Tactical Paraphrasing

Making active listening work in the real world

By Ellis Amdur, MA, NCC, CMHS  |   Nov 30, 2018

‘Active Listening’ dominates discourse on ‘deescalation,’ at least as far as classes and training seminars go. As for using it in the field, however, that’s another story.

The Problem

You are in a situation where you are trying to calm down an agitated individual. In classic form of active listening, the officer is told to use stilted language like: “What I hear you saying is …” or “What you are sharing with me is …” The officer then sums up what they understand the person is saying, almost as if he or she is ‘mirroring’ the individual. Here are the problems with this approach:

1. If you are ‘in your head,’ trying to craft sentences in a way you don’t normally talk, your attention is divided: you will be so busy thinking that you lose tactical awareness.

2. You’ll sound like a therapist, not a police officer, and that is not likely to enhance command presence.

3. Many aggressive individuals are hyper-aware of attempts to manipulate them. When you verbally use a ‘technique,’ you may be perceived as ‘messing with them.’

Aware of these problems, officers often emerge from such training frustrated, because they have been told to use an apparently unusable tactic.

A Different Approach

Enter what I call “tactical paraphrasing.” Why should an officer even consider this method?

First of all, it is a specific tactic for communication with people who are agitated or angry, but not presenting immediate threat. Angry people are trying to communicate, albeit one way: Them to you. They’re intent on getting through to you or they wouldn’t be talking (or shouting). That’s why, when you misunderstand or offer suggestions off the mark, they get angrier: “You don’t get it!” or “Shut up and listen!”

Then the individual will feel compelled to repeat themselves with more intensity, at which point, they get more irrational. By summing up in a phrase or sentence what the angry individual has just said, you establish that you got what they said.

Furthermore, most people’s anger has several layers. For example, they are belligerent because you asked for some ID, but they are already walking around with a bad attitude because their spouse is leaving them and that’s happening because they lost their job. It is like peeling an onion. As you peel off each layer, the individual gets to the next layer that is driving them. A fair question comes up at this point. Why should you care? Because, by knowing the leverage points, you can manage their behavior better.

Your communication has to be ‘under the radar,’ however. Rather than pseudo-therapy, the subject should not even notice a technique is being used. You must talk naturally. For this reason, I will refer to this variant as ‘tactical paraphrasing’ to separate it from ‘active listening’ as generally taught.

It’s very important that your voice is strong. You speak in a matter-of-fact way, using ordinary language, exactly the way you do to keep a conversation going. You’re not trying to prove you want to help or even care: just that you are tracking what they’re saying. Notice below, you talk no differently than you would to an acquaintance:

Person 1: “Nice day, isn’t it.” Paraphrase: “Great to see some sun.”

Person 2: “They lost again!” Paraphrase: “Ever since they fired the coach, they’ve been downhill.”

Person 3: “I’m worried about my dad.” Paraphrase: “He’s not doing so well, huh?”

And here’s how the same thing looks in police contacts.

Police Contact: “That motherf*ker. I’m gonna kick his ass!” Paraphrase: “Wow, you’re really pissed off.”

Police Contact: “Something’s going on, officer. He shouldn’t have been in her room.” Paraphrase: “You think he’s doing something he shouldn’t.”

The issue is simply to bring an ordinary conversational skill to consciousness when in a tactical mindset, so that what you do in a conversation, you can do in a crisis.

If they want to tell me, why don’t they just answer my questions?

A question shows that you have not understood what they are communicating. They experience this as failure—they can’t get through to you! When anger is combined with this sense of powerlessness, the individual feels like he is losing to a more powerful other: you. In essence, they experience a question as an interrogation, as putting you in a dominant position in regard to them.

Angry Individual. “I am so mad at my daughter that I could just choke her! I come home and find her on the couch lip-locking that kid from down the street. Skater trash punk!”

Correct paraphrase: “You are really upset with her!”

How do you think a question would work right now? “Are you upset with her?” Obviously! He’ll probably explode.

Severely Mentally Ill Individuals

Paraphrasing can be effective for communication with severely mentally ill people. It helps them stay more mentally organized. In this case, you paraphrase in a sequence, one after another.

Example:

You go out on a ‘check the welfare’ call.

Murray tells the officer that he’s ‘electric.’

OFFICER: “Pretty confusing, huh?” (NOTE: Because at this point, the officer is just telling Murray what he understands, which isn’t much!)

Murray: “Darn right it’s confusing. How’d you like to be in my head?”

OFFICER: “I wouldn’t want to be in a confused head. It must be hard to think.” (NOTE: Good assumption, right?).

Murray: “Hard to think and scary. The voices say scary things. They tell me to hurt me.”

OFFICER: “I think you want some help.” (NOTE: A reasonable assumption. A paraphrase is your understanding, not just mirroring.)

Murray (nodding): “Yeah, I don’t want to bleed.”

OFFICER: “Somebody would make you bleed.”

Murray: “Yeah, them, in my head. Make me bleed and other people too.”

Notice the officer’s last sentence. S/he simultaneously:

  • checked if Murray’s got real enemies;
  • thinks he has enemies;
  • maybe wants to hurt himself; and
  • in the process, the officer finds out Murray’s voices are telling him to hurt others.

Notice that the officer didn’t ask one question. Questions could have thrown Murray off track, making his communication more confusing and harder to assess for risk.

Remember, though, that paraphrasing is self-correcting. Murray might have replied, “There’s no blood out here. I’m holding it in.” He lets go of his wrist that he was clamping with the other hand and the blood from the cut veins starts pouring out.

Don’t Waste It

I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes when they read the title of this article. This technique is too important to abandon, but like all techniques, there’s a time and a place. If an individual is upset or angry and not yet presenting immediate threat, tactical paraphrasing comes into its own. And, by the way, what if it doesn’t work and the person becomes more heated? You’ve just enacted a great threat assessment, finding out quickly that this person is too heated to be deescalated. When tactical paraphrasing doesn’t work, it usually means that the individual, enraged, needs to be controlled by the officer.