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Three Ways to Create a Sense of Safety in Workshops and Meetings

Three Ways to Create a Sense of Safety in Workshops and Meetings

by Paul Z Jackson.

We’ve been thinking about how to make events – whether online or face-to-face – as engaging as possible. One top method is ensuring that participants feel safe to contribute. And that means sending a series of invitations, during your session, that your participants perceive will lead to enjoyable and useful interactions.
Let’s explore this in more detail…

How to create a sense of safety

Too many events fail to reach their full potential. Participants don’t join in as much as needed. And when they are contributing, it feels half-hearted, as if they are hiding.
It’s equally frustrating for the facilitator and the participants. From a participant perspective the problem is often that it does not feel like a safe space.
Putting themselves forward feels risky and exposing. And if nothing is done to address the atmosphere, they may wonder whether this event is really for people like them.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could create a sense of safety in every meeting or workshop, so that we could enjoy the fully committed participation of everyone present?
Fortunately, there’s a lot of useful, published information about how to create safety, stretching back at least as far as Amy Edmondson’s writings on ‘psychological safety’ in work teams from 1999.
I imagine it’s always been within the facilitator’s compass to provide safety, and now after a couple of decades, participants are increasingly aware that they can demand and expect it.
Physical safety is important too of course, but let’s assume that’s taken care of, and focus on the psychological side, which is not automatically there as a default.
In meetings and conferences, whether face-to-face or virtual, people may be understandably cautious to put themselves forward. Perhaps they’ve endured poor experiences in the past, and you have yet to offer any particular reason why they should trust you now.
The onus is on the facilitator to create the safe space. Participants will not offer their most honest and useful contributions until they are assured that there’s little prospect that they will be: embarrassed or exposed; left isolated and hung out to dry for expressing an opinion; picked upon or ridiculed by anyone present; not listened to – as if their contribution actually didn’t matter.
There’s no single answer to creating safe space. Building trust is a complex process, with different participants responding to different assurances.

Three steps you can take to make a difference

1. Address expectations about what sort of event this is going to be…
Make it clear early on whether you’re setting an environment in which everyone present is invited to make a contribution to shared learning, or if the protocol is to listen quietly to the wisdom of scheduled experts.

2. Clarify the rules and stick to them…
You might have time to invite your group to participate in creating ground rules. Ask them, ‘What will be good ways for us to interact with each other, while we’re here?’
It’s not always enough merely to state the rules. One neat idea is to make the rules visible, for example by posting them on a wall if physically present together, or by sharing a whiteboard or Google document if gathered virtually.
We then make safety real by also enforcing them. When an agreed rule is broken, it feels as if the psychological contract is being broken. And so it’s important to repair the damage by gentle enforcement, if necessary, to show that the rules are meaningful.

3. Allow for choice – including permission to hold back…
It’s a powerful indicator of safety to allow participants a free choice as to whether they do or don’t want to join in with any part of the process. Slow starters, for example, can watch for a while – like a child joining a nursery – until they are ready to participate. Permission to not do things helps people to feel safe – and paradoxically makes them more likely to jump in.
Creating safety is about more than stating: ‘this is a safe space’. You earn and then maintain trust as you go along, facilitating conditions in which everyone feels ready to participate fully in your events. Instead of: ‘I fear you are all going to be distracted’, let’s switch to: ‘What’s going to keep us focused today?’ What does your safety routine look like? How is it impacting your session and outcomes?

Paul Jackson Associates will be discussing how to create the best possible conditions for a productive learning environment, and how to overcome the challenges facilitators face, as part of the online course: The Inspirational Facilitator. You can join the waiting list HERE