Is your language a killer? (Part 2)

by Senior PoliceOne Correspondent Chuck Remsberg

In Part 1 of this special PoliceOne series, we shared insight into why Trainer Brian Willis believes 8 common law enforcement phrases may inject subtly negative terminology into your mind-set and ultimately may jeopardize your safety. In Part 2, we share 5 more:

Guided visualization. Mentally rehearsing your reactions in threat scenarios before you actually encounter dangerous confrontations on the street is widely recognized as an effective training technique. Even more officers could take advantage of this method of ingraining positive responses into their subconscious if the terminology were changed, according to Willis.

"Instructors commonly tell officers to close their eyes and 'see' or 'picture' themselves in their mind's 'eye' confronting some potentially life-threatening situation," he says. "The problem is that not everyone processes information visually. About a quarter to a half of the population is not visually wired and can't 'see' mental pictures. So after they try to and fail, they give up on this valuable training technique."

He recommends that officers be told to "imagine" themselves in a given scenario. Those who are visually oriented will "see" the desired picture. The others can still "feel" themselves to be in the situation by calling on whatever combination of senses allow them to activate their imaginations. "Not everyone can visualize," Willis explains, "but everyone can imagine."

Sight alignment. "This term implies that you must hold your gun perfectly steady or you're not effectively on target," Willis says. "But no one can do that. The only way to get perfect sight alignment with a handgun is to put it in a vise. Otherwise the front sight is always wobbling at least a little." He argues that "sight picture" is a better term. "It allows for a natural amount of movement, yet if you achieve it and then follow with a smooth trigger press (not 'pull'), your rounds will still go where you want them to."

Remedial training. If you're ordered to extra training that's labeled "remedial" the emphasis is on the connotation of failure and inability. If the name is changed to "skill enhancement training" the inference is more encouraging and promising, one of adding to a foundation of abilities. "Additional instruction should not be additional opportunities to fail," Willis declares. "It should involve exploring different ways to reach your goals, and the positive attitude that's necessary for success begins with the name of what it is you're engaging in."

"Try" and "don't". Two more of Willis' pet language peeves are the use of the word "try" in connection with striving toward goals you want to achieve, and the use of "don't" in giving instructions.

"When you say you're going to try to do something, that allows for-even anticipates-the possibility of failure. The full commitment to accomplish what you say you want to do just isn't there, and your subconscious mind accepts the willingness to fail. That makes it easier to fail.

"When you start a sentence with the word 'don't,' your mind has to create an image of what you're not supposed to do. For example, 'Don't jerk the trigger,' 'Don't quit,' 'Don't stand still in the suspect's field of fire,' 'Don't panic,' 'Don't move.' In imagining what not to do, your mind tends to drop the word 'don't' and processes the rest of the sentence and the image it conjures into your subconscious. This tends to propel you into repeating the same negative behavior over and over again."

Willis displays a photograph of a bicycle patrol officer in training flying over his handlebars. He'd been told repeatedly, "Don't hit your front brake when you have to stop abruptly." Yet in a stress situation, that's exactly what he did.

"For positive results, you need to communicate what you want of yourself and others in positive terms: 'Press the trigger smoothly,' 'Keep fighting,' 'Move to the nearest cover,' 'Stay calm,' 'Stay still and listen to my commands.'"

Survival. Even some of the near-sacred terminology of officer safety needs to be improved, in Willis' view. "We talk about 'officer survival' and the 'survival mind-set' and we repeat the mantra 'I will survive,' but is merely surviving as far as we really want to go? We want to WIN! That's our only acceptable option. Not only is it ok to win, it's our duty.

"'Survival' is too defensive in nature. You can take great injuries and still survive. Is surviving but being permanently disabled the most desirable outcome?"

He cites the case of an officer who was attacked by a prisoner in a holding cell area. "For approximately eight minutes the assailant unleashed a violent, unrelenting assault against the officer. The officer was punched, knocked to the ground, his head smashed against the concrete floor, attacked with his own handcuffs, OC spray and baton. Eight minutes! The officer was defensive-surviving-during the entire attack, until he finally drew his sidearm and shot the suspect numerous times. Even while shooting, he was moving backward in a defensive posture.

"It's very common for officers to continually back up while their assailant continues to attack, or to curl up in a ball while being violently assaulted. They adopt the role of the prey while the offender is their predator. They deserve respect for surviving nightmarish situations, but you have to wonder how differently these encounters might have evolved if the officer had been taught to win rather than merely survive.

"If you're in it, win it! Survival should be a byproduct of winning, not the other way around."

Some of this may seem like nothing more than linguistic nitpicking, but Willis insists that there's a proven effect from what he's advocating. "Change your language and you'll change your results," he says.

Dr. Alexis Artwohl, an internationally known law enforcement psychologist who does performance enhancement seminars of her own, notes that Willis' crusade for positive terminology "obviously makes intuitive sense." She considers it a "good approach to take in hopes of achieving not only better performance in training, but better actual performance on the street as well." She believes the subconscious impact of language and its imagery is an area ripe for more scientific research.

Some research in this area is now underway at the Force Science Research Center, a PoliceOne strategic partner headed by Dr. Bill Lewinski at Minnesota State University-Mankato. There researchers are currently analyzing the nature of verbal commands issued by police officers attempting to control potentially resistant subjects.

Among other things, preliminary results of this study suggest that what Lewinski calls "alpha commands"-those stated in direct, positive terms-are much more effective in controlling suspect behavior than orders given in negative or indirect language.

Willis' thinking on language, Lewinski says, "is something law enforcement needs to take a serious look at." Studies of subjects ranging from dental patients to concentration camp inmates have proved that the way messages are communicated-by others and in our own self-talk-do have a significant impact on results. "Shifting our language and consequently our thinking may be one of the most profound things we can do" to build winning behavior, Lewinski says.

Willis, meanwhile, describes a remarkable experiment in human performance conducted by the U.S. Army in training recruits to qualify with a .45 pistol.

A control group of males and females went through the Army's standard 4 1/2-day Combat Pistol Qualification course, during which no special effort was made to have the training be a positive experience.

A test group with comparable demographics, by contrast, was told that they would be taken "to total competence in pistol shooting in just two days." This group was consciously exposed to positive language about the weapon, the instructors and the recruits' own abilities; they were introduced gradually to the skill of shooting, beginning with a close-combat exercise that was virtually impossible to fail; and their range training was augmented with guided imaginings of pistol operation and successful shooting.

Some members of each group had fired handguns before but none was an expert nor was any a weapons enthusiast.

In the end, Willis reports, 73% of the control group qualified, 10% of them as experts, with an average of 375 rounds expended.

Of the test group, 100% qualified, 25% as experts. The average number of rounds fired to qualify was 176. "All of this group qualified in less than 12 hours of training, with two qualifying as experts after only eight hours," Willis says. "One of these had never fired a pistol before in her life."

Language was not the only component of this striking success, he concedes. But he's convinced that the positive words the instructors used-and that the students integrated into their own thinking-helped put the rounds on target.

For more information on Winning Mind Training, contact Brian Willis at 403-809-5954; or by e-mail.

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.

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