The 7 Qualities Leaders Must Possess: Communications

(This is part four of a seven-part series on leadership.)

During this series we will be examining the seven qualities that are necessary for a leader to be successful in leading the organization and the team. You cannot be an effective team leader without being able to effectively communicate in every realm. This issue will focus on communications.


For fire service leaders, a realistic appraisal of your team’s abilities enables you as a leader to strike a healthy ability to communicate. For today’s fire service it is important to understand that every form of communication is important and is required for the ability to communicate with the diversity of generations in today’s fire service. Understanding that no matter what generation, group or age you are communicating with, poor communications is an instant turn off to subordinate personnel and colleagues. Overestimating one’s predicated knowledge, skills and abilities might also lead to such problems as failing to communicate effectively and efficiently in every situation.

Effective Communications

Effective communication in today’s fire service is about more than just exchanging information. With the diversity of generations of personnel, communities and experience levels, it’s about understanding the emotion and intentions behind the information and the delivery style. It is critical that today’s leaders have the ability to clearly convey a message. In order to accomplish this message delivery, you as a leader need to also listen in a way that gains the full meaning of what’s being said and makes the other person feel heard and understood. Active listening is a critical part of communications. What we see many times is people that listen to answer and not listen to understand.

Effective communication is often something that, in the fire service especially, is assumed to be natural and instinctive. But all too often when we try to communicate with others something goes astray. We are attempting to communicate one thing, the other person hears something completely different. This is due to interpretation, perception and misunderstandings which immediately create frustration and most times conflicts ensue. Ineffective communications is known to be one of the common problems in the fire service. The lack of effective communications can cause problems not only in emergency services operations but also in your work relationships, home, school and every day interactions.

For many of us, communicating more clearly and effectively will require enhancing our communication skills or learning some important skills. Whether you’re trying to improve communication with your officer, subordinates or coworkers, learning and mastering these skills can deepen your connections to others, build greater trust and respect, improve teamwork, problem solving, operational effectiveness and efficiency as well as your overall social and emotional health.

Common Barriers To Effective Communications

Stress and lack of emotional control. In emergency services it is common to have stress from the various types of situations and responses we encounter. As a result of our environment when we are stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, we will be more likely to misread or misinterpret communications. This action of misreading or misinterpretating communications with other people, sending confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapsing into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior creates stress and emotions which affect communications. To avoid conflict and misunderstandings, you must learn how to control emotions and reduce the stress of the situation to calm down before continuing a conversation.

Lack of focus. You can’t communicate effectively when your focus is on something else or you are trying to multitask. This is so common in today’s society as we are constantly distracted with checking our phone, planning what we’re going to say next, or daydreaming that we are almost certain to not be actively listening or miss nonverbal cues in the conversation. To communicate effectively, you will need to avoid distractions and stay focused practicing active listening when communicating.

There are many strategies for accomplishing being focused and actively listening in our communications. Some simple suggestions include:

  • Put down your phone and focus in on the conversation actively listening to understand and not answer.
  • If you have a radio or TV on turn it off or at minimum turn down the volume.
  • Remove other distractions such as computers, I-Pads or other devices. Setting your desk up as an office where you have to turn away from the computer screen will help you focus on the conversation and communication occurring.
  • Do not take phone calls during conversations as you will lose focus and send a message that the conversation is not important.

Inconsistent body language. Body language is a large and powerful portion of communications. Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said, not contradict it. If you say one thing, but your body language says something else, your listener will likely feel that you’re being dishonest. For example, you can’t say “yes” while shaking your head “no.”

Negative body language.  If you disagree with or dislike what’s being said, you might use negative body language to rebuff the other person’s message, such as crossing your arms, avoiding eye contact or tapping your feet. Again, body language is a large and powerful portion of communications that impacts the success of having a good conversation and the transfer of information or ideas. You don’t have to agree with, or even like what’s being said, but to communicate effectively and not put the other person on the defensive, it’s important to avoid sending negative signals. Negative signals say nonverbally that you are not listening or don’t want to hear what the other person is communicating.

Become an engaged active listener. When communicating with others we often focus on how or what we should answer, thus the listening to answer concept. If we are focused on listening to answer we are missing more of the conversation than we realize. However, effective communication is less about talking and more about listening to understand. Listening to understand means not just hearing or understanding the words spoken or the information being communicated, but also understanding the emotions and the nonverbal message the speaker is trying to convey.

There’s a significant difference between engaged listening and simply hearing. When you are truly in active listen mode, you will be engaged with what’s being spoken, you will hear and see the subtle intonations in someone’s voice and nonverbal actions that tell you how that person is feeling and the emotions they are trying to communicate. When you are an engaged active listener, not only will you better understand the other person, you’ll also make that person feel heard and understood. This will help you build a stronger, deeper connection with the individual(s) you are communicating with.

By engaging in active listening and engaging in communicating in this way, you will also experience a process that usually lowers stress and helps enhance your communications. Lower stress levels support better enhanced communications as well as physical and emotional well-being. If the person you’re talking to is calm, for example, listening in an engaged way will help to calm you, too. Similarly, if the person is agitated, you can help calm them by listening in an attentive way and making the person feel understood, thus reducing their stress.

Your goal as a leader should always be to fully understand and connect with the other person, listening in an engaged way. The more you practice, the more satisfying and rewarding your interactions with others will become. Below are some simple tips to help you become an engaged listener.

  1. Focus your attention and thoughts fully on the speaker.
    You can’t listen in an engaged way if you are distracted. In today’s society you as a leader can get easily distracted with everything you are dealing with. Our generational environment has impacted us as a group as well. We have switched from face to face conversation to engaging in emails, texts of social media conversations — which means you have developed the habit of constantly checking your phone.  With the number of items we are dealing with on a daily basis, as leaders it is easy to find ourselves thinking about something else while trying to engage in verbal face to face conversations. To be effective as a leader communication is paramount. You must stay focused on the conversation or communication at the moment. This is critical in order to pick up the subtle nuances and important nonverbal cues in a conversation. If you find it hard to concentrate on some speakers, try repeating their words over in your head — it’ll reinforce their message and help you stay focused. Remove distractions like radio noise or other distractions.
  2. Favor your right ear.
    Favor your right ear toward the communicator. This can be very subtle but it has a purpose as strange as it sounds. Anatomically the left side of the brain contains the primary processing centers for both speech comprehension and emotions. Pathophysiological the left side of the brain is connected to the right side of the body, favoring your right ear can help you better detect the emotional nuances of what someone is saying
  3. Show your genuine interest in what’s being communicated.
    Acknowledge with occasional verbal and nonverbal communications such as smiling at the person and making sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like yes, continue, please continue, tell me more, can you explain further. Eye to eye contact is important and helps make the connection with the communicator.
  4. Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation.
    One of the best communication killers is when the listener interrupts the conversation or tries to redirect it to something different. Often times the listener who does this is doing an “Oh woe is me redirection” by saying something like, “If you think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened to me.”

    I refer back to the active listening and the listen to answer concepts. If you are listening to answer it is the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what someone is communicating if you are formulating what you are going to say next. Often, the individual speaking can read your facial expressions and know that your mind is elsewhere.

  5. Avoid judgment.
    In order to communicate effectively with someone, you as a leader DO NOT have to like them or agree with their ideas, values or opinions. However, you do need to set aside your subjective opinions, emotions, judgment, withhold blame and criticism in order to fully understand them. The most difficult communication, when successfully executed, can often lead to an unlikely connection with someone.
  6. Provide feedback.
    In order for communications to be complete the communications model has the final component as feedback. Feedback is critical in completing the loop and confirming you really understand what was said. If there appears to be a disconnect in the message received and what the communicator was trying to convey, it is important to reflect what has been said by paraphrasing, “What I’m hearing is,” or “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back. This give the individual communicating an opportunity to clarify or confirm what was said. Don’t fall into a trap of repeating what the speaker has said verbatim. A good technique to confirm you have grasped the context and true message is to express what the speaker’s words mean to you. If necessary do not hesitate to ask questions to clarify certain points by using phrases such as, “What do you mean when you say…” or “Is this what you mean?”

Hopefully, this component of communications in the seven-part series on “The Qualities a Fire Service Leader Must Possess” will help you enhance your communications skills. Quality communications is one of the most important of the seven qualities and is often times what I hear from fire service professionals across the United States a deficiency in their organizational leadership. It is paramount that leaders have excellent communications skills and utilize them on a daily basis.

Douglas Cline is Chief of the Training and Professional Development Division with Horry County Fire Rescue. He is the Executive Editor for The Fire Officer and Executive Director for the Command Institute in Washington D.C. A 36 year fire and emergency services veteran as well as a well-known international speaker, Cline is a highly published author of articles, blogs and textbooks for both fire and EMS. As a chief officer, Cline is a distinguished authority of officer development and has traveled internationally delivering distinguished programs on leadership and officer development. He also has a diverse line of training videos on leadership, rapid intervention team training, vehicle fires, hose line management, and emergency vehicle operations and fire ground safety and survival.

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