Communicating Under Stress: Lessons from Flight 1549

Editor's note: In this latest installment of his series on the five-stage communication model, Tom Labelle looks at the 'message' within the communication chain.

By Tom Labelle

When I started this series of articles, I didn't plan of course to have to have such a great example of communication under stress as Flight 1549 and its crash into the Hudson River. Not only does it contain several really great examples of communication, everyone survived — except the geese — which makes it that much easier to discuss.

The second part of our five-stage communication model (sender, message, medium, receiver and feedback) concerns the actual information that you want to send out.

The message has a huge impact on how others will understand that information. Words (written and verbal), signs and numbers are all ways of creating a message to convey different information.

As the sender, after we've figured out the who, what, when, where and whys of what we're communicating, we have to figure out what we're saying — the actual message. Having a clear vision of the outcome we desire goes a long way in helping ourselves find the right words to convey what we need.

Often, especially in our field, brevity is best.

Utilizing CAN
Many in the fire service utilize "CAN" (Condition, Action and Need) when giving a report on their activity. Simply put, this radio report outlines your current condition, the actions you''re taking and what, if any, needs you have to accomplish the task. Again, taking a moment to think about the message will allow you to craft one that others can use.

If we take a look at Flight 1549 before it bailed into the Hudson River, the messages that were being sent back and forth were brief but conveyed the necessary information. Terms were understood by both parties (the captain and air traffic control), and although clearly the messages were created in haste there was an understanding by the sender of what they needed to convey and therefore what would be in the message.

This sort of understanding doesn't happen by accident; it happens because they trained and planned. Knowing the things you'll need to convey and how to convey them will assist you in the most challenging times, when thinking seems the hardest thing to do. It will enable you to craft the message in a way that conveys what you need.

On the day that Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, my office received a phone call from a reporter in Melbourne, Australia. She had tracked us down on the Internet, and asked me if we had anyone at the crash site. At that time I was unaware of the event and and didn't even understand her message. It took me a moment to explain to her that the Hudson River covered a bit of ground, but we were able to help her. But only after I — the receiver — helped her recraft her own message.

Although most of these articles are about words, both written and spoken, with regard to safety, it's worth pointing out that not all messages are communicated like this. There is a great deal of information conveyed in our non-verbal message. How we present the words, and how we treat the message and those receiving it, all affect the message as well.

But the biggest message we send when it comes to safety are the actions we take. Following the rules, not just verbalizing them, or writing the memo or SOP, is the clearest message of all.

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