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Picture yourself in a situation where you have to approach someone to ask a question while on patrol. You might need to ask them where a particular person lives or if they know anything about a particular person you are investigating. What I want you to think about is how you would react and what you would do when that person refuses to help you. What is your initial response going to be? What is going to happen if your instinctual response to their refusal still doesn’t drive the person to cooperate? While officers often learn how to adapt their approach to a situation like this by honing it throughout their career, training adaptable officers means that we have to ensure they have multiple options available to them to handle situations like this from the earliest points in the career.

In Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life, where my co-author Jason Riley and I wrote about how the Combat Hunter program taught deploying service-members how to recognize threats, we talk about the four mutually exclusive ways we can assess an individual person based on their behavior. Since every single person we are observing can be categorized as either being dominant, submissive, uncomfortable or comfortable, these four categories become the four options that an officer has available to them when the person they are talking to refuses to cooperate. In this particular situation, the options are:

  • Take on a dominant posture. Be aggressive and assertive. Let them know verbally and nonverbally that you are in charge, that you are an authority figure and that they must cooperate with you.
  • Take on a submissive posture. Be non-threatening to the person. Explain why you need the information and what you will do with it once you have it, while presenting on a non-confrontational stance and posture.
  • Take on an uncomfortable posture. Be the one who feels threatened by the situation. Display nervous and anxious behavior while telling the person how you will get fired, punished and won’t be able to feed your family, if you don’t get the piece of information you’ve inquired about.
  • Take on a comfortable posture. Be completely unaffected by the “no” response. Be relaxed, open and completely unthreatened by their refusal to provide the answer you sought. Change the topic of conversation altogether.

While any of these approaches could be effective in a situation based on the behavior of the person you are talking to, you may naturally pick one of these four choices as your “go-to” strategy for getting a person to co-operate. Remember that our ability to succeed is something that will only be determined by the person we are talking to. If that person doesn’t provide us the information that we are after, then we have failed to accomplish our goal for the conversation. Being adaptable means that you are able to change your approach based on the situation you are in instead of sticking with a technique that isn’t working. But being able to actually put these four options into practice and being able to have multiple options for ways you will adapt to the conversation is not something you can simply read in a blog article, a textbook or in a class and immediately start applying it in an operational setting. If you haven’t practiced all of the approaches, and if you haven’t seen first hand the strengths and weaknesses of each different approach, then your ability to use all of the options at your disposal is going to be severely limited.

As an exercise to test your current ability in using each of these four approaches, go to a busy city sidewalk and interrupt people walking past to ask for directions. Use each of the four options and watch how they react when you first approach. When you displayed dominance, did the person comply to avoid any confrontation or did they start to become dominant back? How did they react once they assessed you as being submissive and non-threatening? Displaying discomfort and appearing to be lost might be a challenge at first, but practice it until you are able to make it work.

One of the reasons why we recommend asking for directions from people is because it’s going to make the feedback loop very clear. Did you get directions? Were they accurate? Could you repeat the process with someone else and be just as successful? We recommend that you start by choosing the way you will approach the next person before you choose who you are going to talk to. This will keep your focus on your own tone of voice, posture, and such. Only after you understand how you personally display these four categories can you begin to learn about cause and effect and choose a way to approach a specific person after you have already assessed them and determined an approach that you believe will be effective.

Once you have personally used and seen how all four approaches can work, you now have the ability to adapt to any given situation and choose which approach is going to best work for you in that particular setting. By developing your ability to adapt, you don’t have to worry about finding ways to control the situation because you can be confident using any technique. You don’t have to worry about being ineffective in your natural approach because you know that you have built up your flexibility in case it isn’t working. Being able to adapt to the situation, the conditions and the people means that you have actual choice about your approach. When we look at how to prepare officers to be adaptable in the field, we should begin by teaching them how to create, practice and execute multiple options for the situations they face on the job.