How to be a better listener: Attention, context, urgency
Colonel Chris Hadfield talks to us about the formalities that astronauts have to use, and how it can help us here on earth.
“Good morning, Earth.” That is how Colonel Chris Hadfield—writing on Twitter—woke up the world every day while living aboard the International Space Station for over five months. Since blasting off from Kazakhstan in December 2012, Hadfield has become a worldwide sensation, harnessing the power of social media to make outer space accessible to millions and infusing a sense of wonder into the collective consciousness not felt since man first walked on the moon. Called “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong” by the BBC, Hadfield, now safely back on Earth, continues to bring the glory of science and space travel to everyone he encounters.
Hadfield is the pioneer of many firsts. In 1992, he was selected by the Canadian Space Agency as a NASA Mission Specialist – Canada’s first fully-qualified Space Shuttle crewmember. Three years later, he was the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in space, and the first Canadian to board a Russian spacecraft as he helped build the Russian space station ‘Mir’. In 2001, he performed two spacewalks - the first Canadian to do so - and in 2010 the CSA and NASA announced Hadfield’s third mission: commanding the International Space Station (ISS)—again a first for a Canadian.
Hadfield launched into space on December 19, 2012 and took command of the ISS in March. His multiple daily Tweets and photographs from space made people see the world differently. His accessibility, whether answering questions such as, “How do you wring out a washcloth in space,” via Skype or collaborating with The Barenaked Ladies for a song sung by nearly a million people simultaneously, endeared him to all while he orbited Earth.
A heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and pilot, Hadfield’s many awards include receiving the Order of Ontario, the Meritorious Service Cross, and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He was named the top Test Pilot in both the US Air Force and the US Navy, and has been inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. He is also commemorated on Canadian postage stamps, Royal Canadian Mint silver and gold coins, and on Canada’s new 5 dollar bill.
Chris Hadfield: I’m certain my wife would not agree that I have good listening skills. It’s human nature: you get preoccupied with your own thoughts, and when I’m busy thinking about something I don’t hear very well, because my brain is sort of already engaged and I don’t necessarily turn noise into a cogent-enough thought that it gets in and I actually acknowledge what somebody is saying—so I’m just as guilty as anyone of not being a good listener.
I think in order to overcome that you have to deliberately listen, and not just to the words, not just the text, but what was the reason behind the text? What do those words mean culturally? How did the person say them and why? Why did they say them now? What’s the sense of urgency? What is the actual message they’re trying to get across? And so, of course, the best way to verify all that is to engage in discussion. Repeat back what you think you heard.
A really clinical example is where Mission Control is calling up something important to the spaceship and we know that communication is lousy—there’s little tiny speakers and it’s radios and it’s clipped and it’s digitized, and so we can’t just count on everybody immediately understanding and having good listening skills.
So we have like, “Houston, station.” “Station, Houston, I’m listening.”
“Okay Houston what I wanted to talk to you about was—whatever—the carbon dioxide removal equipment, and there’s a problem with the CDRA today and I’m in the checklist on page 221 part B, let me know when you’re there.” “Okay. All right. I’m open to that page now. Go ahead.”
So think about how that communication is happening. You’ve gotten their attention, they’ve told you “okay you have my attention” and “now this is the thing I’m talking about are you on the same page as me?” “Yes. I am on the same page as you.” “Okay. Now that both of us are on the same page now let’s actually discuss why we’re trying to accomplish this thing. What are the details? What do we need to know? What do you know that I don’t know?” And then come to a mutual conclusion of “Okay this is what I’m going to do.” “Yep I agree that’s what you’re going to do.”
It’s so incredibly formalized: we’re talking with the ground, but it’s a microcosm of a regular conversation between any two people, we just maybe aren’t quite as rigorous about it. But I think you should keep that in mind, if you’re trying to be a good listener, picture how the ground listens to a spaceship and try and be that person. Truly give them your attention. Try and get on the same page. Question, have a conversation. Make sure you understand the intent. Repeat it back. And then get your actions verified after you do them. And if you can manage to do all those things, even quickly, then I think you have the best chance of being a good communicator—and more importantly, a good listener.
- How do you not just listen but be a good listener?
- You need to focus on why someone is saying what they do.
- The formalized communication of NASA is a microcosm of a regular conversation between any two people.
Colonel Chris Hadfield knows that excellent communication is of utmost importance when you're an astronaut floating in space, and half of good communication is good listening.