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Quiet presence: Strengthening first responder empathy

Responders are taught about “command presence,” but what about the “quiet presence” that comes with empathy?

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Developing your empathy skills will allow you to build better relationships with those inside and outside of your organization.

By Dr. David Black and Dr. Robin Black

Empathic leaders and first responders are trusted by those around them – their colleagues, their subordinates, the community members they serve – and are able to draw upon that trust to serve more effectively. But how do you develop that empathy and, as a result, trust? When you approach others with an open mind and a listening ear, you can increase your capacity to understand those around you and deepen your relationships, leading to better public safety results.

Empathy can be a tactical tool, a relational tool and a wellness tool. When someone is in crisis, empathy can help you de-escalate. When people feel helpless or vulnerable, empathy can help you address their needs. When community members want to feel heard, empathy builds the trust necessary to foster fruitful conversations. When colleagues require support, empathy allows you to respond with understanding. While virtually all first responders exhibit empathy in some capacity due to the nature of the job, the way we listen to, understand and relate to others is something we can always improve upon, especially as leaders in our agencies and communities.

Empathy as a First Responder

First responders, and law enforcement specifically, are taught the importance of “command presence” for scene control, to support personnel safety, and to garner respect from community members and personnel alike. Command presence is a useful tool but isn’t necessarily the best posture to adopt in every situation. At some scenes of tragedy, trauma or conflict, command presence is not beneficial, but has the potential to make the situation worse. While command presence does what it says – commands necessary attention and respect – a “quiet presence” allows for active listening, develops trust and relationships, and supports the confidence of those around you.

With command presence, emotions are understandably withdrawn, and the physical self takes precedence. In contrast, a quiet presence allows the physical self to take a backseat, providing space to listen without judgment or attempts to exert control. In the proper setting, interacting with your community and your colleagues from a place of empathy allows you to be a listener, a supporter and an encourager, creating positive interactions and a safe place for sharing and feedback.

Empathy can aid in communication and relationship-building with key people, including victims, family members and witnesses. Because first responders are required to assist all members of their community, individuals who listen and understand perspectives across cultural boundaries are well-trusted. With victims, family members and witnesses, first responders can build confidence in times of vulnerability, allowing them to share critical information with those who can help. Empathy can also help you avoid damaging interactions that lead to the destruction of trust. Instead, approaching these interactions with open-mindedness and a calm demeanor – a quiet presence – can help you create a bond of trust.

Empathy as a Leader

Leading with empathy doesn’t mean being “soft.” The foundation for empathy is connecting with others. Leaders who spend time developing good relationships with their employees on the basis of empathy encourage greater productivity and a healthier work environment. Empathy plays an important role in allowing you to recognize the importance of your decisions and take into account multiple perspectives before choosing a course of action. Leading with empathy requires demonstrating an understanding of employees and their needs, experiences and responsibilities. Strong and empathic leaders foster well-being in their personnel because of this understanding and how they factor it into decision-making. This is particularly important in public safety where wellness is often stigmatized or ignored altogether.

Internal leadership isn’t the only place empathy is required. Public safety leaders must also lead externally within the community. As a result, leaders should take steps to remain in touch with what community members see and hear, think and feel, and how they respond (or desire for you to respond) to pain points and community goals. To operate effectively and successfully, public safety agencies must be a trusted entity within the community. Empathy builds trust, demonstrates commitment, and improves two-way communication and collaboration, allowing you to better address the needs and problems of the people you serve.

Why Empathy Matters

Empathy matters because people matter. As first responders, you know that your primary responsibility is to preserve life and protect the people of your community. Developing your empathy skills will allow you to build better relationships with those inside and outside of your organization, creating a healthier culture and safer operations. Not only that, but when leaders and first responders alike demonstrate empathy, it can address key challenges facing your agency, including in areas such as recruitment and retention, community trust and engagement, wellness, and agency culture. As we grow in our understanding of others, we can better serve them and see better outcomes across our communities.

About the authors

Dr. David Black is the Founder and President of Cordico, and a member of the Board of Directors for Lexipol, which serves more than 2 million public safety professionals in 8,100 agencies and municipalities across the United States. Dr. Black is a Board Member of the National Sheriffs’ Association Psychological Services Group, serves as the Chief Psychologist of the California Police Chiefs’ Association Officer Wellness Committee, serves as an Advisory Board Member for the National Policing Institute’s Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, serves on the IACP Police Psychological Services Ethics Committee, and serves on the National Fraternal Order of Police Officer Wellness Committee. Dr. Black has been serving law enforcement since 2002.

Dr. Robin Black serves as Executive Director of Cordico, where she creates wellness programs, training and coaching for individuals and teams working in high stress professions. Dr. Black has developed emotional intelligence, global leadership, personality, and resilience training and programs for organizations spanning public and private sectors, including consumer goods, financial services, government, information technology, manufacturing, pharmaceutical and transportation. Dr. Black worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly two decades and has worked extensively with first responders in support of Executive Leadership, Tactical and Targeting, Crisis Negotiation, Interview and Interrogation, and Incident Command teams.