Updated: Apr 18
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw
Throughout my many years of experience in this industry, I believe that it would be fair to say that pretty much all operational aspects of aviation require good clear methods of communication in order to continually mitigate risk within our daily activities. Clear communication demands much more than the simple act of just exchanging messages. The transfer of critical information is essential to flight crews, maintenance and ground crews, and all incidental interactions or change of plan moments in between. This includes the finer details of CRM, Human Factors and documented company policy but we can save those for another time. I’m talking about the general need to be effective even outside of these higher disciplines.
We tend to casually accept both our written and unwritten rules when it comes to connecting with each other over the normal course of a day’s work. Our approach tends to be along the lines of - This is what we do and this is how we do it. These routinely adopted methods often fall into place as they should except for when they don’t. Even the smaller details can suddenly become a concern within the bigger picture and become subject of quality review when miscommunication has led to scheduling conflicts, omissions and the inevitable blame game that falls upon weak systems and personnel issues. We cannot always expect the necessary details of our aviation activities to fall into easy alignment without a healthy respect for the proven methods of communication. Our adopted systems of communication need to flexible yet remain extremely robust with effective safety nets in place in whatever form that will instill confidence and promote safety time after time after time.
Basic communication can be defined as the dynamic process by which we engage and interpret messages. There are three simple components to the communication process including: the sender, the message itself and the recipient (or intended recipient) of the message. Interacting within the aviation workplace, we use various forms of communication as the basis for our co-operation and co-ordination between everyone involved as we send, receive and interpret information. A significant part of our ability to communicate in the workplace rests upon the effective exchange of information in a manner that shares essential details and increases overall efficiency. As we practice better communication habits (as both senders and recipients) we ultimately encourage a greater trust between supervisors, workers and in customer relations. Every instance of miscommunication causes us to ask “How can we do that better next time?”
Positive communication is often used to empathize, mentor, motivate, resolve conflict, talk, or even just to be a good listener! Whereas common forms of negative communication are used to criticize, bully, gossip, slander, ignore, or to respond with your own intentions without listening first. We often need to consider the type of communication we are entering into with others. Are we making the message easy to understand or are we clouding the issue? It has sometimes been said that if we don’t have anything positive to say then we ought to just say nothing instead. The positive dissemination of information within an organization keeps things simple and also strengthens the fabric of its safety culture.
Let’s explore the various forms of communication as appropriate to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Some of these forms or methods may be used in conjunction with each other to reinforce the message, whereas some are used as alternates to others.
Verbal communication is easily the most common yet least effective form of communication because the message itself may also be influenced by the tone of the message, our body language, individual biases, culture, relationships, personality etc. It has been widely documented that simple verbal communication only accounts for as little as 7 % of the actual message whereas our tone (how we express our voice) roughly accounts for 38% and body language at 55%. So there is always more to consider despite our good intentions when attempting to send a verbal message to another.
Written communication also takes on various forms and is very dependent upon being clear, complete, relevant, legible, accessible and easy to understand. The written word is foundational to our flight and technical manuals, regulations, safety policies and company record keeping. Have you ever tried to read through a set of instructions and find that they were pretty easy to follow or they simply lacked accuracy and details leaving the reader confused and frustrated? Do we leave notes that look like Doctor’s prescriptions or do we write the way we speak? Our use of the written word can undoubtedly influence the intended outcome for better or for worse.
Body language is actually the primary influence over verbal communication. When our body language sends a different message than our words, it sets up the potential for miscommunicating. Body language can be quickly interpreted as either positive or negative in the form of facial expressions, posture, proximity, and hand gestures. Other examples include posing with arms crossed, tapping fingers or pen, nail biting, or looking around seemingly distracted by who knows what. The body represents the most obvious clues to the recipient and therefore sets the primary tone for the message. So again, we can see the potential to influence a simple message through intentional or involuntary mannerisms.
Symbolic gestures such as a head nod or a thumbs up used for quick response to a question or to convey whether an outcome is good or bad are also common and easily understood communicators. Whenever someone is using a simple gesture to communicate, can we be sure that they are answering the right question or that they understand the proper parameters of the issue at hand? Are we “talking” about the same thing? Are the gestures being used known and/or understood to both the sender and receiver? In most cases we use gestures that are universally known and accepted however, there is still room for error if we do not confirm our intentions with others.
Visual communication includes instructional signs, safety warnings, placards, tapes and tags affixed to work areas, aircraft, technical manuals or other resources. The significance of such visual clues are usually enhanced by size, color, or additional symbols (such as for hazardous products) in order to display unmistakable information as required for specific activities. We experience examples of visual communication every day also in the form of consumer advertising and traffic signs. The simple visual component of communication relies on very direct and universal wording and/or symbols that should leave no doubt as to their intended message.
Electronic communication can be categorized through the use of cell phones, email, text, internet and various work related software programs adopted by the workplace. Using these methods can be highly effective at times although they have their pitfalls as well. We have all come to understand that an email or text typed in all capitals is to be interpreted as the equivalent to being shouted at! Electronic messages are great for the transfer of information that does not require a timely response. It allows the recipient to read and respond when they have time. More urgent messages usually require the age old process of a direct person-to-person phone call. Using the best option here can influence how or when the message is received. What is best for the situation?
I have to tell you that what you heard and what I said are two different things and that what you think I said is definitely not what I meant.
Many of our organizational problems are the result of some common barriers to effective communication such as human factors, assumptions, mental injury or illness, the actual working environment (noise level, adequate lighting, and familiarity with procedures), poorly defined leadership, apathy, simply not being prepared or not being adequately trained for the role or assignment. Experiencing a Lack of communication usually indicates that the transfer of information is not happening as often as it should. Poor communication, on the other hand, indicates the same “lack of” as well as pointing to a flawed or incomplete message - usually influenced by one of these barriers mentioned above. The message was not successful in making the intent clearly understood by the recipient(s). Sometimes a follow-up may be required in order to confirm that the message was properly received or understood along with any of the finer details within that message.
To be an effective communicator, first and foremost, it is imperative to be a good listener over being a good talker! Stephen Covey reinforced this idea by writing “Listen first to understand” in his popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As the one initiating any type of communication, we should become aware of any filters, on a case by case basis, that could potentially influence the receiving of the message. These additional filters may consider knowledge, attitude, values, culture etc. Filters are not necessarily the same as barriers as they tend to be internal to the sender as opposed to the external barriers. So a successful delivery of the message is not guaranteed when it is simply “a message” without the consideration of any underlying filters. Communication, therefore, may ultimately be considered successful only when the recipients have received and fully comprehended the sender’s message. The mental picture generated from that message should ideally be the same for both parties.
We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the art of communicating even though we may have picked up a few ideas or reminders concerning our trusted connections. The limited context of this overview remains centered primarily within organizational activity yet should also be considered for extended relationships with suppliers, contractors and customers as all of these play a vital role in the ongoing success of the organizational activity, its output, reputation, and its patrons. Our ability to communicate effectively continues to be a significant factor influencing our realms of quality and safety within the aviation industry. It is my hope that this written message has been reasonably clear and influential to the reader, as it was intended, when I set out to communicate my thoughts on communicating effectively!