Monday, June 24, 2013

June 24th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. A simple mantra that keeps pilots alive all over the world. It translates to ‘Fly the plane, make sure you know where you are, where you are going, then communicate with others about where you are (position, altitude and heading) and your intentions – or indeed any emergency conditions you may be in.

This mantra has served me well for over twenty five years. I always get frustrated at lack of communication from others. The ability to sit and say nothing – often with the head down to avoid eye contact, coupled with the conviction that ‘silence protects’ is alien to me as a pilot, and as a caring human being.

I am sure we have all been in the situation where we ask a question and the response is silent. Younger teenagers appear to have this down to a fine art, which can be attributed to their ignorance of life skills. As adults the ‘silence routine’ is seen not only as bad manners, but it is, in reality, a form of problem exacerbation and even crisis escalation. Barely better than silence is the use of non-committal short, generally low tone, responses such as ‘whatever’, ‘if you like’, ‘so what’ and ‘who cares’. Sadly, we seem to be seeing an increase of this sort of response across the globe. I have to blame the movie makers for making such behaviour popular, and ask the script writers to consider the need to stimulate eloquent interaction for better understanding.

In an aircraft the silence routine is a sure way to reduce your chances of survival. Deciding not to initiate communication, or respond appropriately, in an accurate and timely manner could be the last decision you ever make. The aviation family’s safety and success is grounded in clear, concise and appropriate communication. Declaration of a problem is the first step towards support in solving that problem. ‘Pan Pan Pan’ the urgency call, gets you everybody’s ears; ‘9G ZZZ, 5 miles north of Zyphos Airfield at 2000 feet, heading south, passenger with chest pains, request to land and medical assistance’ will not only get other pilots to make sure that they move quickly out of your way, it also ensures that the people on the ground get ready to receive the aircraft and passenger in need of attention. It is simple, it is short – Identification of station calling, location, problem, request. Everything else then falls into place and it is a proven, established and efficient system.

The movies prefer the distress call ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday’ (which comes from the French for ‘help me’ or ‘m’aider’) which is generally related to aircraft emergencies. ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday, 9G ZZZ engine failure, 20miles due west of Zingbong mountain, 3000 feet’ is enough to get everybody to respond. Other aircraft will quickly divert as necessary and the whole support network of the aviation industry is instantly at your disposal – just for starting your sentence with ‘mayday, mayday, mayday’ or ‘m’aider, m’aider, m’aider’ – simply put ‘help me, help me, help me’. That is all that it takes.

Sadly, our day to day lives seem to lack the discipline and infrastructural support of the aviation sector. We heard stories last week of a women being stripped naked in public, by mob rule, to search for ‘allegedly stolen money’ – including a body cavity search – whilst she cried for help. Help was not forthcoming, and we do not hear of the outcome after the accuser remembered that he had left the ‘stolen’ funds at home.

How many people are responding to the calls of children in challenging conditions when they call for help in the only way they know how, looking up at an adult with eyes wide, a small tear stain down their nose, scared to open their mouths in fear of another beating? Perhaps this background contributes to the ‘silence routine’ we see in our workplaces.

How do we respond to those around us who are asking for help without sincerity? For example ‘Help me I need money’ is a common cry for help. When work is offered, and it is turned down, the ‘mayday’ was clearly not sincere!

More challenging is when we see a need, and in our best intentions we seek to help. We ask to sit with the person who appears to be challenged, and ask them ‘What is the matter?’ to which we receive a deafening silence. It is as if the person in need believes we are mind readers. We ask again, and again. Each sincere desire to understand the need and help to address it, met with the deafening silence of non-communication, often coupled with ‘head down mode’. We can do nothing. We are rendered helpless by the silence and lack of eye contact.

‘How do you feel?’ is a good question, but not an easy one to answer. Yet any answer is better than silence. ‘I don’t know’ is better than silence. Even a ‘non answer’, a tangential conversation distraction is better, such as ‘I wanted to see my aunty’. It may not answer ‘how they feel’, but it opens a conversation line from which resolution of the issues may take a step closer. Shouting is far better than silence for it provides insight to the reasons behind the situation. Rational talking – or at least writing - is by far the best solution…

I once went through months of trying to communicate with a senior official in Ghana. I wrote countless e-mails, made many unanswered phone calls, and finally – many months and anguish later, they told me ‘I won’t read your mails or respond to you unless you address me differently’. I asked ‘how would you like me to address you?’ to which I received the silent treatment. At least I had an inkling of my transgression, and worked to find an eloquent address for the person, which slowly lead to reestablishment of communications. All those months of anguish, loss of productivity, concern, and frustration because one party simply refused to respond to any form of attempt at communication. The disclosure of the root of their displeasure was the start of the road to recovery.

Interestingly, last week I visited the World Bank office and spotted a laminated card on the wall related to ‘conversations’. It seems that there is a whole World Bank programme about personal communication and resolution of conflict over words said, or indeed not said. This is not about diplomatic solutions between states – it is about conflict within the organisation, the people in the same office!

Clearly, we all get into conflicts of some sort – most of them through misunderstandings or cultural perspective differences. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that the only way to resolve inter-human challenges, sustainably, is through appropriate communications.

We each need to use our ears and our mouths in order to solve any problem or dispute. It requires that all parties not only speak, but listen, and that we all grasp the need for appropriate dialogue for personal development. It does not mean that there will be no shouting, banging of desks, or crying, but it does mean that we must communicate our needs, concerns and postulate solutions, together.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail )

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