Chapter 1

The Principles and Complexities of Oral Communication

Why is communication important in personal life?

In our personal life, communication helps us to make and keep friends, while developing new relationships. Most of us are attracted to friends who are good listeners – friends who hear what you have to say and can comment on what you have said. They demonstrate empathy and care by actively listening to what you have to say.

Poor listeners tend to drift off our ‘friend radar’ because they appear not to be interested in our life. Likewise, to keep friends, it is important that we demonstrate good listening skills that inform our friends that we care about them enough to listen to what they have to say.

Communication skills are also important because these skills enable us to express our beliefs, values and feelings on a wide range of subjects. We are able to effectively present sides to a story that represents what we believe. When we are effective communicators, we also have the ability to make change in society, our community or in someone’s life. We are able to advocate for people, convince people to change, and persuade people to tell us things.

Why is communication important in professional life?

While effective interpersonal communication is important for our private lives, our professional lives are also well served by effective interpersonal communication. The hiring process starts from the first time the applicant telephones, emails or meets with the recruiter of the law enforcement agency. When we are trying to gain employment, it is important to accurately communicate to the recruiter who we are, through the clothes we wear, the way we walk, even to the way an email is constructed. Poor communication at the very onset of the application process will likely prevent an applicant from progressing through the early steps of a recruitment process, and having a chance to compete for a job. It is critical that prospective employees understand that the way they communicate to the recruiter will have a profound impact on their ability to be hired.

Effective communication is essential for the following reasons:

Gaining employment

Finding a meaningful job or career includes participating in a job interview. Job interviews are stressful, and interviewees who are experienced in the art of interpersonal communication are more likely to impress the interviewer. Good communicators are likely to be more relaxed in the interview because they are confident in their communication skills. Applicants will also be called upon to write essays, stories or answers that are evaluated not only for content, but also for the writing mechanics (grammar, spelling, sentence structure and organization) demonstrated by the applicant.

Building bridges with other workers

Often when working, we don’t know how to respond to certain issues that arise, and we need to consult with other organizational members. In order to do this, it is important to build relationships with experienced members based on communication.  We can do this by writing professional emails and by using positive interpersonal communication.

Advancing in levels

To be considered for promotion it is important to have excellent writing and interpersonal skills. To advance to the ranks of detective, officers must demonstrate the ability to build rapport with subjects involved in the investigation. Officers must also demonstrate the ability to write effective reports in complex investigations. In doing so, officers demonstrate an ability to organize complex files in a manner that is presentable to the Crown Counsel, Defense Counsel and other investigators.

Reading and comprehending duties

Officers in law enforcement are in a hierarchical organization in which they are at times given orders, either verbally or in writing. In order for the officers to perform their duty, it is essential that they comprehend what is being asked of them by their superiors. The ability to listen means to physically hear what is being said, and interpret what the superior means. Hearing may be problematic due to radio transmission issues or crowd noise. Understanding what the superior means may also be difficult, due to the language of the superior or inexperience of the subordinate in comprehending the true meaning of the message.

Explaining to subordinates

Superiors should address subordinates in a way that makes their meaning clear at a different level. In law enforcement, a high ranking officer must be careful not to use language that may not be appreciated by those that are on the street, such as language that is used in the board room. Likewise, the high-ranking officer must not use patronizing language.

Setting a good first impression

A recruit is observed and judged on their first day of employment with a law enforcement agency. How they attend that very first day will, rightly or wrongly, impact the way that recruit is perceived. A recruit who attends with poor grooming that is not in keeping with the standards expected in law enforcement may expose a side to their personality that suggests poor planning, poor research or a lack of practical intelligence. Unkempt recruits will be given one warning to improve their deportment, however, even if they change and follow directions, they will have unwittingly communicated a personality trait to instructors that is not positive. While this situation is not irreversible, the recruit will have to correct impressions that could have been avoided by understanding the importance of communicating through deportment.

Why is communication important for law enforcement?

While police officers must be trained and ready to use force, they are expected to use their communication skills to de-escalate when possible before using force. Police agencies throughout Canada and most developed countries are training officers to use their communication skills rather than force.

Peele’s nine principles

While the use of communication skills has been steadily developing and taking more central focus in tactics, the notion of using communication as a key tactical step can be traced to the early 19th century, when we consider Sir Robert Peele’s nine principles:

  1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it. here is a brief history of the New Westminster Police Department
Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) in Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1837
“Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1837 – Sir Robert Peel” by Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.), , Wikisource is in the Public Domain

When assessing Peele’s principles, we are able to appreciate the intended positive relationship that the police should have with the public. At the core of the principles is the importance of communicating with the public by the police to project the adherence to these principles. Communication is accomplished through actions and interactions with the community. It is hard to imagine a police department attaining each of these principles without some way of communicating to the public the manner in which these principles are achieved.


In addition to Peele’s principles, law enforcement agencies also advertise their values. As an example, the Vancouver Police Department lists the following values on their web site:

  • Integrity
  • Compassion
  • Accountability
  • Respect
  • Excellence

Only when effective communication practices are used, by the department as a whole and by individual officers, are these values all achievable. Likewise, to demonstrate these values, applicants to the VPD must be able to communicate in a way that achieves these values. Without effective communication, these values are not realized by recruits, the members of the agency, or the agency itself, and the values become meaningless. Effective communication allows the department to express these values to the community in a meaningful way, and allows individual employees and police officers to demonstrate these values.

Communication and Peele’s principles

Communication is a cornerstone of Peele’s principles. The importance of effective communication in law enforcement aligns with Peele’s principles for the following reasons:

  1. Police are tasked to prevent not only crime but also disorder. In preventing crime and disorder, officers must receive and give information from and to the public by opening and maintaining lines of communication. Today’s community policing initiatives are critical in preventing crime; effective community policing relies upon open communication. Preventing disorder also relies upon communication. Most disorder in society is not of the criminal nature, and arrests may not be a suitable way to prevent disorder. As such, officers have to rely on skilled communication to prevent and stop disorder.
  2. Canadian society demands that officers not use force unless authorized and justified under the Criminal Code. Additionally, officers are expected to use only as much force as is necessary, and when no other course of action will allow them to perform their duties.
  3. Communication will enable co-operation with the public, and thus require a minimal use of force.
  4. Using effective communication rather than physical force will preserve public favour, demonstrating absolute impartiality regardless of who the police are dealing with.
  5. The public at large will favour any successful conclusion achieved by effective communication rather than physical use of force.
  6. Police who apply persuasion, advice and warning effectively will be able to lessen the need for force, thereby gaining public favour.
  7. Police are reminded that they are the public. As in all relationships, communication is critical, so that the public can view the police as the public. Only through open communication can these principles be re-affirmed and re-enforced.

The principles of Peele are also pertinent to modern day policing in ways that would have been inconceivable to Robert Peele. Modern day policing is highly complex. Officers are held to a high degree of accountability that requires articulation for decisions made throughout investigations, or in a split second when an officer is faced with a decision whether or not to use force. Investigations and decisions regarding the use of force are expected to reflect professionalism and non-bias. Furthermore, the physical use of force is expected to be justified, and an officer’s execution of duties that limit the rights and freedoms of the public is expected to be justified under the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Officers are expected to be able to communicate their decisions effectively in court and articulate in clear and concise language the reasons they took the actions they did. Likewise, officers are expected to remain calm when under great pressure either on the road, on the court stand or in a boardroom. The expectations for officers to demonstrate excellent communication skills is high.

Examples of necessary communication skills

The modern day police officer is expected to have excellent communication skills for the following reasons:

Complex investigations need clear writing.

Every officer will from time to time investigate complex situations in which there are multiple crime scenes, multiple witnesses, multiple suspects, and complex and varied evidence. Investigations such as these require investigators who are able to write in a manner that clearly reflects what has occurred and what evidence the investigator has collected. Investigators are also required to communicate effectively with:

  1. other investigators;
  2. other agencies;
  3. victims;
  4. suspects;
  5. witnesses;
  6. media; and
  7. medical professionals.

Interviewing witness, victims and suspects

Good interviewing technique requires officers who can demonstrate empathy appropriately as well actively listen while strategizing appropriate questions to ask.Every criminal investigation consists of two elements: the crime scene, and people who are witnesses, suspects and victims. Witness and suspect statements should be treated as crime scenes to be mined and searched for evidence. Witnesses and suspects are as diverse as the general population, and an investigator must be prepared to meet with people from these diverse backgrounds. Receiving a fair, truthful, accurate and admissible statement is always an integral part of any investigation, and can change the direction of a case. As a result, investigators must be able to communicate effectively with a wide range of personalities.

Giving evidence in court

At the end of every case in which charges are laid, investigators face the prospect of giving testimony in court. As a witness in court, officers must be able to articulate what they did, what they observed, and the decisions they made and why they made these decisions. Officers who are experienced and effectively articulate their actions will give their ‘evidence in chief’ in a professional manner with little or no prompting from the crown. The end result for these officers is that their ‘evidence in chief’ provides a professional accounting of the investigator’s part in the investigation that highlights the main points of the investigation. An effective articulation of the ‘evidence in chief’ will lead to few questions by the crown and minimal questions by the defense in cross examination.

Talking to the media

Often investigators will be required to participate in media conferences, or to provide information at the crime scene rereading a case. Officers that perform this function must project a professional image that fosters public trust in what the officer has stated. Officers in this situation should be trained to interact with the media and must be able to choose their words carefully to avoid being quoted out of context. Officers must be transparent, truthful and sincere, while guarding what they say, without appearing to be guarded.

Articulating any use of force, grounds for arrest and search

Unfortunately, law enforcement officers are legally required to use force at times. Officers who use force must articulate why they felt the need to use force and verify that the use of force was justified under the criminal code. The consequences of not articulating accurately the grounds for using legitimate force are serious and may result in criminal charges for assault. Officers must be able to communicate verbally and in writing their accurate recollection of their actions.

De-escalating people who are in crisis

Police officers spend much of their time working with people who are in crisis for a variety of reasons. To effectively police the public, officers must be able to use verbal and non-verbal communication skills to allow people in a state of crisis to be persuaded, without physical force, to keep the peace.

Articulating their decisions in court

Officers who arrest suspects will likely have to attend court and outline the grounds that they formed to search, arrest, and/or detain the suspect. An officer who has worked at excellent communication skills should be able to tell the truth in an effective way. Defense Counsel will use a variety of methods to represent the best interests of the accused. Some of these methods may involve questioning the officer in a way that is designed to anger or confuse the officer.  Even if an officer has conducted a fair, ethical and sound investigation, they may not be able to communicate this to the jury, or articulate the reasons for some of their decisions, if they become emotionally drawn into an argument by the Defense Counsel’s.

Some problems in communication for those in law enforcement

A key reason officers are hired is their demonstrated ability to communicate effectively with other people. They are given myriad tests, assessments and interviews in which they are required to demonstrate an ability to communicate both verbally and through the written word. In spite of this, officers are human and will at times find themselves in situations in which the ability to communicate is greatly hindered. The following factors play key roles in difficulties with communication.


Officers, like the public, represent many different cultures. Officers who are confronted by citizens who are from a different culture may not understand the nuances of the culture. It is important that the officer respect different cultures and that they adapt their communication to best suit the citizen. Officers should become familiar with cultures that they serve in their community. They should also identify key factors required to effectively communicate with these citizens, in settings ranging from emotionally distended persons to friendly community groups.

Implicit bias

Officers who unconsciously feel a certain way about a group of people may have difficulty understanding why it is difficult to build rapport with a person from that group. Officers should be aware of their implicit biases and understand that these are potential triggers that may be barriers to effective communication. Officers should develop strategies that mitigate these triggers and remove the barriers that may result in poor communication.

Explicit biases

Officers may have a bias towards certain people because of their past history with that group. Unlike implicit bias, these biases are exhibited by the officer and are not unconscious or hidden. Officers may have an explicit bias against pedophiles. These biases are likely to act as barriers for the officer to build rapport with a person they are investigating, if the officer believes that person is a pedophile. While communicating with a pedophile may be difficult, officers must develop strategies that mitigate the barriers. Some officers have developed strategies, such as thinking of the offender as a child who was themselves sexually assaulted. Other officers have focused on the means to the end, wherein the officer will do anything to gain a confession, including bonding with someone they detest, with the sole goal of providing justice to the victim.

Lack of experience

Not every officer has experience in communicating, especially in emotional or difficult situations. Officers that have little experience may struggle with actively listening, and instead concentrate on other important issues, such as their safety, the safety of others or even how they are being judged by spectators. As officers gain experience, they will become more relaxed and able to rely on past strategies that were effective, and avoid strategies that were not effective.


Officers are often thrust into situations in which they are confronted with people who are emotional. As a result, officers are often impacted by the emotions of the subject, and may have difficulty effectively communicating. Some officers experience this when sitting with someone grieving; at times watching and listening to a person in such an emotional state can cause the officer to share the same emotion. Officers can also become emotional when observing an injustice or someone in pain. Officers must develop strategies to mitigate these feelings. Some officers have developed strategies which allow them to compartmentalize the victim’s situation. They take the perspective that the crime was no fault of their own and that they are there to provide justice for the victim. In doing this, officers should be able to focus on the tasks involved in the interview.


Officers may be guarded in what they say out of concern for accountability, and may not say what ought to be said to diffuse a situation. For example, an officer who may want to apologize may not apologize, fearing that an apology may hold the officer accountable for the actions.

Inter-agency language

What means one thing in one agency often means something different in another. For example, in the VPD, PC refers to Police Constable; in the RCMP, PC refers to Police Car or cruiser. Likewise, officers may hear terminology that they ought not use. For example, lawyers in court refer to their lawyer contemporaries as their friends. It is unacceptable for police officers to refer to defense lawyers or prosecutors as their friends.


Law enforcement has its share of acronyms. Officers often rely on acronyms to shorten their communication and make it more efficient. As a result, officers often forget that their audience may not recognize their use of acronyms. Care should be taken by an officer to use familiar acronyms, or at least write out the full term the first time it is used. The use of acronyms in reports also makes reports unreadable at times.

The Limitations of Listening

When teachers lecture in a class, they know through the class’s body language that, at times, much of the class is not actively listening. They may retain some information, but they also miss much information because they are daydreaming or thinking of other things. This may be the fault of a boring lecturer, or it may be that the student has difficulty focusing on the task at hand for myriad reasons (Farley, Risko and Kingstone: 2013). Students tend to demonstrate their inattention by fidgeting; by observing this, professors can alter their lecture to regain the attention of the students. Students may try to pretend that they are listening and paying attention but if they are not actively listening and concentrating, the information that the teacher is attempting to transmit is lost. Research does strongly suggest that in a lecture format, most information that a teacher attempts to relay is lost by the students (Farley, Risko and Kingstone: 2013).

Listening is something that can be done at different levels, and at times people can pretend to be listening and not gather information. People have ways to fake that they are listening, and it is incumbent on the speaker to be aware of clues that the listener may be exhibiting that demonstrate the person is not actually listening.

Hearing and Listening

Photo by RyanMcGuire from Pixabay

Hearing is different than listening. When we hear something, at times we are not listening. Hearing is physiologically receiving sound waves that impact our eardrums, Listening is the action of taking the soundwaves that impact our ear drums and transmitting that information to our brains, where we can consciously understand what the sound waves mean. When we hear sound waves, they can be a complex and potentially confusing mix. We separate sounds that do not matter from those sounds that are important; we selectively choose what is important and what is not important.

Listening then becomes a complex process of

    1. selecting;
    2. attending to, or focusing on;
    3. constructing meaning from, assigning meaning to;
    4. remembering, recalling information; and
    5. responding to verbal and non-verbal messages.

(MacLennan, J., 2007?)

Listening is much more than hearing; it is the transmission of the soundwaves into something that we do something about, either by responding or learning (Pavord and Donnelly, 2015). Listening is critical to success as a student. In a classroom setting, listening is critical for learning:

    1. material;
    2. what will be on exams;
    3. what are the assignments;
    4. what are the class deadlines; and
    5. what are the school policies.

Listening at school is critical for success. Likewise, listening in social settings is critical so that students can enjoy their social lives, meet new friends and maintain those friends that they have. By being a good listener, we will be appreciated more by those we communicate with, and we will likely be sought out as a good listener.

On the other hand, when we meet someone who seems distracted while we are talking, it is unsettling. The listener that isn’t really hearing what you are saying demonstrates this by looking over your shoulder, or looking to their right or left, and generally not making eye contact. Talking to such a person is frustrating, especially if you have something important to say. Likely, after talking to such a person, you would not seek that person out again if you had some important information. The information that such a person misses out on could be catastrophic if the information is important. It is important for people in positions where information gathering is critical to be good listeners, and to demonstrate to the person that they are communicating with that they are good listeners.

If we are talking to someone that we are with frequently, we can at times not actively listen. Chances are that we know what the person is talking about without really hearing what they are saying. We know that married couples often tease one another that at times their spouse doesn’t listen to them. They can become lazy listeners while they are together, especially if one of the partners isn’t interested in what the other partner is talking about. At times listening can be hard work, taking a lot of effort to focus when it is easier to day dream or pretend to be listening.

When working in law enforcement, it is critical that officers engage in active listening and demonstrate to the other person that they are actively transmitting information and critically thinking about the information that they are receiving. Officers who demonstrate active listening are much more likely to have people seek them out to provide what can be critical and valuable information. This may include information about:

    1. contraband (drugs, guns, pornography);
    2. crimes committed but not reported;
    3. suspects that have committed a crime;
    4. crimes committed and reported; and
    5. witnesses that may add information about a crime.

An officer who is actively listening obtains more information, and will likely be better able to act proactively in fighting crime than an officer who does not demonstrate active listening skills.

How to listen

Listening takes effort, but it can be achieved by those that are new to active listening. Roberts and Rosnick (2010) suggest nine tactics that enhance listening skills:

Decide to listen

  • Concentrate and remind yourself that it is important to listen. That there is important information that you must learn from the person who is speaking. This will help you focus on listening.
  • When you are introduced, choose to remember the name of the person that you are introduced to. Often when we are introduced to a new person whom we have never met, we tend to shake their hand and forget their name right away. Good listeners actively remember the name of the new person by using tricks, such as repeating the person’s name right away while shaking their hand. They also talk about their name and associate someone else with that name or a similar name . They may mention this to the person. All this will enable the receiver of the information to remember the person’s name while simultaneously creating rapport with the person, and demonstrate to the person that they are actively listening.

Avoid selective listening

Hearing only what we want to hear can lead to misinformation, or to misinterpret information that is important. In a case in a British Columbia municipality, detectives interviewed a suspect in an unsolved homicide. During the interview with the suspect, the detectives were convinced that the suspect would not be willing to confess to the murder. The detectives developed a strategy to interview the suspect in a way that would make him want to confess. During the interview, the detectives were very mindful of their strategy and the dialogue that they had systematically designed. During the interview, the suspect started to sob and in doing so he stated on video that he had committed the murder. He stated this between sobs and in reviewing the tape later it was quite apparent that this was a confession. During the interview, the two detectives did not hear this because they were waiting for denials and were concentrating on their planned dialogue. The detectives spoke over the suspect’s confession by telling him to remain quiet so that he could listen to what the detectives had to say. Their listening was selective; they planned to hear only denials at that stage of the interview, and tuned out anything else. When the detectives finished with their scripted dialogue, the suspect had learned not to talk about his confession, and never spoke again. It was only after the recording was reviewed years later that the confession was heard and the investigation was re-opened.

Give acknowledgement and feedback

Everyone wants to be heard when they are talking and, as the listener, it is important to demonstrate to the talker that you are listening and that you are understanding the message the other person is communicating. This can be done using the following techniques:

  • Nod or be silent. By nodding you are using your body to effectively tell the speaker to continue and that you understand what they are saying and trying to communicate. This simple movement will cause the speaker to continue and acts as a prompt for the speaker to continue. Likewise, one of the struggles listeners have is to remain silent and allow the talker to speak uninterrupted. Interviewers must learn that their questions can wait until an appropriate time, usually when the speaker has assured you that they have nothing further to say. Remaining silent will allow the talker to carry on with their thoughts uninterrupted. Interruptions stop the talker’s train of thought, and may cause them to move away from what they thought was important, which could be something that you would want to hear. At the same time, remaining silent will create a dynamic in which the talker believes that you are more interested in what they are saying than what you want to say. It is always necessary for the silent listener to demonstrate through their body language positive signals that they are actively listening, in spite of their silence.
  • Paraphrase. Paraphrasing is the act of the listener restating in different words what the listener believes was said by the speaker. Paraphrasing is a powerful tool that enables the listener to ensure that they are receiving the true meaning of what the speaker has stated. If the listener’s perception of what the speaker states is not accurate, a paraphrase allows the speaker to correct the listener and clarify what they meant to say. It is a check and balance to ensure that the information relayed is accurate. Paraphrasing by the listener also assures the speaker that the listener is not only listening, but correctly interpreting the message the speaker is relaying. It creates confidence in the speaker that their message is being heard and will likely cause the speaker to continue communicating with confidence. Care must be taken by the listener to ensure that the speaker is not constantly interrupted and that the paraphrase is appropriately timed.

Ask appropriate questions

At times critical information may be missing and questions are needed to fill the gaps. Typically in an interview, it is best to ask the questions when you are certain that the speaker has completed their statement.

Open versus closed questions. Open-ended questions allow the speaker more opportunity to speak. Asking “just tell me yes or no, was he wearing a red jacket?” is problematic because the answer is likely to lead to a yes or no answer. Conversely, saying, “tell me about what he was wearing” will lead to more detailed answers that may inspire other thoughts. Furthermore, the close-ended question may signal to the speaker that the questioner is impatient or upset. The answer will likely be much shorter than to an open-ended question.

Look for the subject’s non-verbal cues

As a listener, it is critical to not only listen to what the speaker is saying, but to monitor what differences that appear in the body of the speaker while they are speaking.

  • Body language. Body language includes non-verbal physical signals that can be unconscious forms of communication that tell us more than a person’s words. These signals may indicate that the speaker is uncomfortable, dishonest or experiencing other emotions. Most of us have read body language at one time or another. At times, we may see someone on TV describing a sad incident they have witnessed and attempting to portray a strong disposition. When watching the person, we notice the person’s lips begin to quiver and the subject looking away from the camera. These are body language signals that the speaker is having difficulty controlling their emotions, but they reveal how the person really feels. As a listener, it is incumbent on us to see these signals and use them to our advantage. If we say, “this must be very distressing for you” , the speaker will believe that you are listening and will likely feel comfortable continuing to talk. Body language will manifest itself in different ways and, while at times these movements may be obvious, they may also mean different things. Great care must be taken in interpreting what body movements mean.
  • Tone of voice. The tone of the voice is closely tied to body language. While the sound of the words is critical, a change in the speaker’s tone of the voice may tell the listener that the information being relayed is sensitive to the speaker. When excited, speakers may increase their rate of speaking, while speakers who are bored or frustrated may slow their rate down. Likewise, speakers who really want to emphasize a point may emphasize a word to separate it from the other words in the sentence.

Listen with your whole body

Just as we as listeners should watch the body language of the speaker, we must also monitor our own body language. A listener who is bored can easily demonstrate to the listener that they are not interested in what the speaker is saying. This tactic can be used to end conversations and to prolong conversations. If a listener is longing to end a conversation with someone, body language exhibited by the listener can assist in ending the conversation. Moving away from the speaker, or looking at their watch are all signs that indicate that the listener  would like the conversation to end. Likewise, if a listener wishes to project that they want the conversation to continue, then the listener may lean forward and nod, indicating that they are listening and wanting more information.

Use body language to convey what you want to convey. Listeners may nod, or smile when they are hearing what they want to hear. This will enable the speaker to be sure that they are on the right track. The listener must take care that they do not lead the speaker to say what the listener wants to hear and not what the speaker may want to say.

Separate fact from opinion and propaganda

We are living in a time that some people refer to as the “post truth” era, when politicians such as Donald Trump have little regard for the truth. It is important for listeners to critically assess what is being said to them and to question the truth. To be aware of and guard against lies and mistruths,, Roberts and Rosnick (2010) suggest that listeners listen for inflaming words or biased words. These words betray what the speaker may be thinking or hiding rather than what they are saying. This helps the listener understand what the speaker really means. The listener is also forced to critically listen and ask questions to gain a better understanding of what the speaker is talking about.

Control your emotional response

Roberts and Rosnick (2010) suggest that the ability to listen is enhanced when listeners are in control of their emotions. To be in control of one’s emotions, listeners should know what bothers them and what other people can do and say to bother them. When something is said that bothers a listener, Roberts and Rosnick (2010) suggest ignoring, confronting or addressing the comment, but continuing on with the conversation.

Make notes

Notes assist all listeners to recall what was and was not stated. Notes also help the listener to determine whether or not they need to follow up with the other party for clarification. A good idea for a conversation that may be contentious is to make notes and follow up with the other party in an e-mail that includes the notes, so that both parties can agree on what was said. This way the other party has an opportunity to clarify what you may have misunderstood. This is also a useful technique for confirming tasks that have been delegated, so that all parties are aware of what is expected of each other.

“Police talk to people” by jasonlevis is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Barriers to effective listening

There are reasons that people are at times poor listeners. Roberts and Rosnick (2010) identify nine barriers to effective listening. They include:

Lack of interest

We have all sat through lectures or presentations that do not interest us. At some point, most of us start to think about other things and we ignore what we do not care about. For example, a police officer who is investigating a murder will likely not pay too much attention to a witness talking about a minor ticket they received, and after the interview may not even recall that this was mentioned.


As with lack of interest, when we are not interested, we tend to think of other things; this is day dreaming. For example, an interviewer who is struggling with personal issues away from their job may daydream during an interview and miss parts of what the other person is saying.

Emotional concerns

We may have a connection to the story that inhibits us from actually listening to what the person is saying. We may have made up our mind already and are emotionally prevented from listening accurately to what is being said. For example, an interviewer who was sexually assaulted as a child may have difficulty listening to a sex assault victim’s recollection of an assault that is similar to the one the investigator suffered through.


Our biases hinder what is accurately being heard, and these biases influence our perception of what is being said. For example, a police officer who has a bias against homeless people may have trouble listening to a homeless person lodge an assault complaint against a fellow police officer.

Physical location

The physical location of the conversation or interview is critical, and must be a relaxing, comfortable and quiet environment. For example, sitting in police car interviewing someone on a freeway may be distracting to a witness. It may also be noisy, and if the police car has a Mobile Data Terminal, sitting in the front seat may be uncomfortable for the witness.

Inability to understand

At times we talk to people that are clearly incapable of appreciating or understanding what is at issue, e.g., a police officer talking to an elderly person who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or a doctor using highly technical terms in an interview that confused the officer.

Unclear presentation

If the speaker does not present the information effectively, e.g., a witness who switches from a chronological accounting of events to unrelated vignettes, the listener may not clearly understand the speaker’s intended message. For example, an officer may literally interpret a colloquialism used by a young person if the officer is not familiar with the phrase, e.g., “he was sick”.

Lack of retention

This is an inability to recall information. For example, a witness to an accident may not remember an instruction from a police officer to email a written statement, if the witness has already provided a verbal statement or a field interview.

Non-Verbal Communication

Both the receiver of information and the provider of the information must be aware of and assess non-verbal communication. Facial expressions, hand gestures, the tone of voice, micro and macro body movements, the way we dress and wear our hair, the cleanliness of our face and hands, and the friends we keep, are all ways in which we display body language.

The presenter of the information must at all times be aware of the information they are providing through their non-verbal communication. At times, when the presenter of information is bored, uninterested or angry, they will project their true feelings and create a barrier for the listener to really understand their true meaning. Conversely, the listener can interpret body language and truly understand what the presenter means.

Imagine a person curling their lip and clenching their fist, while asking for a favor from a listener. The listener is likely to wonder why the presenter’s body language contradicts their words. The listener may be upset, and even frightened, to the point of planning an escape, and therefore missing the presenter’s verbal message. Likewise, it is difficult to present information when the receiver is showing a curled lip and a clenched fist. The presenter might be preoccupied with thoughts of their own safety, and their presentation of the information would suffer.

Most of us would recognize these basic body language clues. Clothing and personal grooming can exhibit even more subtle body language clues. Police officers who spend time as undercover operators experience the different ways that they are treated in different settings. A police officer who, before becoming an undercover operator, likely presents as a law-abiding family person who conforms to most of norms. However, that very same officer is often treated differently, as if they were a law-breaker or not to be trusted, when they become an undercover operator and meet people that do not know them as a police officer.


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Communications in Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice System: Key Principles Copyright © 2021 by Steve McCartney and Cindy Patterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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