This month I want to offer seven strategies for improving safety-related conversations between people. Conversation, as I discussed last month, is a powerful tool that shapes personal and team attitudes about loyalty, commitment, support - and safety. Each of these seven techniques can get employees more involved in safety, and improve your overall level of workplace safety performance.

Applying these methods can also improve how you talk to yourself - your "self-talk." The payoff? Increased self-esteem and perceptions of empowerment, which are essential for increasing our willingness to actively care for the safety and health of others.

1. Don't look back

Let's begin by considering how easy it is for conversations to dwell on past events, especially negative experiences. Think of safety meetings that dwell on past failures. To improve safety, we need to move conversations - both our "self-talk" and conversations with others - from recounting the past to focusing on future possibilities. From there we can develop an action plan.

So how do you pull this off? Say you approach someone about getting more involved in safety and they reply, "I offered a safety suggestion three years ago and it went nowhere." Where do you take the conversation from here?

This is really a matter of leadership, as discussed in Kim Krisco's book, "Leadership and the Art of Conversation" (Prima Publishing, 1997). Leaders help people move their conversations from the past to the future and then back to the present (where you begin by developing an action plan). To direct the flow of a conversation in this manner, you first must recognize and appreciate what the other person has to say. Then shift the focus toward the future. Remember, you're approaching this person to discuss possibilities for safety improvement and specific ways to get started now.

2. Seek commitment

Your goal in this kind of conversation is to get a commitment from the other person. Safety-related conversations are productive when someone commits to taking a specific action.

A verbal commitment also tells you that something is happening on an intrapersonal level, within that other person. The person is becoming motivated. Now you can proceed to talk about how that commitment can be supported, or how to hold the individual accountable.

3. Stop and listen

Be careful when you try to change behavior in others. Sometimes a passion for safety can lead to an overly directive approach. You know from personal experience, and clinical psychologists have shown, that it's better to give advice in a nondirective manner, especially over the long term.

Think about it: How do you respond when someone overtly tells you what to do? You might follow the instruction, especially if it comes from someone with the power to control consequences. But will you be motivated to make a permanent change?

Conversations that can be interpreted as "adult-child" confrontations may not work. Sure you mean well, but other people might not see it that way. Play it "safe." Try to be more nondirective.

Let me explain what I mean here: The theme of nondirective psychotherapy is active listening. The objective is to get clients to reveal their concerns, problems, and solutions on their own terms. The therapist's role is to be a passive catalyst, enabling and facilitating a conversation that is directed and owned by the client. I'm not suggesting safety leaders become therapists, but we can take some useful lessons from this nondirective approach.

4. Ask questions first

Instead of telling people what to do, try this: Get them to tell you, in their own words, what they ought to be doing in order to be safe. You can do this by asking questions with a sincere and caring demeanor. Avoid at all costs a sarcastic or demeaning tone.

But first, point out certain safe behaviors you noticed - it's important to emphasize positives. Then move on to the seemingly at-risk behavior by asking, "Is there a safer way to perform that task?" You might, in fact, find your presumptions to be imperfect. The "expert" on the job might know something you don't know.

By asking questions, you're always going to learn something. If nothing else, you'll hear the rationale behind taking a risk over choosing the safer alternative. You might uncover a barrier to safety that you can then help the person overcome.

Remember, it's only natural to offer a rationale for taking a risk. It's a matter of protecting one's self-esteem. Let it pass, and remind yourself that when someone owns up to his or her mistake - even under a cloud of excuses -your nondirective approach is beginning to draw the person out and bring about the change you desire.

5. Use words wisely

But what if the person doesn't give a satisfactory answer to your question about safer alternatives? What if the individual doesn't seem to know the safest operating procedure? Now you need to shift the conversation from nondirective to directive. You need to give behavior-focused advice.

In this case, start with the phrase, "As you know," as my friend John Drebinger advises. Open the conversation with a phrase that implies the person really does know the safe way to perform, but for some reason just overlooked it (or forgot) this time. This could happen to anyone. Such an opening can help prevent others from feeling their intelligence or safety knowledge has been insulted.

6. Beware of bias

Every conversation you have with someone is biased. You can't get around it. From personal experience, people develop opinions and attitudes that influence the words we hear, how we interpret those words, and what we say in response. Every conversation influences how we process and interpret the next conversation.

Personal biases can cause people to tune you out. By asking for their input upfront, you reduce the likelihood they will later tune you out. It's the principle of reciprocity: By listening first, you increase the odds that the other person will listen to you without a "tune-out" filter.

Don't let your prejudices about a speaker limit what you hear. Do you ever listen less closely to certain individuals, perhaps because the person seldom has anything useful to say or because you think you can predict what they'll say? Tell yourself you're not listening to someone, rather you're listening for something. You're not listening reactively to confirm a prejudice - you're listening proactively for clues or possibilities to solve a safety issue.

Pay close attention to body language and tone in conversations. I'm sure you've heard many times that the method of delivery can reveal as much, or more, information as the words themselves. Listen for passion, commitment, or caring. If nothing else, you can learn whether the messenger understands and believes the message. And perhaps you'll learn a new method for delivering a message yourself.

7. Plant words to improve self-image

In my ISHN article last month, I discussed how conversation influences both public and self-image:
  • How we talk about others influences perceptions within a group.
  • How we hear others talk about us shapes our own self-image.
  • And how we talk to ourselves about these viewpoints can make them a permanent feature of our self-image or self-esteem.
  • Want to change how others perceive you? Change the conversations people are having about you.

If you suspect, for example, that colleagues consider you to be forgetful and disorganized, you could mention certain self-management strategies you've been using lately to improve memory and organization. Of course you need to actually practice these techniques. If you focus on new positive qualities rather than past inadequacies in your conversations with others and with yourself, you'll surely improve your self-image and self-esteem.

There's a process at work here: Planting words in conversations can improve your own self-image and confidence as someone who can facilitate safety improvements. Telling others of your increased commitment encourages more effective safety conversations. Then use these seven strategies to improve interpersonal conversation. Commend yourself when you do. In this way, intrapersonal and interpersonal conversations work together to cultivate a Total Safety Culture.

Sidebar: Conversation checklist

To get the most from safety conversations:
  • Listen attentively.
  • Emphasize positive actions you've observed.
  • Draw out responses from the other person.
  • Get them to tell you, in their own words, what they ought to be doing in order to be safe.
  • Ask questions with a sincere and caring demeanor.
  • Act as if you don't know the answer, even though you think you do.
  • Shift the focus to future ways of improving safety.
  • Seek a verbal commitment to embrace those ideas.
  • Bring the conversation back to the present by developing an action plan to achieve the improvements you desire.