Practice Empathetic Listening for a Better Firehouse

By DAVID MARTYN CONLEY

How good is your radio? In all emergency services, there is the need for excellent communications. In tense and crucial times, when lives are on the line, important orders must be communicated to various team members, coordinating multiple operations to efficiently and effectively neutralize a given threat. Should these communications break down or prove defective, orders become unclear, messages can be heard incorrectly, and lives can be lost. A good radio can be the difference between life and death. Most firefighters understand this dynamic. However, challenges in effective communications often arise before you reach the fire scene.

During downtime at the fire station, there is an opportunity to improve or erode communication lines. You must properly maintain good communication, like any other tool, when there is no threat to more effectively work in life or death situations. Firefighters at every level must practice efective communication to build strong, trusting relationships among members who must, at any moment, put their lives in each other’s hands. This trust is as crucial as any piece of protective gear; it is as important as your radio.

This article will teach you how to rapidly build trust with your superiors, peers, and subordinates while improving communications using empathetic listening. Empathetic listening is a crucial part of a personal leadership model called the EMPOWER model. Mastering all the elements of this model can help you improve your professional and personal life exponentially.

One of the basic human needs is the need to be heard; it is an important, often overlooked part of communication. Everyone wants to be heard, but so few of us are interested in actually listening. Conversations heavy on speaking and light on listening are like radios where the transmitter works fine but the receiver is defective. To repair and improve this receiver, firefighters must learn to listen completely with the intent to understand the other person’s point of view. This is the key to interpersonal communications, which is the key to building strong relationships and more effective teams. Truly listening gives you a better insight regarding what is being communicated. This insight means a better response. Poor exchanges in interpersonal communications usually result from the receiver listening autobiographically. Autobiographical listening means the receiver filters the transmitter’s words or message through the receiver’s personal experience or point of view. The listener or receiver must strive to place himself in a position to see things from the speaker’s or transmitter’s point of view. This is how true understanding is achieved.

It is also important to listen with two eyes and two ears. You must strive to do more than just hear the words; a listener must watch body language. Eighty percent of communication is expressed through body language. Gestures, expressions, and movements can offer a great deal of information regarding the context of messages being transmitted. Also, pay close attention to voice tone, volume, and inflections. This information is crucial in determining the appropriate response.

Once information has been transmitted to you, the quality of your response will be determined by the effectiveness of your RADIO. Use this acronym before you respond to any communication.

  • Receive the information. Make sure you listen with two eyes and two ears. Gather as much information as you can.
  • Acknowledge receipt of the message. Mentally check to make sure you saw and heard everything.
  • Discern the intent. Use context clues, body language, voice tone, volume, and inflections to discern the transmitter’s true message.
  • Interpret the message. Now that the message is becoming clear, decide what it means to you.
  • Output a message or return a transmission. Reply with a message that shows you understand completely.

In my and my brother Larry’s workshops, we often use scenarios germane to the fire service to illustrate learning points or models of proper behavioral health. Let’s look at a scenario where there has been a clear communication breakdown. Afterward, I will examine what went wrong and see how proper use of the RADIO model can mitigate these common challenges. Following is an exercise we call Step On It! It involves two motivated firefighters who want to prove their importance to the team through driving. Let’s examine how effective their communication is and the fitness of their relationship before and after.

INSIDE ENGINE HOUSE 22

Firefighter Morgan stands at his locker. He is happy, humming a tune. Firefighter Davis enters and approaches Morgan.

DAVIS: Hey, Morgan, what do you say, next time out, I drive?

MORGAN: What? No. I’m driving. Why?

DAVIS: I just think it would be better. That’s all.

MORGAN: Better for whom?

DAVIS: Those of us who want to live?

MORGAN: Wait a minute ….

DAVIS: Listen, I’m just saying, you drive a little … fast.

MORGAN: News flash, genius. It’s a FIRE TRUCK. It’s supposed to go fast. That’s how we get there before the building burns down.

DAVIS: Maybe fast is the wrong word ….

MORGAN: Really?

DAVIS: What I mean to say is … reckless.

MORGAN: Reckless?

DAVIS: Don’t get upset.

MORGAN: You’ve got a lot of nerve! Every time I drive, I get us to the fire in good time.

DAVIS: True, but we waste time, sometimes, doubling back and going down dead-end streets ….

MORGAN: … and yet … we get there on time!

DAVIS: While putting the rest of us at risk! Luck and wishes keep us from having a wreck!

MORGAN: It’s called skill, Junior!

DAVIS: Junior?

MORGAN: And if you had as much time in as I do, you would understand the golden rule around here.

DAVIS: Which is?

MORGAN: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

DAVIS: I’m just saying, I know this area of the city like the back of my hand. Your idea of navigation is using THE FORCE!

MORGAN: Then speak up sometimes! It’s easy to sit back there and criticize!

DAVIS: Well, if you would get out of the seat sometimes, I could try it.

MORGAN: The captain put me in that seat!

DAVIS: Then, I will ask him to put me in it.

MORGAN: What?

DAVIS: You heard me. I’m going to the captain.

Morgan laughs.

MORGAN: Good luck with that one.

DAVIS: I thought I could work it out with you first.

MORGAN: You thought you could work out taking my job. Everybody knows you drive too slowly. You don’t have the instincts for that seat. I know it, and the captain knows it, too.

DAVIS: I think the captain will recognize that it is better for us to get there safely than to get there any way we can.

MORGAN: The captain, like the rest of the real firefighters here, wants to get to the fire and save lives!

DAVIS: I just want to start by making sure our lives are saved. That’s all I’m saying.

MORGAN: Whatever.

DAVIS: Yeah, whatever.

MORGAN: Let’s go to the captain together; then we’ll see.

DAVIS: Well, at least we can agree on that.

They both exit, continuing to argue.

It is easy to see that neither of these guys has a clear sense of communicating his point. The level of trust in each other, even from the very beginning, is shallow at best. If they are unable to connect and devise effective solutions during quiet, nonemergency situations, there is bound to be some effect on their performance as part of a team during critical times. This does not automatically mean they will fail to put out a fire or that lives will be lost. It does, however, increase the likelihood that the team will perform less effectively. This damage to the team’s performance, even incrementally, over time can establish a pattern of substandard behavior that will eventually manifest itself at a greater cost.

So, let’s examine the scenario. Davis has an obvious issue with the way Morgan drives. Davis seems to see an opportunity to get to the fire more efficiently and with less risk of bodily harm to the team. Morgan seems to feel that he puts no one in danger with his driving, and he is proud of his performance. Where do you first see the breakdown in communication? Can you tell where the first divergence occurs in this interaction?

The initial divergence occurs when Davis introduces his point to Morgan. Fire teams are like families. Everyone’s personalities are on display constantly, continually broadcasting all kinds of messages. If you think about it, you have some idea about who you perceive each member of your team to be. I say “perceive” because you have to ask yourself, “How well do I receive the messages they are broadcasting?” You have to assume that, although Davis is a rookie, he has been privy to the fact that Morgan identifies himself as the driver. Listening to Morgan daily, identifying himself by this role, gives Davis an opportunity to present the issue in a way that Morgan is more likely to hear or receive. However, this is not to say that Morgan would be more open. It is important at this point to mention that the RADIO model and all interpersonal communications are more about your response or involvement impacting a given transaction, not about changing the other person per se. Empathetic listening, then, is a consistent pursuit. It is more a way of life than an episodic endeavor.

Assume that Davis has been listening to the passive messages being sent out by Morgan. Davis could approach Morgan with general questions regarding driving the truck in an attempt to hear what Morgan thinks are important traits of a good driver. He could ask and ascertain the importance of certain principles from Morgan’s point of view, such as crew safety. Once Davis has engaged the senior man and has gained a firm understanding of Morgan’s perspective, he can present his point of view in a way that illustrates Morgan has been heard. This will go a long way toward “buy in” from Morgan.

Now, looking at the situation from the other side, Morgan has a better opportunity to demonstrate this model because Davis approached him with the issue. Although Davis’s approach has its challenges, Morgan-as the initial listener-has the opportunity to turn this interaction into a positive one. Morgan should remain calm. Involving emotion is the number-one way to let a situation spiral out of control; it is like adding an accelerant to a fire. Remaining calm, Morgan would listen with two eyes and two ears. On hearing Davis’s next request to drive, he could repeat the request as he hears it and inquire why. Assuming Davis’s comments would remain constant, when they reach the point at where Davis says it will be “better for those who want to live,” Morgan, still remaining calm, could tell Davis that he hears him saying he feels unsafe when Morgan is driving. Morgan could then explain calmly his motivation for driving the way he does. He could also invite Davis to work with him, devising a solution that addresses the urgency Morgan seeks and the safety that is important to Davis. Both men feel heard and become part of the solution.

Through this interaction, we start to see the possibility of growth regarding this issue as well as future interactions because now there is a little more trust. With each positive outcome, each man is taught that working in a way where you strive for mutual understanding promotes a more harmonious team.

The RADIO model requires relentless practice with every interaction in your life. The scenario presented here is a good example of how it can be used for conflict resolution. What is even more powerful is how it can be used in everyday conversation and interactions. Listening with two eyes and two ears and paying attention to all the nuances of the message during an interaction builds trust among team members. These small deposits of trust pay huge dividends when the issue is more serious because each member now believes his point of view will more likely be heard. There is a general leaning toward mutual victory with one or both parties. Conflicts are better resolved when both parties are on the same frequency.

That is really the challenge, isn’t it? If you are trying to reach your team by radio and the two of you are on different frequencies, how effective is that communication going to be? It will not be very effective; the message will not be received. Think of the confusion that miscommunication can cause. Daily practice of this model among teams increases the likelihood that team members will be on the same frequency or quickly able to find a common channel.

Learning to align frequencies and channels can be difficult when you are faced with various backgrounds, ranks, experience levels, and personalities. With all of the differences on fire teams, how do we mitigate the effects of your assumptions, prejudices, and different points of view to even tune your RADIO? The first thing to do is to realize the impact of “status assignments” on your ability to listen empathetically. Status assignments indicate the perceived importance we place on ourselves and others in any given interaction. These assignments can be based on anything from experience on the job to rank, position, ethnic background, and age. The goal is to assign everyone equally high status. Most of the time, we assign another person a higher or lower status than we assign ourselves or our concerns. When there is a disparity of status assignments, relationships are plagued with communication issues. These relationships exhibit low levels of trust and low levels of creativity, usually manifested by less than acceptable performance. Before your RADIO can operate effectively, you have to make certain you remember the four nonnegotiable rules of status, which follow:

  1. When you lower the status of someone or something, you lower your own status in the eyes of others.
  2. When you raise the status of someone or something, you raise your own status in the eyes of others.
  3. Whenever you raise the status of a fellow firefighter or citizen, you not only raise your own status but the status of your entire department.
  4. Growth can only occur when all parties involved in the transaction are operating on an EQUALLY HIGH STATUS LEVEL.

In the earlier scenario, both men considered their status higher than that of the other man. You can see how the lopsided status assignments contributed to two men operating on different frequencies and, consequently, their transaction deteriorated to name calling, arguing, and a need for intervention. Had the men first committed to assigning themselves and each other equally high status, they would have created an atmosphere that maximized their RADIO reception.

I encourage you to try the RADIO model today. You don’t have to limit its use to the fire station or among fire team members; the model works equally well with anyone. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Chances are, you can use all the help you can get. Begin with people you know and with whom you have a history; this will be how you gauge growth or change in a relationship. Don’t forget-you are trying the model first on smaller interactions, where your entire relationship or job performance doesn’t hang in the balance.

Start trying to listen by engaging someone in a conversation about a subject you may passively ascertain is important to him. It is beneficial if that subject is new to you or one that you don’t particularly have in common with him. Gauge how well you listen by how much you understand and by subtle hints of understanding and satisfaction on the other person’s face. Follow up with him later on the topic for any new developments or growth. You will start to see your relationship with that person blossom into something great.

Years ago, there was an introverted guy on my team named Kyle. No one was particularly mean to him, but we didn’t engage him unless we were called to action or they absolutely had to. He was considered the “weird” one on the team. His status had been passively lowered to the point where he was an outcast. I am ashamed to say that until I had this epiphany, I considered him the same way as the rest of the team did. One day, I noticed during downtime that he doodled comic book characters in a journal he guarded. I approached him, greeted him warmly, smiling the whole time. He regarded me warily but returned the greeting. I complimented his drawings, which were quite good. I admitted my ignorance regarding comic book characters (I had only watched Batman on TV after school as a child) but asked him which were his favorites and why. He, hesitantly at first, explained them to me. Though it was challenging for me, I listened with two eyes and two ears. After a few seconds, I found myself intrigued by his passion for the moral stories he found in comic books. Afterward, I thanked him and moved on.

A few days later, I asked him about a particular comic he had mentioned, and he smiled. He had been heard. Through that first interaction, I learned a lot more about this devoted family man. We are friends today. Try it.

Remember the nonnegotiable rules of status, and make sure all assignments, regardless of perceived differences, are equally high. After that, make sure you Receive the transmission; Acknowledge receipt; Discern the intent of the message by considering body language, voice inflection, and volume; Interpret the message or decide what it means to you; and Output your own transmission in a way that illustrates your understanding and that which works in the best interest of all parties. If you and all the members of your team adopt this model as a standard, you will see deeper levels of trust, tighter camaraderie, and more effective team performance.

The goal for this RADIO model and the larger personal leadership-driven EMPOWER model is to improve the behavioral health of each individual, which improves the team and, consequently, improves the fire service as a whole. I am committed to aligning frequencies, connecting channels, and raising status. I’m listening. Over and out.

DAVID MARTYN CONLEY is creative director of Leadership Development Concepts LLC. Conley, along with his brother Larry, developed the Growing Leaders Using EMPOWERment program. He has been committed to the professional improvement of government and corporate employees nationwide for nearly a decade. Conley has facilitated and developed dynamic, interactive, instructional programs for organizations such as General Mills, Veterans Affairs, and fire teams across the nation.

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