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The role of emotional intelligence in public safety

Understanding how to relate with others can shift the tone of an interaction, help build relationships in your community and improve the impact of your agency

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“Emotional intelligence is largely a practice in regulating your emotions,” writes Black.

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Public safety professionals spend dozens of training hours on tactical and operational skills each year, with only a fraction of that time spent on interpersonal skills. Yet we continue to see, both in encounters that go right and those that go wrong, that interpersonal skills are increasingly critical for all first responders. Understanding how to interact with others – to make them feel heard and respected while recognizing differences in your values, life experiences and culture – can shift the tone of an interaction, help build relationships in your community and improve the impact of your agency.

Emotional intelligence – it’s not a new term, but it is an important one for all public safety professionals to understand and grow in themselves. Emotional intelligence isn’t something we’re born with; it’s a tactical skill set we must develop. It requires exploring our own emotions and the emotions of others to gain a more complete understanding of what drives our actions, which can sometimes be uncomfortable. To effectively do this and build your emotional intelligence skills in the process, you must employ self-respect, have integrity in your actions and acknowledge that you can improve your skills and come out stronger.

Evolving & Adapting to the World Around Us

The world is rapidly changing. COVID-19, tragedies in the national spotlight and civil unrest are just a few of the factors that have made public safety an increasingly challenging field. With these changes – and those that are sure to come in the future – emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills for success. First responders with higher levels of emotional intelligence are not only better able to respond with professionalism, but also experience greater wellness. When public safety professionals respond with emotional intelligence, they are better able to address and diffuse personal and community stress.

Emotional intelligence also plays an important role in resilience and continuous learning, which are critical skills in evolving times. Being adaptable means being ready to resolve problems at a moment’s notice. First responders are problem solvers by nature and must be experts in decision-making, conflict resolution, listening, and collaboration. External factors such as societal trends complicate the problem-solving process, but they can be addressed with strong emotional intelligence skills.

When Emotional Intelligence Is Lacking

Emotional intelligence is largely a practice in regulating your emotions. Because emotions hit us before rational thoughts, negative outcomes are likely if we can’t control our feelings in the moment. But where do these emotions come from? Often, they are a reaction to differences in life experiences, values and culture and the misunderstandings that arise as a result. We may react negatively because the other person doesn’t do what we think they should, or act as we expect them to. In turn, we may:

  1. Fail to see the impact of our own behavior
  2. Become “emotionally hijacked” and lose control of our emotions and actions
  3. Fail to understand the other person’s perspective
  4. Push our own approach, point of view or solution to the issue at hand even though it may not be effective

When misunderstandings escalate situations, our relationships with one another suffer and community stress increases. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to tragedy such as a career-ending mistake or the use of excessive force.

Managing Yourself & Others with Emotional Intelligence

There are two key aspects of emotional intelligence: The first involves being aware of yourself and the second involves being aware of others. From that awareness and understanding, you must be able to manage both yourself and others. It all begins with an insight into your emotions (first) and others’ emotions (second). Emotional intelligence rests in:

  • Identifying and labelling your emotions and the emotions of others
  • Recognizing the triggers of your and others’ negative emotions
  • Realizing the impact of negative emotions and their ripple effects

First, you must be self-aware. Without emotional intelligence, your emotions carry you, and because negative emotions are stronger and more contagious, you may be at risk of unwittingly escalating an already tense situation. De-escalating a situation begins with de-escalating yourself. Pausing internally, where possible, to allow your logical side to catch up with your emotions allows you to think before you act. Consider how quickly you can begin to feel negative emotions and how you often forget what you said or did after the fact, wishing you had behaved differently. Take the time to de-escalate yourself from the get-go, viewing your emotion as a signal to pause and allow yourself to engage with people strategically, rather than emotionally.

On the flip side, “other-awareness” is all about understanding the causes and consequences of others’ emotions. Ultimately, many negative emotions and reactions can be traced back to faulty communication. Better communication on your part can help bring people down from an emotionally heightened state, allowing them to thinking rationally and respond in kind. The ability to do so will improve on-duty interactions, adaptability, resilience, and both personal and professional relationships.

Emotional intelligence often comes back to your observation skills and your empathy for others. If you can observe and empathize, and apply these skills in each of your interactions, you can de-escalate yourself and others effectively, decreasing the likelihood of negative interactions.

Emotional intelligence helps first responders effectively address conflict with colleagues and community members in a productive, safe and professional manner. Those with greater emotional intelligence also benefit from improved wellness due to enhanced stress management skills and resilience.

Dr. David Black is the founder and president of Cordico, which provides first-responding agencies with essential policy insights, training programs and timely content focused on mental and emotional wellbeing. Cordico was acquired by Lexipol in November 2020. He is the chief psychologist of the California Police Chiefs Association Wellness Committee, a board member of the National Sheriffs Association Psychological Services Group and an advisory board member for the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies. He serves on the IACP Police Psychological Services Ethics Committee and the National Fraternal Order of Police Officer Wellness Committee, and is an officer wellness subject matter expert for the California Commission on POST. Dr. Black has been serving law enforcement since 2002.