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Leadership Lessons from the Left Seat: Communicate Clearly

by Frank Burroughs

One of the most intimidating parts of flight training, as reported by student surveys and even some veteran pilots, is communication. Why is that? Several reasons come to mind. Pilot to pilot communication and between pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC) is done over the radio while you are also flying the plane. Additionally, the jargon and syntax of aviation communication is very specific and is a new language to learn. The idea behind it is to be very concise (no wasted words) and very precise (no ambiguity). If you have ever listened to aircraft communication on the internet or in the plane, you were probably not able to decipher much of what was being said. That is not done to exclude others but to be concise and precise. It is certainly intimidating for a while but after you learn the syntax and jargon it really is amazing how much can be unambiguously communicated with so few words. It is also very easy to pick out student pilots on the radio as well as some veterans who choose to be sloppy or “funny” in their radio calls. The former is forgivable, but the latter is not.

One of the key elements of radio communication with ATC is the readback. The pilot reads back to ATC the instructions given and ability to comply. This simply is a way to be certain that what was heard was correct and that the pilot can or cannot comply with the instruction.  If anything was not clear or correct it can be addressed right then before it turns into a crisis. A pilot may not be able to follow ATC instructions, but she certainly needs to let ATC know she cannot.

As leaders the idea of making communication clear by being precise and concise is very compelling. Whether your world has a lot of jargon or not, you need to let your stakeholders know what you are doing and why with brief, unambiguous language. You owe it to your team members to make expectations of them clear in the same way. A readback approach, adapted to your culture, makes a lot of sense in most cases. Listening to what you just said or wrote as someone else heard it verifies the correct message was heard. If not, there is time to correct before resources are wasted. Likewise, it also gives others a chance to confirm that they can comply with the plan. You as the leader now can know what others heard and whether they can do it. As obvious as that sounds, we all know it isn’t that common. Many leaders assume (hope?) that their directives are taken exactly as that, and without asking believe the exact actions they were thinking about are taking place. In aviation there is no room for hoping a pilot is doing what she said. Everyone in the air must be certain that is what is happening. Is your business able to operate with less certainty? If it is, why would you want it to?

Why is something so obvious so equally rare? Communicating via a word salad is a lot easier than being concise, but it is also less effective and introduces uncertainty. Learning to communicate in the air requires training and discipline. Before you key the mic to speak to other aircraft or ATC you rehearse in your head the syntax and correct details the radio call needs and nothing more. Why not do that as a leader instead of assuming others really want to hear or read a lengthy treatise from you? Rehearse what you are going to say or write and remove anything superfluous or ambiguous. Recalling the “explanations and excuses” from Part One reminds us that very few really want to hear those but all of us want to provide them. A simple rule of thumb is to ask yourself how what you are saying or writing helps us move ahead. Explaining why something didn’t happen and why it wasn’t your fault doesn’t fulfill that requirement. Lengthy and/or ambiguous communications are a sign of lack of training or laziness. As with the pilot example above the former is both forgivable and fixable. The latter needs to be fixed.

Have you known someone who struggles with similar communication issues?

Frank Burroughs is an experienced leader with a passion for helping others achieve more as leaders. He currently leads Clear on Purpose, LLC, a leadership and talent consulting company. Frank would love to hear from you at [email protected] .