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All About You: Become a conversation dynamo

Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Quality conversations involve give and take. When we share our thoughts and emotions with others – and listen attentively in turn – the results can be impressive.

It feels good to have a productive conversation. And for safety and health professionals, it’s a vital tool for finding out what’s going on in the field and being able to instruct and coach. Positive conversations can also help create strong bonds between people.

What does it take to be a welcome and effective conversationalist (even if you consider yourself an introvert)? Here’s what I’ve found works.

Genuine interest

This can be tough. It’s like asking someone to “act naturally.” Because you’re acting, the natural part is tricky. With practice, as with any skill, you can mold your intent so you’re not listening just because you feel obligated, but because you’re genuinely interested in the other person’s remarks. John Powell, a famous animated film composer, put it succinctly, “Communication works for those who work at it.”

When you talk, don’t only talk about yourself or your experiences. When someone describes something to me, I ask a question or say something that furthers what they said. After a bit, I may steer the conversation in a different direction (even to something about me), but I make sure they have a chance to expand on what they’ve said.

For example, if you told me how tough your day was at work, I’d ask you, “What happened to make it tough?” Not, “I had a tough day, too.” No matter what the other person tells you, you can always show interest by asking about their comments.

Attentive signals

You can nod your head and say “uh-huh” as a reply to almost anything someone says. We’ve all done it. But if that’s all you do, it doesn’t reassure the speaker that you’re listening.

I demonstrate this during my “Keeping Your Safety Team Alive” seminar, which includes a section on listening during meetings. I bring two attendees to the front of the room, put a goofy-looking mask on one person and tell them to nod the whole time the other person is talking to them and continually say “uh-huh.” The person talking reads a script that includes many personal statements such as “I just won the lottery,” “My dog died today” and “Do you know you look silly with that mask on?” The exercise usually draws a lot of laughs. It also drives home my point.

So, what works better and proves you’re listening? Using facial gestures and verbal cues showing that you understand the general meaning of what the person’s talking about without interrupting them. Say things such as “Wow” and “Ah, good for you,” and vary your facial expressions to match the mood of what’s being discussed.

Measured give and take

How much talking and listening should you do? It varies dramatically depending on why you’re having the conversation. If you’re talking with a group of carpenters who are building a scaffold that’s challenging to complete, you’ll mostly listen after asking questions. However, who knows how much you’ll talk and listen if you socialize with a friend at dinner?

People love to communicate. Social media has reduced in-person conversations in many cultures, yet it still abounds. But to do it well, you must work at it and be ready to give and take. I liken it to playing Ping-Pong. The game would be senseless and tedious if the other person ignored your volleys. So, whether with our family, friends, colleagues or strangers, sharing a conversation can be a dynamic way to improve the quality of your relationships and your influence as a safety and health pro.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps leaders inspire employees to care more about their safety and health so “nobody gets hurt.” He also has a long history of success getting safety leaders to increase their influence and make safety fun. For more than 35 years, Richard’s safety keynotes, training sessions, books and “Safety Stuff” e-zine have made a positive difference in the safety and health field. Learn more about how Richard can improve your employees’ safety performance at

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