Communication is defined in the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology as: “The transmission of something from one location to another. The ‘thing’ that is transmitted may be a message, a signal, a meaning, etc. In order to have communication both the transmitter and the receiver must share a common code, so that the meaning or information contained in the message may be interpreted without error”.

Previous Human Factors programs defined communication as; the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information as by speech, signals, writing, behaviour and body language.

The goal is clear and concise communication with other crew/team members. Factors include speaking skills, listening skills, and the use of appropriate assertiveness and advocacy.


Communication is complete only if the cycle is complete. This means that the message is sent, received and verified for understanding. To close this cycle we need 5 items. The Sender, the Receiver, a Mean or media [Interphone, face to face or radio transmitter], a Code, and most importantly, feedback to confirm the message perceived has been correctly understood.

Communication can be broken down into two types of communication; verbal and non verbal. Most of the time, in our home life, we are using both communication types together to provide a better understanding of the message and the intentions related to that message. A ‘Good morning’ message for example could be accompanied with a smile.


Verbal Communication 

Verbal Communication may be either social or functional/operational. Both serve a useful purpose; the former helping to build teamwork, and the latter being essential to the task of flying an aircraft. Oral communication is the primary mode of communication in an aircraft.

Pilot-ATC communication is a very important area and CRM principles should also apply to this type of communication (within the restrictions of standard phraseology and air-ground communications procedures) as well as face-to-face communications.

Non-Verbal Communication 

Non-verbal communication can accompany verbal communication. It may constitute acknowledgement or feedback (e.g. a nod of the head). It can also be used when verbal communication is impossible, such as a thumbs-up in a noisy environment.

Body language can be very subtle, but often quite powerful. For example, the message”No” accompanied by a smile will be interpreted quite differently from the same word said whilst the sender scowls. Non-verbal communication may also take the form of written information or notes, between pilots or flight deck and cabin crew. Future ground-air communications are increasingly more likely to be non-verbal as data link technology and associated procedures gradually replaces oral communications between ATC and pilots. At some airlines, the communication between the SOCC and the pilots is considerably increased the use of non-verbal messages. {SOCC- System Operation Control Centre consists of Crew scheduling, dispatch, Maintenance control and commercial.}  

Non-verbal communication is the predominant manner by which systems communicate their status.

Communication Problems 

Communication can break down when there is a lack of communication, poor communication or when one of the parties involved makes assumptions about the received message and or situation. The sender of a message may assume that the receiver understands the terminology he has used. The receiver of a message may assume that the message means one thing when in fact he has misinterpreted it. Communication plays a major role when it comes to the crew’s Situational Awareness. The problems caused through assumptions can be minimized if the messages are unambiguous and proper feedback is given.

There are several hazards which reduce the quality of the communication:

  • Failures during the transmitting process (e.g. the sending of unclear or ambiguous messages, language problems); 
  • Difficulties caused by the medium or transmission (e.g. background noises or distortion of the information); 
  • Failures during receiving (e.g. the expectation of another message, wrong interpretation of the arriving message or even its disregard); 
  • Failures due to interference between the rational and emotional levels of communication (e.g. arguments); and 
  • Physical problems in listening or speaking (e.g. impaired hearing wearing of the oxygen mask).

It is the task of Human Factors training to prevent or minimize communication errors. This task includes the explanation of common communication problems as well as the reinforcement of standard terminology to ensure the error-free transmission of a message and its correct interpretation. Ambiguous, misleading, inappropriate or poorly constructed communication, combined with expectancy, have been listed as elements of many accidents, the most notorious one being the double 747 disaster in Tenerife. 


Assertive Communication (Positive Communication) 

Assertiveness is the ability to honestly express your opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights, without undue anxiety, in a way that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. (University of Iowa)

Assertive communication is simple but requires some practice. Here are 3 easy steps to follow.

1) Describe the situation and how it affects you; Just give the facts.

2) Say how you feel; happy, angry, joyous

3) Say what you need; Describe the action you need to see and a promise or commitment that it will happen

The “I message” is a good tool for Assertive Communication. This indicates ownership of the comment of feeling without blaming the others. It also places the focus on the behaviour rather than on the individual.


Being assertive means: 

  • You express your feelings and your rights clearly. 
  • You act in your own best interest but still consider the needs and rights of others. 
  • You develop trust and equality in your relationships. 
  • You ask for help when you need it. 

In the aviation industry and in particular for crew members, assertive communication is the optimal communication strategy. Assertive communication reduces crew errors and helps create an optimal working environment. In appropriate assertiveness the sender will adjust the level of assertiveness to best match the situation.


“Captain, I am concerned with the behaviour of this passenger. He is arrogant, aggressive and stressed out. I don’t feel comfortable going in flight with him on board behaving like this. I would like to refuse him boarding.”

This type of communication leaves little to argue about or to question about the situation. In this case, the information given to the Captain is complete and will help him or her to make the right decision. The CRM toolbox skills related to communication are almost all present in such a communication:

Clarity: Clear concise message that states the problem and it causes.

Effective Inquiry: The sender asks for the Captain’s help in this situation.

Active Listening: Active listening is not displayed in the above example. One could imagine that someone who is concerned about the behaviour of a passenger would be paying attention to the next discussion or communication.

Appropriate Assertiveness: The sender just states the problem and its causes and then presents a possible resolution and course of action. The sender has not made the decision as it is the Captains; asking him or her to come up with a verdict thus shows the Captain respect. 


The PACE methodology was designed to assist subordinate crew members in resolving the basic question of the junior airman: “To Intervene or Not to intervene?”

“The four operational procedure steps of “P.A.C.E.” establish a progression of inquiries to reduce risks at each level of the intervention sequence. The “P.A.C.E.” skills enable subordinate flight crew members to use proven operationally based procedures to effectively intervene when a Captain is not performing up to reasonable professional standards.”*Dr. Robert O. Besco (Capt. AAL, Ret.) President. PPI]

PACE is a four step progression going from inquiry to disaster warning. The progression is incremental and operationally relevant. Each step is a building block for the next step. Each step serves as a non threatening signal to the Captain that a response to each step is required.

“P.A.C.E.” is based on the following four steps.

Probing – for a better understanding.

Alerting – the Captain of the anomalies.

Challenging – the suitability of present strategy.

Emergency Warning – of critical and immediate dangers.

This methodology is based on Appropriate Assertiveness. 


List of Sub Skills

Clarity: Importance of clear and unambiguous communication skills. Speak clearly and correctly. Verify understanding of message and ask for feedback.

Effective Inquiry: Crew members asking for input and asking situation specific questions when appropriate.

Active Listening: Consistently informing crew through verbal and non-verbal signals that information has been received and communicated. Verify own understanding of message.

Appropriate Assertiveness: Ensure proper level of communication for the situation is effective and timely. Ensure others are listening.

Example of Good Practices 

  • Excellent active listening/assertive-positive communications. 
  • Used proper calls/tone in a timely manner. 
  • Communications meet the requirements of the situation. (ATC/PAX/FA/Dispatch)
  • Clear and concise critical communication. (Control transfers, Checklists, good use of resources)
  • Accurate verification of other crew members understanding/ perception. 
  • Excellent conflict resolution skills. 

Red Flags 

  • Information and/ or commands are not actioned 
  • Clarification is not requested 
  • Crew not informed of changes 
  • Verbal and non-verbal messages conflict 
  • Crew members assume that the other person understands 
  • Crew communication has broken down (defend/detach) 
  • The tone is confrontational

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