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Safety auditing differently with humble inquiry

Screen Shot 2021-10-05 at 3.23.11 pmHave you ever been involved in a safety investigation where you felt like you were being interrogated?

You felt like you've done something wrong, and the intention was more to find out how you should be punished than how your organisation could learn

Sadly many of us have either had that or heard about others that have had that particular experience, yet the fact is that such an approach does very little to improve safety.  

Even when reckless or negligent behaviours are involved, there will always be something we can do to improve. In most societies, particularly in the Western world, we value telling over listening. This is important for safety because we often spend more time saying how things should be done, rather than trying to find out why they were done in a certain way. Other times we may begin with good intentions by asking questions, but the language we use takes us off track and starts to become leading or accusatory. You may even begin to apply judgment to what's being said. Now the person we are talking to will likely pick up on these signs and close up.

We are limiting the amount of helpful information that you can get from the situation.

To deal with this problem, we use humble inquiry.

Humble inquiry is a process of asking neutral, non-judgmental questions and engaging in something called active listening. We will examine both of these core skills in a moment.

Humble inquiry is the basis for building trusting relationships, resulting in better communication, creating collaboration when needed, and helping to get the job done successfully. At times, telling or imposing our views on others can subtly or even directly put the other person down. It implies that the other person doesn't know better and should or ought to know what we're saying. Asking an excellent question and listening intently creates an exciting dynamic. It empowers the other person because it implies that they know something that I don't. It makes me vulnerable, and I will depend upon the other person.

What we know from science is that being vulnerable and engaging in respectful communication builds trust. So applying a humble inquiry approach creates trust in your organisation.

The key point about using humble inquiry is about being neutral and as non-judgmental as possible. 

A typical question we might ask could include: 

  • Why are you doing that? Implying that they are doing it wrong and the work should be stopped. 
  • What's the reason for violating that procedure? Implying that there must be a damn good reason and incriminating the person from the start by using the word violate. 

A pure humble inquiry question is something much more neutral and curious like the following: 

  • Help me understand what you're doing today? 
  • Give me an example?
  • What are you working on now? 
  • What happened? 

A diagnostic humble inquiry question tries to understand the reasoning within someone's head and can cover some of the following types of questions. 


How did you feel when that happened? 


Why do you think that actually happened? 


What will you do next? 

A confrontational humble inquiry question tries to check your understanding of the situation or explore an idea further. So it's starting to get into that kind of leading territory, where you've got an agenda, and you want to flesh something out. 

Examples might include: 

  • Did you feel distracted at the time? 
  • Did that make you feel angry? 
  • Was the procedure not quite fit for the task? 

Finally, a process inquiry question should be used periodically to check if the inquiry or conversation is going in the right way for that person. Checking in like this helps things keep on track and gives you feedback as a person leading that particular discussion. 

For example: 

  • How do you feel about this conversation? 
  • How are we tracking here? 
  • Have we gone too far? 

Another critical part to get right during humble inquiry is active listening. Active listening is using our ears to engage in conversation without actually saying much at all. 

There are three components to active listening: mirror, validate and empathise. 

Mirror has two components; the first is about using our nonverbal body language, maintaining eye contact, sitting square on or facing square onto an individual, not folding our arms, keeping a neutral posture, those types of things. 

You are also using paraphrasing to let the other person know that you're paying attention. Paraphrasing is just repeating back, saying things like: "you know it sounds like you're talking about the humble inquiry here", "I noticed you went through three different aspects of humble inquiry", this validating is about saying you understand without agreeing. It might also be something like "I understand where you're coming from", "I see what you mean". 

Lastly, empathy is about stepping into the other person's shoes. You might say things like, "I can appreciate what it must feel like to be in that situation", "if I were in that situation, I'd probably feel a little bit the same as you do now". 

Next time you're engaging with your workforce, try using humble inquiry. You might find some fantastic results where the information starts to pour out.

Importantly you need to process such information and ensure you act on anything needing to be dealt with. This also builds trust by demonstrating your integrity and ability to follow through on issues raised or concerns or ideas that people have put forward.

Also, be alert when people may over disclose with you; if this happens, let the other person know respectfully. For example, "do you think we've gone too far with this conversation?" and offer support and advice on the next steps. For example, "can we go and chat to someone else who can offer you some support on this particular matter"?

Topics: Reviews, Audits and Inspections, Organisational Resilience, Safety Differently