Much of what we do at CIRAS is about listening to the health and safety concerns of people in safety critical roles. Often people approach CIRAS with a feeling that their organisation hasn’t been listening particularly well to their concerns.
Health and safety reports typically arrive at CIRAS carrying a level of dissatisfaction with previous responses. In a recent CIRAS survey of over 1,000 workers in the UK transport industry, 43% said that when they reported a safety concern they did not get good feedback.
The CIRAS team handling these concerns are trained to listen effectively in such circumstances. Though the reasons will vary in each case, there is a lot to learn from reporters who feel they have not been listened to.
I recently spoke to a bus driver who no longer felt like speaking up in the workplace. He had seen a decade of industry change resulting in lower wages. He also felt his status as a respected member of the workforce had been diminished over time. Once he had vented his long-standing frustration, he began to talk more freely about some of the genuine health and safety issues he had concerns about.
He held a perception that raising a concern internally wouldn’t make any difference. Whether this perception was true or not, it contributed to a feeling of disengagement at work. He felt he was primarily there to drive a bus, but that his concerns for safety would fall on deaf ears. I listened as best I could without saying too much. Those untapped health and safety issues began to surface after a while as he became more comfortable.
Listening always plays a pivotal role in establishing a good health and safety culture. If there is a listening ‘deficit’, either at a personal or organisational level, it is likely to negatively impact on the organisation. Authentic listening, where both managers and employees can express themselves freely, is hard to achieve in practice. It requires both parties to put aside their agendas and really focus on what the other is trying to say.
Thankfully, there is plenty we can do to encourage more authentic listening at an individual and organisational level. The counselling profession can provide an effective model to work with here. The relevant skills - routinely taught on counsellor courses - can be learned by most people to enhance health and safety culture in a slightly different context.
Emphasis is placed on listening without judgment to what someone is conveying about their thoughts and feelings. This form of authentic listening can be applied widely in the workplace. This is especially the case with the lessening of psychological distress in mind, though it works equally well for health and safety concerns. Managers can model these skills for their employees, but colleagues can also do this for each other. The tips below can help foster a better listening environment.
Avoid giving advice. It may be a natural habit we have acquired, but giving advice often obstructs the listening process. Less can be more here. Giving advice is largely incompatible with good listening. Although well-intentioned, it can disrupt the follow and may inhibit further dialogue.
Sit with them in their cave. There is a common tendency to want to take someone out of their dark place. But attempting to cheer somebody up can be the equivalent of shutting them up if they are not in right frame of mind. Allowing an individual to vent and express negativity is an important part of the listening process. Staying attuned and focusing on their words and feelings, rather than glossing over them with ‘positive talk’ can make all the difference.
Be a calm presence. This provides the environment for someone to trust and feel confident in opening up to you. It helps here if one's body language looks engaged. Leaning forward slightly and making eye contact shows interest, but be mindful that a sensitive person may find it unnerving. There is a fine line between sounding warm and caring, and sounding condescending. A genuine interest in someone else's state of mind will often pay dividends.
Learn the art of silence. In our extraverted culture with its constant flurry of distractions, any silence is likely to be filled as quickly as it arises. Even before the smartphone era though, silences were often felt to be awkward. And where there is awkwardness, there is anxiety. But silence, properly respected and utilised, allows us the time to think and process thoughts and emotions. A conversational pause of an extra second or two creates the space for more reflection. Silence takes us to places we cannot reach with words and can diffuse conflict.
Allow anger to be heard. Keep in mind that people who appear angry are likely to be feeling scared, frustrated or helpless. When they are venting in the heat of the moment, it can be incredibly hard to stay cool. The display of strong emotions in others can trigger similar reactions in ourselves. But reacting in kind is rarely the answer and can merely escalate the tension. As a rule, allowing someone a safe space to be angry without any acting out is therapeutic. Wait until any tirade is over before asking questions on what may have triggered the anger. The anger can be effectively contained this way, allowing any underlying feelings to emerge.
Encourage dialogue on mental health. Authentic listening is especially important when it comes to breaking down the barriers to talking about mental health, thus reducing the associated stigmatisation. It is unfortunate that many workplaces appear to shy away from creating the right environment for employees to talk about how they are really feeling. All too often, genuine concerns are ignored and this causes stress. The removal of hierarchical boundaries by using informal dialogue can be the stepping stone to open communication about mental health.
The link between listening and reporting
Listening more authentically is likely to lead to far fewer health and safety concerns remaining unaddressed. But this only works if managers respond empathically and act on the information entrusted to them at an early stage. Training managers with the right interpersonal skills to listen more effectively can therefore play an important role in ensuring concerns are not stymied.
Confidential reporting has an important role to play. Of course, there is normally less of a need to report a concern confidentially if individuals feel listened to within their own organisations. In an ideal world, confidential reporting would not be necessary. But if the listening breaks down somewhere, or a ‘listening culture’ isn’t present, confidential reporting can bridge the divide. Retrieving the intelligence that might otherwise be lost requires skilled listeners and CIRAS prides itself on its ability to listen in these circumstances.
Higdon, J. (2004). From Counselling Skills to Counsellor: A Psychodynamic Approach. Palgarve Macmillan: Basingstoke
Listening and silence
Howard, S. (2010). pp 46-47. Skills in Psychodynamic Counselling & Psychotherapy. London: Sage Publications
Milner, P. and Palmer, S. (1998). pp 42-43. Integrative Stress Counselling: A Humanistic Problem Focused Approach. Sage Publications: London
Avoidance of advice giving
Howard, S. (2010). pp 36-37. Skills in Psychodynamic Counselling & Psychotherapy. London: Sage Publications
To find out how CIRAS authentically listen, please see our key messages here.