Monday, May 9, 2011

Listening Skills in Corrections

By Tracy E. Barnhart, Contributing Backgate Author

One of the most significant things you can do to communicate effectively is what is called Active Listening. Some people say the fact that a person has two ears and one mouth illustrates that you should hear twice as much as you speak. One of the foundational keys to good listening is that the listener’s body language should demonstrate interest. Interest is communicated by facing the person, having good eye contact, responding with facial expressions and head nodding. The speaker will be able to see that you are listening and interested in what they are saying. We will review some of the principals, which will assist in sharpening your listening skills.

Listening in a stressful situation is not an easy function. One of the major reasons this is a challenge is because of the “GAP” problem. The average person speaks at a rate of approximately 125 words per minute. The average human mind can receive and analyze approximately 400 words per minute. So what does your mind do while it is receiving the 125 words from the sender? Daydream, think about your future plans as well as the past interactions with the individual, and of course, come up with its own stories to better the one that it is currently hearing. Good listening must be practiced and honed in order to become a professional skill.

Another key to effective listening is to know what the purpose of listening is. The purpose of listening is to gather information. It is not to give advice, not to throw in your own better story or information to establish dominance, or to judge what the person is saying. You want to obtain information in order to internalize the meaning. If you do anything else, which causes the speaker to stop talking, then active listening you started with has now ended. Once all the information has been communicated to you, then you can decide what to do with it and know better what they are attempting to relay. The following are barriers to effective listening:
  • JUDGMENT: Once a speaker feels judged by you they will stop talking therefore ending the relay of information. Regardless of how you feel, suspend your judgment until they are finished talking. They may give you more information than they ever intended too.
  • “ONE UP”: Even though you may have similar stories or experience with the plot do not tell them your part yet, just let the person talk. If you interject your personal information or experiences the person may feel judged and inadequate and stop talking.
  • ADVICE: If you immediately give advice the person most likely will stop communicating. Most speakers know what needs to be done or do already; they simply have a great need to be heard. Let them fulfill that need and within reason, vent.
  • JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS: Don’t jump to conclusions; let the speaker interject their own information until the conclusions.
  • FIX IT: If the speaker is having some difficulties in relaying the information don’t try to fix or hurry the relay. Let them talk it out.
  • THREATENING: When the speaker has done something questionable, don’t threaten, that’s a judgment. Keep your opinion out of the conversation until the right time to interject it, just let the person talk. Threats or aggression will shut down open communication.
The following are what you can do to enhance your listening skills:
  • As mentioned before demonstrate supportive non-verbal cues which show interest. You really want to hear what the speaker has to say. You believe that what the speaker has to say is important to them and you want to help with whatever problem he / she has.
  • Because of the gap problem, you must concentrate and focus on what the speaker is saying. Listen for key words and phrases; oftentimes a person will bring up points and issues, which are important to them and maybe even important to your investigation.
  • Once those key words and phrases are expressed, identify the mood and intensity of them. Statements are made with varying intensity. High intensity statements may be danger signs. You genuinely accept his / her feelings, whatever they are, and you have confidence in the speaker’s capacity to eventually find a solution.
  • Keep the individuals talking: Remember, as the person is talking you are gathering valuable information. Paraphrase what the speaker has said to be sure that you fully understood what they were relaying and ask questions only when you have to. The person who is asking questions is controlling the conversation and if the speaker feels controlled then they may stop talking.
There are many skills that can be used in listening to others. As you have learned, your non-verbal behavior tells other people a great deal about your willingness to communicate with them. There are five key behaviors that will communicate to others that you are open to hearing what they have to say and that you are listening to them. A way to remembering these key behaviors are to think of the acronym S.P.E.A.R.
  • S: Remember your STANCE when talking to another person. This means that your shoulders should be turned slightly away from the other person. Keep your weapons side away from the individual, especially when closing the gap and moving into their body space.
  • P: Have an open POSTURE. This means that your arms are not crossed in front of you, and that if you are sitting that your legs are not crossed as well. You are standing in front of the other person in the ready position. Hands are used to gesture or are comfortably clasped together.
  • E: Have good EYE contact. Good eye contact is the key to effective communications. You should look directly at the person when the other person is speaking and when you are responding. Looking around and looking away sends the message that you are not interested.
  • A: ATTENTIVE behavior. Weight is on the front portion or balls of the feet, assertively digesting the information that the individual is relaying.
  • R: RELAX. Be yourself. As you learn this skill, it may be difficult to relax because you are concentrating on the new behaviors in yourself while watching theirs, but with practice and repetition it will become easier. It is important that you be yourself and relaxed in your encounters with other people. Interacting with citizens and inmates in a relaxed, calm manner will eventually elicit a like response within the other person. 
About Tracy:

     After completion of a Marine Corps combat tour of duty in Iraq in 1991, I completed the National Registry requirements as an Emergency Medical Technician. I responded to calls of emergency medical nature for over three years until I became a police officer for the City of Galion, Ohio. I attended the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy where I attained my Ohio Peace Officers Certification. After three years on patrol I was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant where I was in command of the patrol first shift motivating, stimulating and educating over 10 patrol officers under my supervision. I established active community oriented policing concepts and strategies that promoted a stronger law enforcement / community relationship. Later leaving the City of Galion I was hired as the Chief of Police for the City of Edison, Ohio for the next three years. With a total of ten years experience in a law enforcement capacity I changed careers leaping into the realm of corrections where I am currently employed at the Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility and have been since its inception in 2000.

     I have attended countless continuing educational courses through the P.A.T.C., Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy and the Ohio State Highway Patrol which most I have paid for out of my own pocket. I am the Law Enforcement coordinator the Tri-Rivers Public Safety Adult Education where I coordinate and conceive new continuing educational courses for law enforcement and correctional officers.  I have established courses on verbal de-escalation, Criminal behavior analysis, Use of force, and ground fighting and take down techniques for law enforcement.  I am currently training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to further my knowledge and survival combative base so that the information and techniques I instruct are tested and proven to work.  I not only train proven techniques in the academy, I test them on a daily basis inside my facility.

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