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Are you listening or waiting to speak?

Active Listening is a powerful tool and one we don’t use enough. Kate Morris looks at why it’s time to stop thinking about what we want to say and start listening – who knows, you might learn something…

“Are you listening or waiting to speak?”

This was a question asked of me some years ago and it really made me think about how to really listen and not just wait for the opportunity to have my say. I have asked this question many times since, in discussions with groups and in workshops. The response is usually a wry smile and a nod as most people recognise that this is what they are doing much of the time.

It’s the little things…

Within a conversation or discussion, we all have our own agenda and things we want to say, and this often means that we don’t really listen to others. The power of listening is highlighted in Margaret Heffernan’s great little TED book – “Beyond Measure – The Big Impact of Small Changes” in which she explores the small things that have a big impact on developing a Just Culture. She includes the power of listening as one of those small things.

What can you hear?

Heffernan talks about leaders in meetings “They listen for nothing but the perfect moment to jump in and shut down debate.” In the course of her work, she has asked leaders to sit in a meeting and not say anything… just listen. This is very difficult for most of us, as we all think we have something important to contribute. However, when we do simply listen instead of waiting for our opportunity to talk, we hear more, and consequently learn more.

Heffernan makes the point that building social capital within an organisation requires as much listening as talking. With Active Listening, you not only hear the words, but you ‘hear’ what is not being said, what is being relayed through tone, body language and the spaces between the words.

How often do we listen – really listen to our partners, family members or colleagues?
This means we are not thinking about what we want to say, we are not distracted or thinking about something else, or checking social media… but actively listening and focusing on what the other person is communicating.

So why is this important for health and safety?

Within Tribe we believe that effective safety discussions are fundamental to developing a safety culture in which everyone is involved and feels part of the effort to keep their workplace safe and healthy. We talk about changing a culture “one conversation at a time.” Effective safety discussions involve asking questions and really listening to the answers without interruption.

I don’t know what I’m talking about!

Leaders often say they find it difficult to have discussions with people about safety because they don’t know enough about their jobs. They feel that, as a senior person, they should know the job or task, including all the risks and how the person doing the job could be hurt. Clearly in most businesses it is not possible to understand every job in detail and these are the easiest discussions to have, provided you ask the right questions and really listen to the answers to those questions.

It is much easier to ask lots of questions about a job or task that you know little about. We just need to get past the idea that, as leaders, we need to know everything.

Framing the discussion

Our safety discussion framework is just that – a framework to have a really good conversation in which the person initiating the discussion says little; listens hard and responds to what they hear, and not to their own agenda.

This is often difficult for leaders who think they are expected to have all the answers and find it difficult to ask open questions and to look for the answers from someone who may be much more junior. However it is this person who knows the job; understands the risks and manages them on a day to day basis… they are the expert. Active listening linked to asking open questions instead of always making statements is fundamental to effective safety discussions.

People know if you are not really listening – think about the last time you tried to have a conversation with someone whose mind was elsewhere, or who was checking their phone at intervals during the conversation. Active Listening, where you focus on the conversation and nothing else, shows that you are really interested in what the other person wants to communicate and most people are happy to talk about the job they do to someone they believe really wants to listen.

Prick up your ears

We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. When holding safety conversations, if we speak less and listen more we will learn a great deal about safety and health and find those gems of intelligence to help keep people safe and well.

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