Active Listening Builds Trust and Saves Lives
April 3, 2011 by Jeff "Odie" Espenship
After personally interviewing Capt. Bob Bragg, the last surviving pilot involved in what still stands today as the “worst aviation accident in history.”, I am reminded that active listening saves lives. Capt Bragg was the copilot on board a Pan American 747 jumbo jet when a KLM 747 jet collided with him on the runway on the island of Tenerife in 1977.
The runway was shrouded in fog as the captain of the KLM aircraft advanced the throttles for takeoff. He refused to listen to his crew members when they first protested by saying, “we don’t have clearance,” then followed up by asking, “is the Pan Am clear?”
The KLM captain emphatically stated that Pan Am was clear. History clearly shows otherwise as Copilot Bob Bragg saw the KLM abruptly appear out of the fog, and attempt to fly over the top of his aircraft. They didn’t make it, and 583 people lost their lives as a result.
Time and again we see errors in communication, misunderstanding, and assuming.
In complex operations, changes in work activity happen all the time, yet hazards abound. At the top of the list is having a leader in charge who refuses to listen to others before making a decision that directly affects other people lives. These leaders feel their situational awareness is good, yet their perceptions of reality vs actual reality is incongruent. Only by actively listening to others can these leaders make correct decisions.
The Tenerife disaster has clearly taught us that everyone, no matter their rank or experience, has a piece of information that might be the critical piece, the last chain link, or final domino in a chain of events that prevents disaster.
As an airline copilot, I had the pleasure of working with a senior airline captain who embodied active listening. When the flight operation was being hampered by bad weather, or mechanical problems, or passenger issues, before he made final decisions that affected the lives of others, he employed these three active listening techniques in sequential order, to solicit information from his team:
1) “What I Heard You Say Is….”
2) “Did I Get That Right?”
3) “Is There More?”
For example, when the captain finished listening to critical information, he made the statement, “What I Heard You Say Is…” and he would proceed to parrot back the information without putting his spin, thoughts, or opinion on the subject. The captain then followed up with, “Did I get that right? “. Once the captain heard the answer to number 2 as, “Yes,” he would move on to number 3 by asking, “Is there more?”
I witnessed many amazing transformations in body language and tone of voice when he employed this methodical listening process. It was especially effective with upset passengers.
As a safety professional, anytime communication is turning from conversation to confrontation, try using this captain’s proven listening technique before making critical decisions. This technique even works well with teenagers. Although they may not like your decision, they are far more likely to support you because they have been heard, and being heard builds trust with leadership.