4 ways fire chiefs can be better communicators

Effective communication is a learned skill that when practiced becomes second nature

A version of this story originally appeared in Florida Fire Service, a monthly magazine published by the Florida Fire Chiefs Association. It is reprinted with permission.

By Jo-Ann Lorber

Effective communication helps us better understand a person or situation, resolve differences, build trust and respect, and create environments where creative ideas, problem solving, affection, and caring can flourish.

As simple as communication seems, many of us experience difficulties connecting successfully with others. Much of what we try to communicate — and others try to communicate to us — gets overlooked or misunderstood, which can cause conflict and frustration in both personal and professional relationships.

In the information age, we have to send, receive and process huge numbers of messages every day. But effective communication is about more than just exchanging information.

Effective communication requires us to also understand the emotion behind the information. It can improve relationships at home, work and in social situations by deepening your connections to others and improving teamwork, decision-making, caring and problem solving. It enables us to communicate even negative or difficult messages without creating conflict or destroying trust.

Effective communication combines a set of skills including nonverbal communication, attentive listening, the ability to manage stress in the moment, and the capacity to recognize and understand your own emotions and those of the person you're communicating with.

While effective communication is a learned skill, it is more effective when it's spontaneous rather than formulaic. An example would be, a speech that is read from notes rarely has the same impact as a speech that's delivered spontaneously.

Of course, it takes time and effort to develop these skills and become an effective communicator. Here are four simple skills that may assist you in becoming better communicators.

1. Listening

If your goal is to fully understand and connect with the other person, listening effectively will often come naturally. If it doesn't you can follow these four tips.

First, focus fully on the speaker. If you are daydreaming, checking text messages (something that we all seem to do these days) or doodling, you're almost certain to miss nonverbal cues in the conversation. If you find it hard to concentrate on some speakers, try to repeat their words in your head; it will reinforce their message and help keep you focused.

Second, avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns. Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can't concentrate on what they are saying if you're forming what you're going to say next. Most often, the speaker can read your facial expressions and knows that your mind is elsewhere.

Third, avoid seeming judgmental. In order to communicate effectively with someone, you don't have to like them or agree with their ideas, values or opinions. However, you do need to set aside your judgment and withhold blame and criticism in order to fully understand a person.

Fourth, show your interest in what's being said. Nod occasionally (not a head bob when you fall asleep), smile at the person and make sure your posture is open and inviting.

2. Nonverbal communication

When we communicate things that we care about, we do so mainly using nonverbal signals. Wordless communication includes facial expressions, body movement and gestures, eye contact, posture, the tone of your voice, and even your muscle tension and breathing.

The way you look, listen, move, and react to another person tells them more about how you're feeling than words alone ever can. Here are some tips for improving nonverbal communication.

  • People watch and notice how people react to one another.
  • Be aware of individual differences (countries and cultures) they may use nonverbal skills differently.
  • Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said. If you say one thing and your body language says something else, your listener will likely feel you are dishonest.
  • Adjust your nonverbal signals according to context — the tone of your voice should be different when addressing a child then when addressing adults. Also take account the emotional state and cultural background of your audience.
  • Use body language to convey positive feelings — an example is a job interview where you are nervous; stand tall with shoulders back, smile, maintain eye contact and deliver a firm handshake. It helps you feel more self-confident and helps put others at ease.

3. Managing stress

In small doses, stress helps us perform under pressure, which is the norm in the fire service. However, when stress becomes constant and overwhelming it can impede effective communication by disrupting your capacity to think clearly and creatively, and act appropriately.

When you're stressed, you're more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and say something that you will most likely regret. This has happened to me once or twice, and it was a challenge to reverse the outcome.

When stress strikes, you can't always temper it by taking time out to meditate or go for a run, especially if you're in a meeting. By learning to quickly reduce stress in the moment, you can safely face any strong emotions you're experiencing, regulate your feelings and behave appropriately.

Try these six tips to deal with stress during communication.

  • Recognize when you are becoming stressed; listen to your body.
  • Take a moment to calm down before deciding to continue a conversation, or postpone it.
  • Bring your senses to the rescue and take a few deep breaths, clench and relax muscles, or recall a soothing sensory-rich image (waterfalls, ocean waves or whatever calms you).
  • Look for humor in the situation. When used appropriately, humor is a great way to diffuse stress when communicating.
  • Be willing to compromise. Bending a little to find a happy middle ground reduces stress levels for everyone concerned.
  • Agree to disagree — take a quick break and move away from the situation. Physical movement or finding a quiet place to regain your balance can quickly reduce stress.

4. Emotional awareness

Emotions play an important role in the way we communicate at home and work. It's the way you feel, more than the way you think, that motivates you to communicate or to make decisions. The way you react to emotionally driven nonverbal cues affects both how you understand other people and how they understand you.

We all need to understand that emotions play a big role in communication. Think how many times you may have had an argument with your spouse before work and you snapped at everyone all day at work and then said or did something that gets you in trouble or vice-versa?

Emotional awareness helps understand and empathize with what is really troubling other people. It also helps you understand yourself, including what's really troubling you and what you really want.

Remember, effective communication skills can be learned. And like firefighting skills, communication skills must be practiced until they are done without forethought.

This article, originally published on Nov. 9, 2015, has been updated. 

About the author

Jo-Ann Lorber, EFO, CFO, a battalion chief with Ft Lauderdale (Fla.) Fire-Rescue, is secretary/treasurer of the Executive Fire Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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