Sent is not Received

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to fly on a small, owner-operated plane while listening in on the conversation between the pilot and air traffic control. Besides geeking out as both a tech and aviation nerd, I observed a powerful communication technique that can be a game-changer for us all.

ATC: “989-Foxtrot-Echo, ascend to 9000 ft. and bear right 10 degrees.”

Pilot: “Ascend to 9000 ft., bear right 10 degrees. 989-Foxtrot-Echo”

Let’s unpack this. First, the plane is referred to by its “tail-number”, in this case “989FE”.  Since “F” and “E” could easily be confused on a scratchy plane radio, just like “Y” and “B” or “C” or “Z”, the standard lingo requires the letter names to be called out as words (Foxtrot, Echo, Bravo, Yankee, Zulu) to avoid any possible confusion.

Next, air traffic control gave specific orders to the aircraft. Instead of just hearing those commands and carrying on, the pilot repeated the command back to the tower. Any miscommunication can now be easily identified and corrected.  When ATC hears the command back, it ensures the correct instructions were both sent and received.

Finally, the tail number is communicated with every back-and-forth command, to ensure that a different aircraft didn’t wrongfully assume and embrace the instructions. This lets ATC know the right directive was given to – and received – by the proper aircraft.

As I sat and listened intently, the dance continued.

ATC: “989-Foxtrot-Echo, cleared to land to the right on runway 4B.”

Pilot: “Roger. Cleared to land to the right; runway 4B; 989-Foxtrot-Echo.”

In our frenetic lives, communication challenges abound. When we’re speaking, we assume the other person hears and interprets our words exactly as intended. And when we’re listening, we can be so busy thinking about what to say next that we miss the substance and nuance that was shared. No wonder so many messages get garbled, become misconstrued, and land dead on arrival.

Following the lead of aviators, lets actively and carefully listen when being spoken to. And before responding with our own thoughts, why not repeat (or paraphrase the intent) of what we heard to ensure nothing got lost in translation. As speakers, the notion of sharing clear, concise, and easy to understand content will boost the odds that it lands as intended.

Jenny (VP of Sales): “Jim, I’m counting on you to get three proposals out to clients by Thursday at 4pm ET.”

Jim (sales rep): “Thanks Jenny. I’ll be sure to deliver three proposals no later than Thursday at 4pm ET.”

Compare that to the typical long-winded, rambling requests coupled with tuned-out recipients who are multi-tasking instead of listening. No wonder expectations are too often missed.

With lives on the line, aviators succeed by three simple communication steps:

  1. When speaking: Communicate with clarity, brevity, and uncloudy details
  2. When listening:  Listen carefully, making sure that the specifics are captured
  3. When confirming: Repeat (or paraphrase) to ensure that you heard the information correctly, which also provides the originator an opportunity to make sure the proper details were delivered in the first place

Just think how impactful this three-step formula can be to ensure effective, high-quality communication in both our personal and professional lives.

“Roger that. Speak, Listen, Confirm. 989-Foxtrot-Echo.”