Insight Policing is all about how to communicate effectively when we’re faced with conflict. A key skill in this is verifying – or taking the time to verbally state back what you're noticing.
Verifying draws on common communication techniques like reflecting emotion, repeating decisions and paraphrasing meaning. When we verify, we’re doing three crucial things to open lines of communication and change the course of contentious interactions:
First, we are checking out the accuracy of how we’ve interpreted what we’ve noticed.
Often we take our interpretations for granted and assume they’re true. Verifying helps us make sure that we are operating not on assumption, but on accurate information.
For example, imagine a community member comes to a public meeting and is clearly upset about recent car break-ins. He’s angry, he’s insulting the police department, and he very much wants the situation to change. It would be easy to refute the man’s insults and try to set the record straight, interpreting him as an angry and uninformed resident. But noticing that his behavior is conflict behavior would lead us to set that urge aside and instead verify what we notice about his behavior.
Verifying might sound like this: “I can see how frustrated you are by the uptick in car break-ins in the neighborhood. You are unsatisfied with our response and are hoping more will be done.”
This invites the person to hear that their message has been heard and gives them a chance to either confirm it or correct it. This generates dialogue and opens the door to communication.
Second, when we give someone back their perspective in our own words, we get them talking. We position ourselves to discover more information and clarify the communication.
This is because people naturally want to be heard, especially when they are escalated.
An officer from the Burlington, VT Police Department recently shared with me her experience of how verifying can help generate information and put some order to it, especially when people are heightened or upset. She was handling a group of people who did not want to leave an area where they weren’t supposed to be. One of the women was agitated and telling the officer all the justifications for the group being there. Her story, according to the officer, was chaotic and all over the place.
This makes sense - when we are emotionally escalated, as we are in conflict, it’s hard to think clearly, and our stories tend to jump around. They can be hard to follow.
By verifying what the woman was saying - repeating it back - the Burlington officer was able to put the pieces of the woman’s story in order. As she did that, the woman corrected any misinterpretations and added in detail - all of this captured on a body camera too. That simple act of repeating her interpretation got the woman to think about and clarify what she was saying, which revealed information that the officer was able to use to get the woman to comply.
Which brings us to the third outcome of verifying. When we verify, we let the person we’re communicating with know that we’re listening and trying to understand.
This is powerful. When people are heightened and in defense-mode, something important is at stake for them. They want to be heard on that. Verifying lets the person know that we are tracking them and hearing where they are coming from. This eases the tension and starts to build connection that can lead to cooperation.
In fact, research shows that when we feel heard and understood, the emotional response is the opposite of threat. We feel relieved, secure, and satisfied. Even when we might be in trouble, we are more likely to cooperate and comply when we are relaxed and feel fairly treated.
Even if it feels strange at first, next time you’re confronted with escalated emotions or a chaotic story, try verifying. Acknowledge the emotion, repeat the decision, paraphrase meaning - and stay open to correction. You will be amazed at how well you can bring control to challenging interactions and leave a lasting impression that you’re there to help.
Dr. Megan Price is the Director of the Center for Applied Insight Conflict Resolution, LLC (CAICR) and founder of Insight Policing: Conflict Resolution for Law Enforcement. Dr. Price is Adjunct Professor at George Mason University and Associate Faculty at Royal Roads University. She holds her PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution and focuses on designing reliable, context-based solutions to conflict. Dr. Price is an expert trainer committed to experiential, authentic learning techniques.