The purpose of effective communication is to ensure understanding between two or more people. It is an important defense in the prevention of errors that can result in incidents. While the effects of mishaps due to ineffective communication will differ, the unfortunate organization can find itself facing legal, regulatory and financial consequences, and its people dealing with a significant emotional event as a result of a lost teammate.
Many industries have established protocols for effective communication. For example, in the medical field, 66 percent of all sentinel events reported from 1995 to 2005 were related to ineffective communication, according to The Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 U.S. health care organizations and programs. The commission defines a sentinel event as “an unexpected occurrence involving death or serious physical or psychological injury, or the risk thereof.” To help combat this issue, organizations in the medical field have begun requiring their employees to engage in a repeat-back process when information is verbally communicated to them. This is because, in general, verbal communication presents a much greater risk for misunderstandings than written communication.
How Does Three-Way Communication Work?
The repeat-back process – sometimes referred to as three-way communication – is also used in the electrical utility industry, typically in situations when workers are not face to face and must talk to each other via radio, telephone or similar technology. If your organization hasn’t already implemented this form of communication, safety managers should strongly consider doing so in the near future. By making the tool part of the fabric of your communication culture, employees can help to prevent the undesirable consequences that may result if an important message is not accurately transmitted or received.
In three-way communication, the sender (a worker) first orally states his or her message to the receiver (typically another worker) clearly and concisely. For instance, the sender may direct the receiver to take an action, such as altering a piece of equipment that could impact the crew’s safety. Next, the receiver acknowledges the communication by repeating the message to the sender. The receiver does not need to repeat every part of the communication verbatim, but he or she must restate any critical information exactly as it was stated by the sender. If the receiver does not understand the sender’s message, he or she must ask for clarification. Finally, the sender acknowledges the receiver’s reply and verbally confirms to the receiver that the message is correct and properly understood. If the sender does not understand the receiver’s reply, the sender must verbally indicate that the two parties do not understand each other, and then the repeat-back process must start again from the beginning.
Tool Usage and At-Risk Practices
So, when should you use three-way communication? There are an infinite number of situations in which it is applicable, including during task assignments that impact equipment or activities, the safety of personnel, the environment or the electrical grid. For instance, it is ideal for workers to use the repeat-back process during switching activities, when communicating the conditions of equipment, when communicating the value of an important rule, and during operation or alteration of equipment.
Be aware, however, that although three-way communication is an excellent, highly effective tool that can reduce the possibility of an incident occurring on a job site, there can also be risks associated with its use, such as:
• The sender stating too much information or multiple actions in one message. Messages should be kept concise and focus on one action or task at a time.
• The sender not providing enough information for the receiver to understand the message.
• The sender not verifying that the receiver clearly understands the message. Verification is critical to the repeat-back process.
• The sender using the word “incorrect.” Because “incorrect” contains the word “correct,” use of either term may confuse the receiver if he or she is having a hard time understanding the sender. It is better to use the words “right” and “wrong” – or similar words or phrases – than “correct” and “incorrect.”
• The receiver failing to ask for clarification of the message, if needed.
• The receiver taking action before the repeat-back process is complete.
• The receiver being mentally preoccupied with another task.
Three-way or repeat-back communication is one of the simplest human performance tools you can master, and it is also one of the most important tools you can master. By incorporating its use into your organization and training employees to use it as intended, you can help to increase safety, improve quality and productivity, and decrease the company’s number of work-related incidents.
About the Author: Rey Gonzalez is owner and president of HOPE Consulting LLC. He is an electrical generation professional with 35 years of diverse technical and organizational experience. Gonzalez has studied human behavior and organizational effectiveness over the past 20 years, with a focus on methods to improve hazard identification and enhance performance.