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CRM Series: Conflict Resolution

Navigation:  Fundamentals of CRM | Resolving Conflict | Workload Management Checklist Usage | Briefings & Callouts | Training CRM | Threats to Safety | Error Management | Integrating Threat & Error Management | What are you doing over there? | New Captain Series

Whether you're in a Boeing, a King Air, or a Skyhawk, confronting errors or unsafe conditions on the flight deck can be difficult for most pilots.  We read in the article What are you doing over there? effective pilot monitoring techniques.  In this article, we go beyond a call-out for an altitude deviation.  We will focus on the assertive statement and direct communication.  While this article may seem to be geared towards airline crews, these methods can be used in any aircraft.

When it comes to safety, we may not have the time to play safety bingo in the face of developing problems. For sure, we can't be hesitant either.  As long as we're professional, firm, and courteous, the assertive statement can prevent the aircraft from getting into an undesired state. 

The 5 Step Assertive Statement:

  • OPENING - use the pilot's name
  • STATE CONCERN - taking ownership of your concern
Example:  "Captain Smith, I'm very uncomfortable with taking off with that tornado at the end of the runway!  I think we should wait until it blows over.  What do you think?”

Why do we have such a process for flight deck communication?  Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and NASA found that first officers who need to correct a captain's mistake often initially rely on indirect methods.  Co-pilots are able to give problem statements but rarely include possible solutions in their communication.  Sometimes its effective and "you are 15 knots slow" is enough to solve the problem.  When the Pilot Flying is task saturated, he may not even hear or process the statement. If the statement is heard, it might not even be perceived as an actionable task.  Their research concludes that co-pilots give 1/2 as many "hints" as commands. 

Cultural and gender differences also influence whether direct statements are used.  These researchers tell us that this is a factor in several fatal aircraft accidents.  They point to Air Florida Flight 90 which crashed into the Potomic River and Avianca Flight 52 that ran out of fuel while trying to land at JFK.

Crew Member Assertiveness

Some situations may make an aviator hesitant to speak up when faced with a potential safety problem EXCESSIVE PROFESSIONAL COURTESY:  Hesitancy to say anything for fear of insulting the other pilot's skills, especially if that pilot is a friend or superior:
  • “We might be a little slow . . .” when a stall is imminent
  • “We might be a little low . . .” when actually we're below DH with no airport in sight anywhere!
  • Must be definite and firm . . .
HALO EFFECT:  Hesitancy to speak up when the erring pilot is known to be an expert, or has more experience than yourself:
  • Accelerated checkouts because “he has so much experience . . .”
  • “That intrepid ace can surely handle a that airplane” (or weather, etc.)
  • “Oh, but he's an FAA inspector.  Surely he's OK . . .”
  • Halos can blind need for full training program!
COPILOT SYNDROME:  “What can he know? He's only the (scrapings of the earth, low down, . . .) copilot . . .”

Effective Challenges are:

   -   Timely
   -   With respect
   -   Constructive intent
   -   Specific

Specific Phrases for Challenging 

1. Are you ready for…?
2. What heading did he give us?
3. I'm uncomfortable.
4. We are off our heading/altitude.
5. I thought he gave us….

Probably the most crucial factor in CRM is the relationship between two skilled pilots.  Both come to the task with a different background, plan of action, and preferred resolution tactics.  Consider these behaviors and suggestions in resolving conflict during a flight.

Positive behaviors:

  • IN CONTROL: not unduly influenced . . .
  • EMOTIONAL DISTANCE: Able to separate business of flying from personal problems
  • MISSION ORIENTED COMPARTMENTALIZERS: Able to isolate full attention to safety of flight (business owner-pilot scenario)

Negative behaviours:

  • Not spontaneous, or able to adapt to new situation and to think feet
  • Prone to complacency
  • Meaningful rituals in the name of safety or efficiency without good reason
  • Requiring “positive feedback” from others in order to go forward (lack of confidence .  . .)

Pilot incapacitation

Use the three challenge rule and be ready to take action.  If no response the first time, then try again.  Each pilot can't assume that the other is keeping everything in order. Excessive courtesy and halo effect can play a part in captain incapacitation . . .   Example:  "V1  Vr... Vr... Vr..." then take action. Another example on the approach to minimums:  "Minimums...   Below minimums, runway NOT in sight... BELOW MINIMUMS, RUNWAY NOT IN SIGHT..."  For a captain to descent below minimums without the runway in sight, either his instruments are wrong or he is incapacitated.  Take action.  Assume pilot incapacitation and assume control for the go around.

Flight Deck Conflict

When faced with flight deck conflict, use the "Conservative Response Rule"
  • When there's conflict, buy time and make decision on the conservative side.
  • Take the course of action that will lead to the least possible damage, just in case you're wrong and the other guy is right.

Flight Deck Conflict, Positive Behaviors

  • Take time to discuss issues
  • Express you feelings (+ & -): don't hold them inside
  • Replay other person's feelings: put yourself in their shoes
  • Define issued clearly
  • Look for points of agreement
  • Look for points of vulnerability and deal with them in a positive way
  • Determine depth of feelings
  • Offer self corrections: admit your own mistakes
  • Recognize spontaneous humor and signs of caring.
  • Don't be closed and cold to other's overtures to reconciliation.

Flight Deck Conflict, Negative Behaviors 

  • Premature apology: Breaks down communications when most needed.
  • Refuse to take the flight seriously: unprofessional conduct!
  • Withdraw, evade, Walkout: Not in the best interest of safety, leaving other pilot in emotional state to cope alone
  • Use intimate knowledge: “Ha! You can't tell me I'm wrong. I know you've had your license suspended twice by FAA!”
  • Bring in unrelated issues:  Muddy the waters and fan emotional flames
  • Make hollow promises:  erodes confidence in you when you don't follow through.
  • Attack Indirectly:  Sneaky and immature behavior
  • Demand more, just to feel triumph of winning out
  • Store hurts: Hold a grudge
  • Use belittling humor: Immature behavior

"Any landing you can walk away from is a good one!"
-- Gerald Massie, Army Photographer and Survivor of 1944 crash of B-17

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