Verbal communication is the use of words and vocal noises to give and receive information. It can be considered as any communication where a message is given verbally and received audibly, regardless of any coding, decoding and transmission medium used in between. It can be face-to-face (e.g. caterer to cabin crew), remote (e.g. air-ground radio), or somewhere in between (e.g. ramp worker using the radio and also hand signals to a pilot), or even two pilots (or controllers) sitting side-by-side but both concentrating on instruments. Verbal communication can be enhanced with supporting non-verbal communication such as body language, deliberate signals (hands, lights, signs), and written communication (e.g. anti-icing code). Likewise it can also become ambiguous and confusing with inappropriate use of non-verbal communication.
Verbal Communication in Aviation
Despite the increased use of hand-held and integrated data-link communication and computer interfaces that use non-verbal inputs, verbal communication remains a vital part of ensuring aviation safety. This is not just between air traffic control and pilots, but between a complex team of players including ramp workers, ground-handlers, cabin crew, aerodrome operators, construction workers, airline staff, security, other specialists and members of the public.
Not all verbal communication occurs face-to-face; indeed, in aviation much verbal communication (perhaps the most critical) occurs remotely via radio systems. For example, post events of 11 September 2001 in New York, the mandatory use of reinforced flight deck doors has also relegated more communications between cabin crew and pilots to the intercom system, thereby removing visual cues and the possibility of written communication. Remote communication is distinct from face-to-face interpersonal communication where, for instance, eyesight and body language feature quite highly to either enhance or confuse.
However, in some situations, modern technology is being used to enhance, and sometimes replace, verbal communication i.e. Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), and message boards at de-icing facilities.
The Internationally accepted language for aviation is English and pilots and air traffic controllers now have to meet English Language Proficiency Requirements established by ICAO. Furthermore, some States (including EASA) require a common language be in use for communication within the aircraft cabin and between the cabin and flight deck.
The risk presented by ineffective verbal communication is relatively high. Consequences can be severe, and the frequency with which communication errors are referenced as causal factors in accidents, incidents and occurrences is substantial.
When air-ground verbal communications go wrong, then the consequences can be serious: e.g. loss of separation, altitude deviation, or, runway incursion. Similar consequences can occur when they go wrong on the Ramp: e.g. incorrect loading of cargo; failure to electrically “ground” or “bond” aircraft and refuelling vehicle; or, unsafe approach to rotating engine/propeller. Annually there are around 240,000 injuries on the Ramp and over $5 billion worth of damage
A pilot failing to communicate a need to “go-around”, or a cabin crewmember failing to describe the severity of ice contamination on a wing can lead to catastrophe.
Make a search of NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) for human factors occurrences on the Ramp, and it will show that 37% of occurrences involve communication breakdown.
Results from a search of NASA ASRS for Human Factors and parked aircraft.
Analysis of level bust events, within Europe, occurring in the first half of 2005 showed that four out of the top five causal factors involved a breakdown in communications, including incorrect read-back by the correct aircraft and pilot read-back by the incorrect aircraft, which is often the result of call sign confusion.
One of the reasons why poor communication is cited as a causal factor in occurrences is the vast number of other factors that directly impact on the quality and frequency of communication. The diagram below lists only the factors that affect air-ground radio communications, but many are relevant for all types of verbal communication.
Factors affecting air-ground communications.
Manner of Speech
The manner of speech used, when verbally communicating, directly influences the meaning given to the message by the “receiver”. This applies to the objective and subjective messages.
Effective verbal communication relies on a shared understanding of a common language, and also a shared understanding of a common Vocabulary, or Glossary. That is, words have specific meaning within the context of aircraft, aerodrome and air traffic operations. Therefore standardised phraseologies have evolved to ensure “meaning” is conveyed without need for long explanations.
Aviation professionals are usually trained in using radios for remote verbal communication, and following instructors’ advice and by experience, they will adopt a “different” character of speech. Anyone who has used High Frequency (HF) radios to transmit position reports or gather weather reports will recognise their own adoption of an “HF voice and pattern of speech”. This, of course, is an attempt to make oneself understood by speaking slower, pronouncing more clearly, neutralising accent, modulating tone and volume, and emphasising (stressing) certain words.
Non-verbal communication, such as body language, will “add to” any verbal communication when face-to-face and this will convey a subjective message (sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle) that may contradict the objective message: i.e. nodding our head “yes” whilst saying “no”. Otherwise known as incongruence. NB: beware cultural differences in body language though, as the example given would not be incongruent in some parts of Southern Asia. Subjective messages can also be transmitted during remote communication in the manner of speech; it is possible to detect unease, lack of attention or care, uncertainty, and even over-confidence in another’s voice.
It takes more than one person to communicate: the meaning of any communication is the response you get. Ultimately the receiver’s reaction must be monitored for feedback to the transmitter. In aviation scenarios it is expected that both parties have an understanding of the importance of effective communication and both will adopt the responsibility to ensure that the communication is effective; although never assume this!
The transmitter must:
- know what they want to communicate (i.e. know what response they want from the intended receiver),
- be clear (use their manner of speech objectively and subjectively to make it so), and
- test understanding (either by direct observable feedback, or through questioning).
The receiver must:
- “actively” listen,
- test meaning, and
- demonstrate their understanding.
Failure of Verbal Communication
Summarising the above article, we can list numerous verbal communication errors and contributing factors:
- use of uncommon language and/or phraseology
- physiological reasons (speech and/or hearing)
- poor use of volume to suit the environment
- use of uncommon accent
- poor use of pace and tone
- lack of emphasis of importance and/or urgency
- environmental aspects (noise, distractions, stress)
- technical factors (equipment and transmission medium)
- failure to plan clear communication of message
- failure to test meaning (receiver) or understanding (transmitter)
- failure to listen
- failure to demonstrate understanding (receiver)
- incongruence between verbal and no-verbal communication.
Enhancing Verbal Communication
It therefore follows that we can highlight some factors that will contribute to effective verbal communication:
- agree use of common language and phraseology
- test and agree assumptions
- neutralise accents
- control volume, pitch, tone, and pace of speech
- stress urgency and importance
- choose the correct time and place of communication if possible to counter the effects of personal stress and environmental factors i.e. to enhance listening opportunity
- maintain communication equipment
- plan what you want to say
- actively listen (receiver and transmitter)
- test meaning (receiver)
- test understanding (transmitter)
- complete feedback: receiver demonstrates understanding and transmitter observes the effects of the communication on the receiver
- if face-to-face, use non-verbal means of communication to enhance the message – be congruent.
- ^ EUROCONTROL. 1997. Interpersonal Communication. Human Factors Module. EATCHIP Reference Material.
- ^ Flight Safety Foundation. Ground Accident Prevention Programme.
- ^ European Action Plan for Air Ground Communications Safety. 2006.
- ^ EUROCONTROL. 2004. Air-Ground Communication Safety Study: an analysis of pilot-controller occurrences. EATMP.
- ^ O’Connor, J., & McDermott, I. 1996. Principles of NLP. London. Thorsons.