In a 2012 Counseling Today article titled “Counselors: Support local police by sharing your skills,” counselor educator Diana Hulse and retired police Capt. Peter J. McDermott advocated for counselors and counselor educators to serve their communities by training local police in interpersonal skills. They made the case that interpersonal skills are not inherent, but that they can be learned when taught according to counselor education best practices. They also emphasized the need to integrate interpersonal skills training in police academy curricula nationwide.
This past spring, Fairfield University’s Counselor Education Department and the Center for Applied Ethics sponsored a pilot interpersonal skills training program designed by Hulse for local police. As a current school counseling graduate student, I was invited to participate as an interpersonal skills coach. Through this experience, my eyes were opened to the immense potential for interpersonal skills training to change the culture of law enforcement and improve relations between police and the public.
The pilot program
Four sergeants and three officers from five police departments in the state of Connecticut participated in the pilot training program. After meeting the participants and speaking with them about their jobs, I came to realize that police work involves high-stakes interpersonal demands. I found myself contemplating the complexity of the interpersonal tasks that police personnel routinely carry out, including delivering death notifications and intervening in domestic violence situations.
I was astounded to hear that police personnel typically negotiate these challenges without first undergoing specific training courses for interpersonal skills. In response to this gap in police training, the pilot interpersonal skills training program designed by Hulse, chair of the Fairfield University Counselor Education Department, models the type of instruction that needs to be implemented into police academy curricula. A key objective of the pilot program is to help police personnel develop an awareness that using effective interpersonal skills can create and foster positive relationships within the communities in which they work.
Hulse and McDermott operated as lead instructors with help from 13 volunteers — a mix of faculty, licensed counselors, practicum supervisors, alumni and current students who served as skills coaches. The training was organized around three categories: setting the stage for effective interactions, gathering information and evidence, and summarizing and confirming information and evidence. Skills for these categories were taught and evaluated according to standard interpersonal skills instruction carried out by counselor educators. Verbal and nonverbal attending skills, door openers and minimal encouragers were covered first. Focusing, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings and confronting were reviewed next. Clarifying and summarizing were examined last.
Each training session commenced by introducing skills in a slideshow format. The significance of the skills and their utility in the field for police personnel were then discussed through lecture and rounds. Groups of two to three participants and one to two coaches broke off into separate rooms to practice the skills until the participants demonstrated them successfully. Finally, the coaches delivered verbal and written feedback to the participants. Between sessions, participants completed reflection forms on their learning and their ideas for future improvement.
At the program’s conclusion, participants were asked to complete an evaluation form about the training. In support of the original mission of Hulse and McDermott, participants unanimously agreed that interpersonal skills training would improve the curricula of police academies.
As one participant stated, “This training needs to be introduced ASAP. As the divide between the police and the public grows, we need to start developing the skills that will bridge this unfortunate gap. The skills learned in this class would produce a more well-rounded officer, who is able to interact with the public on a much higher level.”
Leading up to this training, I was slightly intimidated by the thought of working with a group of police personnel, partially because of the stereotyped image of them being tough, stern individuals with guns strapped to them. My confidence wavered as I questioned whether I was qualified to coach these individuals, some of whom possessed up to 20 years of professional experience in their field. Furthermore, I wondered whether the participants would be open to learning skills that might seem “touchy-feely.”
My uncertainties were resolved quickly as I discovered that the participants were extremely open to learning material that was outside the norm for them. They continually expressed appreciation for the efforts of the instructors and coaches. This increased my confidence and helped me realize that over the course of my own training, I had developed many skills and insights that I could share with participants to improve the effectiveness of their interpersonal interactions.
At the start of each new session, I listened to the participants excitedly share stories about using their new skills on the job. Their execution of the skills demonstrated to me that interpersonal skills can, in fact, be taught, learned and applied to various fields. In addition to mastering specific skills, the participants reported being more aware of the perspectives of others, and more empathetic in general in their daily lives. These stories confirmed for me the positive impact the program had on these participants.
I learned valuable lessons while working with the participating police personnel that will enrich the remainder of my studies and my future career in counseling. In observing how eagerly the participants awaited feedback on their interpersonal skills, I was inspired to adopt greater openness toward the feedback that I receive as I prepare for my practicum and internship.
I also witnessed the effectiveness of learning in relationship with others. The participants shared that it was stimulating to interact with their fellow learners in such a dynamic way. Watching them grow closer as a group each session and gain appreciation for perspectives that were different from their own has encouraged me to focus on relationship building in groups as a future school counselor.
In light of the success of the pilot training program, I urge other counselors and counselor educators to support their local communities by offering interpersonal skills training to police personnel and departments. These programs not only would result in more effective interpersonal skills being practiced in the field of law enforcement, but also would increase the visibility of the counseling profession and enrich the academic experiences of counseling students. These results align directly with the mission of the American Counseling Association “to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote and respect human dignity and diversity.”
My experience confirms the various benefits of providing interpersonal skills training to law enforcement personnel. Embarking on this journey offers counseling students and professionals the chance to work with a unique population, serve their communities, share their knowledge and practice their interpersonal skills and feedback delivery. I am grateful that I was presented with the opportunity to take part in this groundbreaking program during my studies, and I strongly encourage other counselors and counselor educators to sustain the effort to provide interpersonal skills training to police.
To follow the latest news and developments in the initiatives of Diana Hulse and Peter J. McDermott, visit their website, talktrumpstechnology.com.
Kylen Farrell is a graduate student in the school counseling program and a graduate assistant in the Counselor Education Department at Fairfield University. She is a member of the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association, and is co-president of the Gamma Lambda Chi Chapter of Chi Sigma Iota. She recently received the Connecticut School Counselor Association Graduate Student of the Year Award and was inducted into Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society. She will be starting her school internship in the spring. Contact her at Kylen_farrell@sbcglobal.net.
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