This Former Riot Control Officer Wants To Help You Improve Your Communication Skills

Former Correctional Emergency Response Team squad member Rory Miller has diffused many difficult situations, but says dealing with violent prisoners and your boss or significant other has more in common than you’d think – here’s his advice on becoming a more effective communicator…

Rory Miller is not your typical communication ‘guru’. First of all, he spent 17 years in the Portland Oregon’s correctional system, including six as the leader of a Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) group tasked with responding to hostage situations, extracting violent or disturbed prisoners from their cells, and dealing with mass arrests, crowd control and full-scale riots. He’s spent hundreds of hours in serious tactical training, including close-quarters handgun practice, hostage negotiation simulations and witness protection work, and taught his own courses on confrontation in uncontrolled environments, and crisis communication with the mentally ill. He’s also a black belt in jiu jitsu, and he’s pretty good at judo and fencing.

But what can he teach you about getting more done at work, or spending less time debating where to go for dinner? Actually, probably a lot. Miller points out that the roots of conflict – and the way human brains work – are often the same, whether you’re dealing with your boss, your girlfriend, some drunk guy in a bar, or a violent maximum-security prisoner. And since leaving the police force, he’s been working on ways to make ‘conflict’ communication simpler – to help employees or entrepreneurs get their ideas across better, and improve communication between wives and husbands. He wants to help you understand situations faster, de-escalate them better, and articulate what happened afterwards more efficiently. Here’s his crash course in conflict communication…

1. Understand That The problem Isn’t The ‘Real’ Problem ‘Most people think the overt problem is the real problem,’ explains Miller. “Which restaurant for dinner? The report needs to get out on time. What do we do about poverty?” The real issue is almost always about status, protocols, territory or membership. Not when the report gets out, but who gets credit for it. Not what ideas are in the report, but whose ideas made it into the report. There’s no reason to argue over which restaurant to go to, but usually the person who asks the question has already decided where he or she wants to go, but doesn’t want to appear bossy, so tries to manipulate the other into the pre-existing decision – that can look like an argument.’

Make people feel their reputation is growing and they’ll be on your side – make them feel small and they’ll fight you

2. Get Past The Monkey Issues: ‘Humans are good at identifying problems, and prioritising and executing plans,’ argues Miller – it’s when the territorial, emotional, ‘monkey’ mind gets involved that go awry. Look out for these categories of problem, and keep your inner chimp in check.

1. Status ‘If you can make people feel like their reputation is growing, they’ll usually be on your side,’ says Miller. ‘If you make them feel small, they’ll fight you. For example, if I hand my boss a program and say, “This will solve your problem,” he will hear that as saying I’m smarter than him and will be invested in the program failing. I can hand him the exact same program and say, “Boss I had an idea about that thing, but it’s not quite right. I need your help.” And it will become his program and he’ll want to help because I’ve raised his status.’

2. Protocols ‘There’s a lot of tribal identity in how you do things. If you’ve ever brought a really good idea to the table and been ignored, it’s usually because big changes in process are felt to be attacks on what makes the group the group. It doesn’t matter if the results will be right, if the path to those results is foreign to the culture (including corporate or family culture) the idea won’t be implemented.’

3. Membership ‘Only people within the tribe are allowed to solve the tribe's problems. That’s one of the reasons why domestic violence calls are so dangerous for police. When outsiders interfere, they are usually punished.’ It’s also why your brilliant cash-saving idea for the company feels like a challenge to the CEO.

4. Territory ‘Even within the tribe, there are subgroups who deal with different issues. In my sphere, if one of the tactical guys came up with a budget idea, the idea wouldn’t even be looked at because it came from the wrong part of the ‘tribe’. You can look at Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics as astounding successes in pointing out how much we can learn if we allow sub-tribes to analyse unusual things, like having economists look at crime. It’s interesting, but that doesn’t get the ideas implemented.’

How do you get past all these? Reframe it: ‘There’s an old saying in management that you can accomplish almost anything if you don’t care who gets the credit,’ says Miller. ‘When the focus shifts from solving the problem to proving that you’re right, you’ve moved into pure Monkey dominance mode.’ Want your boss to back your plan? Ask for their help on it, or come up with a reason to put their name on it: ‘You said something at the last meeting that really got me thinking. Want to see what you inspired?’

If you insist there’s no possible, rational way to disagree with you, then you are the one who’s completely irrational

Assume You’re In The Wrong ‘We universally believe that we arrived at all of our beliefs and positions through reason and logic, and whoever we argue with is emotional and ignorant,’ says Miller. ‘It’s easy to spot cognitive biases and logical fallacies in others but it takes discipline to seek out your own. You need to cultivate the humility to work from the assumption that you’re the one who is wrong and emotional, and biased. There is a simple test— if you can’t argue the other side of any issue compassionately and convincingly, you’re in your monkey brain. If you’re insistent that there is no possible, rational way to disagree with you on a given issue, then you are the one who is completely irrational. Full stop.’

Judge Yourself By The Same Standards ‘We tend to judge other people by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions. We had a case in Portland a long time ago: extreme child neglect. The mother didn’t want her new boyfriend to know that she had a kid, so she would abandon her two-year-old for days at a time. Just leave him in a diaper with plates of peanut-butter sandwiches and bowls of milk on the floor. Neighbours finally called in the smell from the packed diaper. But the woman was outraged that anyone would accuse her of neglect. You see, she loved her baby, and that feeling of love in her mind outweighed her acts of neglect.’

‘It doesn’t matter how righteous you feel. If it’s not enough to make your point, but you need to make the other person cry or squirm, then you’re the bad guy. We all need to judge ourselves, and others, by actions.’

Talk To Yourself Less... ‘Most people talk to themselves too much. I’d encourage everyone to cultivate internal stillness. Spend more time looking, listening, smelling and less interpreting. And way less editorialising.’

…And Listen More This is the simplest change that most people can make to the way they interact with other people, says Miller. ‘Listen more. I talk about humility a lot, but this is so basic. Assume you aren’t the most important person in the conversation. Assume that other peoples' word and ideas are more important than yours. And listen. Really listen.’

WHAT NEXT? For a blast of dealing with your own cognitive biases, head over to Reddit’s Change My Viewand see how rationally your chimp responds to the debates on offer. Then read Miller’s Conflict Communication for a more in-depth take on how to deal with them.