If you want to succeed as a safety leader, it’s not enough to focus solely on logistics and data management — you have to get good at ‘soft skills’ as well.
Soft skills are attributes like communication, teamwork, and problem-solving that enable you to engage with and motivate your researchers to care about safety (they also help in interactions with colleagues and management!).
Without these skills, even the most savvy safety professionals will find themselves fighting a losing battle to get their workforce to carry out safety practices.
To help you hone your craft, we’re writing a series of articles each highlighting a different soft skill. Today’s topic is listening.
The importance of listening skills for EHS leaders
If EHS leaders want to be heard, they should start by truly listening.
To understand why, let's wind back the clock: Traditionally, communication between leadership and employees was a one-way street. Your boss told you to do something, and you did it (and grumbled about it behind their back).
But today’s workers — millennials especially — want the opportunity to offer suggestions and input. According to a 2015 Randstad engagement study, over half of employees (58%) believed their company would be more successful if they listened to employees’ ideas. In short, employees want to have their voices heard — and leaders can benefit from listening.
So, how can you become a better listener?
5 ways to be a better listener
We’ll review how to:
Practice active listening
Repeat what you heard
See it from their perspective
Stay curious, not judgmental
1. Build rapport
When you've got a million things on your to-do list, making small talk probably isn't one of them — but pushing your agenda right off the bat can come off as cold and adversarial.
Instead, it's worth taking a few minutes to connect with your researchers before you start a conversation about safety. An easy way to do this is by asking about their research. Not only will this help you understand the work they’re doing and why, but it also gives you and the researcher context to talk about the importance of safety.
What’s more, seeing that safety leaders care about them and their work fosters researcher engagement and increases motivation.
2. Practice active listening
Think about a time when you felt someone wasn't listening to you. Maybe they were fidgeting in their seat, glancing at their phone, or tuning you out altogether. Or maybe they just barked orders at you without taking your points into consideration. Either way, when someone isn't listening, it’s clear that what you're saying goes in one ear and out the other.
Now, think about a time when you felt heard. What was that conversation like? What did the listener do that made you feel listened to? What was their body language and facial expression like? How did you feel?
The latter is called active listening, and it’s a skill that can be refined with time and practice.
When trying to practice active listening, one helpful trick is to think through the conversation you’re about to have before you have it. Why is it important? What are you hoping to achieve? This kind of pre-investment can help your attention stay high.
3. Repeat what you heard
It's known in psychology as the "echo effect": By repeating people's words back to them, you can build likability, trust, rapport, and social cohesion.
Repeating what you heard shows that you’re actively engaged in listening — not just planning what to say next.
What's more, when you repeat what you heard (or think you heard), the speaker has the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings on the spot.
The goal here is to not just mindlessly parrot back what the person said, but rather to restate it in your own words. This demonstrates that you were really listening, and also increases the chances that if there’s a misunderstanding, it can be identified and addressed in a constructive way.
4. See things from their perspective
EHS and researchers won’t always see eye to eye. They have different ideas, goals, and opinions based on their backgrounds, experiences, and priorities — and that’s a good thing.
Decades of research show that considering different perspectives leads to better decision-making and problem-solving, greater innovation, and even financial gains for organizations.
Next time you disagree with one of your researchers, it’s worth taking the time to step back and try to see things from their point of view. Is there an efficiency or convenience perspective that may cause them to weigh the value of safe practices differently? Are they afraid of feeling judged by their peers or direct supervisor for following proper procedures?
5. Stay curious, not judgmental
Research suggests that we can read others’ facial expressions in as little as 23 milliseconds. Our faces reveal our thoughts and feelings — both positive and negative — long before we open our mouths (and while we’re doing it!).
When people sense they're being judged, they're less likely to say what’s on their mind. Instead of voicing their safety concerns, for example, researchers who fear judgment might say what you want to hear but revert to cutting corners as soon as your back is turned.
On the other hand, approaching conversations with an attitude of curiosity helps you ask better questions and also helps researchers feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions — which is especially crucial when safety is at stake. Letting go of judgment can be particularly challenging, but you’ll find that when you do, conversations often go much more productively.
The best way to show researchers you’re interested in them is by listening and making an effort to learn more.
When discussing safety with your researchers, challenge yourself to stay curious and try to see things from a new perspective.
Remember that researchers want to be safe, but their ideas and priorities for safety may be different from yours.
True safety starts with communication — not blind compliance. By focusing on listening, safety leaders will gain a better understanding of researchers' perspectives, and researchers will gain a better understanding of their risks and how to mitigate them. Keep these principles in mind, and you may learn more than you expected and change some minds along the way.
And remember — people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.