Effective Two-Way Workplace Communication
In the electrical utility industry, we train employees to look for hazards as a part of their jobs. Some hazards, however, can be tricky to identify. Effective two-way communication is a key component of hazard identification and mitigation. When anything is uncertain on a job site, questions must be asked and answered. This applies across the board, regardless of role, title or company structure. We must constantly seek to understand as well as to be understood.
In particular, it is the responsibility of those individuals in supervisory positions to ask the right kinds of questions. An honest answer to a good question will help reveal to you the reality of a situation, either confirming something you believe or providing you with information you did not already have.
When the questions you ask relate to someone else’s job performance, it is important to create an environment that encourages transparency. It is difficult for most people to say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” in a work atmosphere where such statements are used to make them feel foolish or invaluable. On the other hand, an environment that fosters discussion, learning and understanding is one in which transparency can thrive.
Share and Ask
In addition to asking good questions and seeking important information, we must be willing to share with others exactly where we are coming from. When our own knowledge is lacking, are we humble and secure enough to admit that? Offering our vulnerability to others puts us in the best possible situation to receive information and increase our knowledge. If we pretend that we know everything already, we handicap our ability to learn and grow from others’ knowledge and experience.
When discussing job performance with a worker, it may sometimes seem wise to offer instruction and guidance to them, but this act on its own may actually end up masking an existing hazard. It is not uncommon for someone to pretend they understand what another person is telling them just to save face. When we deny someone the opportunity to speak to their own experience, we also deny ourselves information.
An alternate, more useful approach is to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers that you get. This will help communicate to you the level of understanding the other person has. It is very effective to say something like, “Pretend that I don’t know anything at all about this – can you explain it to me?”
The types of questions that we ask are significant. Leading questions are one type to avoid. If you present the answer that you are looking for when asking a question, it is natural for the other person to agree. Try instead to formulate questions that require the other person to come up with their own answer, rather than leading them in one direction or another.
Follow-Up and Disclosure
Follow-up is another valuable component of two-way communication. This is the part of the discussion when you can fine-tune things. If you have some information but part of it is unclear, say so. Ask for more information. Seek out clarification based on what you are hearing. Make sure you have all the pieces of the puzzle. Do not rely on your assumptions.
When you feel confident that you have all of the information you are seeking, reiterate that information in the form of a statement (e.g., “What I hear you saying is …”). Repeating information to the sender and asking for their confirmation helps to ensure everyone is on the same page.
There is one last piece of effective workplace communication: disclosure. If there is something going on in your life that might affect your ability to perform your job as usual, the people around you should be aware of it. Communicating this can sometimes be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is important.
We also should seek to create an environment in which others feel comfortable talking about those things with us. It may be that they are experiencing difficulties at home. Perhaps someone has fallen physically ill or is trying to cope with the illness of a loved one. Things such as physical limitations, cognitive impairments and mental health are important to talk about. Each has the potential to impact job performance.
The group of people we work with varies from time to time. Companies change sizes. People are hired and fired. They quit and get promoted. It is important for us to know who we are working with, as well as what their abilities and limitations are. It also is necessary for the people we work with to have that same level of knowledge and awareness about us. Without effective communication, we expose ourselves and others to unnecessary hazards that can almost always be identified and mitigated.
About the Author: Seth T. Werling, CUSP, is a regional safety manager for the electric power division of Hooper Corp. His experience includes natural gas and electrical work in the field, as well as quality assurance and safety roles. Werling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.