Communication Insights for Supervision and Safety

Communication Insights for Supervision and Safety

Communication is key when it comes to success in the workplace.

The supervisor, effectively, serves as the link between management and the workforce by virtue of the fact that they ensure management’s goals and objective are realized though the workforce’s efforts and accomplishments. To perform successfully, the supervisor must be able to effectively communicate with the workforce. Educating supervisors on effective communication skills will enable workforce performance and enhance organizational goal attainment. This to some extent applies to the safety manager as well. Speech and language are foundational to people communicating thoughts, needs, wants, etc. For most people, effective communication means a proficient use of language. Both parties must have a common language and similar understanding for communication to be effective. It is generally better to use familiar words in place of the unfamiliar ones, concrete words in place of the abstract ones, short words in place of long ones and single words in place of several.

Interpersonal Communication

Communication starts with one person (transmitter) having a thought or information which they want to transmit it to another (receiver). The thoughts have to be put into words (encoding) prior to transmission. The receiver then has to decode the message and make sense of it. Encoding as well as decoding are influenced by the cognition, emotions, perception, attitude of each party, their relationship as well as the context and/or situation. To overcome some of these barriers, the transmitter must consider the receiver’s outlook and circumstance to have a successful exchange.

The communication process has many facets. There are a number of elements which influence the selection of words with which to convey the message. How that other person receives the message can be affected by the receiver's perception, emotional state, listening skills, life experience, etc.; therefore, the sender should be attuned to this.

There are also many communication channels which can affect the message. Selecting the appropriate channel for the situation will also impact the quality of the exchange. On a construction site, much of the communication is generally done verbally, and so the environment where the exchange occurs may and more than likely will impact the quality of the exchange.

Nonverbal Communication

People have engaged in nonverbal communication long before they used language. Nonverbal communication primarily occurs below our conscious awareness level. Generally, all messages communicated orally and, to some extent, the ones in writing have a nonverbal component, which can reinforce, complement, interfere or contradict the intended message. We may express something verbally while our facial expressions, tone of voice, or gestures may indicate something different or even the opposite.

Nonverbal communication may communicate beliefs, attitude, or other emotions related to the message, or possibly the speakers state of mind, reflect the relationship between the parties. Therefore, any of the nonverbal cues can play an important role in either facilitating or hindering effective communication, or conversely it can provide valuable information about the thinking of the people involved in the exchange.

The supervisor or safety manager may not appreciate the importance of nonverbal communication, its effect on dealing with people, effectively resolving work-related issues, and, more importantly enhancing understanding. This could render these people less than optimally effective, and impacting the effectiveness of the workforce, the efficiency of operations, and profitability of the organization. Research has shown that about seven percent of information is communicated by words, 38 percent by vocal tone, and 55 percent by  body language.

The differences in values, beliefs and personalities between supervision and the workforce will affect the way each person hears, interprets and reacts to the same information. Therefore, being aware of this and taking it into consideration will greatly improve the exchange. Another important factor the supervisor should be looking for is nonverbal reaction or feedback from the workforce, which will allow for adjusting so that the message is received as intended and understood by the receiver.

It is important to note that, in positive interactions, less attention is paid to the tone of voice or nonverbal component of the interaction as on what is being said and how the message makes us feel. When the exchange is negative, emotionally charged or confrontational, the focus gravitates to the nonverbal part of the interaction and tone of voice taking on a significant role in how we react to the message.

The Effect of Nonverbal Cues on Communication

Facial expressions play a significant role in communication, as they convey the emotional state of an individual to an observer. The eyes especially are viewed as important features of facial expressions. Such things as blinking rate can be used to assess whether or not a person is nervous or may be lying. Eye contact is considered an important aspect of interpersonal communication. These beliefs may differ in different cultures.

Posture also plays a role in nonverbal communication. Certain postures such as crossed legs or folded arms may signal defensiveness, while an open posture may portray friendliness. Leaning toward a speaker signals interest in what is being said. Mirroring (copying the other person's posture) helps to subtly develop a connection with another person. Paying attention to posture will improve communication.

Gestures such as hand, head or body movement can express or emphasize an idea or emotion. Research has found that when gestures and words are aligned, the message is more effective, but when they are not aligned, they tend to confuse the listener and detract from the message. Gestures also heighten the interest of the listeners and add value to communication.

Tone of Voice’s Effect on Communication

Tone pertains to pitch, volume, pace and emphasis used in delivering a message. Pitch of voice (intensity, degree of high and low) and its timing also play a role in the quality of the communication. When tone is varied, life and energy are injected into the message. Tone of voice conveys emotions like excitement, enthusiasm and humor. Our tone conveys our attitude, whether we send a message of humor, anger, sarcasm, jealousy or sincerity.

Research indicates that people make instinctive judgment of others based upon the tone of voice used. People instinctively respond positively or negatively to tone of voice. Tone might actually be more important than what is literally being said. The same sentence can have different meaning depending on which word is emphasized and the tone of voice used. A common complaint about upsetting messages is that, though the delivered message may not seem offensive, the tone of voice used in the statement was hurtful and impacted the result. Also, any statement that may seem neutral on paper can become very offensive if spoken with a sarcastic or demeaning tone of voice.

Speaking slower has a number of positive effects on communication. It is important to slow down when giving advice, coaching or providing constructive criticism. The implication also is that you are weighing the evidence and considering your message. So, the person who pauses and speaks at a slower pace tends to be perceived as more intelligent, thoughtful and deliberate. His or her message carries more weight and tends to garner greater acceptance.

Effective Verbal Communication Strategies

  • Create an open work environment to foster good working relationships. Exhibit undivided attention to the people with whom you are conversing. Avoid trying to communicate in busy and noisy places.
  • Focus on the issue, not people. Avoid taking things personally. Try to resolve issues amicably. Express needs and/or opinions in terms of the work at hand. Constructive criticism should be directed at the work and not the worker's personality.
  • How one feels toward people will easily manifest itself in one's demeanor and will readily be picked up by them. When dealing with people, it is important to demonstrate sensitivity.
  • Demonstrate flexibility when dealing with others. Respond in ways that acknowledge their knowledge and experience. Treat people fairly and with respect. Thank them for their input.
  • Good listening skills and showing a genuine interest are attributes of a successful communicator. Actively listening to people creates an atmosphere of trust and respect, enhancing communication.
  • Be concise, use clear language, listen for feedback and pay attention to body language and tone of voice.


We become better communicators when we devise messages that elicit the response we expect or desire from recipients. To accomplish this effectively, we need to thoroughly understand the communication process and its inherent barriers. If we do not elicit the anticipated response, we need to be able to modify the message to facilitate its understanding. We also need to be able to recognize the effect our messages can have on the recipient and how to structure them so the effect is as positive as possible. To communicate effectively, we also need to actively seek out feedback as well as build relationships so as to enhance the overall communication process.

Communication skills are critical in everything we do. How well we communicate and how effective our communication determines, to a great extent, how successful we are in our professional or personal lives. The ability to convey knowledge is power. What we think or know only becomes powerful if we can pass it along to others so that they may use it to better their circumstances or those of their organization.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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