Critical Thinking:
Using Social and Emotional
Intelligence in Public Safety

I started working in law enforcement during the late 1980s. At that time, the agencies I worked for were located in busy jurisdictions where we ran from one call to the next. Like many organizations, we were shorthanded. Communication in the field was short and sweet. We took care of business and moved on to the next call for service without giving much thought to human relationships. Community policing was a relatively new term. We knew the importance of forging positive relationships. But time was the primary focus.

Fast-forward several decades and time is still an important factor when juggling the myriad responsibilities found in public safety. The relationship factor is equally important and effective communication is essential to accomplishing the mission. Early in my career, I was extremely task-oriented while handling calls and dealing with the public. As time went on, I realized there was much more to a call than a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. People want to be heard. But communication is complicated.

During the past decade we’ve heard more about social and emotional intelligence in public safety and how these competencies contribute to enhancing critical thinking, while helping us establish positive relationships. Now, public safety professionals are even required to attend training that focuses on developing these skills. But what are emotional and social intelligence really about and why are they necessary in today’s climate? To answer that question, we need to explore how these competencies directly relate to public safety.

Emotional Intelligence

Spiritual master Dr. Amit Ray is often quoted as saying, “Emotional intelligence is the foundation of leadership. It balances flexibility with toughness, vision with passion, compassion with justice.” Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence (EI) as “… the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” Professor Gregory Saville stresses that becoming emotionally mature and confident are necessary prerequisites to influencing other people’s emotions.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of a busy day while failing to consider the human dynamic that can make or break a situation.

It’s no mystery that today’s public safety professionals need to have well-developed human skills and be able to communicate effectively, while managing both inter- and intradepartmental relationships. Dr. David Black notes how “emotional intelligence isn’t something we’re born with; it’s a tactical skill set we must develop.” Dr. Michael Pittaro from American Military University takes it a step further and identifies four critical skills for developing social and emotional intelligence in public safety:

1. Self-Awareness: Requires knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, emotions and circumstances that impact how we feel in certain situations.
2. Self-Management: Involves controlling our emotions, especially in situations where we might spontaneously respond in a disruptive manner. It also includes self-monitoring and knowing when it’s appropriate to act.
3. Social Awareness: Requires empathy for the feelings, needs and concerns of others. This is a big factor in building rapport since it involves understanding a person’s mood or behavior in a way that improves the relationship.
4. Relationship Management: This expands on social awareness by developing bonds and making people feel supported and understood.

In public safety, social competencies such as conflict management, empathy and leadership are also important. These skill sets are required on nearly every call for service. There is a strong relationship between emotional intelligence and building trust in the communities we serve. And to make the most of this valuable competency, it’s also necessary to clearly understand complex social relationships—which in turn requires an understanding of social intelligence.

Social Intelligence

Bnidhu and Snigh’s research identified social intelligence (SI) as “the ability to understand the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of persons, including oneself … and to act appropriately upon that understanding.” Simply put, SI refers to our ability to read other people and understand their intentions and motivations—making strong human connections. When human beings make these connections, they are better equipped to adjust to new situations or adopt alternative courses of action based on a variety of situationally dependent variables.

Savvy public safety professionals use this important competency on a daily basis without even thinking. But it’s important to note SI is another learned competency. We develop this skillset through experiences and interactions with people. As Dr. Ronald Riggio points out, we learn “from the successes and failures in social settings.” Some key elements of SI include:

  • Verbal fluency and conversational skills: This largely involves being tactful and appropriate—working or reading the room, as they say.
  • Knowing social roles, rules, and scripts: Also known as “playing the game,” this social intelligence element involves conforming to the unwritten rules or norms that govern how humans interact with one another in social or group settings.
  • Effective listening skills: Being a good listener goes without saying in this industry, but human beings are hardwired to care more about our own thoughts, opinions and feelings. In other words, we are selfish and must work to set aside our own basic needs to connect with others, especially in situations where emotions are at play.
  • Impression management: Those working in public safety are keenly aware of the importance of making a good impression. There is obviously a delicate balance between managing the image you portray and how it comes across to others. How you wear the uniform, your level of self-confidence, and skill competencies all play a role in how you professionally interact with both your peers and the public while on the job.

In public safety, we must be able to quickly adjust to new situations and adopt effective courses of action that allow us to connect with the people we serve. How do emotional intelligence and social intelligence competencies relate to critical thinking in public safety?

The Relationship to Critical Thinking

Effective critical thinking requires us to overcome individual biases and false assumptions. How many times have you responded to a call for service and immediately drew conclusions about what occurred or hastily decided upon a necessary course of action, only to significantly change direction after hearing all the facts? We’ve all been there. Our experience and training largely contribute to our success, but it can also inhibit our ability to rationalize when we’re faced with new challenges in unfamiliar territory.

In public safety, social competencies such as conflict management, empathy and leadership are required on nearly every call for service.

As Phillips and Burrell point out, “critical thinking and effective problem-solving is an optimal process to reach well-thought-out decisions.” This level of analysis is paramount if we wish to actually solve a problem without settling on some mediocre alternative. And it requires us to have a strong understanding of our own capabilities relative to both social and emotional intelligence. Critical thinking allows us to:

  • Develop paths to reasoned judgment when variables in a situation change or evolve.
  • Understand how to build group consensus around complex issues (or at least engage in conversation directed toward problem resolution).
  • Learn to encourage and ensure consideration of breakthrough or “outside the box” ideas or thinking.

The key centers on enhancing our ability to solve problems constructively after careful consideration of rational alternatives. This also requires some level of analytical assessment as we determine which course of action is necessary for a given situation.

If we consider critical thinking from a social and emotional intelligence standpoint, we also need to deal with some internal noise. Factor in your own egocentrism and be realistic about the impact of individual emotions on decision making. We also need to be aware of group influences in our lives. Public safety professionals have a lot in common and it’s not unusual to develop behaviors that are encouraged within that group. This may or may not be beneficial when dealing with certain members of the public. Awareness is the key. As India yoga guru Sadhguru said, “When your mind is full of assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs, it has no penetration, it just repeats past impressions.”

Making Your Job Easier

Critical thinking often requires us to overcome what we think we know about a given situation and approach it with an open mind. This means not only managing our emotions and understanding the emotions of others, but also placing those emotions and feelings in the proper context. As with anything, it’s crucial we are self-aware of our own biases, our capacity to understand others, and the limitations to effective communication.

Although it’s tempting to rush through that next call for service in the interest of time, take a moment to slow down, regroup, and consider critical social and emotional competencies that I promise will make your job easier. Most of this is grounded in common sense, but it’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of a busy day while failing to consider the human dynamic that can make or break a situation.


  1. Psychology Today. (nd). Emotional Intelligence. Accessed 11/19/22 from
  2. Saville G. (2015) Emotional Intelligence in Policing. The Police Chief. Accessed 11/19/22 from
  3. Black D. (2022) The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Public Safety. Cordico. Accessed 11/19/22 from
  4. Pittaro M. (2017) How emotional intelligence benefits correctional officers. Corrections1. Accessed 11/19/22 from
  5. Bnidhu J. and Snigh P. (2022). The Structure and Cultivation of Social Intelligence. Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities. 4(3):58.
  6. Riggioi R. (2014) What is Social Intelligence? Why Does it Matter? Psychology Today. Accessed 11/19/22 from
  7. Phillips W and Burrell D. (2008) Decision-making skills that encompass a critical thinking orientation for law enforcement professionals. International Journal of Police Science and Management. 11(2).
Rex Scism

CAPTAIN REX M. SCISM (Ret.) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.

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