Controlling Conflict with Words

Law enforcement officers often interact with people who don’t want to participate in polite conversation. It’s part of the job. Officers are trained to react to resistance and redirect it when it is encountered. Writers are quick to portray officers jumping to a physical confrontation, but while that makes for great entertainment, it’s not the appropriate response when the resistance is merely verbal. So what’s a cop to do? The easiest way to achieve voluntary compliance is often overlooked in novels, but the truth is, an officer’s most effective weapon is his or her mouth when it’s not loaded with attitude.

Bottom line? If it felt good to say, it was probably the wrong thing.

I know the importance of words. I spent twelve years as a crisis negotiator. I was certified as a Tactical Communications Instructor and shared the communication strategies formalized by Dr. George L. Thompson. Now I’m a writer. Cops tend to be a sarcastic lot. It’s in our DNA.  Fortunately, there’s a five-step program to help us cope.

Let’s look at a traffic stop. While assessing the scene for safety concerns, the officer greets the driver, identifies himself and his agency and informs the driver why he was stopped. Now the officer needs something from the driver—his license. So begins the five steps.

  1. Ask

The vast majority of people cooperate with law enforcement officers. When asked for a driver’s license, most individuals will produce it with a smile.

But if he doesn’t…

  1. Educate

People want to know why. Why should I give you my license? This is where cocky officers go off the rails. “Because I said so” rarely produces the desired result. Instead, explain that driving is a privilege and not a right, and the law requires drivers to present their license to a peace offer upon demand.

But if he doesn’t care…

  1. Present Options

This is the fun part. Think of the worst-case scenario and present it. A simple driving infraction has escalated to a misdemeanor. The driver will be arrested, his car towed, he’ll accrue tow yard fees, not to mention he’s going to miss dinner. Let your inner rhetorician run amuck!

But if he remains unmoved…

  1. Confirm Their Response

This is critical for court. The officer reiterates that the driver would rather be subjected to the stated options than simply provide his license. Common sense normally prevails by this point.

But if he lacks common sense…

  1. Act.

Cops don’t bluff. Knucklehead is going to jail.

What does this mean for writers?

Only 7-10 percent of communication is accomplished by the actual words that are spoken. Need proof? Read the following sentence aloud and emphasize “I.”

I never said he stole the money.

Now read it out loud five more times, each time stressing another word (you can skip “the”). Hear how that changes the dynamic of the sentence. Voice intonation communicates 33-40 percent of the message.

Body language communicates meaning—even when it contradicts the words being spoken. A whopping 50-60 percent of communication occurs by recognizing non-verbal cues. These cues are what writers use to convey what’s really happening between two people. Imagine how your character stands, her facial expressions, eye contact, what he does with his hands. These are all clues to your reader about how open or disingenuous your character is being at that moment.

We’ve all said things in anger. Cops can’t afford to do that. Controlling situations with words that are defensible in court coupled with command presence means not having to fight someone into handcuffs. In real life this is good. For your fiction? Maybe not. You may be writing a character who reacts badly toward anyone who challenges his or her authority. Or just maybe you want to give that character the skills to stay on track, remain unruffled, and get the job done.

If so, you’re only five easy steps away.

Controlling Conflict with Words: A cop’s perspective was originally published in The Florida Writer This version has been edited.

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