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Therapeutic communication.

Law enforcement officers who apply for assignment to critical incident teams often see themselves, and may be described by others, as possessing the "gift of gab." That is, they display good verbal ability.(1)

Although these officers probably developed some verbal ability while working patrol or other assignments, the proficiency level demonstrated by these officers will vary widely. Some may have received limited formal training in the techniques of interpersonal communication as part of their basic academy instruction. A smaller percentage may have obtained advanced communication training at a university while in pursuit of an advanced degree. Most officers, however, possess little or no formal interpersonal communication training.

This void rarely is filled, even when prospective negotiators become part of a critical incident team. Typically, hostage recovery and negotiation training includes an introduction to abnormal behavior; the terminology and symptoms of the major mental, emotional, and personality disorders; the history and theory of hostage negotiation; the roles of first responders, negotiators, and tactical team members; and a review of equipment, techniques, tactics, strategies of containment, negotiation, and assault. Within this broad array of instruction, little, if any, training focuses on basic interpersonal communication skills. Thus, the primary tool of negotiators - the ability to communicate - remains untaught, left largely to chance and the presumptions of innate ability.

Despite these limitations, negotiators in agencies across the United States have established an enviable track record for resolving critical incidents. However, the volatile nature of such incidents and the potential for harm to hostages and tactical officers should negotiations fail require negotiators to explore ways to improve their communication skills.

This article discusses therapeutic communication, an approach commonly taught to and employed by mental health professionals to resolve conflicts involving individuals with mental disorders. As two law enforcement agencies in Kentucky have discovered, many of the principles of therapeutic communication can be applied in a law enforcement setting. The strong interpersonal communication skills fostered by this approach provide an effective supplement to traditional negotiation training.


Therapeutic communication differs greatly from casual conversation. It is calculated, deliberate, purposeful, and focused. Practitioners carefully formulate each intervention, and when employed in the mental health setting, each intervention is selected to achieve a specific objective at that moment, during the session, and throughout the treatment.

Therapeutic communication involves focusing and following, inquiring effectively, reflecting feeling and content, and structuring dialogue for information and action.(2) For example, mental health workers might find it desirable in a particular case to promote conversation with a shy and anxious person. In other cases, they may need to stem the flow of speech in overly talkative subjects who ramble excessively to mask their feelings.

Therapeutic communication focuses on three response types - listening, acting, and sharing. Each response type consists of several verbal techniques. Within the listening-type response category, for example, therapists use five techniques - paraphrase, reflection, clarification, primary level empathy, and summarization - to help shape the dialogue in a productive way. During therapeutic dialogue, therapists may select and employ any number of these techniques to achieve specific ends.

Students of mental health learn these techniques in graduate level courses and practice them in "micro-counseling" laboratories. During these sessions, instructors introduce a technique-such as paraphrase-and discuss its use and objective. Students then pair off and alternately role-play client and therapist to practice the technique.

Through consistent practice, students become more proficient in each technique. Over time, awkwardness gives way to confidence and fluency. Techniques are added as weaves in a fabric, ultimately forming the seamless dialogue of therapy.


During a hostage taking or barricade situation, negotiators assume a quasi-therapeutic role in relation to the subject.(3) In fact, statistics reveal that negotiators deal predominately with individuals having mental or emotional disorders.(4) Perhaps for this reason, authorities in the field have referred to successful negotiations as "talking cures."(5)

As with therapists, the principal tool of negotiators is the ability to communicate with subjects in a way that resolves an incident with a minimum of injury or loss of life. Likewise, some of the language and techniques of psychotherapy can be applied in incidents encountered by law enforcement, such as domestic disputes, suicide interventions, and critical incidents.(6)

Going beyond standard conversational art, therapeutic communication conveys that negotiators are listening actively to subjects, concerned about their welfare, and invested in bringing the incident to a safe resolution. By communicating a heightened sense of empathy, negotiators may be able to gain insights that could lead to the peaceful surrender of a subject.


Of course, significant differences do exist between negotiators and therapists. Police negotiators, properly concerned with their legal mandate, pursue their agenda primarily by "managing" incidents.(7) Therapists generally are less patently manipulative as they promote the mutually agreed-upon agenda of therapist and client, i.e., the treatment plan.

Despite these differences, a number of law enforcement agencies have recognized the basic similarities between therapy and negotiation. In Kentucky, the Louisville Police Department recognized the value of therapeutic communication and sought training for its well-established and highly effective hostage negotiation team. Similarly, the less-experienced hostage negotiation team of the Jefferson County Jail saw a need to enhance its communication tools.

In response, trainers from the Jefferson County Corrections Department devised an instruction program to present the material in a way that would be meaningful to the officers and allow sufficient practice time. As a unique component of the program, instructors structured the classroom material deliberately and formally in the role-play itself, in a stressed demand situation, to ensure that each technique could be employed and practiced by the participants. The material included in the initial instruction program was not intended to be all-inclusive, but drew from the core techniques of therapeutic communication.


Trainers determined that a two-part program represented the best way to present and reinforce the material. The program consists of an instructional module in communication techniques and a role-play simulation. Through this program, trainers seek to:

* Convince officers of the utility of communication training as a way of improving their negotiation skills

* Reinforce the positive communication skills of experienced negotiators

* Instruct officers in the therapeutic communication skills applicable for hostage and crisis negotiation

* Teach officers the names of the techniques and the rationales for employing them, so that they could be employed deliberately, on demand; and so that the officers could communicate about them in a common language

* Provide officers with a structured opportunity to practice their new skills to enhance confidence.

The Communication Techniques Module

A trained mental health professional presents the communication training module. From the three clusters of response types (listening, acting, and sharing), the trainer teaches 14 communication techniques. Written practice exercises give the students an opportunity to apply the learning and to receive immediate feedback on their responses. The exercises, consisting of hostage taker statements and hostage negotiator responses, then are used as a script to create a dialogue.

For the exercises, the instructor divides the group into triads, made up of two students and an observer. The first student reads the statements of the hostage taker. The second student sits opposite the first and responds with the hostage negotiator's reply. The remaining student observes the two participants. The instructor critiques each of the responses for effectiveness and judges them for accuracy against the accepted responses. After each student completes a turn, the teams rotate until every student performs in every role.

The Role-play

Setting Up

Materials used in the role play include two sets of scenario cards, one for each primary negotiator and hostage taker; a set of 14 communication cards, corresponding to the 14 communication techniques in the training module; a reference book on these communication responses; and instructions for the role-play. Prior to the start of the role-play, the team leader, or controller, chooses a primary negotiator, a secondary negotiator, and a hostage taker.

Communication Techniques

The 14 communication techniques are divided into three categories of response types.
Listening Responses Action Responses Sharing Responses

Clarification Open-ended probe Self-disclosure
Paraphrase Closed probe Immediacy
Reflection Confrontation Reinforcement
Summarization Interpretation
Primary-level empathy Information-giving

The primary negotiator and hostage taker face each other but are separated by an opaque screen; the secondary negotiator sits beside the primary negotiator. This individual gives assistance and support to the primary negotiator, as requested or deemed appropriate, and is prepared to take over for the primary negotiator, if need be.

The controller places the communication cards and numbered scenario cards, respectively, on a table in front of the primary negotiator and the hostage taker. The primary negotiator draws a numbered scenario card from the pack; the hostage taker then draws the same numbered card. These cards contain identifying data (name, age, race, and gender of the subject), a description of the current situation, and a suggested opening line to begin the dialogue. The controller signals the beginning of play and circulates throughout the role-play.

Acting Out the Roles

The controller initiates play with a chime, whistle, or handclap. At this time, the primary negotiator and hostage taker pick the first of the numbered scenario cards and open the dialogue. As the dialogue gains momentum, the controller sounds the first of a series of double signals, usually handclaps. At the signal, the primary negotiator draws the first of the 14 communication cards. The primary negotiator must employ the technique indicated on the card as soon as practicable but before the next signal sounds.

As play progresses, the controller periodically gives a double signal, indicating that the primary negotiator must draw a new communication card and work the specified technique into the dialogue before the next signal. After several communication cards have been played, the controller sounds a triple signal, which brings the play to a halt and opens the debriefing.


All participants - the primary negotiator, the secondary negotiator, the hostage taker, and the controller - take part in the debriefing by providing feedback to each other about their observations and their evaluations of the effects - and the effectiveness - of their actions. During the debriefing, players may ask how the other participants felt when they said something or took a specific action.

After a reasonable exchange, the controller sounds a chime four times, signaling the players to rotate into different roles. A new controller signals and play resumes until each player has had an opportunity to perform each role.


Because communication represents the key to resolving critical incidents successfully, critical incident negotiators must possess the ability to talk with subjects and to convince them that surrender is their best option. Negotiation between two rational parties is a complex process; prolonged negotiation that involves one or more subjects with mental disorders requires a skill level that few prospective negotiators possess. It is wrong to assume the "gift of gab" is enough.

The similarities between critical incident negotiations and the therapies employed by mental health professionals form a strong basis for cross-training. Therapeutic communication enhances the ability of both mental health professionals and law enforcement negotiators to resolve potentially volatile situations.

Many law enforcement agencies currently contract with mental health professionals to provide various services. Teaching the lessons of therapeutic communication to critical incident negotiators could be a valuable addition to the list.


1 G.D. Fuselier, "Emerging Role for the Clinical Psychologist," Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 19, no. 2, 175-179.

2 D.R. Evans, M.T. Hearn, M.R. Uhlemann, and A.E. Ivey, Essential Interviewing: A Programmed Approach to Effective Communication, 2d ed. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1984).

3 H. Schlossberg, hostage negotiation seminar presented by the Louisville Division of Police, Louisville, KY, September 1991.

4 R.A. Bell, F.J. Lanceley, T.B. Feldmann, P.W. Johnson, W. Cheek, and C.R. Lewis, "Improving Hostage Negotiation Strategies: An Empirical Study of Aircraft Hijackers," American Journal of Preventive Psychiatry and Neurology, vol. 2 no. 1, 1-5.

5 D.A. Soskis and C.R. Van Zandt, "Hostage Negotiation: Law Enforcement's Most Effective Nonlethal Weapon," Behavioral Sciences and the Law, vol. 4, no. 4, 429.

6 R.M. Gist and J.D. Perry, "Perspectives on Negotiations in Local Jurisdictions Negotiation Strategies for Escalated Situations," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, vol. 52, no. 12, 5-9.

7 T.A. Johnson, "A Role for the Behavioral Scientist in Hostage Negotiation Incidents," Journal of Forensic Sciences, vol. 23, no. 4, 797-803.

RELATED ARTICLE: Sample Responses

The 14 communication techniques within the three response types provide negotiators with a wide choice of responses to statements made by subjects. Negotiators should carefully gauge the status of the incident and the mental state of the subject before deciding which technique to employ at any given time. The technique used should direct the subject to respond in a way that diffuses tensions and keeps the negotiations process moving.

For example, negotiators can draw from the communication techniques to choose the most appropriate way to respond to a subject who states: "Nothing is going right. My life is a mess."



Negotiator: By 'nothing' do you mean every last thing or just a lot of things that are really important to you?

Subject: No, I don't guess 'everything' is going badly. At least I've got my kid. She means the world to me.


Negotiator: It sounds like things aren't working out for you and your world is upside down.

Subject: Yeah, upside down.


Negotiator: You're feeling angry and frustrated.

Subject: I guess I am. I hadn't realized just how mad I was.


Negotiator: Things are piling up and going badly for you - it sounds like a mess.

Subject: That's for sure.

Primary-level empathy

Negotiator: Everything seems to be falling apart, and you're angry and frustrated.

Subject: You're right.


Open-ended probe

Negotiator: A mess?

Subject: It would take all day to tell you how messed up my life is.

Closed probe

Negotiator: Would you say this is the worst period you've ever gone through?

Subject: Yes.


Negotiator: I'm confused. You said things aren't going right, but you also told me you and your wife were getting back together.

Subject: Well, maybe some things are getting better.


Negotiator: I wonder if your short temper doesn't work against you, you know, makes people not want to be around you, gets you into fights, and makes your boss think you're not a good worker.

Subject: I don't know. Sometimes I think maybe I am my own worst enemy.


Negotiator: At mid-life, most men go through a period of uncertainty about their life, and they often can evaluate it too harshly.

Subject: I didn't think anyone ever felt the way I do.


Negotiator: Take a deep breath and hold it for 30 seconds. See if that eases the pressure a little.

Subject: That never works for me, but I don't know what else to do when I get this way.



Negotiator: I felt the same way 5 years ago when I was going through my divorce.

Subject: How do I get through it?


Negotiator: When you say that, in that way, you sound like you are looking for pity.

Subject: I don't want anybody's pity.


Negotiator: You told me you were in the Marines. You got through boot camp; it had to be tough. Not everyone makes it through. I think that says a lot about your ability to tough it out.

Subject: Do you really think I can?
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Enhancing Negotiator Training; police training
Author:slatkin, Arthur
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:May 1, 1996
Previous Article:Searching locked containers incident to arrest.
Next Article:The police supervisor and stress.

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