Chaplain's Column: What You See...

Aug. 8, 2008
There is an old saying that perception is reality. In other words, your image or how people see you will influence what they think about you.

It had been a long hard winter. The wolves were hungry, and had been having a hard time finding prey. This day however, they caught the scent of a moose. Moose are difficult to bring down. The pack would normally avoid them because they were so big and dangerous and could easily kill one of them with its antlers or hoofs. But, if they were successful, they would have full bellies.

The pack began surrounding the moose. Each one took their position. Soon, the alpha female began rushing the moose's head. She wouldn't get close enough to get hit by the hooves. She only wanted to scare it - to get it to panic and run. If they could alarm the moose, and get it to flee, they could bite its back legs, causing it to lose blood, and weaken. They could then move in for the kill.

The moose stood its ground. It angrily pawed the ground and snorted. The wolves kept up the lunging for a while to no avail. Unexpectedly, the wolves all left. They knew it was fruitless. This animal was too strong and too healthy. They wouldn't waste any more of their precious strength on it. They knew if they couldn't get the moose to panic in the first few minutes, they would never be able to conquer it. They would continue their hunt for a weaker or more inexperienced animal. Their first perception was that they could take the beast, but now they knew this was false.

There is an old saying, "perception is reality". In other words, your image or how people see you will influence what they think about you. What image are you projecting? As a Chaplain, and as officers, we have learned to be very good at reading body language. Some people carry themselves like a victim, others like a predator. A veteran officer once told me he always makes sure his shoes are shined, his uniform pressed, and his hair neat and clean. His attitude is he wants to give the appearance of being a well trained professional. He also said the cop who allows his shoes to be scuffed up, and wears a wrinkled uniform has a public perception of being untrained and unprofessional. He then asked me, "If you were a criminal out to assault a cop, which one would you be more likely to attack; the one who appeared trained and ready or the one who looked unprepared, and untrained?" The answer is obvious.

We all make judgments about people several hundred times a day. We don't even think about. It's a subconscious transfer of information, and is usually done instantly. It's based upon our culture, our value system, our education, and our own expectations. They can be positive or negative.

How we perceive a person's image is important. It has been described as a kind of shorthand for understanding what is going on around us. If we had to make a conscious decision about what was happening in every situation, we would be constantly under information overload. So we use this as a coping mechanism - a way to deal with the world around us.

Fair or unfair, people do "judge a book by its cover". We make these split second judgments every day. For example, a person is more likely to trust a doctor in their surgery if the doctor dresses in sensible clothing and behaves in a professional manner. The same person would likely not trust the doctor if the surgeon showed up for work in bizarre clothing, and intermittently sang children's songs.

To break it down, 55% of first impressions are based on our appearance. 38% are based on voice, tone, language, etc. While only 7% of first impressions are based on actual content. People believe what they see before what they hear. This is especially true in a crisis. They base their opinion on how you look and what you are doing.

A good question for every officer is, "How do you want to be seen?" Most officers want to be perceived as being trustworthy; dependable; caring; and a safe person. However, our physical appearance will have an effect on how people in our community react to and treat us.

So, another question might be, "Why should we care about how other people see us?" In Verbal Judo training, we learn to talk to people in such a way as to leave a positive impression on them. We can get people to do what we want them to do, even if they don't want to do it, by simply using our voice. Using these techniques help make most calls go smoother, and with fewer citizen complaints.

A negative perception by our communities can negatively affect our jobs. It creates unnecessary concerns about law enforcement in general. It can create a false image of the whole department. And of course, because of the bad image, it creates more work for the officer.

The visual image we project speaks volumes before we ever say a word. Such things as our physical appearance, our posture, and if we carry ourselves in a confident manner all paint a picture of who we are. When we do open our mouths to speak, what kind of words and tone of voice are we using? Most officers present themselves as professional, well trained people.

Wolves on average will harass about a dozen moose before they find one they are able to excite into running away. The moose is nearly 12 times bigger than the wolf, and not easy to kill. It is only when the wolves can get them to run that they can begin the slow process of killing the moose by biting their legs, and causing them to bleed and weaken. Eventually they will bite their necks and kill them. Maybe that old officer had a good point about criminals picking on the perceived weak, and inexperienced. Remember, >u>perception is reality.

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