Ask, Don’t Tell: Enhancing Your Safety-Leadership Communication With Questions

"Ask, Don't Tell" : Enhancing Your Safety Culture Development through Active Listening | Call to Action!There’s an old adage that we’ve mentioned many times in other contexts, but it’s just as important for your safety-leadership presence, particularly when communicating safety to a group of people. It goes like this:

“No one disagrees with his own ideas.”

That principle seems obvious enough; unfortunately we almost never leverage it to our advantage when communicating safety.

We’ve been looking at ways to build, lead, and enhance our leadership presence to influence safety-culture development while communicating a safety message, and here’s one more tip.

“Ask, Don’t Tell”

Another New e-Book by safetyBUILT-IN!All too often our safety meetings resemble little more than data dumps, where the goal is to deliver a monologue to the group to ensure we get out everything we 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 a safety meeting, which is to 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?’

Asking Questions Enhances Safety Culture Development

One of the best ways to engage a group of people, to capture and hold their attention, to raise their safety awareness, to get them actively thinking about safety, and to transfer primary ownership of safety directly to them, is to ask questions.

If there’s something I’m about to tell you that I think you could probably tell me if I just ask you a question about it, I’m going to turn it into a question.

But not just any questions.

For instance, a question like, “Everyone going to work safely today?” won’t engage anyone. Why? Because it’s too closed-ended. It allows me to get away with a default “yes” or “no” response, and I can do that while on autopilot–I’m not required to actively think about the response before I give it.

Instead, I need to turn the main talking points in my safety communication into questions. For instance, I could tell the group what PPE I think they’ll 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.”

FCTC OnlineBut the minute I start rattling off the list of PPE (things they probably already know, or could figure out if I just ask them about it), their brains will be checking out. Instead, I need to 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 that has the potential for flying debris. What do you think we’re going to need today to stay safe on the 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 safety for themselves and for everyone else on the job. Asking instead of telling is one of the best ways to enhance safety communication and safety culture development because it transfers ownership of safety directly to the front lines.

It’s about Dialogue, not Monologue

One other advantage of this approach to safety communication is that it reduces the anxiety of the one tasked leading safety communication and safety culture development. If you’ve ever experienced “stage fright” while delivering safety communication to a group of people, asking question will help.

The reason you may get nervous when speaking in front of a group of people is because all eyes are on you. You’re in the spotlight. The quickest way to get the spotlight off of you is to get it on someone else. And the best way of doing that is to ask an open-ended question. Suddenly, there’s a conversation instead of a monologue; and the communication is no longer about you–it’s about everyone else in the group.

That’s all for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Be sure to view the associated video below to learn more about these tips. Until next time.



About the Author

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.