CRM for wives

(A lighthearted stab at inflicting cockpit CRM principles on your wife and kids.) Marriage is a bit like signing on for a flight with the same co-pilot. Time after time after time… (Although thankfully to different destinations.) In the good old days the captain was God and the co-pilot did as he was told – (just as Grandpa jumped when Grandma bellowed.) Ironically though, there is a close but unrecognized analogy between managing an airline crew and running a family. In both cases bad communication and a bad attitude risk a disastrous outcome, regardless of your flying or husbandly skills.
For the unconverted, Crew Resource Management is a week-long course in the psychology of communication and the efficient management and application of resources and information. CRM was born after the Tenneriffe 747 accident in the mid seventies when it was finally acknowledged that an autocratic personality on a flight deck was as conducive to flight safety as Mugabe is to a prosperous Zimbabwe. It was an effort to address the complexities of interaction between colleagues of different age, status and experience. All airline pilots are required to complete this course and any wife will tell you that there is NOBODY more IRRITATING than a new CRM convert.

All they want to do is test their newly acquired psychology skills on resolving world peace and family squabbles. (It doesn’t take long before they discover world peace is more plausible!)

Like the time I tried to explain to my new wife why I would not be taking her advice on dealing with close friends who were in the throws of a divorce. This transcript is taken from the actual Cockpit Voice Recording. (aka – What the kids overheard.)
Selected CRM terms and reflections are in parenthesis.

“But sweetie, (that’s my wife) you don’t understand. Your idea won’t work!” “Why not,” she squealed. “You always think you’re right!” “Sweetie, I’ve known these people for thirty years. I can’t explain all the reasons in thirty minutes. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.” “You never listen to any of my suggestions – do you?” The blood started to boil. (Hers – not mine.) Ok – time for a few CRM techniques to help sweetie-pie understand how we pilots think.

“It’s like this. In my other life, I’m an airline captain – right?” “What the hell has that got to do with this!” she yelled.
(Oops – temperature starting to red line again!) “Well, on the flight deck I have a co-pilot and a “boy-pilot.” (Usually a junior fellow new in the airline.) Now let’s imagine we have a difficult decision to make – say we’ve had an en-route engine failure and we need to divert to an airfield we hadn’t planned on. I, as the Captain would be Seeking Information (SI) from my crew as to their ideas on the situation. That doesn’t mean I have to accept those suggestions – do I? If the “boy-pilot” gives me an idea but I can spot a weakness in it – he wouldn’t be upset because I wasn’t taking his advice, now would he?”
“Are you calling me a “boy pilot?” “Not at all.” “So what am I? The co-pilot?” “Yes, you can say that.” “But why can’t I be the Captain?” “You just cant, okay,” I sighed. “God made me the head of the household. That’s just the way it is. Like the airline made me the captain on the flight deck. And besides; two captains in a cockpit isn’t healthy.” We were getting away from my CRM experiment.

“Now, based on the fact that I, as the captain, generally have more experience than my crew – it goes without saying that I have the veto on the decisions made – agreed?” “But then why call for advice from your crew?” “Because a good captain always tries to gather all the information and suggestions he can before making a decision.” “But you’re just ignoring my suggestions.” “No I’m not – I just don’t think they’re appropriate.” (AB – Appropriate Behavior. I really didn’t want to get into explaining this concept to a woman. They have a TOTALY different definition on this one!) “But then you’re leaving me out.” (SO – the act of Shutting Out opposing views – especially when you don’t want to hear another opinion. Not conducive to a happy resolution.) “No. And I’m not saying your suggestions aren’t great – it’s just that they won’t work in this scenario.”

(My childhood friends were about to end their 23 year marriage, with major repercussions for their family. My new wife on the other hand, hardly knew them – making her the expert!) “This calls for an ACL decision,” I quipped. “A what?” sweetie-pie growled. “Action Centered Leadership,” I repeated. “We needed to remind them of the Task Needs, Group Needs and the Individual Needs. Especially Jeff. He was an airline captain himself, as well as a CRM tutor. “Yeah right!” she snarled. “Anymore crap from you buster and I’m going to roster myself with another captain.”
“Well, that’s just what their problem is all about, isn’t it?” (A glimmer of hope that she was starting to understand.) “Sue doesn’t want to fly with Jeff anymore.” At last my wife was beginning to buy into the analogy.

“Well sure. But Jeff can change his ways.” (Jeff had been flying hot little aeries on his days off.) “Just because you fly light aircraft on the weekend doesn’t mean you want to leave the airline! Lots of guys do.” I ducked a left hook. (Blocking, Defend, Attack – useless verbal techniques for getting yourself deeper into trouble.) Right now I needed the literal version. Sweetie was taking this analogy very seriously. “Maybe they just want to move to a new fleet,” I panted. “Perhaps, but nobody should fly aircraft the airline doesn’t own.” Sweetie had a point and I was about to suggest an open rating. Second thought, maybe not. This was a one ship fleet, and I was too tired to stave off another attack. “I still think if the roster wasn’t so tight they could sort their problems out.” “They can’t if they’re based in different countries!” she ranted.

(Ahah! TU. Testing Understanding! I was making progress. Jeff flew for a Middle Eastern airline and had tried unsuccessfully to commute between his job and his family in South Africa.) “Well then, they have to consider the Task Needs of the divorce, the Needs of the kids and then their Own needs to successfully ride out the turbulence in their lives.”
“Maybe. But not all flights end safely. This one’s about to crash.” (BU – Building onto the subject.) She was nicely in the loop now. “Yes,” I agreed. “But we still need to be there to help the survivors.” (Pr – Proposing. The act of passing on a suggestion.) “Why? They were never there when you pranged!”

“That doesn’t matter. They were still from my old squadron.” Suddenly I recognized a term from my distant academic past. Transactional Analyses. Sweetie pie was regressing into her Critical Parent. It was time to try my advanced CRM skills. I needed to get her talking from the Adult sector of her personality without crossing the boundary to her Inner Child. Great danger lay there, especially in a woman! Our son turned from the TV. “Mom and Dad, you guys are weird.” (This from a teenager!)

“Son, you only believe that because you don’t have all the facts. You’re only on a “need to know” contract. (Actually, he’s on pay as you go. We pay – he goes.) We don’t need to tell you everything, only what you need to know. See?” “Then why can’t I ride my bike to school?” His mother was quicker on the draw. “Because we haven’t done a Risk Assessment yet,” she fired back. (I flexed an eyebrow. Sweetie was starting to sound a bit like me. This was getting scary!)

“That’s right,” I frowned. “We need to apply the Risk Management Model first. (Assess the problem, Action a plan, and Manage its progress.) “But all the other parents allow their kids to…” I stopped my boy-pilot in his tracks. “I want a Sterile Cockpit here…” (No unnecessary yacking or distractions during critical phases of flight.) I knew a mutinous crewmember when I saw one. “If you want to fly with another crew, just ask. And from now on it’s ‘Captain Dad’ to you sonny boy!” (This familiarity on the flight deck was getting out of hand.)

“That’s a bit harsh on the crew, Honey,” my co-pilot glared. “Well there’s got to be a system for doing things around here,” I barked. “SOP’s. Standard Operating Procedures. Speaking of which – I see you’ve included a couple of non-standard items on the pantry checklist!” The words weren’t out of my mouth when I realized I was dangerously below the glide slope. Now my Critical Parent was chastising her Inner Child. Better recover with a quick massage of her Ego State. I knew I was OK. I just needed to make sure she felt OK. “Only joking sweetie. It’s the jet-lag talking. I just don’t want you to over fuel your tanks.” “Oh really! So now I’m over my gross take off weight am I?”

(Uh oh. This was a poor judgment chain. I was about to flick in.) “Of course not sweetie – but you know how it affects your performance when you’re too heavy.” (Cancel the CRM. It was time to Go-Around. The situation was becoming dangerously unstable and I was getting close to minimas!) I shot an innocent glance at my roster. “Gee sweetie, I see I’ve got a six-day Paris coming up. Why not come along for a romantic dinner and a little shopping?” She threw herself into my arms. “Aw honey that’s just the best recovery I’ve ever seen.” Then she laughed. “You just needed a little radar vectoring to get you back on track.”

So much for my CRM and flight deck analogy. Obviously interpersonal family dynamics are far more complicated than those in a cockpit, but it did remind me that a good wife, like a good co-pilot is invaluable. You cannot manage a flight deck or a family safely without them. Many of both are more experienced and more capable than their respective captains, but through the seniority list, or societies norms, are tasked to operate as the second in command. The flight deck, like the household is not a democracy, yet an assertive co-pilot still remains the best deterrent against a potential autocrat. Only a really dumb captain would disregard the needs and advice of a self-assured confident crew.

The author is an A340 Training Captain and CRM tutor with SAA

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