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How to Become an Effective Communicator

Connecting with constituents begins with active listening and reserving judgment.

By Kelley Griffin  |  January 4, 2024

As a police officer, Michelle Palladini knows that her actions can determine the trajectory of conversations with people asking—or even shouting—for help.

“We have to think about how we are showing up,” Palladini, deputy chief with the Norfolk, Mass., Police Department, told a session on constituent communication at NCSL’s Base Camp in November. “

So often when we’re speaking with people, we are thinking about what we have to do next. We’re thinking about maybe the fact that we have a headache, or we don’t want to be at work today or we have other stressors in our lives.”

It can take a minute to shift focus onto the person who needs that attention.

“So often when we’re speaking with people, we are thinking about what we have to do next.”

—Michelle Palladini, Norfolk, Mass., Police Department

“That is a shift that I needed to make personally, and maybe some of you resonate with this as well,” she says. “I had to think about how often the police are showing up to usually the worst moments of somebody’s life.”

Palladini says even the worst moments can be navigated by making a few quick preparations. 

First thing, breathe. 

“This sounds so simplistic that it almost sounds stupid, right?” she says. “The reason we take a deep breath is because it acts as a human reset for the body. So, taking a deep breath actually allows us to kind of step back to think, to pause, to reflect.” 

Palladini described a further step that can help, something called “box breathing.” Take an inhale on the count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold for four before inhaling again. It’s just another way to signal to the brain and shut down unhelpful racing thoughts. 

She notes that just as a single yawn can trigger others to yawn, certain aspects of body language also transfer to others. Standing rigidly, arms folded tightly, lips pursed can signal anger or frustration. That can make others in a conversation react in a similar way. 

“If we are showing up and we appear uninterested, we appear angry, we appear rattled, frazzled, that person is going to start to feel that way, too. It’s biology,” she says. 

Instead, Palladini suggests taking a relaxed stance or seated position, making eye contact and acknowledging what someone is saying. It’s important to acknowledge their feelings of frustration, fear or anger, she says. 

If things remain heated, she suggests other ways to de-escalate. 

“And maybe it’s, ‘Hey, why don't we take this over to the next room where we have a little bit more privacy, it’s so loud in here,’” she says. Offer them a beverage. Things like that. It just shows you care.”

Of course, there will be times when it simply isn’t possible to de-escalate. Palladini suggests pulling someone else into the conversation for support and a possible call for reinforcements.

She says all these communication tactics are helpful in every kind of conversation, whether it’s with a suspect, a constituent or your own family. 

And if there’s no ready solution for the concerns someone has, Palladini says at least acknowledge what steps you will take, maybe referring it to the proper channel or gathering more information. Give the person a time by which they can expect a response. 

Finally, Palladini stresses that a solution might be as simple as lending an ear. 

“Oftentimes, people just want to vent. They want to be heard,” she says. “So if we can provide a platform for them to say their piece without us interrupting, without us trying to solve it, it gives them that foundation to stand on where they feel empowered to have their concerns listened to without judgment.”

Senior editor Kelley Griffin is the host of NCSL’s Across the Aisle podcast.

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