[ This article was originally featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Two More Chains. ]
By Mark Rosenthal
Air Attack to a Division Supervisor over Command: “I think I’m gonna use ‘Air-to-Ground 2’ ”.
Why do we THINK we are going to do something?
Is Air Attack changing frequencies here? Suggesting a change in frequencies? Unsure of which frequency to use? Or, is he—inadvertently—using “hedge words”?
|Equivocate: To use ambiguous or unclear expressions – usually to avoid commitment. To use “hedge words”.|
Hedge Words: Hedge words make statements less forceful or assertive. While they are sometimes intended for politeness, they often end up “softening” the message: “It strikes me that you’re apparently mistaken – I think.” We often don’t even realize that we are using these hedge words – also known as “soft talk”. Most of the time these words can undermine our credibility and make us appear less confident.
By the way, in this specific case—on a fire last season—this was a very good Air Attack doing a very good job. Yet he left me unsure of which frequency to use. And, as I listened carefully to more radio commo, I realized it wasn’t just this Air Attack. It became obvious that we have a problematic communication pattern embedded in our culture.
Sorta Kinda Maybe
Have you, too, noticed how we “kinda” talk to each other these days?” How we “sorta kinda” use “maybe” and “hopefully” a lot. Or, how about this for hedging or softening: “If it’s not too much trouble, you might ask someone to see if they think they can try to give [fill-in-the-blank] a shot.”
Why do we automatically believe that clear, direct statements will “feel” too strong to our message’s receiver? Because of this apprehension, we insert a “safety net” in the form of hedge words. This unfortunate outcome is most common over the radio—where the receiver is unable to read body language, facial expressions or hand gestures that are automatically used by the sender to “soften” communications.
Typical Hedge WordsAbout, apparently, appear, around, basically, can, could, effectively, fairly, generally, hopefully, in general, kind of, largely, likely, mainly, may, maybe, more or less, mostly, overall, perhaps, presumably, pretty (pretty strong, pretty weak), probably, quite, rather, really quite, really, seem, somewhat, sort of, supposedly.
A Lesson for the Wildland Fire Community
Last year, during an opportunity to work with a military unit, I often heard the Lieutenant Colonel giving direction (commands) to a Captain. His orders were always clear and concise. At the same time, you could tell this Lieutenant Colonel had respect for the Captain’s skills and abilities. The military considers communication an art. Officers are evaluated on their ability to deliver clear, concise intent to their subordinates. There is a lesson here for the wildland fire community. Another good example is how our partners in Law Enforcement communicate. Would these folks ever say: “I think I am going to ask you to get out of the car now.” Or: “I think it may be a good time to evacuate—if it’s not too much trouble”.
We Struggle to be Clear
Why does wildland fire avoid direct statements? In our profession we pride ourselves in clear text and efficient/effective communication. Yet, in reality, we often don’t achieve it. Ironically, this is most apparent in operational communication where the margin of error cannot allow for assumptions or a lack of clarity: Air Attacks, ICs, Ops Chiefs, Hotshot Sups, Crew Leads—all levels of fire ground leaders often struggle to be clear.
We usually know what we want or need to say. So why do we couch this information with hedge words? Do we fear being direct will be interpreted as harsh or uncaring? In our business, being direct should always be interpreted as important and required.
I believe that we don’t realize how pervasive the use of hedge words has become in our everyday conversations. How we speak to each other when we’re hanging out—is how we speak to each other on the fireline.
Practice communicating without hedge words. Commit to the certain and unequivocal. Go for the bold and be sure in your words.
[Curtis Heaton contributed to this article.]