When we talk about communication in the context of ‘non-technical skills’ we’re talking about broad concepts of effective communication – the skills that help us function, not only in the workplace, but also in our daily lives.

Man standing in office talking to seated colleagues

Photo: iStock/kasto80

These are concepts like how to listen, how to hear, giving and receiving feedback, not interrupting, asking ‘open’ questions, and how to have a difficult conversation.

Communication skills affect how we function in a flight crew, in a team of engineers, in an ATC radar centre or tower, in the office, or with our passengers. And these are the communication skills needed in a safety critical environment like aviation, whether we’re the leader of a team or a member of a team – even if that’s a team of two.

Communication is vital to maintaining a high level of situational awareness, so it’s important we take the time to learn about, and understand, what makes a good communicator. In aviation, these skills become critical in emergency situations involving more than one person and it can mean the difference between life and death.

Radio communications

GAP booklet: Plane talking coverWhen we talk about communication in aviation, it’s natural to think we’re talking about how to talk on the radio – to other pilots, or to ATC. There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to being an effective communicator over the radio.

Rather than reproduce all that information here, we already have a great GAP booklet on how to communicate effectively in this way:

GAP booklet: Plane talking [PDF 1.7 MB]

There are four basic steps to communication:

  • Intent – the sender has information they want to communicate to others
  • Transmission – the sender chooses a method of communicating that information – speaking, writing, gestures
  • Receipt – the receiver hears or sees the information, and
  • Interpretation – the receiver makes sense of the information they’ve received.

Now that all sounds fairly straightforward doesn’t it? If only it were that simple. It seems timely here to insert a memorable quote from Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, who said:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Well, quite a lot as it turns out. Here’s a not-very-short list.

  • We don’t realise we need to communicate in the first place
  • We hear what we expect to hear, not what was actually communicated
  • We ignore information conflicting with what we already know or believe
  • Our attitude towards the sender affects the way we receive the message
  • Our social and work groups may affect our understanding of the message
  • Words have different meanings for different people
  • Our choice of words affects others’ ability to understand
  • Body language and words may communicate different messages
  • Influencing factors, such as stress and fatigue, affect both sender and receiver
  • Environmental factors may affect the quality of communication

Below is a link to an interesting TED Talk by author, John O’Leary, on the Challenger space shuttle disaster where he describes how ‘failures of communication’ led to one of the biggest space travel tragedies in history.

LISTEN – as in, actually listen. Don’t just think about what you’re going to say next.

BE HONEST – Say how you feel but do it constructively and tactfully.

Be mindful of your BODY LANGUAGE.

Don’t ASSUME – ask questions if you need to.

Be RESPECTFUL – discuss, don’t debate.


Mastering the art of communication along with all the other elements that make up NTS means we’ll be effective aviation safety leaders and team members.

Serious incidents and accidents arising from communication issues have occurred in New Zealand. The following Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) investigation report into a loss of separation between two Dash-8 aircraft at Wellington highlights the contribution of reduced situational awareness, and physiological aspects of human factors – such as human limitations when seeing and identifying other traffic. In addition to those factors, communication issues between ATC and flight crew contributed to this loss of separation.

Plane in sky

Photo: Flight Aware

TAIC aviation inquiry AO-2019-002(external link)

Bombardiers DHC-8-311
Loss of separation
Near Wellington, New Zealand
12 March 2019