What part do conversations play in your safety improvement process?

I bet most, if not all, of your attempts to improve workplace safety include interpersonal communication. Indeed, conversation is a key component of behavior-based observation and feedback, peer-to-peer coaching, employee recognition, incident analysis, and corrective action development and implementation. Engineering benefits from learning human dynamics, too, and this requires an interpersonal exchange of ideas and perceptions.

The success of any intervention involving people depends on communication. In this article, I define five types of safety-related communication, each playing a particular and essential role in safety-related intervention. I heard these conversation labels during a Progressive Business audio conference in 2003 featuring Bob Aquadro and Bob Allbright. These categories overlap significantly with information included in earlier ISHN articles I’ve written on communication, but I find it useful to consider how interpersonal conversation varies in these five ways.

1 — Relationship conversation

These conversations occur whenever you show sincere interest in another person. This happens when you talk about particular aspects of a person’s family, health, hobbies, work processes, or safety-related perceptions.

My ISHN contribution this past March proposed an approach to giving recognition based on merely showing genuine interest in what a person is doing. As Dale Carnegie said years ago, and echoed later by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, “Help people feel important at doing worthwhile work.” This is relationship building.

Specific behaviors you find desirable might surface during a relationship-building conversation. If so, certainly acknowledge their occurrence and show appreciation. But your intention is more about developing support and interpersonal trust than influencing behavior. You want to remove any perception of manipulation or behavior modification. The key is to show genuine interest in the other person’s situation, performance, or perspective.

2 — Possibility conversation

These conversations occur when you share visions with another person. Of course, a prime industrial-safety vision is “injury free.” But possibility conversations target any future situation that reflects desired improvement in environment/engineering conditions, behavioral competence, or person states.

In his 1977 book, The Art of Leadership Conversation, Kim Krisco recommends we begin coaching conversations with a discussion of a person’s past, analogous to the relationship conversation discussed above, then progress to a discussion of future possibilities, as defined here.

Krisco proposes the coaching conversation transition back to the present, so people can define process goals or behavioral strategies relevant to achieving certain possibilities. The next three types of conversation are actually sub-categories of this suggestion by Krisco for change-focused interpersonal coaching.

3 — Action conversation

Here we have behavior-based communication. Given a vision or possibility for improvement, this conversation focuses on what an individual or work team could do to move in a desirable direction. The conversation might be between individuals, as in coaching, or between members of a group.

The action conversation could define a number of different behaviors, some to continue and others to decrease or eliminate. When these conversations occur in group meetings, individual assignments are often needed. Also, action goals are set according to the SMART acronym (for specific, motivational, achievable, relevant, and trackable), I presented in my September 1994 ISHN column.

This goal-setting exercise should include an accountability system for tracking progress toward goal attainment. With work groups or teams, it’s usually best to monitor both individual achievements with regard to specific assignments, as well as the group’s progress.

4 — Opportunity conversation

OK, you’ve learned how to do behavior-based observation and feedback, and set a goal for completing a certain number of observation/feedback sessions in one month. Now, it’s time to look for opportunities to conduct such a one-on-one session.

In some cultures this can be any work situation that involves human behavior. But in other industrial settings workers must agree to be observed before the process can be implemented.

Suppose an individual or work team chooses to adopt an achievement or success-seeking perspective to safety by tracking all safety-related behaviors performed beyond a person’s daily work routine. This requires an action conversation about the types of behaviors that indicate “going beyond the call of duty,” and an opportunity conversation about the various situations that call for designated safety-improvement behaviors.

Bottom line: A practical action plan for achieving particular possibilities includes a definition of behaviors and situations — behaviors needed to fulfill the plan (an action conversation) and the times and places for these behaviors to occur (an opportunity conversation).

5 — Follow-up conversation

It’s important to acknowledge the achievement of a SMART goal. These follow-up conversations are rewarding, and promote a success-seeking mindset. After noting the acquisition of an action/opportunity outcome, a follow-up conversation turns to discussion of a subsequent challenge. This could include conversations 2, 3 & 4 — an identification of new possibilities (2), relevant and acceptable action plans (3), and opportunities calling for certain action (4).

Follow-up conversations target the end result or outcome of an action plan but they often focus on the process first. Suppose, for example, you communicate with a supervisor regarding a need to have more one-on-one interaction with line workers. After exploring possibilities, you discuss specific actions and opportunities for meaningful supervisor/employee contacts. You might set a SMART goal and even a follow-up reward for goal attainment. But process-focused monitoring could also be quite helpful. It would probably be useful to contact this supervisor periodically for follow-up conversations regarding his or her progress toward goal attainment. Please note: one type of conversation does not stop with the implementation of the next in the sequence. Relationship conversations, for example, continue throughout action planning, accomplishment, and follow-up. And while it makes sense to define the behaviors in an action plan before considering opportunities, in actual practice people look for opportunities for their action-plan behavior before performing.

Indeed, interpersonal communication will fluctuate between all five conversation types. Perhaps understanding these different conversations and their objectives will help increase the quantity and improve the quality of your diverse communications for safety. When it comes to injury prevention, we can’t have too many quality interpersonal conversations.

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