A number of years ago the airline industry came to the realization that a majority of the accidents they experienced were caused not because of mechanical failure, but rather communication failure between people in the cockpit.

As you can imagine, clear and open communication is critical in the cockpit. The same is true of the marine industry. Being a good captain on a boat doesn’t just hinge on technical skill, but also on the ability to communicate to get ideas flowing and make sure there is understanding between people.

In the MCA HELM programs, students are required to examine and discuss how to be more assertive in their communication style. Because assertiveness goes for a win-win situation between people, it’s believed that by examining assertiveness people of different ranks will be able to understand how to speak to one another.

Unfortunately, assertiveness is not the underlying problem of why a communication breakdown may occur between people of different ranks. The reluctance of a deckhand to speak up to a first officer, a person higher in the hierarchy, has more to do with social norms than unwillingness to go for a win-win situation with others.

This underlying problem is called mitigated speech, a term used to describe our behavior when we sugar coat our meaning as we interact with people of a higher rank. We mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or when we’re being deferential to authority.

For example, in the wheelhouse a deckhand may say to a captain, “The waves breaking up ahead are really big,” when in fact what the deckhand wants to say is, “There are rocks up ahead and we need to change course to avoid them.” If the captain isn’t aware of mitigated speech, they may interpret the deckhand’s comment as an offhand, flippant remark.

Because of the perceived difference in rank, the person lower in the hierarchy won’t necessarily speak directly with a command statement to the person of higher rank. It’s a social norm we use in many situations in our lives.

As Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book Outliers, there are 6 levels of mitigation depending on how forceful we can be when dealing with those who are at a different level in the hierarchy than us. Here are the six ways we will communicate depending on  the situation we find ourselves in:

1)   Command: “Turn 30 degrees to port to avoid the rocks up ahead.” There is zero mitigation in a command. It’s the most direct and explicit way of making a statement.

2)   Obligation: “I think we need to change course right about now to avoid the waves.” Notice the use of “we” and the fact that the request is now much less specific. The obligation statement is a little softer than a command.

3)   Suggestion: “Let’s go around the big waves up ahead.” Implicit in that statement is “we’re in this together.”

4)   Question: “Which direction would you like to go to avoid the waves up ahead?” That’s even softer than a suggestion, because the speaker is conceding that he’s not in charge.

5)   Preference: “I think it would be wise to adjust course sometime soon to avoid the waves up ahead.” This is a statement of a general idea.

6)   Hint: “The waves breaking up ahead are really big.” This is the most mitigated statement of all.

We mitigate to avoid upsetting other people, and we do it unconsciously many times a day in our interactions. Normally this is OK because it’s how we’ve learned to get along with others.

But mitigated speech isn’t OK in situations where catastrophe may be the end result.

When leaders hear hints, comments and questions from their crew, leaders need to understand they may be hearing mitigated speech. The crew member really wants to say something more direct, but doesn’t have the communication tools to get their point across in a polite and non-threatening way.

Leaders need to make people feel safe so that honest communication can take place. Being safe means people know they can give bad news or challenge the leader without getting reprimanded. If people feel safe around their leader, they will willingly give them the news they need to hear.

A leader who understands mitigated speech can seek clarity from the other person. The leader can drill down to the underlying issue by being open and asking questions of their own.

With mitigated speech in mind, do what you can to make your team feel secure so they say what they really need to say to you.


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