Questions Are the Answer

Workshop activities create many opportunities for feedback. This TCIA file photo shows an exercise from a 2018 Crew Leader Qualification Workshop in Annapolis Junction, Maryland.

I’ve had a few discussions this year that included the word “feedback.” Besides being an ear-piercing noise resulting from the reflux of sound from a loudspeaker to a microphone in a public-address system, Webster’s Dictionary also defines feedback as a response to a particular process or activity.

In the case of crew leadership, which has many aspects, feedback is important to the leader in several ways. To begin with, feedback requires communicating clearly. Radio traffic is sometimes a bit garbled. Working on wildfires, I quickly learned that when talking by radio or telephone, it is necessary to repeat instructions back to the person issuing them in order to affirm for both parties that I understand clearly. Misunderstanding directions could result in action that would lead my crew into serious danger. That is a form of feedback I’ll label “parroting.”

Another form of feedback as a response to a particular process or activity may require more than simply parroting. If I’m introducing chipper operation to a green member of my crew, I might pause to allow parroting to take place. If necessary, I may have to stimulate the parroting by asking a few questions, such as, “What is the order of the start-up procedure?” Then I might ask, “What if some steps are left out, or are out of order, like engaging the clutch before starting the engine?” I am eliciting feedback to affirm a clear understanding.

Taking it one step further, I might ask someone how this new technique I’ve demonstrated, i.e., tying a running bowline, could be used in different situations. I can even elicit feedback after a task is completed, often called debriefing. I could ask, “What went well, and what could have been better?” or, “How will I do it differently next time?”

As you can see, asking questions is important to eliciting feedback. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with yes or no. If I simply ask, “Do you understand?” then a person might say “Yes” just to appear competent. Unfortunately, I won’t know whether or not my instructions are truly understood. In a situation where one wrong move can be disastrous, this understanding becomes very important. That is an example of a closed-ended question.

Another example of a closed-ended question is, “Do you know how to tie a running bowline?” If I require a demonstration following the affirmative answer, then that would constitute feedback. Otherwise, allowing an operation to continue based only on the affirmative answer could lead us into dangerous territory.

This technique requires a little more thought and, of course, practice. Open-ended questions often start with “what” or “how.” See if you can make up some examples of closed- and open-ended questions of your own.

Without this feedback or debriefing process, learning is sometimes incomplete. Imagine a felling operation in which the tree falls in the intended direction, yet the butt of the tree ends up behind the stump, that is, the side opposite the direction of fall. Asking what went well, what could have gone better and how will I do it differently next time makes me examine the situation critically. Now I can learn something from the experience. The next question in the process is, “How can I use this information in a different situation?” This question cements the knowledge gained from the lesson. Without the debrief process, the lesson is left lying on the ground with the tree. The skill needed to avoid this potentially dangerous situation is neglected.

As a crew leader develops this skill of eliciting feedback, he or she not only develops the knowledge base of the crew, but a crew member, through feedback, also can stimulate greater self-awareness in their leader. As simply as saying, “I don’t get it,” tells the leader that more detail or a different approach is needed. I’ve often heard it said, and I believe it’s true, that teaching a skill to someone else leads the teacher to a better understanding of that skill. Perhaps this is because we realize all the little automatic steps we’ve taken for granted while doing the task on autopilot, as it were. Feedback also stimulates discussion. From differing points of view, new insights can emerge to benefit all parties. A better procedure may even emerge, or a procedure better suited for a different body type.

It is important for the leader to set the tone of these discussions as positively as possible. A negative tone will likely be met with resistance, stony silence and reluctance to be engaged. I witnessed a good example of this recently.

I’d left the lawnmower out for my 17-year-old granddaughter to use on the lawn. She had used the mower several times before, so I felt confident she was able to do the job on her own. Yet she forgot to disengage the mower deck before cranking the engine. The safety interlock system prevented the engine from starting, which eventually led to a dead battery and a disgruntled teen. When I got home and diagnosed the problem, I was able to start the mower and finish the job myself. When I next saw the disgruntled teen, instead of eliciting feedback with open-ended questions, I immediately told her what she’d done wrong. She promptly left without saying a word in reply.

How will I use this lesson in a different situation? Say I witness a crew member performing a prohibited act. A written reprimand may be in order. But if I don’t want the crew member to shut me out mentally like the teen did, I could start the feedback process by asking some open-ended questions and let the discussion develop so the crew member has a chance to conclude for themselves what could be done better. In this way, the crew member will own the solution. There will be less likelihood of repeat offenses. The written reprimand can become a document of the lesson learned and the crew member’s willing agreement to standards and protocols, instead of just a blemish on their record.

This feedback/debriefing process can become an integral part of a crew’s daily routine. Regularly examining various aspects of the job will improve performance, skill and knowledge. Like the earlier example of the felled tree, we can analyze many situations critically throughout the day. Even if everything went fine that day, we can still ask ourselves what could have gone better and how do we accomplish that. That way we are open to improvement rather than just achieving a status quo. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a status quo. Rather, we are improving or we are stagnating. A crew leader can even elicit feedback about themselves, both from the crew and from supervision. This gives us the opportunity to grow and improve our own performance.

This feedback process is an often-overlooked ingredient of an effective crew leader. Yet it is an essential factor in the training and growth of a crew and a company.

Daniel T. Kallai, CTSP, QCL, is an instructor with NW Line JATC, a nine-year TCIA Associate Member company based in Vancouver, Washington. He is also a TCIA-approved instructor for the Electric Hazards Awareness Program (EHAP) and Crew Leader Qualification.

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