Establishing effective communication is of paramount importance when it comes to enhancing flight safety.
While we can easily spend a couple hundred pages detailing different communication styles, tactics, and theories, I’d like to direct your focus on a seemingly unusual factor – in the questions you ask.
In this article, I will explore how different questioning techniques may be used to enhance flight safety.
7 effective questioning techniques
1. Open-ended questions: Encouraging Thoughtful responses
Open-ended questions can be used to promote thoughtful responses.
They are triggered by one of these seven words:
WHAT – WHY – WHO – HOW – WHEN – WHERE – WHICH
Any of these seven words will trigger an open-ended question. This questioning technique requires the receiver to provide detailed information; they cannot answer with a simple yes or no.
2. Close questions: Seeking specific answers
Closed questions are valuable when immediate and specific information is needed.
For example, a closed question can look like this: “Do you have enough fuel to divert to an alternative airport?”
In its essence, a closed question can be answered with a yes or a no.
3. Leading questions: Influencing the conversation
Leading questions will guide the receiver’s answer in a specific direction by implying a particular response.
An example could be, “Wouldn’t it be best to turn left?”
While these may be effective if you want to hear a specific answer, they may also bias the receiver and manipulate him or her to answer a particular way.
4. Reflective questions: Encouraging self-examination
Reflective questions prompt individuals to think critically about their thoughts, behaviours, and decisions.
For instance, after a simulated emergency drill, trainers might ask, “What could you have done differently to improve the response?” or “How do you think your actions impact others?”.
5. Clarifying questions: Ensuring understanding
When faced with vague or unclear statements, clarifying questions help ensure everyone is on the same page. They can help ensure that instructions and information are well-understood.
A clarifying question can, for example, look like, “Can you clarify the altitude we should maintain?”.
These questions seek to eliminate misunderstanding by asking for additional details or explanations.
6. Funnelling questions: Narrowing the focus
Funnelling questions guide a conversation from a broad topic to a more specific one. They can be valuable if you wish to maintain focus and relevance in a discussion.
In a flight safety context, they can be used to maintain focus during critical phases of flight. Pilots might start with broader discussions about weather conditions and then narrow their focus to specific parameters like visibility and wind speed to make informed decisions.
7. Hypothetical questions: Exploring possibilities
Hypothetical questions encourage creative thinking and exploration of various scenarios.
For example, during safety briefings, flight crew might discuss hypothetical scenarios like “What would we do if we encounter severe turbulence?” or “How would we respond to an engine failure?”.
This helps prepare crew members for potential challenges.
While each of the above questioning techniques can, with careful application, promote flight safety. I’d like to highlight the open-ended questions and how this specific questioning technique is extremely powerful in promoting flight safety.
Here are my thoughts on how a heightened awareness of the power of an open question can boost flight safety.
Improving flight safety with the effective use of open questioning techniques
Open-ended questions, which encourage thoughtful and detailed responses, are vital in enhancing flight safety in various ways.
Here are a couple of examples:
Gaining Comprehensive Feedback: Open-ended questions enable detailed feedback from pilots, cabin crew, maintenance personnel, and ground staff. This feedback can uncover hidden safety concerns and issues that may not be apparent when using closed-ended, yes-or-no questions.
Improving Incident Reporting: Encouraging open-ended responses when reporting incidents or near-misses encourages personnel to share their experiences more freely. This leads to a more accurate understanding of potential risks and helps proactively address safety concerns.
Root Cause Analysis: Open-ended questions facilitate a more thorough root cause analysis when investigating accidents or incidents. They encourage investigators to delve deeper into the contributing factors, leading to more effective prevention strategies.
Continuous Improvement: By soliciting suggestions for safety enhancements, airlines can stay ahead of emerging risks and adapt to evolving industry standards and technologies.
How to train personnel in using open-questioning techniques
You may remember I mentioned that there are seven words we can use to trigger an open-ended question:
WHAT – WHY – WHO – HOW – WHERE – WHEN – WHICH
So, had my task just been to define the “what”, I’d close my computer, put on the latest episode of “The Last of Us”, and say job well done.
Open questions are that simple.
The more complicated bit comes when we go into the realm of “how do we make personnel use them to heighten flight safety”.
The thing about knowing (or knowledge) is that it does not go a long way without skills. That we merely know what an open question is doesn’t mean we can actively use it to our advantage.
In fact, using questions effectively is an art – a skill that must be trained.
Future training must, therefore, direct more energy in not simply providing aviation personnel with the knowledge of different questioning techniques. To highlight an open-ended question’s power, we must rehearse crews’ ability to use them effectively. However, we cannot simply rely on theories or PowerPoint presentations to do the work. Instead, we must focus training on providing personnel with real-life practice or exercises that simulate real-life scenarios.
An exercise we use during our Crew Resource Management courses is our “FRAMEWORK” exercise. In this exercise, course participants must solve different tasks. Each participant is given one or more cards with various pieces of information. Each card contains essential information necessary for the group to solve the tasks. The group must find a way to receive and navigate the various pieces of information – one effective tactic is using open-ended questions.
By introducing exercises like these in classroom training, we can better equip crews with first-hand experience on the impact of asking an open question.
Open-ended questions are a powerful tool in the aviation industry’s ongoing efforts to enhance flight safety. They enable a deeper understanding of safety-related issues, encourage active participation from all stakeholders, and contribute to developing a proactive safety culture.
However, for personnel to actively use them to enhance flight safety, it is no longer enough to “tell”; we must start incorporating training in open questioning techniques via exercises that provide crews with the necessary experience and practice.