Most counselors and officers have sat through one or more classes on Active Listening. If the instructors came from an academic perspective, it was likely that they lost the students- the problem solvers on the ground- through presentation. What follows isn’t a class or a tutorial on Active Listening, but about how to make a skill you already have work in real time… because that’s what we do here at Thug Whisperers.
The two elements of active listening are:
1) You receive the information as clearly, accurately and completely as possible
2) The subject
wants to keep talking
The biggest obstacle to accurately listening is
that we tend to listen to the voices in our own
heads first. Especially when we are emotional
or we are dealing with emotional people, the
conversation tends to follow very common scripts.
Subject: “I wasn’t doing nothing. I was just walking
along and he came over talking crazy shit, saying he
was going to kick my ass.”
How many times have you heard that? In your
head you sigh and know that next he’s going to claim
he doesn’t even know the man he assaulted, the other
guy is going to talk about some disrespect or an
issue with a woman, but it will probably really be
That is jumping ahead in the script. At
this point you are no longer listening to what was
said, but planning your response to what you
expected the subject to say. If you have
enough experience, and this is a standard situation,
it won’t screw you up much, only in the details.
You will ‘know’ what the subject was lying about
because the lies are pretty consistent in this
script, but you will have trouble explaining to the
boss or the jury how you knew he was lying.
You won’t remember or even hear the exact wording
if you are responding to the script instead of the
The second aspect of internal dialogue is the
human tendency to start preparing a response before
the other person has finished speaking. We
want to jump ahead to the important things that we
have to say. Avoid this. Pausing and
thinking and formulating response (or even
withholding a response) not only convinces the
subject you are listening but also controls the
tempo of the conversation. The slower, quieter
and lower-toned the conversation, the calmer and
safer the situation is getting.
Acknowledge emotional states- yours and the
subjects. Agitation, fear, anger or even an
inappropriate calm in the subject are valuable clues
to what may come next. When you start feeling
unease, fear, anger or complacent, that is a clue as
well. Is there a clue you are picking up
subconsciously about what is to happen? Is the
subject pushing your buttons deliberately, trying to
manipulate you? How you feel will affect how
and if you listen.
One of the things presented in Active Listening
can feel like a trick and, if done badly, can
quickly put the subject on guard. Sometimes
called ‘feedback’ or ‘paraphrasing’ or ‘reflecting’
it is double-checking that you are understanding.
The reason it feels like a gimmick is that it is
often taught as a formula: “What I am hearing you
say is…” Who talks like that?
Talk like you. “Hold on. Let’s see if I’m
following this.” “Slow down, partner, the
story’s getting complicated. Are you saying…?”
Paraphrasing, saying what you understood in your own
words is a good check, but it is a critical skill
and far less likely to be interpreted as a gimmick
when working with a subject who does not speak
English as a first language, when you are working
with a foreign language or you are working with a
translator. In these circumstances, feedback
is considered both polite and good common sense.
Discuss this extensively with your translator or
Language Assistant (LA) well in advance. If
not given a heads-up, some LAs will take it as an
insult to his or her skills. The simple fact
is that it is almost impossible to accurately tell
how good your translator is. Giving and
soliciting feedback is one of the ways to both
assess your LA and help a poor one get the job done.
Keeping the Subject Talking
People like talking about themselves, so it is
not hard to get most people talking.
Your focus is on the subject. Not only are
you noting his or her emotional state and body
language, rate tone pitch and volume of voice and
proximics you are letting the subject know you
are paying attention. Your eyes are
focused, your face muscles are relaxed. If
appropriate, you mention the body language in your
feedback, “Partner, you said you aren’t angry but
your jaw muscle is jumping and I can see the vein in
your forehead, so what’s going on here?”
Acknowledge without interrupting- “uh huh” “Go
on” nod. Be careful, here because many of us
have practiced this as a skill to not listen without
insulting someone we care about. It can
trigger the same non-listening mode. Remember
that your goal is to gather intelligence. You
have to listen and the subject has to talk.
It has to be subtle, but some studies have shown
that mirroring body language helps the subject
relax. He crosses his arms, you cross your.
He leans back, you do the same… It has to be
subtle, especially with the emotionally disturbed
(EDPs- Emotionally Disturbed Persons) or the
Mentally Ill. If someone notices you are
mirroring they will
take it as an insult. They will believe you
are mocking them.
When responding, you will paraphrase as mentioned
above, ask clarifying questions or ask questions or
Questions should be open-ended if you want the other
person to talk. A closed question is one that
can be answered in one word - yes, no, Tuesday.
“Which pocket did you have the knife in?” is a
closed question. “Why do you carry a knife?”
Is open-ended. “After he hit you, did you hit him
back?” is closed. “What happened after he hit
you?” is open.
Closed questions are fine if you already know
what happened and are trying to lock the subject
into his statements, but they can feel antagonistic
or bossy and might get the subject to clam up.
If you don’t know what happened, or are trying to
get the wording and insight you need to either
disprove or corroborate a story, open-ended
questions are critical.
Clarifying questions are similar to feedback but
they are not about what you heard so much as what
you didn’t hear. “You said that
suddenly the gun was just in your hand?” is
feedback; “I’m not real clear on this: where did the
gun come from?” is clarifying.
When you are asked a question, respond honestly.
Respectfully, but honestly. When an inmate
asked me what I thought his chances were in court I
said, “Mr. Cxxxxx, they're going to get the death
penalty. It’s been all over the papers and people
want to see you burn.”
“Damn, Miller. Everyone else lies when I ask.
It’s bad, isn’t it?”
Yeah. The fine art of building rapport with
Your focus is intensely on the subject.
That can be a tactical issue. When possible,
position yourself so that you can see behind you by
using reflections from car windows or the subject’s
glasses or something else or, if possible, so that
no one can approach your back without a shadow
coming into your field of vision first.
If those are not possible (they almost always
are, but if not) break contact and check your six
every so often. It is acceptable to let the
subject notice you doing this. Also, always
watch the threat’s body language. He may well
see something coming up behind you and react even if
he is a threat.
Watch your distance. Though most academies
teach a standard, every officer’s critical safety
range is different. A big part of both body
language and officer safety is proximics- how close
the threat is and how close he seems to want to be.
Try not to be distracted. It allows an
opening if the subject wants to go bad and it also
diminishes the returns of active listening. Your
goal is intelligence gathering, not wool gathering.
When you catch a lie, take a moment before you
jump on it. When stories contradict I’ve had
excellent success with, “The other guy said you did
X. Is there anything that you might have done
that might have looked like X?” In the process
of trying to explain away an incriminating wrinkle
in a story the subject often gives away a lot.
You can use operational conditioning in a
conversation. Operational Conditioning (OC-
the behavior modification system, not pepperspray)
is the simple process of rewarding good behavior and
punishing bad behavior.
Humans are social primates and social rewards and
punishments work as well or better than physical
rewards or punishments. In practice, when the
subject is behaving in ways you don’t like- getting
loud, acting out, being disrespectful or going off
on tangents, give a disapproving parent look or
interrupt them. When the subject is behaving
nicely, give nods of approval or the little rumbling
in the throat you would give to a puppy. It doesn’t
take much and can have profound impact over a short
conversation. It also tends to work with the mentally
Be cautious in smiling during active listening,
especially as a ploy or OC reward. Most people
cannot consciously do the eye movement that makes a
smile look genuine. A fake smile can look
fake, which will shatter your rapport or it can even
look like a primate threat display. If you are
one of those people who can consciously control the
muscles around the eye, you can be a god at
manipulating people- if you do the eye thing only it
is interpreted as if you really like the person but
are not smiling openly to appear professional.
Contrary to some beliefs, not everything or everyone
can be handled by talking. The nature of
interpersonal communication is that if it goes bad,
you will be at closer range than you like (blocks
away is usually good). Be prepared to defend
yourself at all times. Do not get complacent.
Practice posture and body language that puts you in
a good defensive position without appearing
aggressive or afraid.
If you need to shut down the conversation, shut
it down. If the subject is working himself
into a rage, if outside spectators are starting to
escalate things, if you have two subjects who can’t
let the conflict go, you must be able to shut things
down and take control.
As long as it is safe and working, active
listening is a fine tool. Hanging on to a good
tool when it is no longer safe is bad judgment.
The goal is information. Always remember that
information is always information but it isn’t
Back to essays about tactical communication