EHS professionals must have effective communication skills to weather a variety of storms that come their way. They are charged with making sure their company complies with all safety and environmental laws at local, state and federal levels, so they must work with regulatory inspectors and agents. Sometimes they have to explain complex issues to their own management and convince them to be proactive. At other times, they can be tasked with building bridges between their company and community stakeholders who have concerns and questions. One misstep can be costly for their companies, and worse yet, even criminal. These responsibilities require superior communication skills that are accurate and empathetic.
One misstep can be costly for their companies,
and worse yet, even criminal. These
responsibilities require superior
communication skills that are accurate and
Those who invest in communication skills bring added value to their companies. There is an EHS manager in Louisiana who became such an excellent communicator that the site’s public relations team gladly put him out front at community meetings, media interviews, regulatory hearings, activist protests and a host of other venues. They trusted him because he could connect with people and successfully deliver his messages. To gain that type of trust, the following are some skills EHS professionals should use as they interact with key stakeholders:
- Align – When people are upset or have a different point of view, they cannot hear your message unless you first acknowledge their subconscious filters, like values and criteria. In recent years an EHS manager was front and center at a community meeting where activists were stoking the emotions. He opened by aligning with the values most important to the community and you could sense the entire mood shift across the room as people relaxed. By doing this he gained rapport with the audience and made it easier for them to hear his messages.
- Use storytelling elements – Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of sharing information and it remains one of the most effective ways to communicate. Visual language is an element of storytelling that makes boring data come alive. For example, an EHS manager wanted to communicate how serious his group was about detecting leaks. So, at a community meeting, he held up a Sharpie and said, “We look for leaks as small as 500 parts per million.” Then he took the cap off the Sharpie, revealing the Sharpie releases over a 1000 parts per million when the cap is removed. He concluded by saying, “We detect leaks smaller than those released by this Sharpie.” This type of illustration makes things simple enough for a fifth grader — and memorable!
- Be mindful of nonverbal cues – Nonverbal communication accounts for a whopping eight-eight percent of how others perceive you and your message. Breathing is the number one non-verbal cue that makes the other person feel tense or at ease with you. Therefore, be aware of your breathing patterns and be as relaxed as possible.
- Diffuse negatives – This is especially important with regulatory representatives. They often have a very different point of view and tend to state their complaints in the negative. You risk breaking rapport and getting into a boxing match if you go straight to your answer or data every time an accusation is made. Instead, use alignment strategies to manage the pace and direction of these conversations. You should actively listen and align with their criteria before going to your data or answers.
- Believe what you say – Beware of “corporate speak”. If you sound like a pre-programmed robot, you will not be credible or likable, so believe in the messages you deliver. Most people can tell by your nonverbal cues if you really believe what you are saying. When you truly believe in safety, protecting the environment and addressing stakeholder concerns, you are on the road to being credible and likable.
- Be conversational – Being too scripted makes you come across as stiff, uncomfortable and less than genuine. Use bulleted notes as guidelines when talking with community members, regulatory representatives, the news media or others. Use the notes to stay on message, but avoid reading.
- Use visuals – Studies reveal people remember more of what you say when you combine your words with visuals. Therefore, use visuals whenever possible to make your case with stakeholders. If you are going to explain a complex issue, use infographics, drawings, photos, PowerPoint and props to help simplify things so anyone can understand.
Today, accurate and empathetic communication skills are vital for influencing stakeholders. For example, studies show that doctors with good communication and rapport skills are less likely to be sued, and the same can protect EHS representatives and their companies. Effective communication skills and strategies are a valuable investment to help EHS professionals weather any storm.