Aviation was the perfect career for me. No revelation there; I already knew that to some extent. When I was forced from the cockpit by a medical issue, long before I planned to retire, I felt like I’d had my arms ripped off. I also felt like I’d been silenced. Again.
We don’t listen to each other very well.
I say again, because I’m interrupted a lot. I thought about my lost career recently when I was interrupted while speaking. I don’t recall what the topic was, or who the interrupter was, but it does happen to me often, so I wasn’t terribly surprised by it. It made me wonder how many others this applies to. We don’t listen to each other very well. We’re immersed in a world of chatter, and loud music, and blaring intrusions from social, and anti-social, media. In my case, interruptions have a lot to do with the unobtrusive timbre of my voice. People often interrupt me, much to my irritation, but I’m guessing these days that’s common for a lot of people.
Here’s an example. I’m explaining something, either a computer glitch, or why I added paprika to the potatoes, or how the Cubs can still make the playoffs, or whatever happened to Jimmy Hoffa, and someone breaks into my conversation. It can be a family member; it can be a stranger; it can be a friend or associate. No matter. People just dive in and start talking as if I didn’t exist.
I speak in a soft, considerate manner. I take a lot of time and care choosing exactly the right words. When I hesitate people sense a pause, an intolerably long (to them) parcel of dead air, and they jump in, often long before I’ve finished.
As I listen to people around me—listening being mostly what I do these days—I notice what I call approximate speech. Most people have a tendency to chatter along, stringing random words together that approximate what they mean, with no regard for the accuracy, context, etymology, or appropriate use of those words.
So what does this have to do with my aviation career? As I crossed the sky, I was required to communicate with various air traffic control (ATC) entities via radio. Here’s something non-flyers likely don’t know about airborne radio usage: Only one person at a time is able to speak on an aviation frequency. If another pilot is transmitting, and a second pilot keys her microphone on the same frequency, an obnoxious squeal erupts in everybody’s headsets, like randy pigs squirming in heat. The obnoxious squeal floods the airwaves with static, rendering both conversations mute.
This seldom happens because, as pilots gain experience, we learn to listen carefully before mashing the mic button, to forestall the possibility of interrupting someone else.
For that reason alone aviation appealed to me. When I flew I could mash the mic button, say what I needed to say, and make myself understood. On a rare occasion, I’d be interrupted on the radio, but the staticky squealing-pig noises always blocked the offending pilot as well, unlike in my life on the ground where others yakked away and held the floor.
Another factor was word usage. As a writer, precision in the use of words is important to me, just as it was in my flying career. Pilots and controllers have a language of our own. Listening to us swap clearances, and instructions, and notifications with ATC and each other on aircraft radios is a crafted, carefully followed script. It must be, or, no hyperbole meant or intended, people can die. So my attention to precise verbiage either stemmed from fifty years spent in the cockpit, and the attendant necessity to be cautious with words, or I was already attuned to that necessity and was a good pilot because of it.
Now that I’ve left the cockpit, writing fills my need for those same things: I can write whatever I please, at my own pace. I can scribble the exact words I need, knowing that, unless the computer spits up and stops me, I’m free to keep writing without interruption. There’s order, precision, and professionalism in good writing; sloppy, approximate writing is not compelling.
Another revelation is this: When I was airborne, I listened really well. I trained myself, just as any good pilot must, to hear exactly what was said, what the instructions were, what the controller expected of me, and where other aircraft were that I needed to avoid.
Aviation as an analogy for life is not a new concept. But the idea does lend itself to addressing our modern tendency to talk over each other. I’m not suggesting that everyone become a pilot; it’s expensive and tedious, and it requires a certain focus that may not be appealing. Not everyone can afford a big, shiny watch, either.
But acting like pilots could train us to listen better to each other. Instead of the cacophonous squeal that’s all too common in modern life, taking a page from the aviation game can help alleviate some of that, and return a bit of civility.
Aviation was a perfect match for me. Now writing is. The connection between the two was a late revelation, but better late than never.
By the way, the Cubs could still make the playoffs as the season is quite young, paprika’s perfect on potatoes, and I have no idea what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
Delighted to meet you on the Bench, Byron, and loving this piece that – pardon the bad analogy – “walks the talk”: the language is as crisp as a newly starched shirt.
The question that comes up for me is whether the interruption also happened back when you walked around in your pilot uniform?
Very good question, Charlotte, I hadn’t considered that. I suppose the uniforms we wear do give us a certain cachet, or at least the appearance of authority. It was much different speaking over an aircraft radio, when I had the open mic, and everyone was forced to hear me out. I hadn’t realized just what a privilege, and a responsibility, that contained until I no longer had it.
Thanks for reading the piece.
Very good points, Byron. It takes motivation, dicipline and practice to be a good listener. Part of the problem is that our brains work much faster that a person talks. Thus, our brains tend to wonder off to other lines of thought vs. what the speaker is saying.
I think you’re right Ken. So maybe there’s a convergence at some point when our brains slow down, and we’re able to listen. The only problem with that is our ears slow down, too!
Thanks for reading.
What a great share and powerful analogy. You have given me space to look at my own patterns of behavior and check in on my own listening skills. For this I am very grateful – Thank you!