Active Listening, Other Communications Skills May Help Responders Deal with “Difficult” Members of the Public

In some ways, being a first responder is a case study in seeing people at their worst: whether your house has burned down, you have suffered a serious injury, or you are being picked up on an old warrant, the old saying about seeing fire, EMT, and law enforcement professionals on your worst day is equal parts truism and truth.

As any responder or corrections officer will tell you, however, some citizens are more difficult to deal with than others. Nearly everyone in the loose collection of first response fields has a story about that one member of the public: the manipulator, the aggressor, or the man or woman who will not come along after summoning an ambulance to their location, to highlight only a few examples.

Most responders have a strategy for dealing with the difficult suspect, inmate, or patient. Often, this is informed by the nature of the job and the specifics of the service being provided. Even then, however, many tips, advice, and training handed down to professionals in these fields follow the same vague guidelines. Indeed, many best practices shared in public-facing fields of all industries offer the same general content and utility to responders.

First responders may look to other industries on how to deal with difficult people.

How motives, other factors, drive behavior in individuals

The first step in managing behavior better is to understand why people act the way they do. Most rational people emit behaviors in order to effect some sort of response from another person. While this may sound like common sense, it actually carries with it a number of interesting implications. In some sense, the person ordering food at a drive-thru window and an irate driver yelling at the person who scuffed his bumper are trying to accomplish the same basic goal.

The same thought often applies to rational people deploying unfair or socially undesirable behaviors. Take manipulators, a type of person seen by all public-facing sides of first response and corrections. While the things they do are not always legal or pleasant to deal with, the “underhanded methods” they deploy generally come in the name of accomplishing a goal of eliciting a desired response from the other person, according to PsychCentral.

Further, it is important to remember that many such behaviors come from an emotional, gut feel, per Psychology Today. Because emotions directly and indirectly color the way everyone — from the angry suspect to the cool and collected law enforcement officer—acts, and because it is often difficult to fully understand the way we feel about a given situation until we have examined it in retrospect, the misbehaving or manipulative citizen may not fully understand the drives behind their own behaviors. Turning back to manipulators, for instance, an EMT might see through a noted attention seeker’s attempts to elicit sympathy, when the patient fails to have a full rational grasp on why they are behaving the way that they are.

Understanding the power of active listening

The point of this reminder is not to simply elicit empathy for misbehaving suspects, inmates, and patients. Rather, the point is to underscore a philosophy central to popular practices like conflict resolution, de-escalation, and Verbal Judo: when you understand what a person is trying to accomplish, it is easier to gain their compliance.

First responders must be Verbal Judo masters: understanding motivations makes control easier.

In some situations, advice like this falls in the easier-said-than-done category. As any public-facing emergency responder will say, sorting out exactly what is going on in a person’s head can be one of the hardest aspects of the job, especially when their stubborn, manipulative, or otherwise maladaptive behaviors are making it hard to provide resolution.

These factors make active listening a useful skill for responders of all walks to cultivate. Originally developed as a therapeutic technique by pioneering therapist Dr. Carl Rogers, the phrase is a bit of a misnomer. While listening is a large part of active listening, doing an effective job of it requires the practitioner to consider the suspect’s words, behaviors, body language, and other contextual and situational factors with the goal of uncovering what the other person truly wishes to gain from the interaction. This may often contradict the information or desires put forth by the other person, who could have any number of motives to obfuscate their real goals.

In this sense, one could say the same skills that make effective therapists and counselors also work for EMTs, firefighters, and law enforcement officers. As information from Farnam Street outlines, “[forming] a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions” without allowing assumptions and biases to color the listener’s response is of the utmost importance.” When one comes into an interaction with the goal of understanding — if not providing — what the other person desires, they will do a better job of listening than the professional who comes in with certain preconceived notions.

Other sources also place value in asking questions to understand and occasionally summarizing what the other person has said thus far: putting their statements in your own words helps you curb misunderstandings and show that you are actually listening to them, not just waiting on a chance to offer your own input or issue commands.

Putting the tenets of active listening in a first response context

Obviously, there are times where communication fails. The decision to continue to engage a potentially violent suspect or dispense a physical response is often a split-second one. Regardless of role, a responder should never resort solely to verbal communication when it could put them, their colleagues, or the public in harm’s way.

A growing school of thought does support the general idea of thinking through situations before reacting, where possible. In law enforcement, for instance, the U.S. Department of Justice has long supported the concept of a “‘thinking police officer’ who analyzes situations and responds in the appropriate manner.”

While this idea is applied often as a use-of-force alternative, it can just as easily be applied to more benign, if still contentious, situations. This, along with growing use-of-force payouts and a general aversion to force-first philosophy, may explain why so many states and individual departments have recently mandated some manner of de-escalation training: a group of practices, techniques, and philosophies that — like active listening — encourage responders to approach situations with a defuser’s mentality. In Dallas, de-escalation is one of several sweeping changes credited with cleaning up the city police force’s reputation and disproportionate force numbers; in other cities, like Chicago, new focuses on de-escalation come on the heels of controversial police activity or other negative media attention.

Active listening, de-escalation techniques are increasingly in first responders’ toolkit.

To reiterate, skills like active listening and de-escalation are often framed as tools to use before a situation becomes physical. Moreover, the tactics are often taught to law enforcement and corrections officers because they are ostensibly most likely to engage in physical conflict.

Looking at this growing trend through the lens of emotional or difficult members of the public, one can easily see the potential value. A law enforcement or corrections officer trained in active listening skills may be less likely to bark commands at a noncompliant, emotional suspect, thus lowering the odds of further negative reaction. An officer dealing with a difficult “frequent flyer” may use tactics they have picked up in an active listening course to avoid hauling our hypothetical troublemaker to the station yet again: asking what they can do to gain compliance instead of threatening to use physical measures, for example.

Conclusion: Difficult times, suspects, call for renewed tactics

In all, revisiting common tactics may be important if only due to the sheer amount of personality disorders responders may face in a given day. Though people with personality disorders that may make them act in difficult ways comprise less than two percent of the population, the same disorders may appear in 12 to 30 percent of inmates in a given corrections center, according to The U.S. National Library of Medicine. EMS responders may see a similar uptick in mental health-related calls, if colloquial evidence is to be believed<.

It makes sense that the advice shared by Dr. Laurence Miller in a recent PoliceOne piece follows the same trend. While simply telling officers and EMS professionals to play along drastically simplifies the issue of mental health calls, there is clear merit in attempting to figure out what buttons to avoid pressing. For one example, an EMS professional who suspects they may be talking to a person with narcissistic traits may be well served to avoid calling the other person’s bluff when they proclaim their importance or attempt to buddy up and curry favor. The corrections officer dealing with a diagnosed borderline patient, on the other hand, could benefit by not playing towards the illness’s predilection towards drama and explosive responses.

Of course, it should also be noted that not every instance of maladaptive behavior stems from a personality disorder. People afflicted by these illnesses are simply more likely to display them in certain circumstances. In any event, with an industry geared entirely around people in difficult circumstances — and one where certain fields, like policing, are under growing pressure to deploy talk-first strategies — an open ear and willingness to listen may be what professionals need to make for better interactions all around.

Additional Resources:

6 tips for dealing with difficult suspects
9 Keys to Handling Hostile and Confrontational People
Dealing With the Non-Compliant Threat
Good Liars: Their Characteristics and Why They Are so Hard to Detect
How Cops Deal With Difficult People
Most states neglect ordering police to learn de-escalation tactics to avoid shootings
Law Enforcement Overview
The psychological influence of the police uniform
Responding to Angry Inmates
Borderline Personality Disorder Among Jail Inmates: How Common and How Distinct
A brief guide to borderline personality disorder for pre-hospital clinicians in an emergency setting
Guest Blog: Personality Disorder

Posted on Jan 3, 2018