What I Learned About Communication From A Bridge at Midnight.

I’ve been in law enforcement for nearly a decade. That’s a whole lot of time maintaining control,

telling people what to do, and making them do it when they refuse to listen. That’s years and

years of doing the talking. It’s years and years of keeping a safe distance. It’s almost a decade of

giving trust ONLY when it’s been earned.


But I got into the law enforcement business to help people. I had a very idealistic view of police

work which probably came from too many episodes of Blue Bloods and the 1st 48. After a very

short time I began to wonder what I was doing with my career.


But that all changed when I was given the opportunity to join the Crisis and Hostage Negotiation

Team for my department. I went from giving orders and keeping my distance to asking questions

and trying to connect with people who I would normally keep at bay.


The simple difference between a normal cop and a negotiator is a street cop sees a man with a gun and yells repeatedly “Put down the gun!” The negotiator asks the question, “Sir, would you like to put down the gun?” Or “Sir what made you decide to bring that gun with you

today?” Negotiators ask questions.


Being a negotiator hasn’t just changed my view of law enforcement. It’s drastically impacted what was already a very successful coaching business. All because I’ve learned how to connect. Connection is the foundation for establishing influence. Influence is leadership.

Connection is the foundation for establishing influence. Influence is leadership.

As a negotiator I know how to connect. I don’t connect with just anyone. I connect with people who are at the lowest point in their day, week, month, year or life.


A real life example of this connection came only a few weeks ago. I was with my family enjoying

a Sunday evening when the text message came: A man was standing on the outside railing of

the tallest bridge into the deepest canyon in my city.

I kissed my wife and kids goodbye and headed to the call. I was the second team ever to arrive

on scene and my partner and I were given the simple mission “Go do what we do. You two are

up.”


On the bridge I saw Mark (obviously not his real name), a 39 (not his age either) year old man standing on the railing overlooking the canyon. Mark was unresponsive. He would not

acknowledge our presence. Only when we called his name would he look our direction, wave us off, and then lean over toward the canyon. He was obviously contemplating the biggest decision of his life.


My partner and I stood on the bridge with Mark for over 3 hours attempting to connect. We spoke

to him about anything and everything we could think of. We asked him questions about his life,

“What brought him to the bridge? Why he chose that day? What kind of pain was he attempting

to resolve?” My job was not only to negotiate but to use information I gathered from listening to

Mark. But how do you listen when he wasn’t talking?


And then it happened. My partner mentioned Mark’s 10 year old son. Mark didn’t give a verbal

response and my partner continued speaking. But I saw something. I told him to ask about

Mark’s son again and make sure it was a yes or no question. This time, my partner heard mark’s

response too. But not in words.


It was so subtle we should have missed it from 30 yards away on a bridge at midnight. Mark

simply changed his posture and gave us a tiny thumbs up with his right hand. CONNECTION!

We built on this simple rapport and watched every non-verbal move Mark made. We saw what

triggered him and what built trust with him. We learned what brought hope and what made him

feel more desperate. At some points we even got smiles and eventually, he began to respond

with real words!


After after six hours, a whole lot of watching and listening, Mark voluntarily came off the bridge,

walked slowly to us and shook our hands. What was the key? What convinced him to change his mind that night? I believe with all my

heart the answer was found in listening to him even when he wasn’t speaking. People are always communicating but it’s not always with their words. When we can truly begin to listen, then and only then will be able to connect.



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