By Steven J. Condly, Ph.D., Behavioral Sciences and Leadership InstructorSeptember 26, 2019
The purpose of the West Point Leader Development System is to develop leaders of character who live honorably, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence. This system is both general and tailored. For example, all cadets have to pass PL100 (General Psychology for Leaders), and all cadets have to participate in an Individual Advanced Development experience.
However, the choice of those experiences is up to the cadets. For 17 cadets this summer, the choice of Academic IAD was taking a course with the FBI.
The course included many scenarios for the cadets to contemplate.
• A Soldier in your unit locks himself in a room with members of the unit and holds them hostage;
• You're in a supermarket when you hear a loud argument between a man and a woman. He takes out a knife from his pocket, grabs the woman from behind, and threatens to kill her unless everyone backs away and lets them leave;
• A delivery man drops his packages on the ground, pulls out a pistol, holds it to his head, starts crying and bids everyone farewell.
What do you do? For the week of Aug. 5-9, cadets and a number of NYPD officers faced questions such as these at the FBI Crisis Negotiation Course AIAD.
Unlike other AIADs, this one involved no travel as the course took place in Thayer Hall. But, at the end, the cadets received certificates of completion. These certificates are professionally recognized as the NYPD and other police departments throughout the United States pay for their officers to receive and utilize this training. Army CID had trainees in attendance as well.
The FBI had a rotating band of trainers, all experienced in crisis negotiation, but the course was headed by Supervisory Special Agent Brian Wittenberg.
A constant theme that emerged from his instruction and that of the other trainers was to put aside the Type A problem-solver mentality.
Participants were instructed in, given examples of and ultimately had to practice avoiding the natural tendency to "rescue" and instead develop and maintain an information-rich conversation.
As a participant in the week's training myself, and as the oldest person in the room, I can attest to the discomfort we had when dealing with role players in crisis. To a person, we wanted to achieve the wrong mission; that is, we wanted to end the crisis in as short a time as possible.
We wanted to do something. But, our training in the course was about practicing the science of active listening. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we heard, saw, learned and struggled, but we made progress. Thursday was the big, all-day, four-scenario day.
The results were impressive. Not only did cadets comport themselves well, but by the fourth scenario in the afternoon all trainers agreed they had rarely seen such expert performance from young trainees.
The benefits of this experience are dual. For one thing, participants are stretched out of their comfortable, routine ways of thinking are forced to speak and act "artificially."
While we're all familiar with the aphorisms about heat and pressure producing gold, diamonds, and perfume, there is some truth to them.
It turns out that the thinking and skills that are appropriate for one type of situation (e.g., leading a team in difficult circumstances) are not necessarily appropriate in another type of situation (e.g., keeping a person in crisis talking so he or she calm down and other personnel can prepare for their activities). Thus, we were baked and stretched.
A second benefit relates to WPLDS. Our system ensures that graduates will, among other things, live honorably by anticipating and solving complex problems and demonstrate excellence by making sound and timely decisions, communicating and interacting effectively, and seeking and reflecting on feedback.
These skills were utilized in abundance in the Crisis Negotiation course. Indeed they were, in essence, the course. In this performance psychologist's opinion, combining the practice of these skills in a stressful and unfamiliar environment is the best way to force development and transfer. The "grade" for course has to be an A.
I say this since the trainers are already working on a "crisis-free" reunion in Manhattan and are requesting our assistance in improving the course. Not bad for a week's worth of work and learning.