Background A lack of non-technical skills is increasingly recognised as an important underlying cause of adverse events in healthcare. The nature and number of things professionals communicate to each other can be perceived as a product of their use of non-technical skills. This paper describes the development and reliability of an instrument to measure and quantify the use of non-technical skills by direct observations of explicit professional oral communication (EPOC) in the clinical situation. Methods In an iterative process we translated, tested and refined an existing checklist from the aviation industry, called self, human interaction, aircraft, procedures and environment, in the context of healthcare, notably emergency departments (ED) and intensive care units (ICU). The EPOC comprises six dimensions: assertiveness, working with others; task-oriented leadership; people-oriented leadership; situational awareness; planning and anticipation. Each dimension is specified into several concrete items reflecting verbal behaviours. The EPOC was evaluated in four ED and six ICU. Results In the ED and ICU, respectively, 378 and 1144 individual and 51 and 68 contemporaneous observations of individual staff members were conducted. All EPOC dimensions occur frequently, apart from assertiveness, which was hardly observed. Intraclass correlations for the overall EPOC score ranged between 0.85 and 0.91 and for underlying EPOC dimensions between 0.53 and 0.95. Conclusions The EPOC is a new instrument for evaluating the use of non-technical skills in healthcare, which is reliable in two highly different settings. By quantifying professional behaviour the instrument facilitates measurement of behavioural change over time. The results suggest that EPOC can also be translated to other settings.