The world is full of “rub” at the moment.  Whether that’s between governments and their people, between police and the community, between team members who work together, or between family members weathering this year in close proximity – the rub is evident.

This year has served as a catalyst for many as our tolerance levels are eaten up by coping with constant change.  Tolerance levels that we’d normally have spare to cushion the everyday battles we choose not to pick.  This year is challenging whatever your normal manner of dealing with things is.  Whether you’d normally walk away from conflict, choosing to turn the other cheek; or whether you’re used to tackling things directly before they get out of hand, this year has played with our psyche enough to turn much of this on its head.

The degree of change and uncertainty that we’ve navigated in the past number of months has eaten up our personal reserves, bringing discomforts that have been otherwise tolerated to the surface.  If you normally walk away from conflict, you may find yourself amping up your need to respond or becoming so uncomfortable you can’t hide it anymore.  If you normally address things head on before they escalate, you may find yourself dropping back with diminished energy and letting things fly by – only to simmer under the surface until you can’t contain it.

Whatever the manner of your discomfort, the solutions are the same.

In aviation, we’ve known for many decades that our survival depends on our ability to communicate effectively.  To find efficient ways to address the simple things and maintain common understanding.  To find simple, direct and nonconflicting ways to say what is hard when it’s needed so that we can all go home alive at the end of the day.

The realisation that we needed a better form of communication that could surmount our otherwise avoidant or unconducive human nature, was ultimately born of an aircraft accident in the late 1970’s.  There had been others far worse in nature that would become as instrumental in developing our communication, but the crash of United Airlines Flight 173 over Portland, Oregon was the official recognition of the need.  The DC-8 aircraft had experienced an undercarriage malfunction on landing, and had aborted the landing to find space to attempt rectify the problem or prepare for an emergency landing.  While they were doing so, they ran out of fuel and they crashed, killing 10 people and injuring 24.

When the NTSB investigated the accident, they discovered that the copilot and the engineer knew they were running out of fuel, but they couldn’t adequately communicate it to the captain, who was fixated on solving the undercarriage problem.  Without having an acknowledged conversation about it, the crew as a whole didn’t fully take into consideration the criticality of the fuel state.

At this point in 1978, Aviation decided they needed to pay specific attention to the communication between its crew members and it has developed that communication for over 4 decades in acknowledgement of the fact that our humanness can often get in the way of our survival.

The development of human communication by the aviation industry towards a more favourable outcome became a focus because their cost of failure was so high.  If we fail to communicate effectively in an aircraft, the best case may delay and the cost of time.  The worst-case scenario is that it causes a loud bang and considerable loss of life.  What pilots know about human communication is fascinating, although even we often don’t take those skills home with us or put much stock in them outside of the cockpit.

Regardless of your arena, and before this year gets the better of us by forcing us into a corner, examine where the areas of discomfort may be in your life.  Areas of discomfort more often than not indicate unmet needs.  Needs go largely unmet when they are uncommunicated.  And the product of this can be catastrophic and costly at the end of the day.

Whether the consequence of not applying thought and effort to our communication is mental, emotional or physical – often, the cost can be irretrievable.

In an unprecedented year like 2020, our focus is likely to be on other things.  If we allow ourselves to fixate, or we convince ourselves that we don’t have the energy to attend to less pleasant feeling things, we may very well run out of fuel while we’re not looking.  Or perhaps one of our team members, or our family members will run out of fuel while we’re not looking.

Pay attention to areas of discomfort.  Make the effort to sit with them (yours and someone else’s) and decipher them.  They are flagging an unmet need.  Take the time and effort to figure out the root cause and to put words to those needs.  And then find a way to ask for whatever it is.  It may not be perfect.  It may not feel comfortable.  But when you weigh up the possible implications or costs, perhaps it will be worth it.

by Christen Killick

September 14th, 2020

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