What makes for effective communication

 In Blog

By Cat Harrison

Communication feels like it should be instinctive – something we all just know how to do. But even a cursory look at any investigation report, the feedback often heard from those who know what challenges lie in the way of safer working, and the pervasive problem with incivility and bullying shows that it often goes awry and there is scope for all of us to improve. So in that spirit, here is some guidance from us at Sign up to Safety…


What do we mean by communication?

It is so much more than exchanging information, the passing of data back and forth. It’s about creating an environment between people that allows for openness, transparency, trust. One that helps the person on the receiving end be able to listen, by not creating a distracting sense of dismissal, stress or fear (or boredom!).

With many a conversation in the workplace too, especially a hierarchical one like healthcare, we can run the risk of just saying what we think someone wants to hear. This can create a loop where we only hear affirmation for our existing thoughts and opinions, losing the opportunity to build on what we know or challenge the status quo.

But to work more safely we need to get a closer appreciation for and understanding of work as it really happens, not how we imagine it to be. To achieve this, we need to be able to speak about what we know and experience and for this to be heard.

So, to be effective at communicating in a world where we want to work as safely as possible, we need to look at communication in its entirety.

What needs to be considered is what is said, when, where and by who, your body language, and also whether it is understood and likely to be heard.


What skills do you need?

Active listening; harder than it sounds when times are busy and stress is in the air. You can find more help on our website but here are some tips;

  • Focus on the speaker
  • Try not to interrupt until they have finished speaking
  • Try to suspend judgement and simply be curious about why they think what they think or are saying what they are saying
  • Ask open questions that help them to expand on what they are saying and build your understanding
  • Explain what you feel and think about what you are hearing in a measured, professional way

Non-verbal communication; we say an awful lot through our body language and we are all primed to read what this tells us consciously or subconsciously;

  • Try to be aware of your own body language, what’s it saying?
  • Consider whether it matches your words, are you being sincere?
  • Avoid the classic negative body language in response to others; like crossing your arms, turning away from someone while they are speaking, looking beyond them or over their head, grimacing.

Managing stress in the moment; keeping a cool head is easier said than done in many of the situations you may find yourselves in but there are some things you can try;

  • Take a deep breath, simple but it gives you a moment to take stock about what to say or to consider if this is the best time for a conversation
  • Keep the focus on the task at hand if you can. What has happened before and what you think may happen next can often be a distraction that ups the ante
  • This isn’t about being super human though, so if you don’t manage it and act in a way you wish you hadn’t, simply be open about that, raise it when you can and apologise.

Asserting yourself while remaining professional; this isn’t about being loud or aggressive but about getting your point across in a way that is likely to be heard and understood;

  • A calm and considered tone of voice, along with civility goes a long way to getting you where you want to be
  • Consider when it’s best to put your point across, it isn’t always in the moment as some people may find it easier without an audience or after time to think, and that’s ok.


What else should we consider?


  • Using simple language that everyone can understand. Paying attention to being inclusive, with no jargon and no language that excludes people either in a literal sense by being difficult to understand, or by being off-putting or exclusive in its tone or temperament.


  • Considering if the person you’re speaking to is in a position to hear what you’re saying. How stressed are they, what has their day been like, what else is going on for them? Paying attention to the tone you use, when you choose to speak, where you choose to hold the conversation, and how you go about it all plays a part in whether you can communicate effectively.


  • The greatest gift we can give each other in an incredibly busy system is time to think and reflect. This gives us the chance to notice what we are experiencing and so share information that helps people to gain a better grasp of what work is really like.
  • And what would make it easiest for the person you’re speaking to to hear what you have to say, and be comfortable voicing their thoughts in return – this differs from person to person and can be affected by gender, place in the hierarchy, cultural norms. If you find it easy to speak it isn’t a given that others do too.

But effective conversation is at least two way, not one way.  So here are some tips on how we can all play a part.

What you can do…

  • Make it clear that your intention is to have good conversations that help people to work safely and that you’re open to hearing from others – this is especially important when you’re in a leadership position.
  • Take responsibility for how you talk to others, and what sort of behaviour you role model.
  • Consider that others may have different needs to you and make room for those.
  • When things don’t go to plan, which is always possible even with the best intentions, take responsibility for that and apologise if you feel it’s needed.

What you can ask of others…

  • It’s ok to express what helps you have a good conversation. For some that means letting others know that they don’t like speaking in a crowd, for others it’s being self aware that you can silence others without meaning to.

What you can do together…

  • Be kind to each other. We all react badly at times, and we all have moments when we respond or communicate in ways that are far from ideal. Try if you can to give each other the benefit of the doubt. But be mindful that this is very different to tolerating sustained negative, uncivil and bullying behaviour. This should be called out wherever possible if we are to shift the current tide.



“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

About the author;

Cat Harrison is the communications and engagement director for the Sign up to Safety team, and has advised numerous FTSE100 companies as well as national charities and health-related organisations. Her expertise lies in the development of impactful campaigns, the role of language and behaviour in working safely, and how this links with just culture and staff wellbeing. You can tweet her @catharrison4 and read more about the team here.

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