Safety and Communication: How to be a Good Listener

By Tom LaBelle 

There are many things that impact a person's ability to receive and process information. The actual term "receiver" makes it sound like that person has no active participation in the process, but in reality they're incredibly important. The more active the role played by the receiver, the greater the ability for the information to be understood.

Both the sender and receiver can, and to be successful must, take active parts in ensuring the communication is successful. The most important thing that the receiver can do is listen. That may seem obvious, but listening isn't something everyone is good at. Having been married for a while, I know the importance and difference between hearing and listening…

Being a good listener takes time and energy; active listening takes even more. Active listening means not just hearing the words of the sender, but making every effort to understand what they mean, regardless of the quality of the message or medium they are using. Being an active listener will also help the sender feel comfortable that their message is being received.

'Talking stick'
I'm not sure of the validity of this story, but it's a good one nonetheless. Some Native American cultures used a "talking stick" to indicate whose turn it was to speak during a large meeting.

 Many have heard of this type of method of controlling a meeting. However, what I found most interesting is how the stick would be passed. In order to get the stick from the person talking, you had to be able to explain to them what they had just said. This helped ensure active listening.

With verbal communications, looking people in the eye, repeating key points they have made and in general showing an interest are all active ways of listening, and building trust with the individual sender(s). There are times when this level of listening is difficult to say the least, but those may be the times when they are the most important as well. The fireground is a difficult place to communicate, but listening well is seldom more important.

Good listening allows for a great number of positive outcomes. It can enable you to understand the true message as quite often the sender might not be giving you the best message or medium to convey their true message. Good listening means less repeating. Good listening allows you to give good feedback, and to take appropriate action or respond. All of these outcomes have positive implications for improving safety both on and off the emergency scene.

Positive impact
Fully understanding the strategy, tasks and tactics clearly has a positive impact on safety; this understanding comes from good listening. As an officer, being able to understand and therefore help convey policies and procedures also helps ensure the safety of our crews.

Finally, one of the most important safety outcomes of being a good receiver/listener is that it increases the chances that people will communicate with you! If people believe or know that you are a good listener, they will gravitate toward you for communicating concerns and problems. As the fire service continues to embrace the concepts of crew resource management, encouraging people to communicate safety concerns is paramount. If your crews don't feel you will listen, after a while they'll stop sharing and the system will begin to break down.

Learning to be a good listener is difficult, but there are some things to keep in mind. First and foremost, it's not about you, it's about the sender. Listen with the sender in mind — don't judge what you hear, but you should reaffirm what you think you hear. This holds true for radio communications and discussions around the coffee table.

Reaffirming the information I thought I heard from a dispatcher has saved me from going to the wrong address more than once. In the same vein, confirming what I thought someone was trying to tell me has stopped me from misunderstanding them and taking the wrong actions.

In the fire service, we're all about taking action, about finding a problem and solving it. Listening is just that — listening. It's not judging or taking sides or even solving a problem, although those actions can and usually do come later. But solving the problem is a lot easier if we truly understand what the problem is in the first place — and that comes from being a good receiver.

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