming or challenging statements are used instead of delivering the message while staying focused on your ideas and feelings. Use first person messages and build from what you've heard.

6 - 8) The last three steps include approaching problem-solving with flexibility, management impasse with calm, patience and respect and building an agreement that works. Each of these steps require a neutral approach with the focus being on meeting each other's needs as closely as possible while maintaining individual integrity. Being aware of a return to using command presence and also asking for feedback when it's perceived can improve communication within police relationships. Command presence might be a survival skill on the streets but it will kill good communication within an intimate relationship quickly.