Is your language a killer?

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Trainer Brian Willis wants to incite a revolution against certain law enforcement language that he believes can jeopardize your safety in life-threatening situations.

His goal is to banish subtly negative terminology that pollutes communication-often unwittingly-between instructors and trainees, between officers, and, most important, within your own mind in the subconscious messages you send yourself through your internal "self-talk."

Indeed, even the term "officer survival," he contends, has a negative connotation that could critically influence your reaction in a touch-and-go confrontation.

Willis, now a full-time independent trainer after 25 years as an officer, sergeant and use-of-force instructor with the Calgary (Alberta) Police Service, argues his case for language overhaul as part of his popular Winning Mind Training seminar. In this excellent workshop he focuses on practical mental tactics you can apply to enhance your professional performance. One of these is to take care with the words you choose.

"Words have power," says Willis, who's certified in neurolinguistic programming, a discipline that concerns the relationship between communication and human behavior. "That's particularly true where the subconscious mind is concerned because the subconscious processes and embeds information literally."

Under intense, time-pressured stress, the subconscious becomes the dominant guide for our reactions, he explains. "We bypass our analytical, rational conscious mind and go straight to the emotional, habit-regulating subconscious. In that context, the language we've fixed in our subconscious brain has great power to program us for success or failure."

To illustrate, he cites a sample hit list of words and concepts-far from exhaustive-that he feels every officer should eliminate from his or her vocabulary:

Routine. When you think and talk in terms of "routine patrol" or a "routine call" you reinforce an attitude of complacency and subconsciously accept that you are engaged in a monotonous activity where nothing important, nothing demanding your alertness or skills, is going to happen. "'Active patrol' is more desirable-and more realistic," Willis suggests. "It encourages an attitude of vigilance and continual assessment of what's going on around you."

Asshole, scumbag, mope, dirtbag, etc. These demeaning putdowns may be emotionally satisfying, but they reflect "an underestimation of our opponents," Willis claims. "Actually, some offenders spend more time training to defeat what we do than we spend learning and practicing techniques for safely controlling them. Gangs send members into the military to get tactical training, and some of the people we deal with these days are very skilled in tactics." Dismissive terminology can subconsciously result in dismissing their potential danger.

Fatal funnel. "This term, applied to doorways, hallways and stairways during building searches, is often drilled into us in training," Willis says. "Yes, these spots can be dangerous, but we have tactics for successfully negotiating them. You can win a fight in any one of them." Less freighted with defeatist implications would be "thresholds" for doorways and "transitional areas" for stairways and hallways. "This terminology reminds you that you want to minimize your time there without implying that you're going to get killed there." Similarly he'd like to see "kill zone" converted to "the suspect's field of fire."

"You're dead!" How many times have you been told this by an instructor-often gleefully-when you've screwed up and gotten "shot" during simulation role-playing? This carries two highly undesirable implications, Willis explains: 1) a mistake means the fight is over, you stop mentally and physically; 2) any shot is a fatal shot. "This programs you for failure," he insists. In training, you should be encouraged to correct your tactical mistakes, make things better if possible and continue on to achieve your goal, a successful conclusion. If wounded, keep fighting.

In keeping with this philosophy, Willis rejects the notion that there are "right" and "wrong" responses to a suspect's actions. He prefers to think of "a scale of desirability," ranging from "less desirable" to "more desirable." He says: "Regardless of where your initial response falls on this scale, situations are usually fixable and winnable. If your initial response is less desirable, then flow as quickly as you can into a more desirable response. This teaches you to be a problem-solver. Once this mind-set is instilled, it is unlikely you will stop in training, or in a real-life confrontation."

Defensive tactics. "This implies that you are waiting to be attacked and then you respond. We need to think and talk in terms of 'control tactics,' offensive skills. If you just play defense, the best you can hope for is a tie. For officers, tying or losing are not acceptable.

"We need to develop skills that help us successfully apply controlled aggression, adapt to our environment (when it changes, we change), look for and capitalize on vulnerabilities in our opponents, and use speed, agility, power, cover and concealment, movement-all to enhance our ability to win, not just to 'defend' ourselves."

Strong hand/weak hand. "This terminology implies that if your dominant hand is occupied or disabled you are weak and ineffective with your other hand. With good training and practice, you should develop a non-dominant or 'alternate' hand that can also perform all your important tasks-delivering strikes, shooting, clearing stoppages, reloading and so on. With the proper mind-set and commitment, you'll soon learn that you have two strong hands."

Stress shoot. When a firearms simulation scenario is characterized and promoted as a situation abounding in stress, it in fact tends to create more stress than otherwise. "Often the implication is that the training will be so stressful you won't be able to manage it, and this conditions participants for failure," Willis says. He prefers calling such exercises "advanced tactical shoots."

Part of the preparation for them should be to help inoculate the trainees against stressful environmental factors. "They can be told, for example, 'We're going to be yelling at you, but you are going to be relaxed. You'll be able to tune out things that are not important. You'll remain calm and focused and respond successfully to threats you encounter,' and so on.

"It's important to create an expectation of success, not just another negative experience where the role-players win and the officers lose."

Read Part 2

[For more information on Winning Mind Training, contact Brian Willis by phone at 403-809-5954 or email: Willis is scheduled for a presentation Jan. 18, 2006, on "Winning Mind, Warrior Spirit, Cop Body" at the 19th annual ASLET International Conference in Albuquerque. He'll also be presenting a four-hour block on mental training and language issues at the ILEETA Conference April 25-29 in the Chicago area (Arlington Heights, IL).]

About the author

Charles Remsberg co-founded the original Street Survival Seminar and the Street Survival Newsline, authored three of the best-selling law enforcement training textbooks, and helped produce numerous award-winning training videos. His nearly three decades of work earned him the prestigious O.W. Wilson Award for outstanding contributions to law enforcement and the American Police Hall of Fame Honor Award for distinguished achievement in public service.

Buy Charles Remsberg's latest book, Blood Lessons, which takes you inside more than 20 unforgettable confrontations where officers' lives are on the line.

Recommended Police Training

Join the discussion

logo for print