How can NLP help to create a positive and engaging Safety Culture?


Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has many different facets that can aide in the implementation of a successful Behavioural Safety or Cultural Safety® Initiative.

Let’s start with the main principles of the theory, known as the “Pillars of NLP” which are :

  • Know your outcome: Start with the end in mind, know what you want to achieve.
  • Commitment: Commit to take some action.
  • Take action: Put your plans in to action, “walk the talk”.
  • Have sensory acuity: Be aware of what is happening/ relevant, be mindful.
  • Have behavioural flexibility: If what you are doing is not working, try something else, because “if you keep doing what you are doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting”.

The above are all critical to the success of any initiative. The absence of any single one significantly diminishes the probability of success.

Then there are the many individual “tools” within NLP that can help, Examples in three areas are:

  1. Physical/Artefacts
    1. The Conscious and Unconscious mind – We can only hold 7 (+/- 2) pieces of information in our conscious minds at any one time. So a toolbox talk should be organised in such a way that the important information it contains is delivered in small memorable “chunks” that people will remember.
    2. Anchors – We know that habits save us time, effort and energy, which is a major part of our nature,  but getting in to a new habit (eg holding the handrail) takes time, effort and energy. In order to train ourselves in to this new behaviour we may need a reminder (anchor), eg tying a ribbon around the banister so that when seen it will “trigger” the behaviour of holding the handrail.
  2. Visual/Behavioural
    1. Modelling – If we see someone who has charisma, or is passionate about their subject, then we can model that behaviour, bring that aspect in to our presentations, and in turn lead to us being more charismatic/ passionate. It is not about mimicking, but about introducing influential characteristics in to our armoury. Then if we are trying to get the Behavioural Safety message across it is more likely to be heard if we do this with charisma/ passion. Also we can look to role model “safe” behaviours such as wearing PPE, challenging unsafe behaviours, praising safe behaviour etc.
    2. Tell/ Show/ Do – We remember very little of what we are told, so to make the safety message more powerful/ memorable we should do a mixture of telling people, showing them and getting them involved in doing. This final part involves giving ownership, another aspect that will make any initiative much more likely to succeed.
    3. Matching & Mirroring/ Pacing & Leading – In a safety conversation, the two people may not be on the same “wavelength”, not seeing eye to eye. If the person who instigated the conversation learns through sensory acuity, to pay attention to the other persons Non-Verbal Behaviour and Body Language as well as what they are saying, they can “match” this and then  “pace and lead” the person to a position where an effective conversation is more likely.
  3. Language Constructs
    1. Metaphors/ Stories – The power of metaphors and stories cannot be overstated.  They are a way of communicating our values, passing on wisdom, helping people to view choices and make decisions.  They help us to develop rapport, which is about being on the same wavelength, to quote the example above.  We all love to tell and hear stories, when they are done “metaphorically” they can become much more powerful and memorable.  For example to say “he was very sad” hasn’t nearly the power of “he was drowning in a sea of grief”.
    2. Filters – Understanding how people filter information unconsciously can help us to understand what they really mean/ what has really happened.  For example when someone generalises by stating “I’ve done it this way for years and never been hurt”,  they are using a “universal quantifier” filter to suggest that it won’t happen to them. Simply by asking the question “Yes, but what if  ….?”  Can help them to see that the risk may not be as uncertain or delayed as they initially thought.
  4. Beliefs
    1. Limiting Beliefs/ New Behaviour Generation – The hardest part of the four parts of a Culture (Artefacts, Language, Rituals, Beliefs) to influence and change are the Beliefs.  They are formed at a young age and become somewhat “fixed” as we grow older. When trying to influence people to have Behavioural Flexibility, e.g. to move from  a position where they believe “I  can’t do that”, it would do well to remind them of Henry Ford’s quote – “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, either way you are probably right”. As part of a holistic approach to Cultural Safety™ NLP can help in many ways to influence negative beliefs that people may have as to whether they can/ can’t do something e.g. Challenging someone, be it a peer or senior, who is behaving unsafely.

By Quentin Emery

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