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A policing tool we don’t talk about enough

I had an interesting conversation with a retired Lieutenant Colonel last week. We talked about how important it is that officers use critical thinking skills when making high-stakes decisions. 

The conversation was relevant because Insight Policing skills are steeped in the idea that activating critical thinking with targeted curiosity is what turns conflict into cooperation. 

When an officer uses Insight Policing skills with a community member who is emotionally heightened or resistant, it activates that person’s ability to think critically.

The listening officers do and the questions officers ask remove the barrier of conflict the person is putting up by giving them a chance to consider, think about and articulate whatever is leading them to use conflict behavior in the first place. This opens the door to communication and understanding – valuable assets for maintaining control, discovering relevant information, gaining compliance, and solving problems safely and effectively.

But in order for an officer to position themself to open that door and engage conflict well, they must first activate their own critical thinking. 

This isn’t something our team spends a lot of time talking about, but it is a key premise of Insight Policing. When we’re met with conflict behavior, the most common reaction is to respond in kind. If someone resists, we push harder. If someone yells, we yell back. It’s our instinct. It’s our brain’s response to threat.

In order to get curious in conflict interactions, we have to be able to override our instincts and think critically.

We do this by noticing our emotional reactions, taking stock of what our emotions are telling us, and deciding to get curious rather than to react without thought. 

Skills to help yourself think critically

Of course, this is easier said than done. That’s why we’ve been building skills into our curricula to help officers activate their own critical thinking in the face of conflict. Skills like noticing when our bodies are communicating feelings of threat, breathing in order to relax our stress response, grounding ourselves to maintain calm, and getting curious about ourselves to wonder: what is upsetting about this? What am I worried is going to happen? What is my best option?

The idea is that activating our own critical thinking is essential for activating another person’s critical thinking. And being skillful in activating our own critical thinking helps in other contexts too. Insight Policing raises relevant questions for reflecting on ourselves, our assumptions, our emotions and our decision making in a way that can lead us to make decisions that are in line with the outcomes we are hoping for. 


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