My time in air traffic control changed the way I think about communicating effectively forever

Creative team enjoying communication in modern office, discussing ideas for startup, empty space, International Youth Day

Dr Clare Holt, Programme Lead at Learna and former Officer in Air Traffic Control, sets out the importance of effective communication at work. 

The urgency and importance of effective communications was brought into sharp focus for me one day during my time as an Air Traffic Control Officer.

My involvement in a minor incident meant I was called in to listen back to the ‘tapes’ – a standard procedure in the event of any incident as an ATCO, however minor, to establish exactly what happened and identify mistakes.

I was played back a recording of the event and asked to give my account to investigators. I was stunned by what I heard. I recognised my own voice, but not the words that had come out of my mouth. There was a vast difference between what I thought I’d said and what I’d actually said – I even found myself thinking “I didn’t say that…” although, the truth was, I had.

I’ve always thought of the experience as a wake-up call. Communication is important in so many roles, but sometimes we are not as conscious as we should be of how what we say is interpreted, understood, perceived and recalled. 

This realisation was such a big lesson for me that it has become one of the key pieces of knowledge I try to impart on the students of my EMBA and Leadership in Healthcare MSc at Learna.

Managing communication

Breakdowns in communication can come about in different ways. Space historian Dr Stephen B. Johnson shared research in 2008 from the NASA Project Management Team which showed 80-95% of complex projects fail because of people, with some of the reasons cited including unnecessary conflicts and poor communication. 

The consequences of communication breakdowns can vary in severity but can arise from simple problems, like colleagues mishearing instructions, or carrying out jobs inefficiently because they don’t feel able to raise issues, query, or contribute.

That’s why managers are so important for ensuring effective communication in a team. Their role is to help avoid communication breakdowns by creating a workplace where everyone can use their voice in an effective way.

Active listening

Better working relationships can be created in an environment where colleagues feel comfortable expressing themselves professionally. This means there’s less chance of conflict, more chance of positive engagement, and hopefully improved productivity and less margin for error.

Businesses benefit by harnessing their employees’ individual expertise. But if people feel as though they are unable to contribute, you will miss out on their input. And this is where active listening plays a big role.

It means listening and really taking in what someone is saying, taking on their intended message while removing any of your preconceived ideas from your interaction.

American educator Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, also known as the Learning Pyramid, states that people only pay attention to, at most, 50% of what is being said. During my time in Air Traffic Control, we countered this by restricting messages to just three instructions or pieces of information and repeating the most urgent messages.

While this is not the best way to communicate in an office environment, or any environment face-to-face, it still gives an idea about how crucial clarity and, sometimes, simplicity is when issuing instructions or communicating ideas.

Factoring in the New Normal

By now many of us are accustomed to meeting people by way of Zoom, Teams, Skype or more. The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly changed the way we work with people forever, and more of our time is spent with virtual communication than ever before.

While remote working does have advantages to many people, it also brings with it barriers to effective communication, as well as adding problems with focus and attention during interactions.

More employers have adopted or are in the process of adopting hybrid models of working, at times utilising both face-to-face and remote communications. Because of this, thinking about how best to communicate with others – and working around the challenges that the new normal has brought – has never been more important.

The three sides to communication

Your interpretation, the other person’s interpretation, the truth. These are the three sides to communicating with others, accounting for the way our own beliefs or assumptions of the truth can affect our ability to actively listen to others.

Clarification, questioning, and understanding is so important. As experienced with my incident as an ATCO, when remembering a conversation, our ideas about what we said or what we heard can sometimes differ from reality. We should never let our assumptions get in the way of how we listen to and work with others.

Dr Clare HoltAbout the author

Dr Clare Holt is an academic with a PhD in Relational Leadership. Her diverse career started in hospitality, before moving on to several roles within FTSE 100 companies, followed by a stint as an air traffic controller. She then pivoted into academia. Today, among other roles, Clare is Deputy Programme Lead at Learna, an online learning provider offering flexible, affordable and quality Executive MBAs and medical PGDips and MScs.


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