By Sgt. David J. Harris

In my previous article I discussed the reasons for FTO’s asking their trainees, or student officers, the “why” questions.  While I do believe it is critical to ask questions, it is just as important to permit our S/Os the time to answer them.

It is well documented in classroom settings that teachers ask their students questions and typically allow one second for the student to respond.  I don’t know about you, but unless they are asking me for my birthday or to recite the alphabet (in order), I would require some time to think about the question before I was able to respond.  The ability to correctly answer a question in 1 second typically requires memorization, sometimes referred to as rote recall.  The alphabet, multiplication, vowels are examples of subjects we learned in school and committed to memory.  How can we truly expect our S/Os to answer questions if we do not permit them the time to do so?

How many times have we fired off question after question to our S/Os? What were you thinking? Do you know where we are? Did you not hear the radio? What is our call sign? Where is Officer Smith now? Did you see that car go by? What was that guy wearing? Let alone the fact when we do finally ask, “Why did you do that?”

Let the poor guy respond! It is going to take a second or two for them to hear the question, try to figure out what you are asking, formulate a response and then offer an answer, hoping they are right.  And let’s not forget the fact when you do ask a question they are struggling to answer their own questions: Why is he/she asking me that? What did I do wrong? Boy he/she looks really mad right now, I must have done something bad. Did I forget something? All of this is going on long before they even begin to think about your question.  Then, just as they have processed all of this data and can now focus on your question, bam here comes another!

I think part of the problem is the fact we are uncomfortable with silence.  We seem to have this belief there must be someone talking or “noise” all of the time, if not there is no learning or instructing going on

Ask your questions.  It is very important to do so.  With that said, permit your S/O’s the opportunity to answer them.  By you quickly providing the answer to your own question, rushing in to provide the answer your own questions, or jumping to another question too soon often will shut down your S/O.  The tendency is for them feel incompetent because they cannot answer your questions in the time you allow. They may very well know what you are asking, but require a little time to properly formulate an acceptable answer.  S/Os have told me they do want to come across to their FTO as “stupid,” but when they are not granted the time to answer their questions, that is what they feel like.  They blame themselves because they were not able to answer your question in time.

If this happens often, many will quickly realize they do not/will not need to answer questions because their FTO will be firing off another.  They learn not to think about your questions, rather just wait until you are finished, then you will move on to telling them where they went wrong.  Another risk is your S/O may soon realize, or come to the conclusion you are not truly interested in what they have to say.

Question:  Can not allowing your S/O the opportunity to answer questions be a problem? Yes!  How can you know what the S/O is thinking, or why they did or did not do unless you allow them to fully answer you? They need the time to replay the incident in their head.

What is going on in their heads? If you shut them down by not allowing them time to answer questions, what is it they are actually thinking about during that time? After you finish all of your questions, you get to the point where begin to offer suggestions on how they can improve their performance. Are they now listening to what you are saying, or are they so busy with thoughts of, “boy I must have messed up, wow, I let down my FTO again.  I really knew that one but…”  They may be hearing you, but if they are busy going over all the reasons why you never allow them to answer questions; I doubt they will be able to recall anything of value you said.  Result, very valuable training time lost.

While this may be a problem, there is an easy fix.  Try to increase the time between asking a question and expecting a response to that question from the typical 1 second to 5 seconds. This is known as the “wait time.”  Now this “wait time” goes both ways.  When your student answers a question, are you listening to the answer?  Do you take a moment to hear and understand what they are saying? We do know if FTOs will take the time to really listen to their S/Os, they will provide you with a lot of valuable information. You need listen, but more importantly understand what they are saying.  Take the extra time to think about their response.  Unless you have “memorized” all of your S/Os answers to all of your questions, how can you accurately determine what they have said?

Believe it or not, this simple act has produced significant and profound changes in classroom settings, including:

  • The length of student responses increases 400 to 800 percent.
  • The number of unsolicited but appropriate responses increases.
  • Failure to respond decreases.
  • Student confidence increases.
  • Students ask more questions.
  • Student achievement increases significantly.

Is this not what we want from our S/O’s?  We tell them all the time (or we should be) there are no stupid questions.  We encourage questions, we should be creating an atmosphere where our S/Os can ask any question and not be made to feel “stupid.  Practicing this “wait time” can be difficult at first, as it looks simpler than it is. It may be for you, as it has been for me, one of the greatest teaching challenges you will ever face simply because we as trainers are uncomfortable with silence. We tend to abhor it, often believing that learning can’t really be going on if it is quiet. But with practice, you’ll begin to see the incredible benefits of “wait time!”

I welcome your comments:

Sgt. David J. Harris
Lynnwood Police Department
Director WA -NAFTO

Last modified: April 1, 2020