Psychological Safety - 14 Ways to Create Safety and Understanding
What is psychological safety and why is it important?
This article will help you be more intentional with how you listen and respond so that you can deliberately be a space of non-judgmental presence for your kids, colleagues, lovers and friends.
• Have you ever felt hesitant to share something with someone?
• Have you ever not known what to say in response to someone’s emotional pain, big dreams, excitement or life’s challenges?
• Have you ever been surrounded by people but still felt alone?
Me too. In fact, most of us have. You’re not alone.
Most people know what empathy is, but don't know what it actually sounds like in practice. How do you “do empathy”?
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes people around us just don’t have the capacity to hear us or they use one of the following automatic responses that cut off the possibility of connection and empathy:
• Unsolicited Advice - They suggest a solution because they think they know what’s best for you.
• Telltale - They make what you share about them.
• Judgment - They evaluate what you share as good, bad, right or wrong.
• Sarcasm - They make light of what you share.
• Pity/Sympathy - They feel bad for you.
• One-Upping - They compare your pain/problem to a worse scenario.
• Problem-Solving - They try and fix or save you from your pain/problem.
• Interrupting - They cut you off mid sentence.
• Contradiction - They disagree with what you share.
• Conclusions / Expectations - They assume they know all of who you are without all of the information.
• Dismissal - They disregard the importance of what you share.
• Projection - They express their fears about what you share.
• Blame - They accuse you of something.
These automatic default reactions lend more to people feeling like closing up rather than opening up. We can intentionally relate with people in ways that lend to a feeling of safety so that people feel seen, understood, and valued. This article will support you in doing that.
Psychological safety distinguishes between being safe and feeling safe.
While you might actually be safe from physical harm, you still might not feel safe to express yourself in different relationships.
Psychological safety creates a feeling of safety that allows for people to express, explore themselves and take risks without worrying about repercussions.
This kind of safety allows for vulnerability which might involve sharing things that someone hasn’t before. Exploring and discovering what is true for someone is vulnerable as they formulate their thoughts for the first time.
When psychological safety is present we can engage in a generative dialogue – leverage our difference to create something new. Psychological safety is the foundation of mental health, creativity, innovation, and intimacy.
We can learn how to relate with people in ways that allow them to feel safe to open up.
Brene Brown uses the metaphor of a marble jar to illustrate how trust builds over time. Marble by marble, one safe action at a time, we log reference experiences that add up to, “I can trust you. I feel safe to open up. You’ve shown me that it’s safe to express ideas that are new and different.”
A Culture of Empathy Begins with Psychological Safety
In childhood, even though our parents and educators were well-intentioned, the process of socialization taught us that certain aspects of ourselves were bad, wrong, unacceptable, unlovable or unwanted. So, we learned to repress those traits and behaviours that we associated with pain, shame and disconnection and to express and exaggerate the aspects of ourselves that got us love and attention.
Psychological safety creates space for those aspects of our whole being we learned were not okay in childhood to be expressed. Desires, secrets, fears, opinions, emotions, and thoughts can be expressed, felt, acknowledged and integrated in the presence of psychological safety. Since most of our wounds as children were relational (we interacted with someone and got hurt), healing in relationship begins when we feel safe to open up, explore and express ourselves fully.
Together we can create psychological safety for each other in a multitude of ways:
1) Practice not just listening, but being the Listener
Dedicated Listener and Speaker roles are important to eliminate parallel monologues. A parallel monologue involves two speakers talking back and forth at each other with neither truly listening. This is fine for normal every day conversation when we’re in rapport with each other talking about things we agree upon, but if people have different perspectives, this style of communication becomes ineffective.
Arguments get heated when people are stuck in parallel monologue. When no one is truly listening, each person reiterates what they already said with increasing volume. Only someone who is unheard feels the need to raise their voice. The solution is taking turns to be in the Listener role until the speaker feels heard.
2) Practice Distinguish between being Interested vs Interesting
It’s common to respond to what someone says with something interesting to say about it. This takes the attention off of them and shifts it onto you. Instead you can intentionally keep your attention on the other person. When we listen to understand not to respond, we stay interested in the other person, keep the attention on them and ask them a question to learn more. In other words, instead of making what they said about you, you can intentionally use curiosity to dig deeper into what matter to that person.
3) Practice Setting Time Containers
These are most helpful while in conflict but still useful in bringing intentionality to any conversation by adopting the role of the listener or the speaker for a period of time.
To create a feeling of safety for both the listener and the speaker set a timer (between 2 to 5 mins) to create a beginning and an ending to each role. The listener knows they won’t be interrupted during this time. The speaker knows they don’t have to listen forever and will have their turn to be heard too.
Time containers can feel rigid for people at first but this structure is crucial in conflict. Couples often try not using a timer and the result messy because someone inevitably steps out of their role, gets defensive and the dialogue devolves into a parallel monologue. The simple structure of setting a timer puts both people’s minds at ease to embody each role for the allotted time.
Eventually a timer may not be needed and you can consciously and explicitly take on one role at a time. On video calls my closest friends and I determine how long we’d each like to be heard for, who’s timing, and who will be the listener first. It’s a smooth effortless process that leaves us both feeling deeply nourished by our time together. The typical format of a 1hr call with some of my friend begins with 5-10 mins of open conversation, 20 mins each to be heard each, then 5-10 mins open conversation at the end. Try it out and let me know how it goes!
4) Practice Asking to Enter Their World
We often start talking to people when they’re busy engaged in an activity expecting them to hear us. Sometimes we even call over to them from another room. This isn’t wrong or bad, but if you want to create psychological safety, getting someone’s attention before you engage with them is important.
Some prompts you can use are:
1) Just say their name and pause.
2) “(Name), are you available?”
3) “(Name), when you have a moment, can I talk to you?”
4) "(Name), I have a (insert intention) to share with you, are you available?”
Safe conversations by relationshipsfirst.org fills the intention in with things like frustrations or appreciations. That way, you allow the other person to check-in with themselves to see if they are ready to receive what you have to share.
We’re never obligated to give someone our attention. In that sense it’s important to distinguish between a request and a demand. Maybe my partner has a frustration to share with me, but I’ve had a particularly stressful day. It’s in both of our best interests to wait until I have the capacity to give them my attention fully. So when they ask to share their frustration with me I might respond, “Thanks for letting me know. I’d love to hear your frustration, but I’m at capacity right now. Could we make time for that tomorrow?”
This practice of asking to enter someone’s world might seem rigid at first, but like any new skill it takes getting used to. With practice it will feel natural, lead to more present conversations and greatly reduce misunderstanding.
5) Practice Suspending Judgment
We judge automatically so it takes practice to be aware of our judgments and not let them create a disconnect between the Listener and the Speaker. Suspending judgment is like meditating. We don’t try and stop our judgments, but rather use self-awareness to witness them and consciously let them go to maintain our attention on the Speaker.
It’s important to be aware that the confirmation bias is a function of our mind that listens for information that proves what we already believe. What are you listening for? The 4 Levels of Listening breaks down different aspects of what we can pay attention to when we’re listening. Most often, we’re listening to see if we agree or disagree, listening for a solution, or listening to respond.
Suspending judgment invites us to come from a place of, “I think I know, but maybe I don’t know.” A great way to suspend judgment is to practice humility and checking our assumptions.
6) Practice Check Your Assumptions
The story of This is Water by David Foster Wallace highlights what it’s like to live within our hidden assumptions, biases and blindspots:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
More often than not, many of us really believe we know what’s true for someone else. We assume by projecting our inner reality upon them. Sometimes we’re correct, but more often than we realize, our assumptions don’t match reality, or at the very least, they’re in part correct but there’s so much more that we didn’t see, understand or realize.
Assumptions come in the form of conclusions (“they’re angry”), expectations (“They’re probably going to be upset”), and judgments (“They’re a bad person”) to name a few. Assumptions are based on our subjective interpretation of the external world. Therefore, we can’t know what’s true “out there” until we actually check.
One of my favourite sentence stems I use to check assumptions is, “I’m imagining [insert assumption]. Does that resonate?”
7) Practice Listening to Understand not to Respond (Don't Interrupt)
What’s the difference between talking to a lamp post and talking to a human being? Human beings drink each other in and we can respond. What’s the difference between talking to a robot and a human being? Human beings can see and understand not just what we said but who we are. We can feel what each other are feeling. We can consciously direct our attention and intention. We share this thing called presence.
There is a reciprocal relationship between listening and speaking. Our listening shapes the speaking in the same way water molds to differently shaped containers. Listening to understand not to respond is about offering our presence and attention as a gift.
During a Connection Cards meeting, one of my teammates informed me that I cut her off and brought to my attention that men tend to interrupt women more than men. Since then I've been even more mindful about intentionally listening and not cutting people off mid-sentence. As the Listener we can create psychological safety by aiming to provide a felt sense of spaciousness that comes from being fully present and attentive.
“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” – Thich Nhat Hahn
8) Do Inner Work - Practice Holding Space for Yourself
Our ability to hold space for someone and deeply listen to them is directly related to our ability to hold space for ourselves. Listening is vulnerable because what someone says automatically triggers thoughts and feelings in the Listener.
Circling Institute Founder Guy Sengstock says frames how powerful deep listening can be:
“I believe: the deepest way you can love somebody is to be willing to FULLY go on their ride. To listen to them so deeply that - through your listening - they gain deeper insight into their own experience.”
To go on someone’s ride means letting them affect us while they take us on their journey. In order to go on this journey, we need to not be in reaction to what they say but able to self-regulate. We can only go as deeply with someone as we’ve gone ourselves.
9) Practice Mindful Curiosity
Why are you asking the question you’re asking? Creating psychological safety invites us to be mindful of the intention behind all of our responses.
Curiosity can feel like a interrogation. It’s up to both the Listener (the person being curious) and the Speaker to understand their responsibility in creating this feeling.
Sometimes the Listener asks questions with an air of skepticism or an intention to prove or disprove something. Or, sometimes they ask genuine questions trying to understand, but the speaker interprets the questions in a way as an interrogation and so goes on the defence.
It’s easy to slip into the default pattern of embodying the Fixer / Rescuer and in doing so relating to someone as a victim who needs our help asking questions like, “Have you tried (insert advice)...”
I could instead state my intention or motivation underneath my question, “I notice I want to help you feel better.”
Or, rather than trying to guide someone to feel better with a question, we could ask, “What do you need right now? Is there any way I can support you?”
Conscious communication and creating psychological safety leverage self-awareness to respond more intentionally. When we’re self-aware, we respond instead of react. We create space for people to express and explore. We ask questions to understand them more deeply instead of assuming they need help.
10) Practice Role Modelling
We can open the space for others to feel comfortable by showing them that it’s safe by sharing something vulnerable first. Courage is contagious. When we give ourselves permission to show up and speak our truth and accept ourselves in the presence of others, we give others permission to do the same.
When practicing psychological safety, we don’t expect others to know it’s safe, we consciously create a feeling of safety by role modelling behaviour. Actions speak louder than words. So, rather than say, “it’s safe to open up” or “talk to me if you need anything”, we can go one step further and show it’s safe by leading with vulnerability and share the ups and downs of how we’re feeling authentically.
For instance, if a friend is having thoughts of sucide, instead of jumping to the rescue, we could share how we’ve also had similar thoughts. Rather than give advice, we could share our personal story, empathizing with them and validating their thoughts and feelings.
11) Practice Mirroring
In a coaching session with a couple who had been married for 20 years, I got them to mirror back what each other said. I wish I had that moment on video tape for both of them to re-watch because, to my astonishment, they weren’t even close! They each sincerely thought they heard what the other person said correctly, but were actually misinterpreting each other. No wonder they were stuck in argument for so many years! It was fascinating to witness because it showed me the power of our perceptual filters and the difference between what is said and what is heard.
Mirroring is a conscious communication tools that eliminates misunderstanding by checking with the speaker to see if you heard them correctly. In everyday conversation, it doesn’t make sense to mirror, but in conflict, it is extremely helpful. When you mirror, you repeat back what you heard with as little interpretation as possible, then ask the speaker if you got it all. After that, The Speaker can reiterate, add or clarify anything for the Listener.
Mirroring is different than paraphrasing where you put what the speaker said into your own words. While that’s useful and powerful in some situations, interpretation when in conflict can be triggering and often makes matters worse. So, to create psychological safety, mirroring is an important skill that empowers us to make sure we actually heard what was said.
It’s very helpful to practice this mirroring before you need to use it in a conflict situation because it doesn’t come naturally for most people. I invite you to play with mirroring when times are good, so that when misunderstanding happens you can use it with confidence.
12) Commit to Maintenance and Repair of Your Relationship
Trust, safety and connection can actually be strengthened and deepened through conflict. Ruptures in trust and connection can occur safely when we have a plan for repair. Since misunderstandings and mistakes are inevitable, a commitment to repair when a rupture in connection occurs creates safety in a relationship.
Repair means taking ownership of our mistakes and also letting the other person save face.
On Brene Brown’s Podcast Unlocking Us, she has an incredible 2 part series on How to Apologize with Herriet Lerner.
Apologies are demonstrated through our actions. Saying, “I’m sorry” doesn’t matter if we continue to do the thing we’re apologizing for. Repair requires humility to admit we made a mistake or didn't show up as our best self, ownership to take responsibility for correcting the mistake, and forgiveness to not blame or shame ourselves for messing up.
When two people are committed to assuming the best of each other and willing to have tough conversations from a place of responsibility and openness, psychological safety is created.
13) Act in Integrity
Integrity is the foundation of building trust. Acting in integrity means doing what we say. When our actions match our words, people know they can count on us. Therefore, anytime our actions don’t match our words, we break trust. When you say one thing but do another people realize they can’t rely on you. Psychological safety is created when someone feels you can serve as a dock for their boat. A dock is sturdy like a rock, unwavering, steadfast, and certain. When our actions match our words and values this feeling of certainty is experienced as safety.
14) Communicate Boundaries
While we can intentionally create safety for others, it's also important to create safety for ourselves. We can do so by requesting what we need and communicating what's okay and not okay. In other words, if we're the Speaker, we can provide the Listener feedback on what it's like to be heard by them and vice versa.
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment....Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”- Brene Brown
It's common to feel guilty communicating what we need or want because we're afraid of disappointing others. When we overextend ourselves and abandon our needs for someone else we make it unsafe for us to be in relationship. When we consistently ignore our needs and put other's first we receive the message that we can't trust ourselves. Therefore, compassionate people don't overextend themselves for others, they honour their own integrity and create safety in the relationship by communicating what they need.
Integration - Putting it All Together
All of these points can be culminated into a way of being that is natural, flowing and felt as genuine. We can cultivate open, available presence in which anyone can feel safe to express themselves freely and explore the depths of who they are. Together we can create a culture of empathy rooted in psychological safety one conversation at a time.