Dr. George Thompson had the gift of gab. The former police officer and academic cut an imposing figure in person and on the screen, but his real communicative strength didn’t rely on physical presence. As an early recording of one of his police training seminars shows, Thompson knew how to talk to crowds. This skill is an extension of the suspect-handling skills he picked up through personal policing experience and observation of veteran officers.
If Thompson’s knack for showmanship gave him the ability to impart his knowledge to officers—he trained “over 700,000 officers” over the course of his career—his unique combination of police experience and high-level academic achievement were what gave him skills and knowledge worth teaching. Thus we have Verbal Judo, a well-known and widely used “tactical communication” philosophy taught to police and correctional officers (among other professions) across the country.
Developed by Thompson and honed over years of input from active police trainees, Verbal Judo is designed to enhance communication and persuasion skills. Instruction runs the gamut of common concerns in policing and corrections: increasing safety through reduced physical force, decreasing legal liability for individuals and their departments, and lowering the stresses individual officers feel on and off the job.
To be sure, Verbal Judo has changed to mirror the state of policing many times since Thompson began developing it in the 1980s. It’s seen exponential growth since those days, with departments of all sizes offering the training or requiring officers to take it elsewhere. As a specific flavor of de-escalation training—a major area of focus in many agencies, like the Chicago Police Department—the program puts particular emphasis on empathy, listening and persuasion.
Training applies “common sense” concepts to police work
At a high level, the training program’s core message can be broken down to “treat people with conditional respect until respect is no longer a viable tool.” This is both a point of contention by its detractors and a reason to praise the content. The devil—or value—is in the details.
The training seminar, described in detail at the Verbal Judo Institute’s website, begins its two-day schedule with concepts like presence, professionalism, and the importance of remaining calm during stressful situations.
In the “arena of verbal assault” in which many trainees work, the ability to brush off personal slights and profession-based insults (e.g., “My taxes pay your salary!”) takes power away from the suspect, since they can no longer use their own “verbal karate” to provoke the intended reaction. First-day programming stresses that trainees are representing something other than themselves, which allows the officer to reduce the influence of personal projection and ego in the communication process.
These building blocks of Verbal Judo philosophy help officers who are used to the normal slate of trainings, many of which revolve around defensive tactics and firearm usage, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. This general training is unquestionably critical for police and corrections officers alike, but there is also the so-called “Law of the Instrument” to consider: If you are most comfortable using a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Training on defensive methods can come at the expense of other options. Since tactical communication is a perishable skill that will wither over time, injecting variety into annual training will allow officers to improve their range of skills. Verbal Judo is more likely to give officers options than take them away.
Most of the biggest benefits of this technique become apparent in the early moments of officer-suspect contact. In his training video, Thompson notes the vast majority of interactions start with some sort of verbal contact. Verbal Judo aims to help officers gain compliance from other people during an encounter before force becomes necessary. Instructors do so by teaching trainees about composure and internal balance before honing skills to control external factors.
Proper framing can help prevent escalation, or reduce tensions that cannot be prevented. Thompson spells out five “universal” things people want, regardless of cultures and background. Nearly all can be applied during a routine interaction without the practitioner altering their actual message. Providing options, asking instead of telling—even if it is more of a polite demand than an actual request—and avoiding communication that assumes or exerts total control over the situation can all help an officer achieve compliance without concessions being made.
A framed conversation does not have to be a “nice” one, nor will ever situation employ the same guidelines. Verbal Judo is designed to help officers identify various personality traits and employ communicative techniques that, in Thompson’s experience, are most effective. Whether you are teaching students, managing inmates, or policing your community, explaining to a difficult person why you are asking them to do something may be less likely to lead to conflict.
Nonverbal factors play a role in this delivery style, too. As one New Jersey Academy Director noted during his department’s Verbal Judo training, body language and facial expressions carry an innate credibility that can limit an officer’s verbal communication if one contradicts the other. Paying attention to all these factors in a high-stress moment is a challenge, but simply making officers aware of the interplay may be enough to make them take note.
Empathy influences interactions and draws detractors
Other facets of the program require a more direct psychological approach. Verbal Judo’s “Four Appeals of Persuasion” use a combination of rapport, logic, and exploitation of selfish wants to set a suspect’s expectations. Give them a practical appraisal of the situation and reason with them to support their own desires, such as keeping privileges, reducing fines, or avoiding jail time.
Being able to read people—a skill most police and correction officers understand to some degree—impacts the effectiveness of these four appeals. The trainee nurtures their ability to listen to and empathize with the person they are persuading. While the de-escalation techniques can raise hackles within the police community, empathy doesn’t have to mean the “touchy-feely stuff” Thompson himself eschews. It can instead take on a meaning closer to “enhanced understanding.”
Empathy as a tactical safety tool has deep roots in the world of policing. Thompson, who passed away in 2011, built the idea into Verbal Judo from its inception. Today, advocates like Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission Director Sue Rahr spread much the same message. Besides giving trainees a chance to attain common ground with the people they engage, and benefit from the resultant credibility and compliance, Rahr claims that understanding why the suspect is acting the way they are can be key in predicting what they’ll do next.
Feeling bad for someone is a lot different than understanding their experience. Simply honoring their perspective—perhaps with a deflecting statement that begins “I understand why you feel that way, but…”—allows the officer’s own voice to be heard, potentially preventing a forceful outcome.
Verbal Judo is not the only tool
Verbal Judo is not an all-encompassing solution. The program itself devotes much time to recognizing situations where the technique is not appropriate, or necessitates action when it stops being effective. These situations, known as S.A.F.E.R. situations, call for immediate action, moving officers away from verbal control techniques and towards other more physical options.
- Safety: When you or someone in your control is in imminent danger
- Attack: When the person to whom you are talking invades your “personal danger zone” (i.e., gets too close, comes up behind you, or engages in other threatening movement)
- Flight: When the person to whom you are talking flees
- Excessive Repetition: When the person to whom you are talking begins repeating themselves over and over, indicating that they’ve switched to a “fighting reaction”
- Revised Priorities: When the situation changes to make action prudent and necessary
Still, Verbal Judo’s utility in the moments between first contact and physical force make it a valuable skill to acquire, especially for departments looking to lower liability, improve or maintain public relations, and keep their officers and communities safer. While empathy, understanding, and measured speech may initially raise eyebrows or draw objections from some, the ultimate goal is less about goodwill and more about gaining an upper hand—and gaining it verbally where possible.