Editorial – Did I Understand You Correctly?

File photo: Lou Vest - Houston Pilots Association/Oneeighteen
File photo by Lou Vest / Oneeighteen

By Captain Grant Livingstone 

I have learned a lot about relationships over 30 years of marriage.  The learning curve was not easy.  Initially I had the idea that our relationship would be successful through love and good intentions.  I would uphold my commitments as would my spouse and we would live happily ever after.  We were two people with very different upbringings, personalities and life experiences committing to a long-term legal relationship.  What could go wrong? What we did not know is that good relationships are not possible without good communication skills.  Individual communication habits are learned.  Changing those habits need determination and education.  Effective communication is a learned skill.  Looking back we had entered one of the most important relationships in our lives ignorant of those crucial skill sets.   

After 25 years of piloting (and very positive) Master Pilot Relationships I still come to the same conclusion. Throughout my years of graduate and post graduate maritime education I cannot recall anything but a cursory nod to effective communication skills as the foundation of good professional relationships.  And nothing about navigating the challenging task of developing effective communication skills between widely different cultures and people.  Without which effective professional relationships fail and conflict is probable.  As in marriage professional mariners embark careers armed with little to no knowledge or skill in effective communications.  Master Pilot Relationship is no different.

In marriage counseling when asked what serious issues they are encountering spouses will often point out what’s wrong with the other person.  It’s normal.  In relationships it’s difficult to see how our own behavior proportionally contributes to relational conflict. Likewise when querying a master or pilot about issues in the Master Pilot Relationship.   Much of the disproportionate blame is the result of poor communication.  

While not exhaustive, perhaps Master Pilot Relationship would benefit from some fundamental communication tips;

1.Reflective listening                  

Let the other party complete their thoughts/concerns and then clearly repeat back to them what they said.  You are not disagreeing you are not agreeing.  You are simply communicating that you heard what they said.  Did I understand correctly, is that what I heard you say?  This technique can deescalate anxiety. Often in conflict people become anxious with heightened emotions and resort to repeating the same concern again and again with ever greater intensity.  Anxiety breeds emotional responses that interrupt higher brain function and critical thinking skills.  

2. Stay calm  

                If emotions are getting carried away put a break into the conversation.  Stop.  Take a breath.  Be transparent and point out that the disagreement has taken a negative turn.   Be the first to accept responsibility for anything you may have done or said that might have contributed and apologize if necessary.  Shake hands; positive contact is a powerful calming agent.

3. Stop making statements start asking questions 

                 If it escalates into an argument decide to only ask questions.  Clarify.  Deescalate.  Understand.  Often conflict between Master and Pilot is cultural, informational or language based.  Asking a series of questions will likely suss out the source of misunderstanding or conflict.

4. Stop confrontation 

                 If all else fails and one party is set on confrontation call a time out.  Articulate the overriding common goal in both parties best interest; safely berthing the vessel.  Agree to take up the issue at a more appropriate time.

5. No “You” statements  

                We cannot read minds.  We cannot tell someone else what they were thinking or what they intended to do or why they said or did something.   Stick to the facts.  “Captain the bow thruster is not working”.  As opposed to “Captain You told me the bow thruster was working!”  The first is fair, factual and without emotion.  The second is emotional and provocative. You’re implying that the captain did not tell you the truth.  The first escalates potential conflict and the second creates conflict.   Keep statements and questions objective and fact based; make statements not accusations 

6. Deliberate deception 

                  Distinguish between being wrong and being deceptive.  I can be wrong about something and not be deceptive.   But deliberately withholding critical facts shatters trust and shuts down professional relationships.  Again stick to the facts.  No personal attacks directed at the individual withholding critical facts. Immediately identify the facts whatever they may be.  Calmly outline the strict consequences should deception continue whatever they may be.  Reiterate you’re overriding common objective and shared liability working as a team; the safe maneuver of the vessel. 

7. Do not hang on to being right 

                   If it’s possible to do something safely but it’s not your normal method, give way, try it.  You are acknowledging the validity of the other’s experience, idea or method.  Next time let’s try it my way.  

8. It doesn’t take two to stop an argument

                 Don’t expect the other person to stop arguing.  Take the initiative.  One person armed with good communications skills and techniques can de-escalate the conflict. 

9. The only behavior that we can change is our own  

                 The most effective way to change someone else’s behavior is to change your own behavior.  

The conclusion of any conflict is not determined by the individual that initiates but the individual that responds.   Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution training could easily be incorporated into BRM and simulator training for professional mariners.