Clear Vision, Clear Message

By Tom Labelle

My children can attest to the fact that what I want to say and what I actually say don't always sync up. In these circumstances, the outcomes can be downright embarrassing; on the fireground they can be deadly. Putting a little thought behind the goal of your message is vital in the heat of an emergency.

Most often in communicating we have a vision in our heads of an outcome. It might be how we want to have something communicated to members of the department. It might be an action at a fire or even a simple request for something to be done.

We envision the successful completion of the task without really thinking about it. I've often been trying to explain something to someone, but wanted to yell, "You know what I want, just do it!" But they didn't know what I wanted; I hadn't created a message that showed them the vision in my head.

When you're unable to clearly convey the vision of your desired outcome, it's not only frustrating for you but also for the person you're talking to. It's even worse when you think you've conveyed the idea — and they think they've understood it — but the outcome isn't what you expected at all. So, take a moment, make sure you understand what you want, and then convey it. Even on the emergency scene, those few moments can make all the difference to responding units or the crew in the back understanding you clearly.

Tested and explained
Training is a great location not only for firefighters but also for fire officers to work out their visions in a safe environment. Terminology for tactics that an officer may assume people will understand can be tested and explained. This allows for more a more concise and precise message if everyone understands what the words mean and therefore the envisioned outcome of the sender.

I had a great teacher in High School, Mr. Parks, who used to tell the following story to convey the idea of perception. In the early 1800s, an English gentleman was traveling to a distant land and was writing home to his mother to tell her what the people he was meeting were like. Although he was very much impressed by everything he saw, he noted to her that when the people of that land had an obstruction in their nasal cavity, they simply expelled it onto the street. Needless to say, he was quite appalled.

At the same time, a native of that country was writing to his mother about his big trip to the city. He stated that he saw many foreigners, particularly Englishmen. Although he noted that they were nice, he also stated that they had a strange habit of blowing their noses into fancy pieces of cloth and then putting the cloth back in their pockets. He told his mother he had no idea what they were saving it for.

The point of this story is that perception colors our receipt of the message. The clearer the vision you convey, the better for all.

Preplans and SOPs also go a long way in limiting the ability of factors, particularly perception, to change an outcome. Perceptions are difficult to change during an incident and almost always put us on the defensive, particularly at the tactical level. If we know what a chief officer wants when he orders a task be completed —having carried out prior training and preplanning — our own perception will play a much smaller role in deciding what the outcome.

Bear in mind that I'm in no way suggesting that your written or spoken messages need to be 500 words long or tie up your department radio system for 15 minutes. In fact a clear understanding of your desired outcome will likely mean shorter communications; you'll be less likely to use unnecessary words. In the end, a clear vision leads to a clear message.

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