How to Forge a Breakthrough Using Cockpit-Quality Communication


After you spend precious time fixing a basic issue of miscommunication, how do you prevent it from recurring? Try borrowing the high standard of dialog used in the aviation industry.

Mistakes take place between executives, managers and staff every day. For example, after a chat with a colleague, you think she understands what you are asking for, only to discover (after the fact) that you were on different pages. The miscue retards progress, dashes expectations, and ruins deadlines.

You can prevent these problems by employing the high-performance communication used by pilots to keep airplanes from crashing.

Cockpit-Quality Communication

Experts have known for some time that most air accidents result from human error. Among the causes are poor-quality conversations between members of the cockpit. For example, flight data recorders show that junior officers frequently defer to their seniors, tempting them into withholding critical requests. To overcome the same kind of “humble” deference we Jamaicans value and practice every day, these aviators must be specially trained. They learn techniques for speaking and listening that overrides their cultural programming. These lessons ultimately translate into better safety.

While, as a manager, you may not be in the business of saving lives, the quality of communication in your firm is enough to separate profits from losses. How can you be proactive to overcome the deference, withholding and confusion that ruins your organization’s culture? One approach is to implement “Razor-Sharp Requests” and “Solid Promises.”

This kind of interaction was first introduced by John Searle, author of “Speech Acts”. He linked conversations with action, talking with doing, in an easy-to-learn way. When firms enact his principles in daily discussions via meetings and email, breakthroughs occur.

Razor-Sharp Requests

In essence, Searle discovered that successful conversations which lead to effective action follow a set process. They start with a spoken or written request, the kind that’s intended to elicit the completion of a task by another. You probably initiate many each day.

Unfortunately, for historical reasons, we Jamaicans frequently make obtuse requests. Whether you blame British colonialism or our history of slavery, the result is the same: we feel as if we’re being rude, brash and “out of order” when we ask for what we want in a manner that’s blunt, clear and direct. To overcome our internal unease, we introduce a lot of noise – unnecessary embellishments and vague hints. While we may think we’re being polite, we actually obscure matters.

However, there’s good news. When stripped to its essentials, all requests are alike.  They are 1) made to another individual, 2) always describe a task, 3) include a deadline, and 4) imply a “condition of satisfaction”, a clear definition of success.

For example: “As a reader of this newspaper column, I ask that you download a copy of my past articles by following the instructions below… within an hour of reading these words.” It’s brash, but transparent.

Now imagine training staff to make such requests in every direction, especially up the chain of command. It could reduce time spent wasted in meetings and on email.

Solid Promises

While you may think you are good at asking for what you want, the proof of the pudding is revealed by your recipient’s response, which should occur in the following three ways.

– Reply #1 is a clear “Yes”, matched by non-verbal behavior.

– Reply #2 is a “No”, or a half-hearted/reluctant response.

– Reply #3 is a counter-offer by the respondent, asking you (the initiator) to accept a variation of your original request. Examples include a change in the task, due date or condition of satisfaction which leads to a new agreement.

Everything else apart from these solid promises is just more noise. Indulging them obscures understanding and fosters errors.

Unfortunately, some Jamaican managers mistakenly believe that once they make a clear request of a subordinate, it must be accepted. They neither listen for one of the above three replies nor notice non-verbal signals.

This habit gets them in trouble, especially when coupled with wishful, optimistic thinking. Their lack of skill leads to the recipient either executing the wrong task or failing to respond altogether.

Multiply these errors across the company’s ranks and the result is a culture of talk, but little action.

Competency Development

The good news is your company can easily attain Cockpit-Quality Communication. When I joined an organization steeped in these methods, I felt clumsy at first. However, I soon learned to look for it in every meeting, coaching discussion or feedback session I attended.

In high-stakes occupations such as aviation and surgery, such “conversations for action” are a must. The cost of not using the technique is simply catastrophic. In like manner, if you are serious about achieving top results, adopt a blend of quality requests and promises to realize your company’s goals.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to