How you say something matters as much as what you say

 In Blog

By Cat Harrison

How would you react if you heard over a loud speaker while you were working… ‘what you’re doing is wrong! I don’t care that that’s the way you’ve been told is right for years. Why are you doing THAT? This is what you need to do. You see, I know better.”


I wouldn’t like it. I imagine you wouldn’t either. But that – metaphorically speaking – is what has been known to happen when trying to change people’s behaviour to encourage a safer way of doing things.

New procedures and processes, toolkits and alerts; all with critical and essential information, but sometimes communicated in a way that is, well, off-putting.

I have worked on NHS projects for well over a decade now but mostly from outside the ‘system’ itself; in PR agencies and charities, and since 2014 as part of the Sign up to Safety Team.

I admit, as a relative stranger to the approaches used in this NHS world, perhaps I am missing something, but on occasion I find myself grimacing at the tone or approach used to connect with those who need to work differently to be as safe as possible.

To me, at the beginning of any project or programme, one of the first things that I always consider is the tone of the language that will be used and how that supports the spirit of why this is happening and who it is for.

This to me is the basis on which everything else is built; what you say and how you say it can make the difference between being listened to, understood and embraced…or being studiously nodded at, yet really, in real life day to day, misunderstood and even resented.

Yet this is sometimes forgotten about. It feels sometimes that those on the receiving end are just that, receivers, and not people, experts, who care deeply and have more knowledge on what it takes to work safely day to day than I can shake a stick at.

For us at Sign up to Safety, how you talk to each other is crucial to building a Safety Culture – whether you speak to someone with kindness and respect or not makes a difference to whether you truly connect and build the relationships that are vital to working safely; where people can speak out and are listened to when they do. And this relates not just to personal interaction but ‘campaign’ or organisation wide materials, emails, newsletters etc.

So we considered the tone we use very carefully, right back towards the start of the campaign. We wanted to talk from the perspective of our members, to listen to, understand and respect their experience. We knew we wanted to be different, to be positive, to be caring and to be genuine, and to be there for them, the experts on the ground, supporting their aspirations in partnership; not doing to them but with them.

We talked about it for hours. It wasn’t something we rattled together but was born from our collective experience in previous patient safety campaigns, like Patient Safety First, and our response to what we were hearing from those we needed to communicate with, as well as the knowledge we brought to the table from other industries. And we simply are what we say we are; there’s no spin.

This has helped inform everything we have said, where we’ve said it, how we’ve said it, the materials we’ve created, the activity we’ve put our small budget towards, and our relationship with all the amazing organisations and practices that we are thrilled to be able to call our members.

We’ve tried to use language that connects on a level, to communicate that we are peers, not masters, which has been essential in bringing to life the locally owned and self-directed ethos of the campaign.

Putting our money (or rather time) where our mouth is, to make sure that we foster a two-way conversation as much as possible, has allowed us to listen and learn along the way, which in turn has allowed us to adapt and respond to what our members tell us they are experiencing. It’s even led to eureka moments and innovations like the Kitchen Table.

It’s a constantly evolving process, and we are still learning. But what has made the hard work worth it has been people telling us that our very different approach has helped them, it brings them joy and that they appreciate it. And so, there you go, it comes back round again, and I feel as I hope they do; that it is wonderful to be listened to and understood.

Things to take away:

  1. If you want to connect with people, to be listened to and to successfully engage them actively in your safety work, think carefully about the tone you use when you communicate with them. Is it inclusive, encouraging, open? Does it convey that you are leading by example for the culture you want to see?
  2. People understand and appreciate the human approach; it’s ok to speak to people on a level and with honesty, whatever role they play in working safely. If you treat people with kindness and respect, it is far more likely to be received well and acted upon.
  3. Be authentic, and listen to those you engage with – ask them what they actually want in their work; what drives them, what gets in the way of working safely, what helps them work safely, what do they hope for – and show you understand them in what you say. Kitchen Tables are a really good way to connect with others like this (click here to find out more).

About the author;

Cat Harrison is the communications and engagement lead 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 importance of language and tone in connecting with people, and engagement approaches that motivate and excite people to take action to make care safer. She tweets @catharrison4

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