Recently I wrote a column about the steps that we need to take to make real change in the criminal justice system, starting with the front lines, the police. One of the key components of change is effective, nonjudgmental coaching.
Constance Morris Hope is helping me understand how coaching can be an effective tool. She is a seasoned executive coach specializing in coaching in multi-racial and multi-cultural environments. With over 35 years of experience in 26 US government agencies, 39 countries, non-profit organizations, and academia, she has seen how coaching can impact real change in complex and diverse situations.
Since the police officer’s job is one of the most complex and stressful jobs in the public sector, I wanted to find out from an expert what is needed to help us move toward a more racially empathetic environment.
Question: You indicated that it is critical that the police and justice system want to change. How do you know if there is real commitment to change?
Leadership creates culture, so assessing leadership’s readiness to change and the level of trust between leadership and rank and file is the first place to start. Other key elements are a sense of urgency and the formal and informal communication systems. Change starts at the top, but it will not happen unless all are involved.
Question: What should we know about coaching that will help us understand its value in making change?
Coaching is not something that is “done” to you, nor does a coach show her client how ‘to do’ something. Our mantra is that our clients are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. Coaching is a collaborative process where the client sets the direction and agenda and the coach asks questions assist him in. Greater self-awareness is the key!
Question: Which is more important, coaching officers or police leadership?
I think both are important, but it might be important to start with leadership, since leaders model the culture and set the standards. In a 2017 study published in Police Chief, 46% of subscribers felt that leadership was the most important factor in establishing change.
Question: What plan or strategy would you use to coach police officers and their leaders if you had the opportunity?
I would first assess their readiness for change. Next, I would ask them to define what success looks like. What measures would we use? What needs to happen? Who needs to be involved?
Most importantly, I would build their Emotional Intelligence (EI).
Emotional Intelligence is awareness of your own emotions and those of others; and using that information to build relationships and change your behavior. Self-awareness and empathy are the keys to improving Emotional Intelligence.
Emotions are central to everything that we do, every relationship that we have. They guide and direct our thinking, but they can also ‘hijack’ our reasoning and logic, leading us to make poor decisions and take actions that we might regret later.
High Emotional Intelligence helps officers to:
- Recognize triggers, including their unconscious biases, and immediately apply reasoning skills to make good decisions.
- Understand, manage, and control their emotions at the same time, recognizing the emotions of others. This keeps them from overreacting in challenging situations.
- Develop conflict management skills which focus on resolving rather than escalating.
- Manage their impulses by controlling their emotions instead of allowing their emotions to control them.
- Cope with emotional/confrontational citizens.
- Be more effective and efficient with crowd-control or policing civil protests and demonstrations, arresting people, interrogating suspects, and interviewing witnesses and complainants.
Question: You explained that the Amygdala autonomic response can be especially problematic in police jobs. The Amygdala recognizes dangerous situations and reacts automatically. Can you elaborate how coaching can help “short circuit” the Amygdala and allow the rational brain to take over?
The Amygdala is the most ancient part of the brain and forms a part of the limbic system where our emotions live. This alarm system was crucial for our ancestors who needed it to recognize life-threatening situations. The Amygdala still performs that function; however, today’s threats are less deadly. The person who cuts us off in traffic, or who interrupts us, or who must be right, or is argumentative, all those can trigger an Amygdala response.
The Amygdala can also respond when we perceive threat in the face of DIFFERENCE. Our Amydala causes us to experience an emotional reaction before we have a logical response. If we let the Amygdala be in control it will take over the logical brain. This is called an AMYGDALA HIJACK and can result in a disproportionate reaction to a situation. Unconscious biases can trigger an AMYGDALA HIJACK. Training and coaching can help officers recognize and identify situations or people that might trigger an AMYGDALA HIJACK and help them develop strategies to allow the logical part of their brain to engage.
Question: If you had a magic wand, what would be the first thing that you would ask for regarding the police and justice for the African-American?
I would like to see ‘policing’ re-branded to be seen and experienced by diverse communities/populations as a force for good. Police officers would be perceived as protectors of their well-being, as allies. I would like to see public confidence restored in communities where it once was and created where it never was. For that to happen, those responsible for policing and law enforcement will have to have greater emotional intelligence. They would have to change their attitudes, motivations, behaviors, perspectives, and understandings to be more attuned to the communities they serve. Building better relationships with and within diverse communities would go a long way to re-branding.
Question: Do you think that racism in the justice system is everywhere?
I think there is entrenched inequality that goes beyond the criminal justice system that amplifies the broader questions of lingering racial inequities in the United States. We have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes.
This does not mean that the people who work in them are racist. They are enforcing the rules and regulations that perpetuate these inequities. They are doing their job. The question that they and we must ask ourselves is what can we personally do about the situation?
Question: Do you have any final thoughts?
My experience is that coaching one person at a time can create significant change that can ripple through the organization. It may require patience, but it creates lasting change.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. We can take all the courses that we want and get all the coaching that is offered, but if we don’t put into practice what we learn or if leadership doesn’t support it, change won’t happen. We need to understand that a lot of this is biology-based. We need to rewire our brains, rewire our neurological pathways, develop new habits, new autopilot responses, new ways of seeing the world. And that requires intention and practice, practice, and more practice!
Note: Constance Hope lives in St Michaels and is a local advocate for racial understanding. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.