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Human factors: Communication skills


The four human factors that are most likely to get us into trouble with our flying were discussed last month – complacency, distractions, fatigue and stress. The human factor that will get us into the most trouble generally is communications.

We never stop communicating even when we stop speaking. Body language accounts for 55% of our communications.

This explains why we are always in so much trouble with our significant others. It doesn’t matter what we say or how we say it if our body language is saying something else.

Tone of voice accounts for another 38% of our communications. How we say something determines if we will be listened to. That leaves 7% for the actual verbal part of our conversations. We often say, “I just said that.” Verbally, we did, but our tone of voice or our body language contradicted it or caused us not to be listened to at all.

There are also many barriers or filters that prevent us from communicating effectively – prejudice, distractions, culture, language, noise, lighting, personality differences, personal attitude, and experience. You can probably think of others.

These barriers or filters determine how, or if, we listen or talk to others.

Most of us will say we are not prejudiced. I am not talking about racial prejudice. We all have little prejudices that we may not be aware of. I have discovered that I tend to shy away from, and not listen closely, to people with purple hair and multiple body piercings. Now that I know this, I have learned that people who chose to look this way may actually have something to say that may benefit me.

The most common prejudice in North America is body type. Tall, short, fat, or thin, combined with our own body type will often determine how we perceive others and how we talk to them.

I talked about distractions in the last column. If we are distracted by outside stresses, other conversations, the telephone, cell phones, noise, cold, or heat, we are not able to listen effectively.

We live in a multi cultural environment. People of different cultures may have filters or barriers to communications that are different from ours. In North America, our comfort zone for conversation with others is three to five feet. The comfort zone for others may be significantly more or less. If we violate someone’s comfort zone we may shut down communications. There are other filters. We must watch for signs (body language) that will tell us if we are getting our message across.

People who speak other languages may not be as proficient in English as we would like and this may make communications frustrating. We must overcome our frustrations and take the care necessary to get our message across and understand what they may be trying to communicate. People who speak another language as a first language may think about things in a slightly different manner. This may complicate communications.

This may also be used to advantage as they may approach a problem in a different manner which may result in a solution we don’t see. Noise and some lighting conditions are distracting. Distractions disrupt communications.

We all have different personalities and attitudes. This makes life interesting. It makes communications challenging.

We don’t have to like everyone we must deal with. We do need to learn how to overcome our dislike to communicate with them. That includes using a positive body language and a respectful tone of voice.

Experience is definitely a barrier. Most of us do not pay as much attention as perhaps we should to those who have less experience. They may be seeing things we have been missing (due to our complacency or due to company norms). New hires may also have an experience filter. They may feel that the “old coots” are out of date.

The result of all of this is about 30% of what we say is completely understood by the people we are talking to. To improve verbal communications we must learn to actively listen. We tend to think faster than people speak. This excess capacity allows us to debate what is being said. When we do, we are missing some of what is being said.

Key words being said may cause us to take a mental detour to a different subject. Again we may miss what is being said. We tend to plan what we are going to reply before the speaker is finished. We may miss something that makes our reply inappropriate. We all have a tendency to tune others out at times, especially if our prejudices are in play. To actively listen, we have to avoid these four pitfalls. This takes effort and practice.

As a speaker we can improve communications by paying attention to our body language to make sure it is sending the right message, and to our tone of voice to make sure our message is being listened to. To make sure our message is getting through to those we wish to communicate with, we should make eye contact and watch the receiver’s body language.

To make sure our message was received and understood, we can ask questions. The one question not to ask is “Do you understand?” People do not want to look stupid, so many will nod, smile and say yes when they really did not understand. We can also ask the listener to paraphrase what we said.

Telephone communications depend solely on our voices. Tone is critical when speaking and keeping the message short and to the point is important. Smile when speaking on the phone. It softens the voice and the smile can actually be heard. Active listening is critical to understanding. Since the other person can’t see us, we tend to let out our attention wander.

Written communications can also be problematic. Whatever we write should be short and to the point. Busy people do not have the time to read extraneous material. Review emails and texts before sending them. We tend to be busy ourselves and will hit the send button without thinking. This results in emails and texts that are incomplete or are full of spelling and other errors. We all need to learn how to be more effective communicators. Our reputations depend on it.

•Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently manages a small airline and teaches part-time for a local aviation/ university program. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings