It’s a chilly morning, and the crew is eager to make progress on the substation upgrade before tomorrow’s snow. A shiny pickup truck pulls up to the job site, the driver’s door opens and out walks a good-looking guy in neatly pressed khakis, a white button-down shirt and highly polished lace-up shoes. He stops a couple yards away from the crew, looks at everyone, breaks into a cheesy smile and makes a joke about his golf game.
Nobody laughs or even snickers. After an awkward pause, “Joe Office” tells the crew that fall protection is the day’s safety discussion topic. He points to one of the crew members and mentions that he saw him working without a harness yesterday, and that isn’t acceptable. He drones through the rest of the lesson and asks if anyone has any questions. There’s no response from the crew, so Joe Office grins again and tells everyone to stay safe as they shuffle off to the day’s tasks.
Words Mean Little
What Joe Office doesn’t realize is that nobody paid attention to anything he said. Oh, they heard him just fine, but Joe lost most of the crew members before he opened his mouth, and the rest tuned out within the first 30 seconds of hearing him speak. They pretended to listen while they thought about other things.
It’s true that Joe Office knows a lot about safety. Unfortunately, he has no clue what his body language projects and can’t read the body language of the workers with whom he’s communicating. As a result, in this scenario he wasted everyone’s time and had zero effect on the crew’s well-being.
The fact is that humans do far more listening with our eyes than we do with our ears. According to Mehrabian and Wiener, and Mehrabian and Ferris, when a verbal message is delivered, a typical human being only receives about 7 percent of the message via the words that are spoken. Thirty-eight percent of how a person receives a message is due to the way those words are delivered. And a full 55 percent of the message is conveyed through the speaker’s body language.
In other words, when a safety professional speaks to a group of workers, the nonverbal components of his or her message have a far greater impact on listeners than what’s actually being said. The professional’s physical appearance, body language, tone and pace of voice determine how carefully the workers will listen and how much they’ll retain.