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What can pilots teach us about communication on the farm?

What can pilots teach us about communication on the farm?
Here’s one simple way to improve communications during high stress times, like harvest.

Air Traffic Control in Minneapolis came over the radio, "November7881Romeo you are cleared at pilot’s discretion down to 4,000 feet, cleared for the GPS 14 approach, maintain 4000 until established on the approach." 

I responded with, "Minneapolis Center 7881Romeo cleared at pilots discretion, down to 4,000 feet, for the GPS 14 approach, will maintain 4000 until established." Minneapolis Center responded, "Roger."

Think back how many times could have errors or even disasters been avoided on your farm if only there were better communications. (Photo: PaulPaladin/Thinkstock)

This is a great example of crucial communication in a high stress environment. Does crucial, high stress communication occur on your farm? Take a lesson on how pilots communicate and apply it to your farm to lower stress and decrease errors. Pilots do this everyday as they fly the sky above and it is just as applicable here on the ground.  

The flight occurred late at night, in driving rain, wind and zero visability. Single pilot with instrument only conditions at night is some of the most demanding flying and the stakes were high. Very high. Mistakes at this level often mean death. Communication played a key role in the successful outcome of this flight. Pilots deal with these situations on a daily and weekly basis. Without clear and concise communication, lives are at stake. While your situations may not be life or death, good communication is vital to your operation. What can we learn from pilots to help us become better communicators?

Whether facilitating peer groups or coaching clients, farmers tell me communication is often a key challenge that holds them back from the success they desire. Many items can get dumped in the proverbial sink of "communication problems," so let's look at one simple way to improve communications that is helpful in high stakes, high stress environments. Like flying. Or harvest.

Who, What, When and Readback are the cornerstones of pilot communications, and using these simple techniques greatly reduces the number of errors due to misunderstood instructions or broken communication chains. The entire air traffic control system relies on clear instructions that are received and acknowleged, and your farm is no different. On a side note, these concepts are just as applicable in face to face communications, and business meetings as they are via a two-way radio.

Let's break this down into components as it may apply to your farm and assume as a farm leader you are giving the instructions.

Step 1. Announce who you are giving the instructions to by name. This may sound simple but in the chatter of a meeting, radio chatter, and distractions, this gets their attention. Often while driving equipment, employees can start to tune out the constant radio conversation, and it would be a huge mistake to assume that, just because they have a two-way, they heard your instructions. This is also applicable in meetings and even face-to-face communication as well.

Step 2. Give the Instruction. Let them know what and when. Give the instruction along with what decisions you are making for them and which decisions are up to them. In my case I was given the instructions for the instrument approach which was not negotiable, but when to began my descent was up to my best judgment. Your instructions can follow the same pattern and in some cases best judgement will be placed in the employees hands. This depends on the situation and their level of competence.    

Step 3. Read back the instructions. This is crucial. Have your employee read back your instructions verbatim. It lets you know that the instructions were heard and understood. Sometimes communication is blocked either physically with loud equipment, faulty communication equipment or a distraction. If you don’t get a read back that is correct, or no read back at all, there is a problem that needs your attention. It is also easy to forget instrcutions, and repeating back the instructions increases the odds of memory recall.  Both of these reasons for read back are well worth the extra time it takes.

Think back how many times could have errors or even disasters been avoided on your farm if only there were better communications. How many times have you received the excuse that "I didn't hear you" or "I forgot"nor "I didn't understand what you meant”?  What if pilots ignored, forgot or didn't understand instructions from air traffic control?  It would be deadly chaos. 

Whether during harvest, a business meeting or flying, the stakes are high. Use the three step processes used by pilots towards eliminating communication breakdown. Improving communication is always better than the alternative and thankfully some techniques are easy.

Have a safe and happy harvest.

Tim Schaefer founded Encore Consultants to provide specialized advising and coaching to farm families and agribusiness at the crossroads of change.  With over 20 years of experience advising farmers, Tim was an early pioneer of peer advisory groups for agriculture as a way for successful farmers to gain knowledge, ideas and skills from each other in a non-competitive environment. Tim can be reached at

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Penton Agriculture.

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