Ask, Don’t Tell! How to Make Your Safety Communication More Impactful

Asking questions to improve our safety meetingsThe ultimate goal of safety communication is to communicate a message that internalizes safety in the hearts and minds of your audience.  The problem is that most safety communication ends up being a one-way conversation.  Sure, you may have delivered a safety message, but has real communication actually occurred?

Too often safety communication comes in the form of a data dump, where the goal is to deliver a monologue to the group to ensure you cover everything you planned to tell them.  More often than not these meetings are dry, dull, uninspiring and disengaging.

Worse, they don’t even meet the primary goal of safety communication, which is to internalize safety and raise safety awareness.  Because the minute you start with your monologue, the rest of us are simply checking out:

“I wonder what we’ll be having for lunch?’

There’s a principle of communication and ownership that I’ve mentioned many times in past articles, but it bears repeating here. It goes like this:

“No one disagrees with his/her own ideas.”

That principle seems obvious enough; unfortunately we almost never leverage it to our advantage in our safety communication, safety meetings or safety training.

Do you want to facilitate a safety meeting that engages?  One that raises safety awareness?  One that internalizes safety? One that transfers ownership of safety to your hearers? And one that accomplishes two-way communication?  Then start asking open-ended questions. Using open-ended questions in your safety communication ensures real safety communication has taken place.

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Asking questions is not exactly the opposite of lecture, but it’s pretty darn close. Asking questions allows us to talk less while the rest of the group talks more. We often place too much responsibility on ourselves to make our safety communication work. As a result, the effectiveness of our communication often depends solely on our own ability to get the message across. And even if we do succeed on that front, we still may not have succeeded in transferring ownership for safety and internalizing it in our audience.

Recall the maxim: “No one disagrees with his/her own ideas.” When we monologue instead of facilitate safety communication, we may be able to provide a lot of great ideas and suggestions, but we’ve done nothing to transfer ownership of those ideas to our audience. As a result they may or may not act on those ideas. But if those ideas are theirs, they’ll not only assume ownership for the ideas but will likely follow through on them as well.

The best way to accomplish all this is by asking a few well-placed questions during that safety communication. But how do you know when to ask those questions? Here’s a general rule of thumb: If there’s something you’re about to tell your audience that you think they could probably tell you if you just asked them about it, turn it into a question. But not just any question.

Open-ended V. Closed-ended Questions

FCTC OnlineQuestions that engage people are open-ended rather than closed-ended. A question like, “What are we going to do to work safely today?” is far better than “Is everyone going to work safely today?” The latter gives participants an easy out; they can simply nod their heads and the conversation is over. The former invites elaboration and sets an expectation that you’re looking for a conversation.

So the key is to turn the main talking points of your safety communication into open-ended questions.  For instance, you could tell the group what PPE you think they might need for the job today:

“Guys, you’re going to need a hardhat, ear plugs, safety glasses, and steel-toed boots to be on the site today.” SBI-coach-article-ad

But the minute you start rattling off the list of PPE (things they probably already know, or could figure out if you just ask them about it), their brains will be checking out.  Instead, ask them what they think they will need:

“Guys, we’re going to be working in an area that involves lifting heavy objects, has a lot of machinery noise, and has the potential for flying debris.  What do you think we’re going to need today to stay safe on this job?”

This is an open-ended question that is designed to get them involved in the discussion, get them actively thinking about safety, and get them owning and internalizing safety for themselves and for everyone else on the job.  Asking instead of telling is one of the best ways to enhance your safety communication because it transfers ownership of safety directly to those most at risk.

That’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS Newsletter. Until next time.

~ES

Eric Svendsen

Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.

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