“Easy” Safety Conversations

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The phone rings, it’s our seventeen year-old daughter’s school. They have excluded Mandy and sent her home. She has been caught “selling” her homework to kids in her class.

Just as we hang up the phone Mandy comes through the front door.

What are we going to say/ do?
1. Tell her off/ punish her
2. Ask her why she did what she did in a very parental style (raised voice/ pointing finger etc), and then do 1 above.
3. Do nothing, ignore what the school has reported, for fear of conflict
4. Concentrate on the positive ……. We never realised how entrepreneurial she was!

The first two options above are likely to negatively affect the relationship with her, and probably won’t solve the issue/ problem. Options 3 and 4 avoid dealing with the problem, and therefore won’t solve it either.

So what can we do?
5. We can choose the right time to have the conversation …. Maybe we have to calm down after the conversation with the school before we can have an effective conversation with her about it. Then we need to discuss what happened in a private and comfortable setting. We can ask for Mandy’s side of the story, and listen carefully to what she has to say. We can use open questions (Who, What, When, Where, How, Why (curious not accusing) and Which) to elicit as much information as possible. We can probe around the undesired behaviour to try to find out as much as possible the reasons behind it. We can then move the conversation on to the consequences of this behaviour, with “What if?” questions. We can also introduce praise and encouragement for the desired behaviour(s).

So, let’s say that Mandy was selling her homework for £1 per subject per night’s homework. When we probe a bit deeper we find out that she was selling it across 5 subjects and to twelve of her classmates, each of whom needed two nights homework to copy in a week. Wow! Mandy has earned well over £100 in a week with the expense of virtually no time, effort and energy on her part.

Whilst a part of us might be impressed by the entrepreneurial nature displayed here, we would also been concerned about what Mandy was doing with £100 a week, when there are no visible signs of her having spent a lot of money. Maybe she’s been bullied for the money, or has a habit she needs to feed!!!

Again only through calm questioning, where we aim to elicit as much information as possible, without blame, can we find out the real reason, rather than jumping to conclusions. One way to do this is to use the TED technique. Where we might ask “Tell me some more about that?”, or “Explain how that would work?”, or “Describe what success would look like here?” With the TED technique we ask questions that encourage the other person to open-up, and then we listen …… remembering the 30:70 rule (where they talk more than twice as much as us).

It turns out that Mandy was trying to raise £700 for a car, so she could give her mum a lift to/ and from work in the evenings and save her standing at bus-stops in the dark and rain. We can then discuss with her the consequences of her actions, for example she could be permanently excluded from school and the knock-on consequences this could have on her gaining qualifications and the job/ career/ study opportunities she wants. Also that her classmates won’t learn if they merely “copy” her homework, and will therefore probably fail their exams. Then we can ask about other ways that Mandy could earn £700. She may suggest being paid to “tutor” her classmates so that not only do they hand in correct homework, but have also learnt the subject when it comes to exam time, and therefore stand a better chance of passing. She may also suggest doing jobs around the house that we could pay her for. Notice how the suggestions should come from her? People commit more strongly when it’s their own idea/suggestion.

With options 1 to 4 above we were fulfilling one of the strongest habitual behaviour patterns known … the Parent: Child relationship. With Option 5 we were instigating an Adult to Adult conversation. With this option, we:
• Gain an understanding of the reasons behind a specific behaviour (desired or not),
• Praise, reward, share desired behaviours,
• Identify ways to change the environment (Physical and Cultural) to help prevent undesired behaviours,
• Discuss the consequences of undesired behaviour(s), and therefore gain commitment from the person not to repeat them, and
• Encourage the adoption of desired behaviours.

These are just some of the potential benefits of having effective Safety Conversations. Others include keeping people mindful, engaging them, giving them ownership and asking for their ideas and input.

So that’s the theory – what about the practice? Well, it is a skill that can be taught and developed – and I do!. Whilst it’s best done in a workshop environment here’s a principle and top five tips that will help you have those conversations you’re tempted to put off.

The general principle is that we need to start by looking at human nature and understanding human behaviour, communication is most effective if the context is understood. So, start from the mindset -that for almost every behaviour, there is always a reason

1) The main focus of an effective safety conversation is to be “curious”. To find out “why” people have behaved the way they have, so that:
(i) If it’s good we can look to share it, and positively reinforce it through praise, encouragement and/ or reward.
(ii) If it’s not good we can investigate the root cause(s) and change the environment in an effort to make improvements. Through effective questioning and support we can also elicit a glad , not grudging promise, to do it differently next time.
2) There are different types of Safety conversations and it’s important to pick the appropriate type. Pre-work and Post Incident are just two of them, and their very different styles and content, will be more/ less effective depending upon the situation.
3) Make time to practice, preferably in an “emotionally safe” environment with people you can trust.
4) Feedback is key and two-way of course so you need to practice:
(a) Receiving feedback on safety conversations facilitated,
(b) Giving feedback to others on safety conversations observed, and
5) Build a useful checklist of the steps to holding an effective safety conversation to keep as a handy reference to refer to when you’re planning your next conversation.

Article contributed by Quentin Emery, Principal Consultant of RyderMarsh OCAID Limited