Listening, Learning and Law Enforcement

Not long ago, I met the daughter of two of my wife’s high school teachers. Grant and Joyce Banks were legendary in Rutherford County. They traveled to the homes and met the families of every one of their students. Their purpose was to get to know and understand the circumstances of each of the people in their classes. They had no grading pad with them, just the warmth of their own personalities. When we got married, my wife took me to see them and we visited in their home. The last time I saw them was at my mother-in-law’s funeral – Mrs. Banks was too ill then to get out of the car but we stepped outside and talked with them.

Think about the possibilities of taking policemen around to meet every family on their beats, hat in one hand, the other outstretched and weapons back in the car, just to meet, and get to know the people. “Hi, I’m so and so.” “Are there things you’d like me to know?” “Have you had any problems with the police?” And just listen, without response except to make it clear you’re listening. In law school classes we call that active listening, so people understand that you hear them, understand what they are going through, and care about them. This isn’t the time for advice, instruction or explanations. Just “I hear what you’re telling me. I can’t make any promises but I will certainly bring up your concerns at the station or with my boss.” It’s a listening tour, but a very personal one.

That can be hard. I’ve had to endure criticism for some things I’ve run. It really didn’t matter whether the criticism was correct, helpful or plain nonsense – I’ve learned from hard experience that when people tell you what they want you to know, they are not waiting around for you to contradict them. They want to know you’ve heard. Responding is a separate problem and a skill in itself. The best lawyers understand that counseling their clients isn’t as simple as telling them what’s what. I remember one of the named partners of the corporate firm I started with telling our client over the phone from New York to California what my research made clear he had to do. Listening in Marty’s office I knew the client would not. A few weeks earlier, our client had his picture on the cover of Business Week. A few weeks later his company was delisted from the stock exchange. Counseling people, even when you’re right on the money, is not as simple as telling them.

For the police, it is crucial not to get into arguments with people – just to listen. Both the police and the residents have a good deal to learn about each other. And it can’t be done in the first conversation. In some fields this is called soft power. Police are used to thinking in terms of hard power – the power of guns and force. But without soft power, the power of empathy and trust – BOTH ways – their jobs are virtually impossible. I’d make every cop do it, and collectively I’d make sure they covered every family in the neighborhood – here, Baltimore, wherever. Cops have to learn to internalize the value of listening to people even, especially, when people are upset. If and when they learn to understand what people are struggling with, if and when they start cheering and rooting for the people in the neighborhood, we may be able to put most of the violence behind us.

Oh, visiting people like the Banks did might work in the schools too!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 11, 2015.

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