Story by Doug Krause
What if there was a mystical skill set that would help us address all the human-factor challenges we face in avalanche country? Such a set would address situational awareness, decision-making, error management, leadership, and a host of other challenges. We might as well make this dreamy skill set applicable to all facets of our lives. Let us make it something that is really easy to practice – maybe even something that we already use without thinking about it too much. This skill set will make us rich and powerful and beautiful and intelligent and rich and powerful and beautiful! Let us name the skill set. Perhaps we can call it…communication.
We share a fundamental responsibility to actively practice and refine our communication skills, though I believe few of us are actually doing so. I think that’s crazy. These skills are easy to practice, and we all have some experience with them. Effective communication has the potential to mitigate every human-factor challenge we encounter in avalanche country. Here are a few simple ideas on communication challenges and how we can address them.
WHEN TO COMMUNICATE
The person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who can’t.
A weird, stinky, ostensibly wise man once said to me, “Here’s your radio; learn how to use it, then don’t.” My excitement at receiving my first radio deflated with a slow high-pitched screel, but he had a point – a point obscured by the blunt condescending tone – but a valid one nonetheless. We have a responsibility to communicate, but effective communication requires good timing. There is a time to speak up and a time to pipe down. Learning the difference is our first step.
Speak up when you don’t understand or feel like you are missing something. We have a responsibility to inquire. If you don’t get it, don’t just assume you will figure it out later. Do you need to know now? In a dangerous and dynamic environment, confusion indicates that immediate inquiry may be warranted. As in, “What’s that loud rumbling sound coming from above us?” In less urgent circumstances, identify convenient opportunities for asking what the heck is going on. “Why are we taking this route instead of that one?” Understanding shit is important; this is the inquiry requirement.
Speak up to express your opinion. Advocacy is also a responsibility, one that weighs on the novice and veteran alike. Someone with no opinion is just along for the ride. Hopefully they brought gas money or at least some beer and a corn dog. The novice has a responsibility to participate, and the veteran needs to support that. Conversely, a leader that shirks communication is driving a bus along the cliffs of Bolivia’s Old Yungas Road. The disenfranchised passengers shudder and pray, wallow in blissful ignorance, or pretend not to notice the precipitous shoulders. Veterans and greenhorns both have a responsibility to articulate the components of their decision-making and situational awareness; this is the advocacy requirement.
The responsibilities for inquiry and advocacy have to be balanced with relevance. Does your question or information require immediate expression, or can it wait? Note the difference between critical and casual opportunities for communication. The insufferably assertive use communication as a cudgel, and the relentlessly inquisitive use it as a crutch. The wise grasshopper favors the quiet word in an opportune moment yet reserves the right to shatter your glass with an urgent warning cry.
Poor timing transforms communication from an asset into a distraction and undermines its value. Well-timed inquiry or advocacy highlights urgency and enhances situational awareness. Err on the side of caution and use opportune moments to share observations, to hazard opinions, and to ask questions. Take the next step and discuss communication issues; that process refines our understanding of relevance and urgency. With practice we get better. Our sense of timing becomes more acute.
If you are new to all of this, irrational exuberance or doe-eyed silence are equally inappropriate. Learn when to pipe down and when to speak up. If you have been hunting avalanches for eons, chances are good you know more than port from starboard. Share your knowledge.