In the early 1990s, the police academy I attended was not a place to learn emotional intelligence. It taught young officers to be in command and control with their presence. It taught that when a person is in crisis, an officer’s job was composed of three parts. Those parts were to ask, to tell, and to make. In other words, I’m going to ask you to do it, I’m going to tell you to do it, then I’m going to make you do it. Simply put, we were taught to control people.

The training never incorporated pausing to listen or even reflecting on what a person might be saying. Additionally, it did not provide police officers with a foundation or mindset to divert people from the criminal justice system. Quite frankly, it was about putting people in jail by force. In short, my reflection on the training I received as a rookie police officer: IT WAS TERRIBLE!

Police officer training has come a long way since the 1990s when it lacked critical thinking skills outside of firearms and defensive tactics. Officers were not taught to process several important questions: why might a person be in crisis, why would a person be beyond their breaking point, and even why should I care? This training model set many young officers up to focus on fixing the problem at that moment in time and then go off to the next call. This type of training has the officers coming back to the same call, “fixing” the same problem, time and time again. The repetitive process allows a person to become apathetic and to never understand the power of empathy.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, writer Annie McKee (2016) states the following:

“The ability to read and understand other’s emotions, needs, and thoughts—is one of the core competencies of emotional intelligence and a critical leadership skill. It is what allows us to influence, inspire, and help people achieve their dreams and goals. Empathy enables us to connect with others in a real and meaningful way, which in turn makes us happier—and more effective—at work.

It wasn’t until later in my law enforcement career that I had the opportunity to attend a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training and learned about empathy. Attending this course was a game-changing, pivotal moment in my direction and purpose in policing and beyond. Understanding empathy taught me to shift from having to control someone’s behavior to influencing their behavior. By slowing things down, actively listening to understand, and putting myself in their shoes by verbalizing the feelings and emotions they were sharing, I found myself able to de-escalate situations that, prior to training, would have likely resulted in a use of force incident.

Finding patience came with understanding how to use empathy as a tool and seeing it work in my interactions with others. Patience was a skill I had been lacking with my fellow officers and community. Using empathy was more powerful than any of the gadgets or gizmos on my police belt. When empathy was used properly, many of those gizmos were not needed. It turned from controlling one’s behavior to influencing it.

Not only did empathy become my best friend as I spoke to folks on police calls, but it changed how I led subordinate officers and even how I spoke to my children. For example, instead of my typical fatherly response to a grumpy teenager that had a bad day at school—“What’s your problem; someone pee in your cheerios?” I replaced that with, “Hey, you seem upset, did something happen today”? Verbalizing the emotions I saw, let my daughter know, “I see you. If you’ve got something going on, I’m here to listen.” Empathy builds trust, relationships, and connections that can often make any job that much easier. But most importantly, learning how to use empathy can help us be better towards each other and listen to understand instead of listening to respond.