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Birth of the Communication Samurai
It was the most outrageous way to bust up a fight I had ever seen. I'd been a rookie cop ten days when my partner got the call. At two A.m. we were dispatched to break up a nasty domestic dispute in a tenement on the east side of Emporia, Kansas, notorious for drug dealing and random violence.
We could hear the couple's vicious, mouth-to-mouth combat from the street. My training sergeant and partner, Bruce Fair, and I approached and peeked through the halfopen door. Then Bruce just walked in without bothering to knock. I watched as he strode right past the warring couple, took off his uniform cap, sighed, and planted himself on the couch. Ignoring the argument, he picked up a newspaper and thumbed through the classifieds!
Leaning against the door with my hand on the butt of my .357, I was flabbergasted. Bruce seemed to violate all the rules of police procedure. I had never seen him enter a house without identifying himself, without asking permission, or without at least saying why he was there. There he was, treating an angry couple in a tenement apartment as if he were a visiting uncle.
Bruce kept reading and the couple kept arguing, occasionally glancing at the cop on their couch. They had yet to notice me. As the man cursed his wife, Bruce rattled the newspaper. "Folks. Folks! Excuse me! Over here!"
The stunned husband flashed a double take. "What are you doing here?"
Bruce said, "You got a phone? Look here. A 1950 Dodge! Cherry condition! Can I borrow your phone? I know it's late, but I don't want to miss out on this. Where's your phone? I need to callright now!"
The husband pointed to the phone, incredulous. Bruce rose and dialed, then mumbled into the phone. He slammed it down. "Can you believe they wouldn't talk to me just because it's two in the morning?"
By now the fight had evaporated, the couple standing there as dumbfounded as I was. "By the way," Bruce, said pleasantly, as if just becoming aware, "is anything the matter here? Anything my partner and I can do for you?"
The husband and wife looked at the floor and shook their heads. "Not really, no." We chatted with them a bit, reminding them that it was late and that everyone around would appreciate a little peace and quiet. Soon we were on our way.
Then I was really puzzled. Earlier that night we had broken up a similar dispute in the classic cop fashion. We quickly took control with polite authority, performed what's known as a "separate and suture" (where the warring parties are separated, calmed, and then brought back together), and diffused the situation. That was the way I had been trained, so what was this new twist?
I mean, as a former college English professor who had taught Milton and Shakespeare for ten years, I'd seen some ingenious twists of plot. But a cop taming two animals by intruding as a rude but friendly guest? Bruce had forced those people to play host to him whether or not they wanted to.
As soon as we were back in the squad car I asked him, "What in the world was that all about? Why did we separate and suture earlier and pull this crazy newspaper and telephone gag just now?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I've been on the street more'n ten years. You just learn."
"Hey, I may be new at this," I said, "but I'm no kid. [I was thirty-five.] I haven't got ten years. I could get blown away if I tried that stunt. We need to talk. Tell me how you knew you could get away with that."
I didn't realize it then, but that evening marked the birth of Verbal judo and was the first lesson in my career as a communication samurai. I had studied the martial arts, starting with genuine Indian wrestling, since I was six and held black belts in judo and tae kwon do karate, but I had never seen such principles so effectively applied to life on the streets.
I It was one thing to practice the martial arts in a storefront dojo with polite, honorable opponents bowing and working together, competing and learning. (In judo I had learned the gentle art of redirecting my opponent's energy to achieve my own goal. If he came straight at me, I would sidestep and try a move that would add to his momentum, carrying him past me where I could take control.) But I had watched Bruce Fair do virtually the same thing without an ounce of physical force. With his mouth, a newspaper, and a telephone, he had calmed two hotheads with redirective techniques he had absorbed through experience.
I was intrigued. During the remainder of my tenure as a police officer-working everything from canine patrol to hostage negotiations I carefully, watched and listened to guys like Bruce. I began systematically studying the communication techniques of salty old police dogs, carrying a tape recorder with me on every call. I listened not only to what, was said, but also to how it was said. Time after time I saw older, street-savvy officers assume roles and counterroles, suavely manipulating people's energies to calm otherwise dangerous situations.
I quickly became convinced that good police officers are the greatest communicators in the world. They often have to issue orders and elicit compliance from hostile subjects, aswhen they're derailing a drug deal and the gang members are reaching for their AK-47s. Despite my classical education,which had exposed me to t , he finest rhetoricians of the ages,I realized that my real postdoctoral work hadn't been done at Princeton. It was unfolding for me right on the streets of Emporia.,Verbal Judo. Copyright © by George Thompson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.