Therapeutic communication – police training

Therapeutic communication – police training – Enhancing Negotiator Training

Arthur slatkin

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

COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group