What Skills Can We Learn?
When police agencies hire civilians to serve as sworn officers, training, of course, is a critical factor during orientation. Becoming a law enforcement professional requires the acquisition of specific knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). These KSAs often are divided into two areas: academic—with a focus on federal and local legislation, as well as case-law decisions that guide professional police conduct—and physical skills—addressing use-of-force options and critical thinking or decision-making skills alongside techniques for officer safety.
My experience as a law enforcement educator and, previously, as a sworn officer has challenged me to consider what other skills we can learn to assist us in continued growth as professionals. Are there skills we can sharpen to better serve our communities and families while caring for our own physical and psychological well-being? I suggest three key areas where we can refine existing skill sets to increase our professional practice and quality of life: emotional intelligence, positive psychology (optimism), and resilience.
The concept of emotional intelligence comes from the research of psychologist Daniel Goleman and provides a basis for effective professional practice.1 This includes being self-aware of events trigger an emotional response, choosing how to respond to these events, maintaining social awareness, and effectively managing our relationships with others. Understanding these skills and seeking to continually improve in areas, such as emotional self-control, optimistic outlook, the ability to give and take feedback, and the readiness to adapt to change, provide the opportunity to build healthy personal and professional relationships.
In her most recent book, The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky identified some of the thought processes we use to set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration, which brings me to the second skill set—fostering a positive, optimistic attitude.2 Dr. Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, presented the research that led to the establishment of the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2) program.3 Among other findings in the study of positive psychology, Dr. Seligman’s research has identified that how we choose to approach the many different events that make up our lives is shaped by our perspectives and that we can lessen the impact of those events by controlling our attitudes.
According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or, even, significant sources of stress.4 The topic of resilience often is referenced in sports and news stories to describe bouncing back from a disastrous outcome. That perspective is more like looking in a mirror and hoping we have the resources in place to deal with the event after the fact.
A more proactive approach is to build resilience during small challenges or setbacks so we will have a robust set of skills to access should we need them when faced with a devastating situation in some aspect of our lives. In the book The Resilience Factor, authors Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte identified seven skills that their research indicated can be developed to improve resilience.5 Many of these same characteristics, such as emotional self-control, empathy, and optimism, are found in the areas of emotional intelligence and positive psychology.
Although these skill sets or presented separately, they are linked in several important ways. In addition to the overlapping skills, another important linking factor is that each of these skill sets provides police professionals with the ability to improve their communication skills. Improved communication skills, such as the ability to give and receive constructive feedback, can allow for the continued development of individual officers, as well as create an organizational culture of cooperation and collaboration, rather than competition and conflict.
The development of these skill sets has a significant impact on our individual ability to reduce stress and its negative physical impacts. Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers identified the many potential negative physical impacts of not managing our stressors well.6 This is relevant information in light of the costs to individuals and organizations of lost time due to physical and psychological illness.
The culturalization process for a civilian to become an independent full-functioning police officer takes time, focused training, and coaching by experienced officers. Given the right support and training environment, we expect officers to learn how to become law enforcement professionals. As these professionals develop the skills needed to operate effectively and efficiently in their jobs, equally important is how well they learn to maintain their self-control, empathy, optimism, and self-awareness that make up our humanity. Many organizations, both public and private, have recognized the benefits of teaching emotional intelligence, resilience, and positive psychology skills in the workplace. By creating an environment of lifelong learning and discussing all aspects that contribute to professional practice, it is encouraging to know we can develop a set of skills to help us cope with the challenges of law enforcement responsibilities in a healthier way.
Ms. Irene Barath, an instructor with the Ontario, Canada, Police College in Aylmer, currently assigned to the FBI’s Leadership Fellows program, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.