Friday, April 24, 2009

The Art of Verbal Judo

By Jean Henry Mead

Wyoming’s statewide newspaper, the Casper Star-Tribune, recently ran a lengthy article titled, “Tongue Fu.” The staff writer, Thomas Lacock, reported that the Casper Police Department was becoming expert in overcoming rage issues.

For the past six years, 81 officers have been taught the art of verbal judo, which in Japanese means “the soft way.” It’s an appropriate title for a program that teaches officers how to deflect and redirect citizen anger. Although the course is put to work in the field, training officer, Lt. Jack Branson, doesn’t consider the course a “kinder, gentler” way of handling complaints and offenders.

Branson says there’s a misconception about the Tongue Fu course and that he’s not teaching a “warm and fuzzy program.” Instead, it’s tactical communication with specific goals in mind. The objects are to enhance professionalism, decrease citizen complaints and police liability in court as well as increase police morale.

The program’s instigator, George Thompson, was an Olympic-class swimmer with a black belt in judo. Thompson also has a doctorate in Rhetoric and Persuasion from Princeton. A former English teacher, Thompson drifted into law enforcement and used his police experience to put his program together.

Thompson insists that the key to verbal judo is to avoid what he calls “natural language,” which is the usual response to someone else’s actions. Officers are taught to stay focused and steer people toward positive actions. At the very least, they’re supposed to give them options.

By telling people that you understand how they feel, and avoiding taking anything they say personally, you can deflect their anger away from yourself. He admits that the techniques he outlines aren’t easy to follow, but with practice, they become a way of life.

There are two approaches to verbal judo:

At a routine traffic stop, the officer approaches the car and introduces himself, planning to change a possible confrontation to simply person-to-person dialogue. The officer than tells the offender why he stopped him or her and explains which traffic rules have been broken. Drivers are then asked why they were breaking the law (wife in labor, child with serious injury, etc.). In case of an emergency, the officer will try to help. If not a legitimate emergency, officers ask for the usual license, registration, etc., then write a citation and wish the driver well. Patrolemn are advised not to say, “Have a nice day,” but rather “I hope the rest of your day goes better.”

At a confrontational stop, such as a potential drunk driver, the officer introduces him or herself and makes a formal statement of the actions needed to be addressed. Possible options are offered, which may not be what the offender wants to hear, but at least they may be better than they anticipate, Branson said.

Officers then try to learn if there is anything they can say to “modify the citizen’s illegal behavior” and get confirmation whether the behavior will change. The officer again offers options before action is taken, whether it’s arrest, a warning, or sending the offender home with friends. Branson says that confirmation that behavior won’t voluntarily change is necessary because it will be used in court.

The course has reportedly made things easier for the Casper PD. Branson admitted to being an “acid-tongued cop” prior to his own training, and said the department will continue to teach a refresher course every two years, as most police academies are now doing.

“It seems to calm people from their rage,” Branson said. Not completely, but down to a level where they can understand their options.

But what about police rage?

Law enforcement agencies in other areas should take note of the Verbal Judo course, particularly in the southern border states, where numerous incidents of abuse have been reported. At least one of them was recently caught on tape, where TV newsmen were roughed up and handcuffed at the scene of an accident: An El Paso incident.

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