Effective training officers are always looking for ways to improve their communication skills. They partake in instruction techniques courses, read piles of training material and network with other instructors. In this issue, I would like to turn your focus an ancient yet vital skill that can all but overlooked by many instructors these days. That skill is listening.
Some background: Over the last three decades I have witnessed the evolution of the trainer’s “toolbox”. Overhead projectors and slide projectors were replaced with power screens, video projectors and PowerPoint presentations. Shelves of VHS tapes were replaced with a few DVDs, which in turn were transferred to a 1 TB USB drive. Photocopiers have come miles since the early Xerox machines. Now with full colour copying, and even 3D scanning, prototyping, and printing, we no longer need to spend hundreds of hours researching through textbooks and then writing out copious notes. Now it is a quick search on Google, then “cut and paste” all before our coffee is done.
The internet has changed forever how we research and instruct in the fire service. For the most part I am grateful, until I hear that lazy rookie, standing at the back of the room, boastfully yell out the answer to a question I just posed to the class — and I know he just looked it up on his phone.
Everything seems to be done at break-neck speed. Any question, no matter how difficult, is answered within a second. A simple click on a keyboard and immediately references fill your screen. Personal messages are sent so fast you rarely get time to consider the impact of your comments.
In our world of texting, our listening has been reduced to reading, and that robs us of the ability to really hear what the other person is trying to convey. No matter how many emojis you add to your text, nothing measures up to making eye contact.
Could it be that the blinding speed at which we receive and impart information has deafened us to the ancient art of listening?
Listening, like communicating, is a skill to be honed. Being an active listener incredibly important in today’s day and age. Whether on the fireground or in your circle of life, miscommunications can have devastating results. You need only read one fatality report to understand that poor communications negatively affect situational awareness, which is a major contributing factor for firefighter injuries and fatalities.
Often, our biggest problem is we are too quick to speak. I am still learning this one.
Perhaps one of the hardest skills to master is the ability to harness our desire to speak.
I have an amazing skill set that is both a blessing and a curse, a quick wit and I am prone to sarcasm. I have bit my lip more than once and often find my self reciting some “cowboy wisdom” in the form of you don’t have to say everything you think. Easier said than done, to be sure.
But if we are doing all the talking and none of the listening people will begin to tune us out.
Talking too much can also get us in trouble. If you find yourself in a discussion that is not going anywhere, stop! The old adage “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” comes to mind.
Watch out for the traps of interruption and assumption. My wife gets upset when I interrupt her because she fears she will forget what she was wanting to share with me. I am still learning after 46 years. Yes, it is true, effective listening involves asking questions. It shows that you are interested in what is being said. However, let them complete their thoughts before responding.
Interruptions are often an outward manifestation of the inner conversation we are having with ourselves. Rather than listening to what is being said, we watch for the speaker to take a breath and we jump in with our story.
Then there are times we are not paying attention, lost in our own thoughts. Catching ourselves, we then interrupt the speaker by asking them to repeat what they had just said.
When I fall into the assumption trap, I begin to formulate my response (words of wisdom to be sure) but because I really was not listening my advice is way off. Too often we listen to the words being said without really understanding their meaning.
Years ago, I attended a morning church service, and was greeted, along with the other attendees, by the pastor. He shook my hand and asked how I was doing. I replied, “Not well, my wife is home with our kids who are ill.” His reply was, “That is great, Praise the Lord.” As he said that he was already reaching for someone else’s hand. I confronted him right then and there. He felt so bad he got everyone’s attention and publicly apologized to me.
We are all guilty of not really listening to others. How often have you asked someone how they were, while not really looking for an answer? Our default answer 99 per cent of the time seems to be, “Good and you?”
I try to make eye contact. Looking directly at the person who is talking with you clearly shows you are paying attention to them. Looking away, even if you are still listening, will make it seem like you are distracted or not interested.
It is important to acknowledge that you have heard what was being said. On the radio we say things like “copy” or “roger” but that is not sufficient. Firefighters should be taught to repeat part of the message back to the speaker. Example: “Engine One from Attack One”, “Go Ahead Attack One”, “We need 100 psi on line one”, “Roger that, 100 psi line one”. By repeating the request any chance for miscommunication is nipped in the bud. Doing this consistently during practice scenarios, fireground incidents and mop up, it will become second nature.
This next point may sound strange, but it is important to be “present” (being at hand or in attendance) when someone is talking with you. Look into the eyes of the person speaking with you, watch for nonverbal cues.
Observation is greater than seeing and listening is greater than hearing.
I believe we have two ears and one mouth because we are to listen twice as much as we speak.
St. Francis of Assisi said, “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood”. In other words, listen with the intent to understand not the intent to reply.
Listening is one of the most powerful skill sets you can have as a fire service officer and one of the most valuable lessons to be taught to your members. Hopefully, this article has helped you build on your skill sets, enabling you to become known in your department as someone willing to really listen.
May you never stop striving to improve your communication and listening skills.
I hope there is someone you can trust when you yourself need to talk. Please feel free to drop me a line if you don’t.
With deep respect I thank you for the effort you put in each week. Please stay safe out there remembering always to train like lives depend on it…. because they do.
Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., retired deputy chief training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue, a fire warden, wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor and ordained disaster-response chaplain. Contact Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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