Communicate Like a Diver
We all find ourselves in situations where the allowable margins for error are slim to none and where the difference between a safe, successful project and disaster comes down to effective communication
By Nathan Koslowsky, Representative
One of the coolest elements of scuba diving under a frozen lake is watching breathing gas bubbles collect on the ice and move around like mercury on a flat surface. I had the opportunity to witness that for the first time this winter when I completed an ice diving certification that included three dives in 2°C water.
We entered the water through a triangle cut in the ice with a chain saw. Anyone approaching the hole not intending to dive had to be tied off. Each dive included one safety diver and a buddy team.
The safety diver and the buddy team were both connected to the surface with rope lines. The buddy team was connected by a shorter secondary line.
On the surface, a rescue diver was on standby near the hole while two rope line tenders played the rope lines in or out while communicating with the divers via signals. A single long pull on the rope requested more line. Two sharp pulls asked, “Are you ok?”
Three sharp pulls indicated an emergency. Divers communicated with each other underwater using hand signals.
Ice diving allows little room for error. Gear must be in perfect working condition, divers must be experienced cold water divers, and communication is critical to success. Underwater communication does not lend itself to vague conversations, poignant soliloquies, or esoteric debates.
Certain diving environments require restrictive gear or boast near-zero visibility, and all dives are limited by a finite supply of breathing gas. As such, divers practice a very basic sign-language that effectively covers the fundamentals required to survive underwater and get the most out of the experience along the way.
We all find ourselves in situations where the allowable margins for error are slim to none and where the difference between a safe, successful project and disaster comes down to effective communication.
Some of us work at heights or in confined spaces. Others work with high voltage and high pressure, battle fiery blazes, or care for others who may be prone to violence.
Underwater communication has something to say to us about what matters most in our own efforts to communicate with each other while we work in safety-sensitive situations. Topside communication, like its underwater relative, must be clear, frequent, maintained, future oriented, emergency prepared, and established in advance between the parties.
Underwater, clear communication is paramount. If a diver needs more line, they must send an unambiguous signal. A vague signal may be misinterpreted by the line tender or missed altogether.
As in diving, so at work. Clear, specific language is critical to ensuring that message sent is message received without being so clear (or rude or blunt) that you rip the line out of the hand of your conversation partner.
Clear is not rude, blunt, or crass. Clear is easily understood by others. It is brief, specific, and on point.
For some, speaking clearly comes easily. For others, it is an act of bravery and a demonstration of assertiveness that requires effort.
As in diving, so at work. Frequent check-ins—even when there is little to report—is the best way to ensure that lines of communication remain open. Frequent check-ins can reduce fear and uncertainty on a team, and they can also create opportunities for the early identification of small problems so that they can be addressed before they become big problems.
Work teams are connected, and the safety of the others on your team relates to your own. If someone on your work team finds themselves in trouble, the whole team can very quickly find themselves in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation.
Frequent communication promotes safety for you along with your work team. And remember, communication is a two-way street. If someone signals something to you, letting them know you’ve received it is an effective way to remove any guesswork from the communication equation.
In diving, everyone on the dive team agrees in advance on the rope and hand signals that will be used to communicate with one another. The worst time to establish communication protocols is in the moment where they are most likely to be misunderstood or ignored.
As in diving, so at work. Safe work procedures, the right-to-refuse procedure, how and when to report workplace incidents, workplace violence and harassment complaint protocols, and grievance processes are all examples of procedures set up in advance to ensure that everyone understands how best to proceed in high stakes work environments.
Reviewing these work processes from time to time will help to ensure that that you are conversant and understand how to send accurate signals to your work team in the event you need to.
During our second dive, the safety diver signaled to us to look at his rope line. It had snaked slack behind him on the bottom of the lake. The novice line tender above had not been holding enough tension on the line, and it was no longer an effective means of communication.
Similarly, if a line becomes wrapped around underwater debris, communication is effectively cut off between diver and their tender as tugs on the line will be transmitting to the debris rather than to the team member on the other end of the line.
It is worth the time and effort required to maintain direct communication channels at work to ensure they remain effectively able to transmit information in the event of an emergency.
Getting lines tangled underwater can lead to bad outcomes. Divers must remain close enough to one another for safety purposes while also remaining clear of one another so as not to become entangled.
To ensure lines are not crossed, intentions to change course must be broadcast clearly and in advance.
As in diving, so at work. Extravert the process for the benefit of your team as much as possible. And if you must change course during a work process, give advance notice so others around you have to time to object or adjust.
In an emergency, line tenders will pull divers back to the surface at roughly three metres every two seconds. While this may seem agonizingly slow, pulling a diver up from depth any faster may cause greater physiological injury than whatever might have triggered the three emergency pulls in the first place.
In the same way, crisis communication is clearest when it is calm and purposeful. Say what you know, not what you speculate. Remain calm. Breathe. And remember, slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
These fundamentals are so simple and obvious that they might easily be dismissed. However, the most fundamental practices are set aside, neglected, or forgotten at our peril both above and below the surface.
Practice the building blocks of underwater communication above the surface to survive and thrive at work and in your personal life, too.