Want a great example of succinct communication? Listen to Air Traffic Control (https://www.liveatc.net)
When I want a change from listening to music or a podcast, I tune in to air traffic control (ATC), yes there is an app for that. ATC listening isn’t the most common thing to do, but it turns out I am not alone. Actually, many tune in to the daily “ballet in the sky” happening all over the world.
There is a dizzying number of things to control at a busy airport like JFK. Tower controllers, for example, are responsible for landings, takeoffs, and some ground movements. What is immediately striking when listening to ATC is how quickly things happen, and how poor communication could literally be a matter of life and death. Fortunately such events are rare, due to the system of communication and the expertise of those involved.
Communications by ATC to a pilot are read back to ensure they are received and understood, and allow for clarification or revision if needed. For example, a pilot may not be able to accommodate the requested speed on landing approach due to specific conditions or aircraft constraints. Only the pilots have full knowledge of the real time situation in the air, and communicating this information in a timely and succinct fashion makes ATC aware and able to quickly make adjustments if needed to ensure safety.
Fortunately, most of us do not encounter potential life or death consequences in our daily communications. However, I think it’s safe to say all of us have had important communications that have been less effective than we wanted and resulted in poor outcomes. I recently spoke with a colleague who was frustrated when a partner presented data from what turned out to be the wrong experiments. The partner clearly had a different understanding than my colleague of what was to be done. Unfortunately, months had gone by and this misunderstanding led to a program delay, wasted resources, and a relationship that needed some work to get back on track. This example might sound extreme, but even with experienced teams it is easy to take communication for granted—especially with familiar relationships.
I am going to launch an ATC challenge for myself and invite you to try it as well. The next time you are in an important conversation or meeting, try thinking like ATC. That does not mean employing a call and response style of communication. That might get attention, but probably not the kind you want. Instead, think about taking ownership of both parts of the communication. That means what you say and what the other person hears. Are you being clear? What did others understand? Can you easily summarize what you understood others to say?
This type of engagement raises accountability, especially in cases where there are records of discussions as is often the case for partnership meetings. But don’t stop there. ATC does not stop when a plane lands, they make sure to navigate it around the system of runways and taxiways to avoid accidents until it arrives safely at its gate. By analogy, to identify issues before they become larger and derail the project and relationship it is important to check-in regularly to ensure ongoing mutual understanding and implementation, and provide an on-time arrival.
The next time you are in an important meeting or conversation: think ATC.