Interpersonal Communication in ATCO Training

Interpersonal Communication in ATCO Training


In general terms “interpersonal communication” is an over-defined notion as far as everything that is interpersonal could be regarded as communication. This interpretation may be related to one of the basic principles of interpersonal communication that is elaborated in the following statement :

“Human communication has two immutable laws:

  1. You are communicating all the time, in your words, tone of voice, actions, dress, your presence and even your absence.
  2. You cannot not communicate.

Interpersonal communication is not just a process of sending and receiving messages, but also a process of negotiating meanings, and the meaning you intend is not necessarily the one the audience takes away with them. Furthermore, communication is always complicated by an almost infinite number of factors such as expectations, attitude, prejudice, history, values and beliefs, moods, likes and dislikes, etc”

Despite of the fact that there are many models of the interpersonal communication, there are some substantial underlying principles in all of them:

- Interpersonal communication is inescapable or inevitable, i.e the avoidance of communication is still a sort of communication. People communicate not only by words , but also by means of tone of voice and gesture, posture, facial expression (so called non-verbal communication), etc.,

- Interpersonal communication is irreversible, i.e. one could not take back a message once it has been sent.

- Interpersonal communication is complicated, i.e. in each piece of communication there are not only individuals taking part but individuals having different roles.

- Interpersonal communication is contextual, i.e. communication always happens in a specific situation within specific circumstances and culture. These are called contexts and some categories have been itemized below:

  • Psychological context, meaning one’s needs, desires, values, personality, etc., which collecively form the psychological context.
  • Relational context, which concerns one’s reactions to the other persons.
  • Situational context deals with the psycho-social space that people are communicating in, for example interaction that takes place in a classroom would be very different from one that takes place in a bar.
  • Environmental context deals with the material space and place where the communication is located. Furniture, location, noise level, temperature, season, time of day, all these are examples of factors in the environmental context.
  • Cultural context includes all the learned behaviors and rules that affect the interaction.

The Process of Interpersonal Communication

The Human Factors Module, Interpersonal Communication (EUROCONTROL) provides a clear description of the process of communication as a process of exchanging ideas: “Communication starts with an idea, a thought or an emotion. The process that takes place when somebody wants to communicate an idea is as follows: the sender translates an idea into symbols and sends a message to the receiver, who decodes the message into information. A very simple process, but in interpersonal communication many things can go wrong. For example: there is little chance that the decoded information corresponds to the original idea if the sender decides to use the Chinese language as symbol for his idea and the receiver does not understand Chinese. Communication can lead to transfer of information when the symbols can be translated, and even then it is still uncertain whether the information corresponds to the original idea. Feedback is necessary to check whether the information is right.”

Importance of the Interpersonal Communication in the Training Process

All the theories about interpersonal communication demonstrate its importance in every human activity. And it is much more significant when we consider education and training where understanding and sharing ideas is the core objective of the process. There are only two main roles supposed to be present in the training process: the trainee and the trainer. The reality is much more complicated, because the trainer is often an examinator, and a future boss, or a former boss, or a future employee, or a relative to somebody, or a very disagreable person, and so on and so on. The same applies to the trainee.

Trainer’s Responsibilities About Effective Interpersonal Communication

It is the trainer who bears the responsibly for creating and maintaining a training atmosphere with effective interpersonal communication. The effective communication may be characterized as follows:

- Best tolerance to other personalities with all their „peculiar” and “odd” ideas and opinions;

- Sharing of one’s ideas by everyone;

- Evaluating behavior and actions but not persons;

- Always giving feedback;

- Sharing arguments and demonstration of what we mean or state, etc.

Application of Interpersonal Communication in Controller Training

The establishment of good interpersonal communication between instructors and trainees may have an immense importance for successfully meeting the objectives both in theoretical and practical training. It enables better trainee performance and may result in better students/trainee improvement in the topics and subjects studied or trained. It is one of the prerequisites for the effectiveness of the so called “peer education” technique when trainees learn a lot from each other. The trainer shall ensure a creative environment in the classroom with effective and good communication.

While the good interpersonal communication is important for best trainee performance it is much more important for the trainer performance. In fact he/she is the one who actually needs effective interpersonal communication as a basic tool to achieve best results as a teacher and trainer.

In many cases it can have a positive effect on the trainees’ motivation as well as their involvement in the training process and additional activities related to it. Good interpersonal communication between students at the early phases of the training can contribute for the application of team resource management principles in ATC environment. As it can be seen in Crew Resource Management (Kanki & Palmer, 1993), this definition is also used in the concepts for Team Resource Management in the area of Air Traffic Control (see: Eurocontrol Human Factors Module, Interpersonal Communication):

  1. Communication provides information.
  2. Communication establishes interpersonal relationships.
  3. Communication establishes predictable behaviouristic patterns.
  4. Communication maintains attention to task and monitoring.
  5. Communication is a management tool.

Interpersonal communication can also be used by the instructors as a stress release tool for the students in ATC training.


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Further Reading




  • Crew Resource Management (Kanki & Palmer, 1993)
  • Peters, J. D. (1999). “Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication”.

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