Gabrielle Carlton - Resilyence Risk Leadership Programs

What is Critical Listening when Dealing with Risk?


I was walking on a worksite the other day and engaged in a conversation with a worker. I asked how he was going. He explained that he was extremely busy, needed to get something done quite urgently and his co-worker was off sick. This raised some concern for me so I asked how he was managing things and his response was ‘just get it done’. This conversation took only a minute and a half and I already knew he was at risk. All because I took a moment to ‘critically listen’!

Has the art of listening been lost over the years? Treasure (2013) believes this to be the case.  He states in his TED© talk ( that listening is ‘making meaning from sound…a process of extraction’. Treasure explains that humans have filters that funnel what we focus on and listen to. Most of us are unconscious of what these filters are.

A process of extraction indicates to me that it’s a conscious action, a level of awareness. Maybe one of the reasons the art of listening has been lost over the years is because we are not often conscious of our own filters or what to listen to! Do we no longer extract or maybe we have never really been taught?

Why has this occurred? Schein (2013, p. 10) states that our culture is ‘biased towards telling’ rather than listening or asking, for fear of people knowing that we don’t know! Also, because we believe everything is there to be solved so we try to ‘fix’ rather than communicate and understanding people. If we are busy ‘telling’ how can we ‘extract’? There is no room for listening. In the Risk and Safety Industry we are well acquainted with the art of ‘telling’? With the many; ‘have to’, ‘must’, ‘shall’ and ‘should’ all in the name of the law!

Why does this matter? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do in this industry? Just ‘tell’ them how to comply? ‘Tell’ them to ‘keep safe’?

How does one ‘keep safe’? How indeed?

How do we know how a person discerns risk? How do we really know how a person makes sense of their work environment? The only way we can do this is through the act of ‘critical listening’.

What is ‘critical listening’? It is the art of knowing what to focus on. When engaging in a safety conversation with a worker it’s not about telling them it’s about listening to what’s been said. The critical factor is what to listen for. What ‘filters’ need to be used in order to ‘focus’ on specific signs. It’s about information and exformation, what has been said and what has not been said. Let’s go back to my initial conversation with the worker. I was actively listening which involved ‘focusing’ on specific signs that tell me that he was stressed, under the pump, under resourced and with no ability to change the situation. This person was at risk and it had nothing to do with the tools and equipment that he was using. It was the psychological and cultural hazards that I was focusing on not the physical hazards.

These types of hazards can further impact or lead to significant incidents or even be an indication of an embedded toxic culture. Let’s take for example the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill incident. A report by the Oil Spill Commission ( stated that there had been “a rush to completion” and management complacency, amongst other failings, that lead to the disaster. The Commission also stated that the companies involved lacked a safety culture.

All psychological and cultural hazards that lead to such a significant event! We only have to go as far as Weick, Plous, Reason, Slovic, Long and the like to understand psychology and culture of risk are the major causes of many incidents in risk.

So when we ‘critically listen’ we can pick up on these red flags such as rushing and complacency. It’s about building our ‘muscle’ around this skill.

Newberg & Waldman (2012) identify the skill of listening is actively and knowingly shutting out external and internal ‘chattering’ in order to have a greater ability to ‘intuit’ what is being communicated. In other words we must learn and know what ‘filters’ we are using in order to ‘focus’ on the right things.

The first step in ‘critical listening’ is actually just asking a question and then being mindful of our external and internal ‘chattering’, shutting it off and listen to what’s been said. A critical listener is not one who ‘tells’ or who goes in with an agenda or puts their own ego first. It takes a lot of practice to be a critical listener but when we are being actively mindful we can see so much more than just a piece of plant or a trip hazard. We can actually get to know a person and get to know how they see their work environment and more importantly uncover risks that are not physically obvious yet which have the potential to cause greater risk.

Here are some key strategies to assist with building your ‘critical listening’ muscle:

  • Leave your agenda behind
  • Be mindful of what you are focusing on
  • Listen for ‘red flags’ such as rushing, overconfidence, assumptions
  • Be mindful of our external and internal ‘chattering’
  • Shutting of your own internal thoughts
  • Listen to what’s been said and to what’s not been said
  • Allow space to listen don’t just ‘talk at’ or ‘tell’, and
  • When you butt in you’re making it about yourself!
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