September 2014

As chief elected officer of the Society, ASSE's president promotes the advancement of the Society and the safety profession, and represents ASSE before members, other relevant professional societies and various governmental agencies. Professional Safety shares his latest thoughts on the Society, the profession and its practice.

Read past messages in the President's Message Archive.

President's Message - April 2009

Truly effective communication involves more than just expressing yourself clearly. It also requires effective listening. Both will make you a better communicator and a stronger leader.

2008-2009 ASSE President Warren Brown, CSP, ARM

Listen Up

Lee Froschheiser, president and CEO of Map Consulting, has been helping managers become successful leaders for nearly 30 years. When asked about the keys to success in business, Froschheiser and his colleagues point to six basic functions: leading, communicating, planning, organizing, staffing and controlling. But, they say, one golden thread ties all of those together: clear communication. “Ask yourself a simple question,” Froschheiser says. “How do the best leaders motivate and inspire their people? Through clear communication. How do the best organizations promote discipline, accountability and strategic alignment? Through clear communication. And how do market leaders sell their products and services? With clear, compelling ads and marketing campaigns. In sum, by clear communication.” As SH&E professionals, we can all benefit by focusing on communicating more clearly and concisely with our stakeholders.

But truly effective communication involves more than just expressing yourself clearly. It also requires effective listening. As Steven Covey explains in The Seven Habits of Highly Suc­cess­ful People, the function of speaking is to be understood, but the function of listening is to understand. Yet, listening is an often-overlooked element of the communication equation, perhaps because it takes significant effort and skill to do it correctly.

The good news is that you can, through a combination of experience and training, improve your listening skills. Many resources are available to those interested in improving their listening skills. I typed in effective listening on Google and received nearly 8.6 million results. I’d like to share a few suggestions from various resources that I have found most helpful in improving my own listening skills. In Harvard Business Review on Effective Communications, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens suggest that you develop a keen awareness of factors that affect your listening ability, then find ways to take advantage of those factors. They suggest four processes that improve reception of what you are hearing:

  1. Think about where the speaker is going.
  2. Consider whether the supporting evidence supports the words.
  3. Keep summarizing the points being made.
  4. Listen between the lines and be aware of nonverbal communication. Is it supporting the perception of the verbal communication?

Nichols and Stevens caution against jumping to premature conclusions and suggest waiting until the speaker has finished before rendering a final understanding of the message. They also recommend looking for negative evidence that will balance the positive evidence which might be overriding your thought process.

In Listening: The Forgotten Skill, Madelyn Burley-Allen discusses three levels of listening:

  • Level 1: empathetic listening—seeing the message from the speaker’s point of view.
  • Level 2: hearing words but not concentrating on the meaning of what is being said.
  • Level 3: listening in spurts and not being engaged with the speaker at an understanding level.

The goal is to gravitate to Level 1 so that you best understand what is being said.

We spend a good deal of our communication time listening—perhaps up to 40%, says Burley-Allen—yet, on average, people are only about 25% efficient as listeners. She explains that this is because we often assume that listening and hearing are the same—and as a result, we make little effort to learn—or improve—listening skills.

Take the time to evaluate your listening skills, then take action to improve the weaknesses you find. It will make you a better communicator and a stronger leader—and, therefore, a more effective SH&E professional.

Warren K. Brown, CSP, ARM