How to communicate about safety – the art of humble enquiry

Article co-authored by Rob Sams from Dolphyn and published here by Resilium

How to communicate about safety – the art of humble enquiry

imageImproving safety can be a tough job. According to Dave Collins of Riskex, the key to driving ownership is to start conversations rather than set rules.

Workplace health and safety (WHS) managers can sometimes feel caught in the middle when trying to get departments, management and employees to properly observe risk and safety requirements. The job often involves negotiating many conflicting priorities within an organisation.

Effective communication is critical to ensuring safety. But rather than relying on our hierarchical authority to ensure workers’ safety, WHS managers need to go down the harder but more productive path of influencing people to effect change.

Moving beyond rules

WHS managers sometimes confuse the process of influencing people with controlling them. When we think helping has to be about taking action, solving problems or giving answers, we can be seduced into perceiving rules as helpful, when in fact they may be an impediment.

You might be tempted to set rules and enforce penalties, but this approach can cause workers to view WHS as the ‘fun police’. It also risks shifting the focus from safety and wellbeing to compliance and box-ticking. Sometimes the best way to help is to do less and listen more.

Introducing the art of humble enquiry

The term ‘humble enquiry’ was coined by Edgar H. Schein in his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking. Schein suggests that listening, understanding and communicating is a more effective way to involve people in ideas than telling and instructing. So how might one go about using humble enquiry in risk and safety?

Let’s consider one way WHS managers commonly approach safety issues and how humble enquiry can make them more effective.

A WHS manager might introduce themselves to new employees by saying, “I’m your safety advisor and it’s my job to help you go home to your family in the same condition you came in.”

Perceiving a risk, they might address the relevant staff member by saying, “Hey, mate. Doing it that way is really unsafe. You could be injured and I care about you, so let me help you by showing you how to do things safely.”

Helping others perceive risk

You might read this and think “well done” to those in risk and safety who go about their work in this way. You might also ask, “What’s wrong with that? That’s the job. We are here to help and we should be doing these things.”

If we are to use the art of humble enquiry in risk and safety, we should focus on helping others understand for themselves the risks associated with what they are doing. If you were to humbly enquire in risk and safety, you would use questions such as:

  • “What do you have ahead of you today?” This question causes the person to stop for a moment and think ahead about what they may need to plan for.
  • “What things do you think could go wrong?” This prompts the person to think for themselves about the dangers of the work they are doing.
  • If the answer to the second question is “nothing”, you could then entertain doubt by asking,“Let’s imagine for a minute something could go wrong – what might it be?” This encourages the person to slip out of complacency and instead think creatively about what risks might be associated with their job that day.

The art of humble enquiry involves understanding how people make decisions and helping them discern risks for themselves, rather than telling them how things should be done.

Used wisely, it allows us to drop our own agenda and ideas, and encourage others to better discern risks on their own. This in turn can lead to better ownership and personal accountability for safety by the people doing the work.

If you’d like to learn more, you may enjoy this short video made by two of my associates explaining the basics of humble enquiry. Why not give humble enquiry a go? You may just be doing the best thing you can to help others be safe at work.


Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below