Thursday, February 19, 2015

Solo Skills

Once upon a time, I'd elected to go into a cell and talk down an extremely agitated inmate, and it wasn't working. One of the big keys to talking down people in altered mental states (bad drug reactions, stress that makes them temporarily out of control, or truly unstable mental illness doesn't really matter much) is to lower the adrenaline. Which, since only time dissipates adrenaline, means the golden rule is "Do nothing to increase the subject's adrenaline."

And he was not calming down. He kept darting glances over my shoulder, and there was no way I was going to look. You don't make direct eye contact with excited mentals (it can be read as challenge or threat and adrenaline rises) but you give them full attention (read as respect). And if you glance away at the wrong time you can get badly hurt.

What was going on was that one of the rookies decided to ignore my instructions to stay out of sight. When dealing with potentially bad situations, you want the best back-up you can get, but when talking down an EDP (Emotionally Disturbed Person-- you know it's tactically important because we have a TLA (Three Letter Acronym) for it) if they see the backup they know that you're scared, and fear is contagious and their adrenaline rises.

So, despite specific instructions to stay out of sight, the kid (who was big enough to be imposing) was hanging right off my shoulder. Why? Because he wanted to see why I was so successful at dealing with EDPs. He wanted to see what I did first-hand.

This is a big teaching quandary for me. And research problem. The best way to learn real skills for high-risk, high-speed problems is to model them. You can learn theory in the classroom and you can practice the motions in the dojo, but real world applications are complex on many levels. Just talking to someone isn't a mere exchange of words, there are social, emotional, intellectual and status implications of the tiniest interaction. Being with someone who is skilled at handling problems and watching them handle those problems and maybe helping and definitely asking questions later is where the important stuff happens. It's the safest way for the stuff you learn in class to become a real skill you can apply.

But there are a handful of skills that are hard to model, because the skill is so hard to apply without the emotional protection of privacy. Imagine trying  to reassure a mother whose child has just died but start with, "Do you mind if I film this?"

Intersection, here. There are certain things, maybe everything but thinking about it, all the high-risk stuff, where the processing is more important than the event. Something terrible happens to you and it's terrible... but how you process it, how you come to think about it and understand it will make the difference between an incident you soon forget, one that makes you stronger, or one that continues to victimize you mentally for the rest of your life.

And helping someone process a big event is one of those skills that generally requires some privacy. "Let's go for a walk" as you wave the other people who want to help back. Absolute best thing for the primary, but as that rookie pointed out long ago, it denies the ability to learn by modeling.

I don't have a good answer for this one. The best stuff I have for talking people down is in "Talking Them Through." But teaching the skill, modeling... I don't have a solution for that. And it's one of the skills that can be badly bungled-- with horrible long-term consequences.


  1. Deep gratitude, Rory, for your concern for mentally ill people in the criminal justice system and your willingness to find 'a better way' and to share what you've developed.

    Perhaps a different kind of Role playing and 'scenarios' can help spread what is successful; the model in the medical community, used w/new MDs and students works well. One major difference is the use of skilled actors, using improvisation and some scripted characters. New people in training don't know what they will encounter and good actors (not martial artists) can keep a short or long scene extremely volatile or confusing for the trainees. This approach has both positive and negative markers, but the use of actors means trainees must face a wider range of behaviors and uses actors ability to present the physical and mental characteristics of these folks. I watched a skilled MD training residents to work with geriatric, mentally ill and delusional 'patients'. Actors were willing to develop characters and loved the challenges. As a trainer, you keep control and safety, while the trainees/students face situations that are disturbing and unpredictable, but not life-threatening. Local theater companies and programs have been approached successfully by medical schools, maybe stepping beyond the MA/security pool would yield something new. Again, thank you for caring about people so often considered disposable and forgotten and for the safety and well being of LEs.

  2. keithw7:42 AM

    CPI (Crisis Prevention Institute) has a decent model that touches on a lot of the items you mentioned; eg proxemics, paraverbals, empathic listening, precipitating factors and etc. Developing skill in these techniques with clients enabled me to de-escalate potentially volatile situations before they blew up. Not sure it's a good match for LE Applications, however. Plus the physical restraint techniques are inhibited by a "no element of pain" policy, which always left me and my staff constantly exposed to potential injury when things did go physical.

  3. Gillian and Keith-- Good tips. Thank you. I've considered (one of the many things on the "Wouldn't it be cool to try..." list) teaming with an acting coach for a self-defense course and really getting into body language (reading and projection) and deception.
    For scenario role-playing, the roleplayers need a lot of skills-- the ability to act, to judge the student, fighting skill so that they can bring the student right to the personal edge and the humility to know when it is time to lose. And an understanding of criminals so deep that when the student does something unexpected the roleplayer can give the reaction the bad guy would give, not stick to the script or go with the player's personal instincts.
    It's a hard job. Lots of ways to do it poorly. Thinking out loud, start with a skilled fighter with a good heart, put them through enough scenarios that they have good adrenaline control in that venue, get them up to speed on criminals and then use acting classes as a kind of finishing school?

  4. keithw7:41 AM

    Chapter 28, pp 193-196 of Charlie Beckwith's book describe scenario-based training to ascertain whether or not the hand-picked, highly trained individuals selected for that detachment would actually pull the trigger. To make sure they would "not end up being a firehouse unit--damn good at sliding down the pole and jumping onto the truck with no fires to fight." Through creative measures, the trainees were deceived into believing a training mission for which they were inbound had turned into an actual hostage crisis. After protective measures were put in place for the actors, the trainees were given orders to assault the building. Immediately following the assault the team was isolated and debriefed. The entire scenario was observed via cctv by Col. Beckwith, who purposely was not with the team at the time of the assault to further rattle the confidence of the team.
    Using deception in training will likely piss-off those who have been duped, but you'll no doubt, get some valuable data.

  5. Dave in IL12:52 PM


    I agree with you on CPI. The verbal escalation material is solid. The material on avoiding positional asphyxia is important. But the physical techniques are not sufficient if you are dealing with a highly aggressive person. And I'm being diplomatic.

    I have worked in healthcare security for over twelve years and, within the last year, started working with an organization with a cult-like devotion to CPI. For my employer, CPI techniques are not guidelines, they are to be followed or else. Go outside the parameters and you face discipline (if ER or Behavioral Health people decide to complain about a security officer's actions; it is never the combative patient that complains). Even though security officers are called when situations are becoming dangerous and would be considered criminal matters outside the hospital, we are still supposed to use these techniques.

    My two cents: CPI is marginally about patient/client safety. It is definitely not about employee safety and, in fact, gives the employer a reason to blame the victims of assaultive behavior. CPI is primarily adopted by organizations to insulate them from litigation. And if employees are severely injured so be it; at least they didn't inflict pain on their assailant.

  6. Lloyd3:36 AM

    Rory - This is a bit of a comment about your comment-

    You said it yourself, this is high risk stuff, and crazy people are unpredictable. I think this is a thing where there's no substitute for personal experience.

    Talking Them Through is a bunch of stuff that's generally true, and that's probably about as far as you can go with it.

    Scenarios would be better suited to getting the student ready to react when things go wrong (i've never been attacked by an enraged/terrified crazy person before. if i was in the field, i would NOT want to find out firsthand, one way or another) instead of trying to make things go right with someone who might already know what they're going to do (because of the script, and the fact that they're -not crazy-. they might attack just because they think that's what a crazy person would do).

    But, i'm not the professional here, and i might be completely missing the point :)

  7. That's the other half of it Lloyd. Simply.a really good actor can make a very poor portrayal seem really convincing. (Dexter, Hannibal Lector) Which, in scenario training, does more harm than good.

  8. Lloyd2:36 PM

    It's good that you're on top of that half of it as well, thanks.

  9. Ymar Sakar10:24 AM

    Practice on dogs and wild packs first, to show the rookies around. Just have the rookies far away using a scope.

    Aura is easily recognized by animals or crazy humans. It's non verbal, for one thing. Less thinking behaviors can be supplanted by more instinctive behaviors.

    It's not a 100% conversion or realistic simulation, but it uses the same skill set, normally.

  10. Day late, and probably more than a dollar short, but I've been thinking about this some.

    The problem is that there are simply some things that there's no easy way to train. Maybe no way to really train. Model what you can, in enough situations, so that hopefully the people you are training can pick up the general underpinnings and develop enough of a toolbox to wing it when they need to. Role plays and scenarios have limits; as you've said -- there's always a flaw in training.

    Balancing the "gotta do the job" with "gotta give the new guys a chance to learn 'cause I don't plan on being around at this level forever" is another challenge. Especially so when it's something that you really can't have too many people present for -- and you've got to get it right the first time. I think after action debriefs can do a lot -- if you actually do them, and people actually are honest and open rather than using them as a "wasn't that cool!" or "how great was I!" bragging session. They can be chance to show what was going on in your head, explain why you did what you did. The other big failure in after action debriefs is that, way too often, they're only done when things go wrong.