Challenging Safety Conversations: The Most Important Things to Say Aren’t Always the Easiest

Sep 17, 2019

As humans, we’re generally a socially conscious species. We try to avoid negative situations, smooth over uncomfortable interactions and generally try to get along with others in social situations. The problem is that when it comes to our safety efforts, this deeply rooted notion of “playing nice” can backfire and hold us back on our safety journey.

You see, when you notice that a team member is behaving in a potentially risky way, it’s crucial to step in and discuss their actions with them to encourage more helpful safety behaviours. Yet for so many of us, the thought of pulling someone up and having a potentially challenging but necessary conversation can be daunting. Without realising it, we find ourselves rationalising why we shouldn’t have a chat to them because we’re worried about how they’re going to feel or react. We might start convincing ourselves that they’ll figure it out eventually, that it isn’t that big of a deal, or find some other excuse to avoid having a potentially uncomfortable interaction.

However, the problem is that when you see someone doing something that’s unsafe in your workplace and you choose not to speak to them about it, you’re indirectly giving consent to their behaviour. You’ve now unintentionally become a part of the problem itself.

On the other hand, even if you’ve decided to step in and encourage more positive behaviours, how do you ensure that the conversation goes in the direction that you want it to? Well, the first step is to reframe your perspective about that interaction from being something that’s negative to something that’s constructive.

The impact of having “constructive” conversations in your workplace

Researchers at the Chartered Management Institute surveyed over 2,000 workers to evaluate the psychological impact of challenging conversations. They found that over 66% of the workers surveyed would feel stressed or anxious if they knew that a potentially difficult conversation was coming up. Beyond that, 52% of the workers surveyed would prefer to put up with a negative situation, rather than address it by having a potentially challenging conversation.

While these results indicate that many of us would prefer to sweep it under the rug when a problem arises, the reality is that it’s crucial to have these conversations to drive safety performance forward.

Another result that indicates the importance of having honest conversations comes from a 2010 study by the Corporate Executive Board. They found that companies who actively encourage honest feedback in their workplace delivered a 10-year return to their shareholders that was 270 percent higher than other companies (Griffin, 2010). That means that the benefits of having honest, constructive conversations go beyond safety performance by impacting performance outcomes across your entire organisation.

Beating around the bush only makes the problem worse

Even when we decide to have those conversations, especially if we’re feeling nervous or are concerned about the other person’s reaction, it’s easy to find ourselves addressing it in an indirect manner by “beating around the bush”. However, in doing so, we actually make it harder for our workers to understand what the real problem is. By throwing in compliments to soften the conversation or discussing the matter as if it wasn’t that important, you could end up perpetuating the issue by not fully informing your worker about the risks involved with their behaviour.

Instead of feeling encouraged to behave in a safer manner, they might walk away feeling like they had a casual conversation with you while you walk away thinking that you got your point across. The best way to avoid that is by being honest and direct by using a simple technique known as Straight Talking.

The quickest path between two points is a straight line

Straight Talking is a simple tool that we can use to have honest, fact-driven conversations that quickly lead to positive outcomes while limiting the chances of the conversation turning negative. Unlike beating around the bush, it requires you to enter a conversation with a clear purpose and facts that you’d like to discuss.

It also requires that you maintain an open mindset and give the other person an opportunity to share their own thoughts and opinions about the situation at hand, so that you both walk away with a shared understanding of the circumstances involved. Instead of tip-toeing cautiously into the conversation or charging in with heightened emotions, it allows you to address the issue in a calm and constructive manner that respectfully challenges and encourages the other person to address the issue at hand.

To get a jump start on having more constructive conversations, here’s a simple four-step Straight Talking model that you can follow when you have to discuss risky safety behaviours in your workplace.

  1. Go in with a purpose
    Before you enter the conversation, get clear on exactly what you’d like to discuss and pre-frame the conversation by starting off with a statement that makes your intentions clear.
  2. Lead with the facts and express what you’ve noticed
    Get straight to the point by clearly and concisely stating the facts that you’ve noticed. While your nerves might make you want to circumvent the topic or ease into it, remember that when it comes to having necessary conversations, clarity is king. You’re simply looking to express what you’ve noticed from your perspective, regardless of their reaction.
  3. Give them a chance to share their views
    Once you’ve expressed your side of the story, use open-ended questions and give the other person an opportunity to share their own thoughts and justifications. Be mindful to keep any judgements aside at this time as you’re simply looking to understand the details surrounding the issue from their perspective.
  4. Ask for a commitment to change
    Once you’ve heard their side of the story, you can now move forward together and work on getting a commitment from them to take action towards solving the problem. By allowing them to collaborate with you on identifying a fair solution or a timeline to track their progress, you increase their commitment to addressing the matter and the likelihood of them following through with it.

The conversation starts with you

When you see someone behaving in a risky manner, choosing not to speak up about it actually contributes to the problem by providing them with permission to continue behaving in that way. So while the thought of having a necessary conversation might seem daunting, choosing not to have that conversation could lead to dire results.

To prevent that from happening and to encourage more positive safety behaviours, we need to shift our perspectives about these important conversations from being difficult or uncomfortable to being constructive and a core part of our duty in keeping our people safe. By going into each interaction with a clear purpose and getting right to the core of the matter with a Straight Talking approach, we can alleviate many of our concerns around these conversations. Instead, we can turn them into opportunities for growth that help our people to make safer choices and return home to the people, places and experiences that matter most to them.

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