As a course instructor teaching a range of soft skill subjects to a variety of seafarers and office personnel I come across different perceptions regarding the need and level of application of these soft skills, particularly those pertaining to communication and collaboration among all ranks. Often, the attitude of the course participants changes radically during the course – from direct opposition to considerable insight as to what communication and collaboration can mean for the work life of the individual.

Green-Jakobsen A/S was handed the task to develop a course for a target audience comprising mainly Technical superintendents, Fleet Managers and HSQE superintendents. The main objective of the course was to highlight the importance of effective communication in order to bring about trust and better teamwork.

As the instructor for a series of these soft skills courses I have had the opportunity to make some observations worth sharing.

Soft skills, a hard nut to crack

In our soft skills courses the facilitator plays an important role. This is largely due to the fact that seafarer training has been predominantly focused on the operational and technical part of the work process which leaves interpersonal skills as a part of an “implied warranty”. Because far from all seafarers can fulfill this “warranty” and since many of our course participants are brought out of their usual comfort zone when we work with interpersonal skills, the instructor’s role is to a large extent to facilitate that the participants can absorb this type of learning as well as making the participants feel more comfortable in the situations they are put in during the course.

Some of the immediate reactions I often experience from a few of the participants is that they find that this kind of training is more required for their managers and superiors. A rather reluctant attitude towards soft skills topics may be related to the fact that these participants may themselves not be feeling the positive effects of leadership and motivational influence from their superiors which in turn makes them feel that it is useless for them to carry the baton towards their juniors. To me this proves that there is even more reason to provide this kind of training to crew and employees.

They find that this kind of training is more required for their managers and superiors

Why do I need this course?

During the initial phases of the courses I have sometimes been encountered with the following questions:

“Why are you discussing effective communication with us, have you been made aware by the top management that there are problems in communication?”

“We do our work perfectly in the office; however, the shipboard team is incompetent. An example – a master does not call me when he has a UKC of 10cm, but he calls me multiple times to inquire about the delivery of insecticide.”

“It is not possible for us to delegate, this is a theoretical topic”

“We are not supposed to teach, they should know their job! So why are we discussing coaching?”

“Procedures are crystal clear, but they are not followed.”

Hence, the task for the instructor to bring forward an understanding for and usefulness of good communication as a contributor to a trustful working environment is without a doubt essential. Fortunately, the course comprises a range of tools and concrete exercises that illustrate and demonstrate the benefit of these terms.

Lack of communication – in the class room, and on board?

Time and again it is obvious that lack of communication is the reason for incidents and even major accidents. Good communication is also a cornerstone for establishing an open and trusting working environment. However, it often happens that one or two participants are neglecting the importance of being present and alert during the sessions.

Also, it is always highly discouraging to see that some participants find it difficult to focus on the topics taught and sincerely be mentally ‘present’ in the classroom.

As a facilitator I am used to dealing with this kind of behaviour. As our learning methods force the participants to participate actively in group work and take time to reflect and discuss, participants will end up being engaged and responsive. This gives them a hands-on opportunity to apply their gained communication skills underway and the reluctant participants often have an ‘aha’ experience during the course and the get to see that it is not so ‘dangerous’ to deal with interpersonal issues when they get to see how to deal with them in a concrete manner.

Participants will end up being engaged and responsive

The ability to acknowledge own flaws

Fortunately, in this particular range of soft skill courses, it is encouraging that the majority of the participants are quite positive to the entire concept and are also aware that certain changes need to be made on a personal level in order to have a better organisational work process.

However, as a classic example of self-overrating a few of them were still suspicious and firmly believed that this workshop should be directed to their superiors instead, since, in their own perspective, they themselves are “perfect” in their working methods. The clear symptoms of a culture where poor communication is a problem is where there is an inherent perception that in general ship-staff are incompetent to a high degree and they are the ones who create the problems.

Some participants are aware that certain changes need to be made on a personal level in order to have a better organisational work process

It is very common that own performance is rated higher or evaluated as better than that of our colleagues. This is called the self-deception tendency. Typically, we find ourselves better than our colleagues in various work parameters. This would be an important criterion to address internally within the shore-based organisation. (Read more: The hunt for honest answers)

Committing to a better tomorrow

Anyway, the feedback we get from our participants after ending a course mostly demonstrate that they are able to bring back some tangible concepts which they can actually put into practice at the workplace.

Therefore, I would like to end this article with some inspiring quotes from some of the participants who had the time and took the opportunity to reflect upon their (work) lives and commit to a better tomorrow:

One positive take-away from this course for me is – relationship. I will endeavour to build strong relationships with my colleagues in future
My e-mail writing has definite scope for improvement. For example, I will make sure that the subject line of my emails is specific and in context with the main message
I went home yesterday and spoke to my children for about 35 minutes. I realized that I haven’t done that for a long time. It really was effective communication
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