Health and Safety – Do We Really Need to Listen?

When I first started out in Health and Safety twelve years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about it.  At first sight, this seemed like a bit of a disadvantage, but as I got into it, I discovered it was to be my superpower.  Why so, Karen?  Well, because when you know nothing about a topic, you are obliged to listen, because how else are you going to learn?  And learn I did, and fast.

In my early days in Health and Safety, I was privileged to be part of a global team leading the company on safety leadership and culture change and spent a large part of my time standing in front of a room full of workers or managers, teaching them all about the topic and inspiring them to get involved.  I use the term teaching lightly, because the style of the workshops we ran was more facilitative than instructive, meaning that we asked a lot of open questions to take our participants on a journey through a set of key points and ideas. 

I was used to this style from my previous career, and it suited me not to have to talk too much about topics I didn’t yet understand.  The hardest part though, was having to listen to what came back to me as a result of these open questions and navigate this information back to the point I wanted to get to, whilst at the same time allowing those talking to be heard.

And this is where my Aha moment came in early on because I suddenly realised that what workers wanted even more than being listened to, was to be heard.   According to Attachment Theory, which is an important theory for our ability as human beings to form relationships, being heard is a fundamental emotional need, because it evidences the fact that we are important to the person who is listening to us.

When we ask open questions, pause, and gesture to someone to give us their thoughts, and then actively listen to what comes back, not only is that person feeling heard, but also important.   They feel valued!  So yes, it is important to listen, but understanding why this is important, and the bigger picture of which this is a part, is even more important, because then it allows us to expand our thinking a little bit.

Understanding that someone needs to feel important brings us to a whole range of strategies we can deploy, including listening, asking good questions and a whole not more.  This is why asking ourselves how we can make people feel important is an even more powerful question than asking ourselves how we can listen better, because the potential is much greater.

So how do we make people feel important, and why does this matter for Health and Safety?

It matters because your average worker is at risk of feeling unimportant every single day, and Health and Safety sometimes only adds to the damage.  Workers are overloaded, stressed, burdened with constant change and job insecurity and their managers, suffering the same challenges, have less time to help them out.  Health and Safety teams are equally challenged with their burgeoning remit as their companies clamp down on costs, and legislative requirements are constantly growing and changing. 

Sometimes the only option the Health and Safety professional has is to simply pass on their knowledge and move on to the next thing, because they struggle to find time to do what they know matters, which is being out there with the people.  Listening.  Making them feel heard. Making them feel important.  And the more our workers feel that health and safety is just another thing being imposed on them, the less important they feel.  It’s a vicious circle.  But what if there was a way out of it?

I believe there is, because over the last twelve years I have discovered that as soon as you create the space for workers to answer an open question on Health and Safety and give them time to reflect on it, and respond, without judgement, they suddenly feel heard, and they feel important.  Oftentimes this is the first time in a long time that anyone has done this at work for any topic, so it’s like the floodgates have opened. 

At first the water out of the gates may be a deluge and somewhat overwhelming in nature, but soon it slows down to a manageable trickle and workers feel energised.  You may even find you do too, as you reflect later on the process they had to go through to fulfil their basic human needs. 

Allowing others to feel important, and of value, is a big opportunity for Health and Safety professionals across the globe, because everyone is crying out for it, and not just frontline workers.  Employees at all levels of an organisation want to feel that way, and we know this is true, because when we think about it, we do too.  We get our value from helping people out, but sometimes, people don’t want to be helped, they want to be heard.

By all means work on your listening skills, but keep that big picture in your mind.  Listening well to the people around you is only part of a toolkit that will get the best out of others.  It’s part of communicating in a way that allows others to feel important, which involves asking open questions, creating space to answer them, listening without interruption or judgement, using their name whenever you can, asking them how you can help and then following up on any help you offer.

Listening, then, is only part of the story.  The rest of it is there to be written, so we can all feel just a little bit more important and of value every day.  And then maybe, we will all have more headspace to focus on and engage with topics as important and valuable as Health and Safety. 


Karen J. Hewitt is an HSE People Champion and Director of Leaderlike Ltd, the Health and Safety Engagement specialists, and is on a personal mission to get everyone to see the value in Health and Safety, and especially when they need it most, through The Two Questions That Could Save Your Life.