HF in Diving for Dummies: Part 6: Why communications fails and what we can do about it

- english communication communications dummies jenny lord Oct 09, 2022

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States' Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that's one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Many of you will have heard that apocryphal story before, but it’s worth re-reading it as more than just a joke. After all, it’s exactly conversations like this that happen on a daily basis and cause things to go wrong.

Why is communication so difficult?

So why is communication so difficult? There are a lot of barriers in place, obvious ones like language (or underwater- lack of language!), distractions and culture but also ones like fear; fear of looking stupid or of punishment.

In places where there’s a high authority gradient (the boss is the boss and must not be questioned!), it can be very difficult for anyone who’s in a lower position to speak up, especially if what they’re trying to say is seen as being negative. This is why instructors need to actively work to make sure the students are free to comment and ask questions without them being scared of being told off or made to look stupid.

Many people will have encountered the “god-like” instructor who laughs at “stupid” students. As the students are the ones who don’t know what they don’t know, a good instructor should be making sure students are comfortable to ask what might be seen as stupid questions. After all, they wouldn’t be asking if they already knew the answer!

Missing Context

The other problem that often occurs is that what is being said is understood perfectly by the person saying it but the listener thinks they’re talking about something else. This happens very often if the context is missing. For example, if someone has come in late and missed the first part of a briefing, they may be thinking of an entirely different dive site and be confused about the information that they’re being told. Irony and sarcasm can be easily misunderstood too. It’s really important for us to remember that the responsibility for clear communication comes from the person who is transmitting the message. A good way of checking that our communication was clear is to question people on what has been said. Using open questions (ones that can’t be answered with just yes or no) makes people really think about their answers and will clearly show if they’ve understood or not.

Finally, when it comes to communication we need to remember that it’s not just what we say but how we say it that is important. Think of a drill sergeant vs a nursery school teacher, even if they were saying the same thing, they’ll have very different ways of saying it!

Example of Miscommunication

I practise kickboxing at night and one day I called my coach to tell him I wouldn’t be able to make my class that evening because I was doing a deco dive that afternoon and I wouldn’t have had a long enough surface interval before doing exercise. He speaks basic English and I don’t speak any Arabic. He also doesn’t dive. He started to tell me how I needed to train often to keep improving and that I can’t get lazy, and just because I’d done some work that day I had to push through and train anyway. I then knew that his mental picture and understanding of the situation was very different to what I’d said, so it was up to me to explain basic decompression sickness in a way he could understand and why I wasn’t being lazy!


So for us to ensure our communication is understood we have to check to make sure everyone understands what was said, and we think about not only what we’re saying but also how we say it. And try to have patience with people who ask “stupid” questions, after all, at one point you were in the same position as them.

Jenny is a full-time technical diving instructor. Prior to diving, she worked in outdoor education for 10 years teaching rock climbing, white water kayaking and canoeing, sailing, skiing, caving and cycling, among other sports. Her interest in team development started with outdoor education, using it as a tool to help people learn more about communication, planning and teamwork.

Since 2009 she has lived in Dahab, Egypt teaching SCUBA diving. She is now a technical instructor trainer for TDI, advanced trimix instructor, advanced mixed gas CCR diver and helitrox CCR instructor.

Jenny has supported a number of deep dives as part of H2O divers dive team and works as a safety diver in the stunt industry.

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