In his best-selling book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell presents a theory of the underlying reason Korean Air had more plane crashes than nearly any other airline in the world during the end of the 1990s—hierarchical culture. The author explains that because Korean culture has “high power distance,” meaning that authority is typically granted more respect and power than in other cultures, the copilots did not assert themselves in precarious flying situations. Had equal levels of authority been felt, more effective communication may have helped prevent some of the crashes.

This example serves as a reminder of the importance of effective communication. Lack of or unclear communication has led to numerous mishaps in the U.S. Air Force. In fact, according to the Air Force Safety Center, it was found that “communica-tion is one of the most common factors present in aviation accidents.”

It is not always poor communication in and of itself that causes accidents, but it is often a significant factor.

One incident involving a young Airman and an instructor resulted in lives lost after a fuel imbalance became so severe that full flight control inputs were needed to maintain flight. The student did not speak up about what was happening, and the instructor corrected the wrong problem, ultimately resulting in the crash.

Lack of communication is not the only way things can go wrong; you should also ensure that you are communicating clearly. Verbal messages can often be spoken poorly and misinterpreted. What you say is not always what people hear, and this disconnect could be detrimental.

During the first five years of reporting to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, researchers found “ambiguous phraseology and misperceived messages were caused by phonetic similarities, untimely message transmission, garbled phraseology, and lack of monitoring by the intended recipient.” An example of misinterpretation is the communication of the number “two,” which could be interpreted as the word “to.” There are drastic differences between the orders “two four zero zero feet” and “to four-zero-zero feet.”

People are the bedrock of the Air Force, and without the ability to effectively communicate with one another, advanced technology and resources are futile. Communication not only improves tasks but also acts as a motivator. Communicating intent can unite people toward a central mission. When leaders communicate their expectations, Airmen can gauge if they are on the right track.

The following are a few ways that we can all improve our communication:

  • Avoid lapses in understanding. To ensure you are understood, it can be helpful to ask the person you are speaking with to repeat what you have asked. By reiterating it, you can see if you were clear and that they are on the same page. This habit can help you improve your clarity and improve their listening skills. Col. Randy Kaufman, 36th Operations Group Commander, explained that when orders are misunderstood, he likes to first ask himself if he communicated effectively. He believes any lapse in performance is often a leader’s failure to effectively communicate intent.
  • Repeat and summarize. Did you go over a significant amount of important information with someone? Chances are they could have missed something. It can be helpful to reiterate or overview your main points to ensure that your key ideas were delivered.
  • Admit when you do not understand. It can feel awkward to confess that you did not understand something. Will the speaker think less of you? No. Typically, it is the opposite. Admitting when you do not understand is the intelligent choice, and good leaders respect and recognize that.
  • Communication can increase innovation. Have an idea? Share it! Whereas leaders unquestionably have earned their position, nobody has the same mind as you, and your ideas are valuable. New ways of thinking and doing things can always be implemented. In the Air Force’s think tank, Spark Tank, Airmen have pitched valuable ideas that have led to improvements in safety and efficiency.
  • Be a good listener. We often try to predict what the other person will say and tune them out. We are often wrong in our predictions, however, and miss valuable information.

Instead of shifting your focus to your mental to-do list, focus on the conversation and actively listen to the speaker to understand what they are saying. This approach can build a habit that will serve you well.

These techniques are only a few ways we can be more mindful about our communication. Being aware that miscommunication can cause mishaps is the first step toward reducing human error. Verify information and instructions with others if you do not understand something. Together, we can create a more cohesive and safer Air Force.