BY MICHAEL KINKADE
Think about a problem in your fire department. Any problem. Is communication part of that problem? Think about it. Whether the problem is between shifts; on the fireground; or among management, volunteers, and union members, you can either blame ineffective communication outright for those problems or almost always list it as a major contributor. Why is this the case? What is it about communication that is so difficult?
The sheer amount of communicating we do can be overwhelming. One study from employees of Fortune 1000 companies found that employees are receiving an average of 178 messages each day by telephone, text messaging, e-mail, and face-to-face messages.1 No wonder you are having trouble remembering things.
I will explore some of the basic communication components and problems and then recommend some ways you can improve your communication skills so that at the very least you can minimize the damage.
There are many ways to communicate besides spoken communication, but the more important it is that you be successful, the more important it is for you to attempt to have face-to-face discussions with someone. It is time-consuming and ethereal (meaning that unless you are recording the conversation, there is no permanent record of it) and subject to misinterpretation; but if you truly want to communicate, no other form of communication is as effective as face-to-face communication. Keep in mind that most people will forget 25 percent of what you say within an hour and 50 percent within 48 hours, so sometimes a written follow-up might be necessary.
Simple communication is very easy to explain: You are trying to take “meaning one” out of your head and put “meaning one” into someone else’s head. What could be easier? Unfortunately, there are a myriad of ways for this process to break down.
The first is the process you use for coding your communication. Think about the last communication you had with someone you didn’t get along with, and then think about having that same conversation with someone you do like. Would you say it differently? Of course, you would. Our internal biases tend to shape the structure of what we say and how we say it. The context can be the same, but the way we say it, or the words we chose to use, can dramatically affect what we communicate. I call this” internal noise,” which our biases or our emotional and physical state at the time we are trying to communicate can generate. Have you ever been tired and said something that you didn’t really mean (or maybe you did) and regretted how you said it? This is that internal noise interfering with the coding of your message.
To make this even more fun, remember that your listener has the exact same problem. Anger, frustration, anxiety, sleep deprivation—all of these (and more) can affect the mind in a manner similar to how drugs and alcohol do and interfere with what you are trying to communicate. Can you avoid communicating when you are not in a “proper state of mind”? Of course not, but the first step to becoming an effective communicator is to be able to recognize that these circumstances can affect both the speaker and the listener’s ability to communicate effectively. Recognition is the first step in preventing ineffective communication.
In addition to all of this, the speaker and listener have to compete with “external noise,” which can be as simple as the various noises on a busy fireground to the more subtle distractions of a window with a beautiful view while you are in another one of those endless meetings. There is also contextual misunderstanding, where you literally misunderstand the words someone speaks.
I can remember working for a certain fire chief (whom I did not care for) who had to make an important decision regarding the continuation of a program. I gave him my input, and he decided to think about it over the weekend before making his decision. (By the way, try to avoid doing this to your people: They now get to spend the weekend worrying about what you are going to do.) That next Monday, I asked him his decision. He replied, “It’s a no.” Chagrined, I returned to my office and began typing up the notification to the crews about the new policy change.
When I arrived at a sticky point that I did not know how to address, I returned to his office to request clarification. He looked at me with a puzzled expression when I asked my clarifying question. He then asked what it was I heard. What he had actually said was, “It’s a go.” That simple one-syllable misunderstanding had changed the entire context of our discussion and had the potential for creating serious consequences if I had not (accidentally) returned to him for clarification on something. Keep in mind that part of that miscommunication was caused by my own internal biases (remember how I felt about him). I was predisposed to hear him say no, and that is what my mind heard. Contextual misunderstanding combined with my internal biases led to a significant misunderstanding.
External noises can include the environment. Have you been called to the chief’s office lately? Is that a pleasant or unpleasant experience? Why? Is it sort of like regressing to elementary school and being called to the principal’s office? Both parties need to be aware of these types of perceptions and work hard to try to have a comfortable environment when these discussions are necessary.
Another chief with whom I worked (and whom I admire) was famous for his “walk-and-talk” approach. If there was a problem or an issue that needed serious discussion, he would take that individual outside and walk around the station to discuss the issue and reach a resolution. That chief retired 13 years ago, and members still talk about how effective that technique was. Obviously, there was a lot more to his effectiveness as a communicator, but this one little thing he did had the effect of making the firefighters feel more comfortable and willing to listing, even when they were being disciplined. He took them away from interruptions, cell phones, e-mail—all of those things that distract us from listening to someone—and enabled them to focus on what was most important: the individual. The individual couldn’t help but listen.
What about the listener? Keep in mind that the listener also has to compete with external noises and internal noises and then decode the message that the speaker is trying to send. How many opportunities are there for misunderstanding here? Think about the last argument or discussion you had. As the speaker was talking, were you listening to what he was saying, or were you busy formulating your response in your mind? If the latter, then you have completely missed what the other person was saying while you were preparing a devastating comeback—a comeback to a discussion you haven’t heard. Does that make sense?
What does the listener actually hear? You can bet it is pretty much not what the speaker actually said. Listening involves more than just the acts of hearing and decoding; a visual component is involved also. In fact, this visual component, during which you subconsciously evaluate the nonverbal clues that every speaker sends, has more of an impact on how you receive a message than what the speakers says. Read that sentence again, and think about it. It is not what you are saying; it is how you are saying it that determines how your listener receives the message. The well-known management expert Peter Senge states, “Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in.”2
Vocal tone also plays a critical role. Study after study has examined, measured, and quantified how much of our communication is filtered by visual and tonal cues. The consensus is that it has greater impact than the context of what we are saying. Every nuance of our voice, appearance, and movement conveys meaning, and this meaning can have a powerful effect on the message you are trying to communicate. If you are the speaker, monitor yourself carefully. As a listener, you can’t avoid being impacted by nonverbal cues, but listen carefully to the context and make sure the meaning of the speaker is as clearly understood as you can make it.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR COMMUNICATION
The previous paragraphs are just a brief skimming of a topic that people spend careers trying to study, examine, and articulate in books and classes. I highly recommend that you become an expert in communication. You cannot be successful unless you can effectively communicate. This fact cannot be overstated. You can get promoted, perhaps even achieve the highest ranks in the fire service, but that does not mean you will be successful. You must be able to communicate to achieve any chance of leadership success. Are you going for promotion or leadership? The two most frequent mistakes I have witnessed are officers who do not understand the importance of listening and the withholding of information for no apparent reason. Take classes, read books, and better understand this concept of communication. In the meantime, here are some pointers that will help you communicate better until you can take those classes and read those books.
Too many times our discussions, meetings, and conversations wander from what the purpose of the communication was down “rabbit trails” that may be interesting but do little to reach consensus or solve the problem. Except for general conversations or brainstorming sessions, focus on what the topic is. Write it down on a dry erase board for everyone to see, and every now and then bring the conversation back to the topic. Stay focused.
“The wise man, hearing them, will gain more wisdom.”—Proverbs, 1:5. Allow the speaker to speak, and pay attention to what he is saying. It sounds so easy. If only it were! Don’t interrupt a speaker unless it is critical to understanding or clarification. Language is a crude form of communication, but it’s pretty much all we have. A good technique to ensure understanding is to paraphrase what the speaker said after he has finished talking, to confirm that you have achieved understanding. This technique can also be useful when context and nonverbal cues don’t match. What are they really trying to say?
Control the Environment
This may be hard, but do your best to minimize interruptions and to ensure that everyone is comfortable in the environment. That may mean meeting in a neutral or less intimidating place. If you are the chief, think back to the beginning of your career and what it felt like to be called into the “gray-haired, old man’s office.” Now realize that you are now that man. It also means focusing on the person and not the e-mail coming in on your computer or the cell phone that is ringing. I have worked for a fire chief who would never let his phone or cell phone go unanswered, no matter what. He felt it was good customer service. What does that say to the customer (you) who took the time to have a face-to-face conversation with him?
Having an open-door policy is a wonderful phrase, but we all know that there is no such thing for an effective leader. There are times when having effective communication may mean “not right now.” People will stop by your office any time and want to talk, but if you are right in the middle of that budget presentation that is due in an hour, are you going to be able to effectively listen to them? This will require some prioritization, as there will be some occasions where it will be necessary to drop whatever you are doing, but you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that most people appreciate it when you ask to schedule a little bit later when you can give them your full attention. Tell them exactly why you need to schedule a little later. Remember, they can pick up on those nonverbal cues that indicate you are somewhere else.
Also, keep in mind the physical and emotional state of the people involved. I mentioned earlier how fear, anger, anxiety, and lack of sleep can affect your mind and thus your ability to communicate, just like mind-altering drugs can. Do you really want their input on a sensitive issue when they just came off a busy shift where they were up all night? Have you ever sent an e-mail and immediately regretted it? Did you really need to immediately respond? Keep in mind that whenever you immediately respond, you may be allowing emotions to override your logic. There is such a thing as bad communication, and my experience has been that it is usually centered on a response that was immediate and not well thought out. Once you communicate, whether it is bad or good, you cannot take it back. It is out there in all its beauty or ugliness for you to live with.
Let’s be honest, folks. We are in the fire service, not a national security agency. Yes, there is some information that needs to be kept confidential, but very little of what we do meets that requirement. Too many leaders hold back information for no good reason, and this is one of my prime definitions of a “poor communicator.” Knowledge is power, but it is only truly powerful when it is shared. If you want to empower the fire department rumor mill, then go ahead and hold back information, and then watch what information fills the vacuum. You won’t like it. Now let’s be blunt: If this is your leadership style, it is time to change or time to retire.
No matter how effective a speaker or listener you are, you are going to get angry, upset, or feel insulted somehow, sometime. It is inevitable. The fire service attracts passionate people who care deeply about the issues that seem overwhelmingly important right now. Amazingly, time has the ability to put things in perspective. Keep in mind that some of the things we say and believe now will seem incredibly stupid years, and sometimes months, later. Patrick Moynihan, a very wise senator from New York, once said, “The disputes are so bitter because the stakes are so small.” He was speaking about academia, but think back to that last heated discussion you had about fog nozzles vs. smooth bore nozzles, and then tell me how that quote doesn’t apply to us. The other thing about the fire service is that we tend to have a long memory, since we tend to work for long periods, or our entire careers, with the same people. Let it go. We constantly espouse this “brother and sister” relationship of firefighters at all levels, which I firmly believe in. Live it. Never forget it. Learn to communicate.
1. Ginsberg, S. Business Outlook. “So many messages and so little time.” May 1997, C1.
2. Senge, P. “Fifth Discipline,” Bloomsbury Business Library-Management Library. 2007, 27. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
Adler, RB, & JM Elmhorst. Communicating at Work, (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
MICHAEL KINKADE is chief of Forest Grove (OR) Fire and Rescue and president of the Oregon Fire Instructors Association.