Barriers to Communication within Emergency Services
One of the most significant challenges to Emergency Services and subsequent protection of public safety are barriers to communication, sources of conflict, and ineffective conflict management strategies. The conflict of interest between personnel can often be detrimental during an event, crisis, or emergency. Understanding the mechanics of communication may assist leaders in creating effective models of communication strategies, which can help mitigate potential barriers or conflicts. These models' exact definition or implementation would be subjective to specific agencies. Gaps in communication planning occur because what might work for the fire service may be ineffective in a policing model or unsuitable for a busy hospital environment. Specific processes, actions, or traits will help improve communication regardless of the type of service. Personal experience may shape the perspective of an employee. A series of contacts and subsequent responses from teammates or management can have immediate consequences. An effective communication loop or, conversely, a static and feedback-filled discord has the potential to set into motion either success or negative consequences for both employees and the general public. Despite the difficulties facing first responders and their service areas, negativity and detrimental results can be avoided. Setting a foundation of communication awareness is vital, especially for those first responders who may lack assertiveness, strong verbal skills, or life experience to back-up factual knowledge.
Barriers to Communication
The interpersonal relationships developed in real time between employees are a natural process essential to an organization's success. Communication efforts can be fundamentally undermined by a lack of awareness of potential barriers. While working, one may be constantly engaged in messaging various mediums and agencies. Communicating while working does not ensure that an individual will become a communication expert. Unless messages are sincerely received and acknowledged, words are merely spoken, while text or e-mails could be sent in vain. (Adu-Oppong, 2014) It can be difficult to define exact barriers to communication. Leaders with a broad sense of these barriers may immediately become more effective communicators. Improvements for communication for management may range from acknowledging a lack of contact on a small team to building new communication strategies or promotions for large organizations. Either situation includes its own set of barriers which may range in size, scope, and severity.
Sources of Conflict
A range of variance exists within any team, group, organization, or agency that must be accounted for when attempting to identify potential sources of conflict within communication, both formal and informal. (Wall & Callister, 1995) Such a list may not consider further details or concurrent events detrimental to communication efforts. First Responders may witness this cause of conflict while working on emergency scenes with other providers or allied agencies. For example, Rescue crews may be thinking one thing but not verbalizing what they need adequately with awaiting EMS transport teams, and conflict could occur. Emergency Managers may perceive their communication as clear. However, in reality, it is only understood by themselves. Unclear policies or procedures may lead to confusion about objectives and appropriate next steps that all should take. (Barishanksy, 2015) Conflict may be Constructive, helping build new awareness and create new relationships. It may also be Destructive, dismantling potential relationships and undermining performance. Identification of Destructive Conflict may effectively mitigate several issues ranging from a timely first response to potentially catastrophic conflicts of interest regarding organizational values, culture, and sustainability. A leader may be required to combine various conflict management styles, skills, and strategies to reduce different types of conflict. Managing emotions, learning to collaborate and cooperate, and recognizing destructive conflict patterns is a tricky balancing act. Still, it is vital to quickly and accurately identify sources of conflict. (Beebe et al., 2016, p. 238)
Creating Conflict Management Systems may be one of the most challenging aspects of operating a modern organization. As teams grow into departments, as departments grow into branches, leadership may have to create and combine various approaches. These will all have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. A Law-Based system, often working through a legal department, aims to decrease costs by avoiding any potential for litigation. A management-based system uses in-house programs like feedback cards or survey polls to minimize conflicts, avoid internal or public negativity, or maintain exceptional performance. A Participation-Based system encourages a face-to-face, relationship-based approach to improving interpersonal relationships. (McAllum, 2013) The best strategy may also be the most labor-intensive. Combining these three strategies with a normal process of planning, implementing specific tactics, and reviewing lessons learned may be the most effective template. Often, situations are complex and require a varying degree of each strategy, combined with an empathetic viewpoint balanced with an awareness of legal ramifications and operational guidelines.
Effective Conflict Management Strategies
After identifying potential shortcomings in communication planning or seeing the beginnings of a culture of miscommunication, leaders may begin to use various strategies to improve communication. Raising awareness of communication mechanics may be of assistance. The physical representation of these mechanics may be represented and promoted as an Interaction Model of Communication. Prudent managers should engage frontline staff and could be built into an organizational approach to improve communication.
Feedback includes messages sent in response to other messages. It is essential to portray feedback loops, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of any communication. Both parties alternate between roles as sender and receiver. Although this process may seem like an obvious, day-to-day process, we often alternate between the roles of sender and receiver very quickly without thought. (CC-UoM 2016) The Medium is a channel, system, or platform of communication. Mediums are how information, or messages, are transmitted between a writer or speaker (the sender) and a recipient or audience or receiver. (Nordquist, 2020) The blue arrows represent the continuous flow of information. There is an active process of comprehending feedback, and delivering an appropriate response, regardless of outside stressors.
Effect on the receiver completes the communication process. Ineffective communication means there was no effect on the receiver, or results were unexpected, undesired, or unknown to the sender. (Erven, n.d.) Given the complexities of the current response climate, combined with ever-increasing training, equipment, and personnel demands, both management and employees should be encouraged to build meaningful interpersonal relationships. Improving verbal communication could be accomplished officially through new communication campaigns, anonymous and face-to-face feedback channels, and in-person training sessions with time to debrief. Unofficially, sharing spaces such as lunchrooms, encouraging charitable events that all levels of staff are invited to, and encouraging open and inclusive day-to-day discussion.
To summarize a new outlook, attention to detail, and efforts towards inclusivity, there may be a discussion of the Culture of a team or organization. Cultures can be defined as a changing set of starting points that direct us in particular ways, influencing communication, decisions, attitudes, and work ethics. "Common Sense" is essentially a cultural phenomenon. What may seem like common sense to one group is not even considered by another. (Malek, 2018). Building an effective "Culture of Communication" can take years to develop. However, it can begin immediately with simple steps such as a positive attitude, increased verbal communication, and implementation of more feedback pathways between employees, management, and other stakeholders.
Setting a foundation of communication awareness is vital, especially for those first responders who may lack assertiveness, strong verbal skills, or life experience to back-up factual knowledge. Understanding the barriers to communication, potential sources of conflict, and practical conflict management strategies are essential personality traits for first responders. Promoting robust communication strategies is especially prudent in our climate of concurrent events. The rapid pace of technological change, increasing intrusiveness of social media and decreased personal connection between individuals create unique challenges for leadership. Often, there is little to no room between routine and extreme in emergency services. At the very least, an effective leader should become aware of the mechanics of communication to help their immediate teammates succeed while staying safe.
"The most important thing in coaching is communication. It's not what you say as much as what they absorb." ~ Red Auerbach, Basketball coach.
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