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The lost art of good communications

Good communication is the art of passing information correctly from one person to another. It sounds fairly straight forward but there are many potential pit falls.

Red Indians employed smoke signals. Jungle natives banged on hollow tree trunks. The railways meanwhile used telegraph, Morse, the Rule Book, appendices and reams of managerial ‘get out of jail’ paperwork. Remember, if you are contemplating a career in the safety industry, the golden rule is ‘why use ten words when a hundred will do’!

As humans, we have spent thousands of years refining the art of communication. Why then do we still get it wrong?

It could be the methods we use. During the First World War, messages were relayed by runners, carrying them only in their memory. If the chain had many links, a frontline request to “send reinforcements, we are going to advance” could emerge at headquarters as “send three and four pence, we are going to a dance”!

Then there are basic misunderstandings. O is a letter, not a number. Therefore the number 0 should be spoken as “zero”, not “O”. “O” can be confused with “four”. Oh yes it can. So, if a gale’s blowing and you’ve got a poor line to the signalman, a number quoted as “o-seven-five-two” could easily be understood as “four-seven-five-two”.

Abbreviations only complicate things, leading to more confusion. NR has set up a series of “Safety Improvement Teams” (SITs). The lads had been wondering why “health” was left out. Then some wit wrote down “Safety and Health Improvement Teams” and realised what it spelt out!
Then some wit wrote down "Safety and Health Improvement Teams" and realised what it spelt out!

I once worked with a man who, if he sent a letter to management, would always write slowly as he knew top brass couldn’t read quickly. When he discovered that one of them was going to night school, he started to write to him in the dark!

If you can’t find anyone to communicate with, why not try the latest industry initiative - talking to yourself. Develop your John Motson skills by performing a running commentary throughout the shift. This will help if you don’t know what you’re doing. Note the look of surprise and wonderment on the faces of your workmates as they realise you’ve gone stone bonkers. Any embarrassment can be tempered by taking a puppet to work with you. Stick your hand up its backside and have hours of fun chattering away. If you start to get replies, ask Human Resources to find a psychiatrist for you.

Then there’s misleading communication - documents which suggest one thing but mean something entirely different. For example, when GNER told the press that E.coli spillages from its Mallard stock were caused by “a lack of tank emptying facilities at Heaton depot” and that “a permanent tank emptying facility at Heaton is expected to be in use from October”, it wasn’t implying that the spillages would then stop. Oh no.

But, as a result of that document, the world is now ignoring the fact that E.Coli is still being sprayed from one end of the ECML to the other. And the lads are just told to communicate all occurrences - something they’ve been doing for well over a year without anyone taking notice. Instead, management has rolled out a doctor to communicate verbally that the emissions are safe. What a shame he didn’t communicate this in writing, with his signature on it.

As with so many things, it ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it!

Story added 1st February 2007

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