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Don’t underestimate the importance of communication

Non-verbal cues can speak volumes

By Christian Fournier

Communication has become an important factor to master as an effective safety professional. We communicate with individuals, small or large groups depending on the function at hand. It can occur with fellow co-workers, contractors, clients, students, lead hands, front-line supervisors, department managers, general managers, vice presidents, CEOs and board members. Often overlooked and misunderstood as an essential component, employees, supervisors and managers regularly don’t understand its importance. It is not only what we intend to communicate; it is which method we choose to make that communication.

So, what is communication? Actually, it is quite simple. It is conveying a message. Therefore, as professionals, we must always keep in mind what is the message we want to portray. Communication can come in all kinds of forms: verbal communication; non-verbal; written; actions; and inactions.

Verbal communication is the one most people understand as communication, but they don’t realize how we say those words has a profound meaning as well. Knowing your audience is a vital part of your communication. You have to consider your recipient’s education, age (generation), industry, geography, state of mind, language (mother tongue or second language), ethnic origin, background, etc. It’s not only choosing the right words in your message but also the emotion that you put behind them. In my experience, if you can be genuine in delivering your message, you will have greater success. But if you are sarcastic or talk over your message recipients, your message will not only fail to reach the folks you’re trying to communicate with but you will end up upsetting them and negatively affecting future communication attempts.

Non-verbal communication is basically speaking without words by indicating what message your body portrays. Body posture is fundamental in proving good non-verbal communication. The way you provide eye contact, folding arms, rubbing your face, touching your hair, leaning against a wall, standing straight, sitting on a corner of a desk, sitting on a chair, standing to close or too far from the message recipients and your overall approach are just a few examples. Being nervous, tired, impatient, frustrated, intimidated, happy, empathic or optimistic are just a few of the emotions that can also affect the approach of your message.

Written communication is not as easy as you think when it comes to depicting your message. Again, we are not just talking about the words themselves but the grammar, composition, etiquette and tone of the message itself. Is it an email, a memo, a presentation, a proposal, a text message that you are writing? It also makes a big different. Who is your message recipient? Again, it could go from your spouse to the president of the company. How many times you have written an email without really checking it over and then you realized that it didn’t sound like what you meant to say? It happens more often than you think. That’s why you just always double check an email before sending or even saving it as a draft and waiting to read it the next day, especially if it is an important email or you are getting emotional when writing it. Once it’s sent, you can’t take it back.

Most supervisors, managers and senior managers comprehend verbal, non-verbal and written communications and their affects in communicating. One of the bigger challenges I had throughout my career is to convince supervisors, managers and senior managers of the message they send to their staff their actions or inactions.

Action refers to the message you are sending by your actions. For example, if I go through the mill wearing all my personal protective equipment (PPE) that I am required to wear, I’m communicating that wearing your PPE is important. Another example is a manager who only gives a verbal discipline one week after an incident where an employee swung a piece of wood in front of a supervisor in the attempt to intimidate him or her. This is conveying to the rest of the employees that there are minor consequences if they try to intimidate supervisors.  

Inaction is basically the same, but it is the message you are sending by your inactions. For instance, a manager chooses not to participate to a safety meeting or ignores a safety procedure. What type of message is that sending to the employees? Safety meetings are not significant and safety procedures can be ignored. As you can see, your actions and inactions do indeed serve as a form of communication for your staff, fellow co-workers, contractors and everyone else that works or visits your organization.

Remember that in all communications, knowing your audience and what message you want to convey to them are the two decisive components in any effective communication.

Christian Fournier

Christian Fournier, works for Mount Allison University as HR consultant – occupational health and safety as well as a first responder instructor trainer for Saint John Ambulance. He is a member of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE) and serves on the board of directors of the New Brunswick chapter. In 2018, he was awarded the Outstanding Service to the Safety Profession for the New Brunswick chapter of CSSE.
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