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Positive communication, why does it matter? Whether oral or written, we’ve all seen examples of effective and ineffective communication. Each example usually speaks for itself. Much of this article will focus on written communication and how to leave your audience with a positive impression, but also speaks to effective verbal communication.

 

Many of us have seen examples of work related documents and emails that have contained numerous spelling and/or grammatical errors, or a single paragraph across a full page of text. Or, when someone thinks they are being funny in a workplace email, adding silly or inappropriate content that does not reflect well on them and perhaps on their organization. How about the officer that is not as effective in transmitting radio reports? When you see and hear communications done right, it’s noticed. When it’s done poorly, people really take notice.

 

Much of what we say and write is open to being judged by others whether we like it or not. Effective communication is essential to positive interactions with others and toward positive results. Each time we send a message, whether written or spoken, we make a choice to create a positive result/interaction or a negative result/interaction.

 

Representing your fire department and jurisdiction, as well as yourself, requires you make a conscious effort to perform and conduct yourself as a professional. Take for example the fire that overwhelms the first in company officer. This individual, no matter how big the fire, how complicated the situation or how fast their heart is beating, must do everything they can to remain calm, cool, collected, and concise when transmitting on the radio. They must be effective and efficient in communicating their conditions, actions, instructions and needs to other responders and to the public. Their effectiveness will be positively recognized as setting the tone for a smooth operation, while their ineffectiveness will be negatively recognized for the opposite. Don’t be the screamer or the person that says too much, while not saying anything at all. In other words, make your communications count the first time. Don’t waste valuable radio air time.

 

Considerations

 

  • Have you ever sent an email or memo to a recipient only to find they have appropriately, inappropriately, or mistakenly forwarded your comments on to others? Or maybe you selected “Reply All” by accident. It may not have been your intent to have others read your correspondence, but it happens. This is why you want to make sure your written communication is consistently appropriate for all audiences.

 

  • Poor written communication can be ineffective in enrolling others into taking you seriously about your opinions, recommendations or proposals. Expressing yourself and your wants in a clear concise manner makes it easier for your audience to understand you and starts the ball rolling in the right direction. It is never too late to consider building your skills for more effective communication.

  • Consider the well-written incident report. Accuracy must be maintained and the details of the incident have to be written so you can accurately recall the facts and your actions years later. Appropriate and professional documentation must be maintained in the event someone else reads your work, such as a citizen or an attorney. This information is considered public record under the Freedom of Information Act. Effective written reports include accurately describing conditions on arrival, actions taken, noteworthy comments and other information to accurately describe your situation. Also, you want your documentation to be based in fact, and to hold up well in court, if needed. Your communication should offer a positive and professional impression of you, and ultimately reflect well on your department and jurisdiction by stating what you did on a given incident. If you leave out important details about actions taken, some could argue whether you took action or not. Put another way, if you do not document your actions, you did not do them.  

 

  • When you send written correspondence up the chain-of-command, it ordinarily travels to your supervisor, battalion chief, deputy chief, assistant chief, and sometimes as high as the fire chief. This is a great opportunity to impress these individuals who may rarely get to see you in person and who may only have knowledge of you through your writing. Take advantage of the opportunity to represent yourself professionally and to create a positive impression every time.

 

  • Those who have to communicate directly with the public, verbally or in writing, should ensure your communication takes into account your audience, and represents your department well. Many firefighters find themselves in the public eye daily with adults and children. These opportunities are invitations to positively interact and influence, while presenting yourselves as professionals to those you directly serve. Never take this for granted.

 

  • Similar to emails, written communications that travel between mobile data computers (MDC) or work cell phone text messages are likely being archived, and are also considered public record.  Several years ago a number of police officers from a prominent metropolitan area were caught passing inappropriate messages across their MDCs. This improper behavior created a scandal which led to disciplinary action, reduced public trust, and tarnished the reputation of their organization. This is not the impression we want to give our customers.

  • With the exception of personal notes, which may also fall under the Freedom of Information Act, all of your written documentation (emails, memos, accident and incident reports, performance appraisals, etc.) should be presented in a professional manner.

The following points will provoke positive communication:

  • Use spell check or a dictionary (if you still have one).
  • Use grammar check to ensure proper use of punctuation and effective sentence structure.
  • Use paragraphs to arrange your message and to create white space to make your document more pleasing to the eye. People do not like to read big sections of text, as it discourages.
  • Have others proofread your work before sending.
  • Consider your audience; speak to their level, and consider what you ultimately want them to be left with.
  • Be specific about your requests and resolutions you are seeking.
  • When identifying concerns, offer possible and reasonable solutions.
  • Keep your writing concise and on point to keep your reader’s attention. You want your audience to know what you are writing about within the first 1-2 sentences.
  • Avoid sending correspondence to others in haste or during an upset when emotions are high. This action will almost always guarantee you to lose your audience and can have lasting negative effects.

We all make mistakes when we write, and each of us has probably asked for assistance in removing our foot from our mouth when our written communication was received the wrong way, but there is always room for improvement. Do not overlook opportunities to build your communication skills through classes or other resources. Practice leads to proficiency.

I once had an officer compliment the content quality of my incident reports, but he also criticized (constructively) my spelling because, in the beginning,  my reports frequently had spelling errors. This was back in the day when incident reports were hard copy and spell check technology was not available. Simply put, I had become too lazy to search for a dictionary. This showed in my work, reflected poorly on me and those I represented, and clearly indicated there was room for improvement.

The positive feedback was great, but it quickly became overshadowed by the negative feedback he provided me, but I needed to hear it. I began to realize that people judged me based on my work, and my work was a direct reflection of myself and of those I represented. Do I still make mistakes? Sure. However, I recognize I control my exposure and it is a direct reflection of my performance. I now pay close attention to detail, have others proof my work, and consistently give 100% of myself, even if it takes a little more time and effort. The latter is important at 2 a.m., after a long shift, when you still have a responsibility to ensure the quality of your incident reports.  

Summary

Positive communication matters because it offers you an opportunity to be noticed as an effective professional and helps you build a good reputation for yourself. It is also an asset in getting things done, whether through a document, through verbal instructions on the fire ground, or simply painting the picture of your incident scene on the radio. If you are going to take the time to do something, do it with conscious effort and do it well to achieve positive results. Your written and verbal communication is not only a reflection of you, but in most cases, also reflects the fire department and jurisdiction you represent. Do not let yourself or your customers down. Communicating for positive results is a goal to continually strive for, as effective and efficient communications is essential to your success, in the office and on the fire ground.

NICK J. SALAMEH is a retired Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years of his more than 36 years in the fire service. He served as chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine, www.fireengineering.com and Stop Believing Start Knowing, https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/.

 

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Comment by Nick J. Salameh on June 16, 2018 at 9:34am

Chief Halton, thanks for taking the time to read the article and for endorsing it.  Its great talking and learning about fire, but we know there is so much more to this job and we have a responsibility to strive to be good at all of it.

I'm hopeful current and aspiring fire service leaders will find a helpful nugget(s) within the article to consider toward their continued success.

Thanks again,

Nick

Comment by Bobby Halton on June 16, 2018 at 7:46am

Nick, thank you for a great piece. I think this should be widely shared. Thank you, Bobby

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