If It’s Not Shared, It’s Not Reality.
One of the most under-appreciated, and yet most important, skills any security guard can have – especially in executive protection or high-care environments like hospitals and aged-care facilities – is a broad and effective suite of communication skills. The title of this article is a quote from Colonel Pete Blaber, the commander of US Special Forces reconnaissance teams in Afghanistan in late 2001, and it rings true today when we consider the often isolated or autonomous work that security professionals do.
We’ve all heard about effective communication, or interpersonal techniques in either the workplace or the school room at some stage – but what does it really mean to us in the security industry? What effect does it have out on the ground?
Firstly, there are two key roles that effective communication skills fill for a security professional on duty: one is as a set of tools to be used to shape and control situations, and the second is the often overlooked necessity of the “reach back” to teammates or management to ensure we get the guidance, support, or backup we require as efficiently as possible by enabling effective decision making.
Types of Communication
There are three basic forms of communication recognised today. All interpersonal interaction falls within:
· Verbal Communication deals with how and what words we use to convey an intended message. It is worth noting that most English-speaking cultures rely heavily on direct, almost blunt messages, while others, such as Latin and many Asian cultures depend on context and non-verbal cues to convey meaning.
· Non-Verbal (Contextual) Communication can be critical when dealing with people from different cultures, but also drives the unconscious engagement with verbal communication. The contextual cues can cover body language, positioning, hand gestures, even the way you present yourself in dress and bearing.
· Written Communication is important when recording long-term information, such as submitting reports or logbooks, or developing information products such as signage for a site. Most often, issues with written communication arise because there is no way to draw context or tone from them – they can give the impression of being direct and aggressive.
Of course, there are reflexive elements to these categories: written communication requires reading and comprehension skills, and listening skills are just as important for effective communication as verbal skills.
Barriers to Good Communication
Some of the biggest everyday challenges security professionals will encounter on duty are caused by disrupted communication. When the information loop breaks down, straightforward outcomes become challenges, and minor problems can flare into major ones.
Some of the most common barriers to effective communication follow on from the points made above – at the simplest, a language difference will render almost any attempt at verbal communication invalid. It will be rare that a security guard will have a trained interpreter or translator to hand, and care should be taken when seeking or accepting help from members of the public, for reasons outlined later on. If a company has taken steps to register as an agency with the Department of Home Affairs Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS), their security professionals will have access to over 160 languages and 3000 credentialed interpreters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The service provided by credentialed interpreters is invaluable, and is certainly a better option that the advice often given to “find someone nearby who speaks the language”. Why? Because unbeknownst to the soliciting guard, the cultural influences on the subjects may remove one barrier, only to replace it with another – false assumptions and stereotyping may impact negatively on the message being relayed, or cultural sensitivities such as losing face or speaking to elders may prevent key elements of the message getting across.
Other barriers may be more obvious – simple physical barriers like distance, or poor lighting preventing the reading of body language and other contextual clues can distort the messages being sent, immediately raising the stress of everyone involved, and leading to an unwanted and unnecessary escalation of the situation.
Effects of Disrupted Communication
A situation is likely to be escalated when poor or ill-considered communication methods are employed – common causes are aggressive shouting or tone of directions or questions, as in many situations aggression begets aggressive responses, particularly if the subject is already belligerent. These effects can be compounded if security guards respond in visibly excessive numbers, “swarming” or “charging” an area – giving the impression of impending force being used. This can be particularly dangerous in an armed incident.
If a security guard or the subject are distracted or not fully engaged, as noted above, the confusion can also lead to incidental escalation based on misconceptions by both the guard and the subject. The confusion caused by numerous guards or subjects all trying to communicate can cause sensory overwhelm, again fuelling an escalation.
A situation, conversely, can often be de-escalated, or managed at its current level by applying some practiced techniques, while being conscious of appearance, and the context a security presence creates. Verbally, the easiest way to de-escalate a situation is to engage the offender by asking questions: start with simple yes/no questions, but then aim to get them thinking – ask open questions about the incident: Why are they doing this action? Who do they want to talk to? What do they want to achieve? If need be, divert questioning away from the incident to more benign topics.
Care should be taken not to compromise the de-escalation attempt by countering the verbal engagement with conflicting non-verbal cues or context – if the questions need to be shouted from some distance, they probably won’t have as much effect. If you’re trying to de-escalate by engaging on a personable front, don’t fidget with your equipment (especially firearms), or hide behind walls or around corners.
Often – especially in training scenarios, we see the phenomenon colloquially called “the goofy-loop”. A “goofy loop’ occurs when communication has broken down to a point where an impasse has been reached – neither party willing to back down, nor escalate. This usually occurs when a guard escalates too quickly, either in levels of force, or by issuing empty ultimatums that they are unwilling or unable to follow through.
There is no “magic bullet” to improve interpersonal and communication skills. The best way forward is always to pursue further education, as we mentioned in our first article – continuous professional development will continue to build on the foundation skills that will directly crossover to the duty workplace.
There are a range of short courses addressing not only communication skills, but also cross-cultural awareness and communication offered by some universities and TAFE colleges – often open to the public – otherwise, be sure to enquire the next time you enrol in a training course if there are any similar available.
But to start, the best first steps to take are to audit yourself: practice taking a “tactical pause” immediately before you engage in any incident – no matter how big or small – take a minute or two and ask yourself what needs to happen here? How do I achieve that outcome? And develop one or two key messages to anchor any interaction. This “tactical pause” can help check any physiological reactions – the stress effects – from becoming overwhelming, and will help you keep a clear head going into an encounter, which is a key to communicating effectively.
Next, think about how you carry yourself on duty – does your dress and bearing, your personal presentation, convey the non-verbal messages you want it to? Or does it undermine any assertiveness you have? Dress and bearing are some of the easiest factors to affect and have a disproportionate effect. Check back through the log books and reports – are yours up to standard? If not, why? Written communication improves not only through practice, but good editing and feedback – if you have a supervisor or manager who can help you, don’t be afraid to ask.
This article barely scrapes the surface of the deep field of interpersonal skills, communication techniques, and cultural awareness. We’ve focused on the “immediate” skills – engaging with a subject or offender on duty, in a raised-stress environment. Later on we’ll take a step back and look at other workplace communication, such as better note-taking and reporting.
Do you think your staff could benefit from improved communication skills? Call, email, or DM Mindset today to discuss options for a Professional Development seminar or ongoing training support with our highly qualified and experienced consultants.
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