Jeremy Brewer: A strategy for supporting and listening to others

Recorded atMay 18, 2020
Duration (min:sec)07:00
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute175.65 medium
Readability (FK)63.31 easy
SpeakerJeremy Brewer

Official TED page for this talk


As a police officer, Jeremy Brewer interacts with individuals experiencing trauma and loss on a daily basis. Giving us a peek into this little-discussed aspect of the job, Brewer shares thoughtful insights on why respecting people's space is sometimes more important than trying to fix an unfixable moment -- and explains how you can use this approach to support someone when they need you the most.

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100:13 I'm not sure what you might think when you think about the job of a police officer.
200:18 Recent events have sparked lots of debate over the role of law enforcement in our society and if it should change.
300:25 And that's a big, important conversation that we all need have.
400:29 But today I'd like to talk about something that's at the core to my day-to-day work -- something not often discussed when talking about police work, and that's dealing with trauma, hurt and loss.
500:42 What's it like to tell someone -- someone that they know, someone that they love died suddenly?
600:48 Many of you might think this is done by hospitals or doctors.
700:52 If you die there, well, it usually is.
800:54 If you die outside the hospital, it's more often than not the police who notify that nearest loved one.
901:02 Doing that type of work has taught me powerful lessons on approaching highly charged situations in all areas of my life.
1001:11 My passion to connect started about 10 years ago.
1101:15 I responded to a death call that changed me.
1201:19 A woman -- let's call her Vicky.
1301:21 Vicky called because her husband had suddenly collapsed in the hallway of their home.
1401:26 The first responders and I tried everything.
1501:28 We gave it our best effort, but he died.
1601:33 In complete devastation, Vicky fell to the floor.
1701:37 Instantly, I could feel us strapping on that emotional armor, going right to work on policies and procedures.
1801:45 I began peppering her with questions like detailed medical history and funeral home arrangements.
1901:51 Questions that she couldn't possibly have been prepared to answer.
2001:56 In an empathetic gesture, I reached down and I put my hand on her shoulder.
2102:01 She flinched and pulled away.
2202:04 Suddenly, her neighbor came running in and instantly hugged her.
2302:10 Vicky pushed her away too.
2402:12 The neighbor seemed stunned, a little put off, and she walked back out.
2502:18 Then, to make matters worse, the medical examiner's office, carrying the body bag holding her husband, dropped it down a flight of stairs, crashing into a decorative end table.
2602:33 I will never forget the sound of her voice when she looked at me and said, "I wish I never called."
2702:41 I felt awful.
2802:44 Being confronted with death can be difficult for everyone.
2902:48 Often we rely solely on our instincts to help guide us.
3002:52 In law enforcement, we tend to put up an emotional shield, a barrier to emotions.
3102:57 That way we can focus on policies and procedures to guide us.
3203:02 This is why we can sometimes come across as robotic.
3303:06 I've discovered that in the civilian world, you're often driven by that instinct to fix it, usually done with well-intended comments or physical touch.
3403:16 Sometimes that may be that right answer.
3503:20 Other times, not.
3603:23 Had I slowed down and just taken a breath, I would have been better able to connect to the humanity of that moment.
3703:31 I could have avoided that policy and procedure, check-the-box mentality.
3803:35 Her neighbor, had she slowed down, just taken a breath, she may have been able to see that in that moment, Vicky just wasn't prepared for touch.
3903:46 Our hearts may have been in the right place, but we made it about us instead of focusing on her.
4003:54 In complete contrast, more recently, I met a woman -- let's call her Monica.
4104:00 I was tasked to tell Monica that her husband had tragically taken his own life.
4204:06 She fell to the floor crying so hard she could barely breathe.
4304:10 The gravity of that moment was so strong, but I knew I needed to resist that urge to move in and to comfort her.
4404:18 That sounds crazy, right?
4504:20 Honestly, it's excruciating.
4604:22 In your mind and in your heart, you just want to hug this person.
4704:26 But I stopped myself.
4804:28 Having been around trauma for over 20 years, I will tell you not everybody is comfortable with human touch.
4904:35 There are people all over the world suffering from physical or psychological trauma you may know nothing about.
5004:42 Who knows what they're thinking or feeling in those moments.
5104:46 If I move in, if I touch her like I did Vicky, I could unintentionally revictimize her all over again.
5204:56 Think: respect space.
5304:58 Be guided by respect space.
5405:00 It's a simple concept with a huge impact.
5505:03 You can't step into that space until you're invited.
5605:09 So I sat across from Monica, silent, eye level, just feeling that moment.
5705:17 My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it.
5805:19 That lump in my throat?
5905:21 Ugh, I -- I could barely swallow.
6005:23 And you know what?
6105:25 That's OK.
6205:28 Emotions and vulnerability can be so hard for some people.
6305:32 I understand that.
6405:34 But in human moments, people want human.
6505:37 They don't want a robotic police officer or to be talking about paperwork.
6605:41 They just want another human to connect to them.
6705:46 As we sat together, she asked me one question over and over and over again.
6805:52 "What am I supposed to tell my kids?"
6905:55 One of the most important parts of respecting space is not always having to have an answer.
7006:01 I could feel she didn't want me to answer that question.
7106:05 She didn't want me to try to fix that unfixable moment.
7206:07 She wanted me to connect to the depth of that experience she was going through.
7306:13 Yes, I had a job to do.
7406:14 And when the time was right, I asked the questions that needed to be answered, but I did it at her pace.
7506:22 Responding to death calls has taught me so much about the human experience and the best ways to be there for somebody when they need you the most.
7606:31 But it doesn't always have to be when dealing with death.
7706:34 There's never a bad time to build a connection.
7806:37 Hearing a private revelation from a friend, you could be such a better listener.
7906:42 In an argument with a loved one, by just stepping back and giving that respect space, you could better connect to their side of an issue.
8006:50 You may never be asked to tell a complete stranger that their loved one died, but we all have the opportunity to be the best, most connected versions of ourselves, especially in times of need.
8107:03 That respect space that you provide another can have a life-changing effect on the people around you.
8207:11 Thank you.