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Mitigation Speech in the Fire Service (Part 2) "Off the Fire Ground"

Missing Flight 370 started us on a discussion of mitigation speech on the fire ground.  It’s a concept first written about by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  Mitigation speech is a passive form of communication when we “downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what’s actually being said”.


While talking with my wife the other day she spoke very highly of an acquaintance.  “That girl that is a “straight shooter” and she will give it to you like it is, no fluff.  You know when she is happy with something and you certainly will know when she is upset about something.  There is no guessing with her.”


I have found most of us LOVE that quality in people; yet find it difficult to be that same person to others.  Why do we sugarcoat or mitigate? Is it because we are uncomfortable with how the person may react to what we are saying?  Have we given input on something when it was not appropriate to do so?


In order to be that direct person and avoid mitigation speech there are three things we must consider before communicating.

  • Who am I communicating with?
  • Is input from me expected or appropriate?
  • Who will be making the decision and what leadership/decision making style will be used when that decision is made?


As a line officer my communications fall into one of three categories.   

  • When my crew talks to me-They may be using mitigation speech on me.  I need to convey to them that I want them to be direct with me so I don’t miss what they are actually trying to tell me.
  • When I talk with my crew-It may seem like it keeps the crew happier with you, but you may are probably just confusing them with an unclear message.  If your crew isn’t following your directions it may be that you are being too gentle with your directions.
  • When I talk to my supervisors-When I am indirect with my supervisors I may not get the desired response I was seeking.  He/she may have incorrectly “decoded” my message or didn’t agree with my comments.  The use of mitigation speech keeps me guessing at the reason.


Next we must decide whether our input is expected or even appropriate.  We don’t need to comment or give input on everything.  Sometimes keeping your opinion to yourself is best.  Proverbs 17:27-28 says, “The intelligent person restrains his words, and one who keeps a cool head is a man of understanding. Even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent, discerning when he seals his lips”.  


If we decide that our comments or input is appropriate, it helps to understand what form of leadership/decision-making style will be used to make the final decision.  Knowing this will allow us to make an initial “disclaimer statement” prior to getting to the point.  Doing this allows you to be direct without offending the receiver (acting like you are trying to take control of the decision).  According to Kurt Lewing (1939) there are 3 major leadership styles. Authoritarian, Participative and Delegative.


Authoritarian or Autocratic leadership is when a leader makes decisions with little or no input from the rest of the group.  An example of this is a decision on an emergency scene or seat assignments on the rig for the day.  A good disclaimer statement for this type of situation might be “I know you have the final say on this, but…”


Participative or Democratic decision-making is when group input is encouraged but the final decision still rests with the leader.  This style may be used when choosing what the training topic will be for the shift or when deciding what time to complete training.  A disclaimer statement for example might sound like: “From my viewpoint, I’d prefer to train in the afternoon.”


The final leadership style is Delegative (Lassez-Faire).  This is when the leader leaves the decision up to the group members.  This might be used when making food decisions for the day or other similar decisions that impact all the members equally.  When dealing with this style there is usually no need for a disclaimer statement.


Communication is likely to be one of the contributing factors for the majority of our problems in and out of the station.  By being more direct and avoiding “sugarcoating” what we are trying to say we can reduce the problems we have.  The airline industry has including mitigation speech in pilot training.  It’s about time the fire service does the same.

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