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  • Writer's pictureCAICR

5 Reasons Officers Use Curiosity to Turn Conflict into Cooperation

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

There are many rewarding moments in law enforcement– helping victims, keeping people safe, protecting the community.

But officers face difficult moments all the time.

When the job requires enforcing the law or responding to someone having a bad day, tempers can flair and cooperation can be hard to come by. Often, this is where a situation escalates.

The Insight Policing skill set helps officers take a unique approach to these types of encounters that helps them turn conflict into cooperation. For those who have taken our courses, you likely remember that this approach, which incorporates research-backed conflict resolution skills, all hinges on curiosity.

Here are five ways curiosity works as a first line of defense in the face of behaviors that could escalate conflict:

1. Curiosity frees us from assumptions.

In law enforcement we often encounter what appears to be the same thing over and over again. Because of the fast and efficient way we make sense of the world, it’s natural to assume we know what’s going on. It’s the “been there, done that” mentality. When someone is angry and not doing what we say, we usually have an explanation for it based on our own experience.

Take the example of someone who has been arrested for shoplifting and doesn’t want to get into the police car. It’s easy to assume that they don’t want to get in the car because they don’t want to get in trouble and face the consequences. Who would?

But when we’re curious, we give ourselves the opportunity to check out what we think we know. We might even be surprised. What’s really going on could be completely different from what we expected. Knowing what’s going on gives us better information to help us solve the problem.

An officer trained in Insight Policing recently had the experience of a shoplifting suspect not wanting to get into her police car. She recognized his resistance as conflict behavior and got curious about it. When she did, she discovered that the suspect was afraid that he would get to jail and be put in the same cell as some people who had fought him in the past. She was able to use that information to assure the man of his safety. Once she addressed his fear, he got in the car without a struggle.

2. Curiosity gets us thinking about what’s really making us mad.

Strong emotions like anger, fear, frustration, and resentment are both protective and reactive. They are closely linked to our survival response. When we interpret something to be bad or wrong in a way that negatively impacts us, our instinct is to defend against it before we have a chance to give our interpretation much thought.

When we can pause and get curious about these strong emotions, it gets us out of that reactive mode and into a reasoning mode.

The officer trying to get the shoplifting suspect into her car reported feeling frustrated that he wouldn’t comply. But before she got too drawn in, she was able to pause and wonder about her own emotions in that moment, asking herself: What is frustrating about his resistance? How is it impacting me? Her answers were that she had a job to do and his resistance was getting in the way. She didn’t have time to struggle with this person, she had other calls waiting for her assistance.

Identifying what was on the line for her allowed her to expand her options. Forcing him in wasn’t going to save her time. So, she got curious about him too.

3. Curiosity leads us to the root of the problem.

When you ask another person about what might be causing their strong emotions or what they are trying to change by resisting or fighting, you start to discover information that can be useful to the law enforcement encounter.

Not only that, but your wondering gets the other person to wonder too, leading them to think about where their emotions are coming from, what impact they’re imagining and whether it’s realistic. This can temper their strong emotions and get them reasoning enough to tell you what’s going on for them.

Once you discover what problem is getting in the way of their cooperation and compliance, you can address it – removing the barrier that was getting in the way of doing the job.

This is what happened with the officer and the shoplifting suspect. By getting curious, she was able to get to the root of why the suspect was resisting and getting in the way of her doing what she needed to do. She was then able to use that information to solve the problem and get compliance.

4. Curiosity helps us feel good doing our job.

Law enforcement can be stressful, especially when things aren’t going right and people aren’t complying. But responding to those situations with curiosity activates reward centers in your brain.

As we begin to collect relevant information and gain control strategically, we are able to come up with novel ways to problem solve. This is inherently rewarding. As people - and especially law enforcement - we like to problem solve and see results. Curiosity gets us there.

5. Curiosity creates connection and builds trust.

When we are curious about a person who is creating conflict for us, we show them that we want to see things from their point of view. Not only is this empathy in action, which creates positive connection, but it brings the other person into the process of problem solving.

When people feel heard and included, trust starts to form. This increases the probability of voluntary compliance, enhances information sharing and creates a positive rapport. This dynamic, especially when used consistently across an organization, has the power to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and community members.

How could curiosity work for you?

Officers who have taken part in Insight Policing and bring a curious mindset to challenging encounters report satisfaction in how it shifts the trajectory of escalating encounters quickly and easily. Next time you go to a call and are met with conflict behavior - high emotions and resistant, uncooperative behavior - take a moment and think about how to get curious about it. When you do, you’ll likely be rewarded.

To learn more about the science behind curiosity in conflict, check out this article in Revista de Mediacion.

To learn more about Insight Policing classes, visit our Courses page.

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