Lessons on effective communication from air traffic control

There are few careers where communication skills aren’t essential. Communicating is how we agree priorities, provide updates, manage expectations and innovate. But as something we do every day, we’re often not very conscious of how we communicate.

My experience as an air traffic control officer (ATCO) brought that into sharp focus, forcing me to recognise the potential disconnects that exist in communication – the differences between the intention of the message and the perception of the recipient.

As ATCOs, our communication is about ensuring the ‘safe, orderly and expeditious’ transit of aircraft through an airport, airspace and airways.

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Due to the critical nature of the work, everything you say on shift is recorded so that in the event of an incident, however minor, they can ‘pull the tapes’ to establish exactly what went wrong and why to ensure appropriate learning for the future.

My own involvement in a minor incident was an important learning point; the tapes were pulled, and I was called in to listen back to the recording and give my account to investigators and managers.

What I heard stunned me – I was struck that while I recognised my voice, I didn’t recognise what I was saying. The huge contrast between my perception of what happened, and what had taken place became strikingly apparent. I found myself saying ‘that’s not what I said’, although it objectively and undoubtedly was.

This experience was a wake-up call; I realised that effective communication is not limited to just what you say, but how you say it and how it is interpreted, understood, perceived and recalled. This is a lesson I’ve kept with me through my career and pass on to students on the online EMBA course that I lead at Learna.


The risks of communication breakdown

Communication breakdown is cited as one of the most common causes of failures within teams. For example, Dr Stephen Johnson shared NASA project management team research in 2008 outlining that 80%-95% of complex projects fail due to people, with root causes being social or psychological, including unnecessary conflicts and poor communication

Of course, examples like NASA highlight the more intense end of the spectrum of communication breakdown, but the principles remain the same.

What’s clear is that communication breakdowns manifest in different ways and result in consequences of varying severity; some as simple as a colleague incorrectly carrying out a task due to mishearing an instruction, or conducting a task inefficiently due to feeling unable to voice concerns or offer expertise.

A manager’s role is to ensure effective communication and reduce communication breakdowns by supporting team members with appropriate training to ensure clear, open and honest communication.


Active listening and effective communication

Most employers employ a team with varied expertise and experiences in order to benefit from their different viewpoints and perspectives. But if your team members don’t feel able to openly contribute these ideas, you’re missing out on their valuable input.

Creating a workplace where individuals feel safe to express themselves professionally, clarify and question, allows for better working relationships with less conflict, higher engagement and ultimately greater innovation.

Active listening plays a crucial part, which means listening to – not just hearing – what someone is saying and detaching your own assumptions from the interaction.

According to Edgar Dale’s 'cone of experience', we only pay attention to between 25% and 50% of what is being said. Meaning that when working in a team or attending a meeting, we are only taking on board around half of what is being said.

To overcome this issue in air traffic control, messages only contain three instructions or pieces of information, with the more important or urgent messages repeated. This approach may not be appropriate when working face-to-face with colleagues, but we should pay more attention to how we communicate our thoughts and ideas with clarity.


Communicating in the Zoom era

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve learned to communicate in different ways as many of us shifted to home-working and collaborating with others virtually. There are many advantages to communicating this way but undoubtedly there are challenges when it comes to attention, focus and engagement.

As we emerge from the pandemic more employers are adopting a hybrid model, meaning simultaneous online and offline communication with employees and colleagues. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to consider how to communicate most effectively with colleagues, factoring in their context, what else you might be competing with for their attention, and how they typically listen and learn best.


The third element of a conversation – the truth

When we recall a conversation, we often have our own idea or expectation of what was said by ourselves and our colleagues, similar to my own experience of an incident as an ATCO. What we believe and assume is the truth can often affect our ability to actively listen to others’ perspectives.

This is when clarification, questions and comprehension are essential in recognising there are three sides to communication: your interpretation, the other person’s interpretation and the truth.


Clare Holt is deputy programme lead at online learning provider Learna.