- When people feel psychologically safe, they are more willing to listen and see value in what you offer.
- The emotions you experience facilitate or diminish the safety others feel. Monitor your reactions and deliberately choose how you want to feel.
- Quit giving feedback. The “helpful” information often raises defenses or lowers confidence. Focus on what ideas you both have going forward.
You may be a good workshop participant, but how well you performed in your exercises doesn’t guarantee good results outside of the classroom. Most classes teach formulas and models for effective communication. These approaches have little value if you aren’t deliberate about who you are being, how you are feeling, and what you believe about the person you are with.
Your presence and patience steeped in compassionate curiosity are more important than the words you were taught to say. People need to feel seen and valued by you. If you are stuck trying to remember what to say, you won’t create the safety and trust needed for a meaningful conversation.
Safety Creates Trust
When people feel psychologically safe, they are more willing to listen and see value in what you offer. Even if they feel uncomfortable, they are more likely to share their views, fears, desires, and regrets.
When they don’t feel safe, their brains shut down as they revert to fight or flight mode. Even if you had a good connection at the start of your conversation, when safety vanishes, people disengage to protect themselves.
The Essential Element for Establishing Psychological Safety
The skill for creating psychological safety is not verbal or behavioral; you generate safety with your emotions. The emotions you experience throughout the conversation facilitate or diminish the safety others feel.
Emotions that reflect how much you care about and respect someone impact their willingness to have a genuine dialogue with you. They share what they won’t say to others because, with you, they don’t fear being judged or labeled.
Yet your own brain can break the trust built in a conversation. Anytime you feel fear, confusion, or impatience, your emotions puncture the “safety bubble” you created.
Suppressing your emotions doesn’t stop this interchange. Suppressing only controls your expressions, not the existence of emotions. The energy disseminated from emotions, even the energy from emotions you suppress, can be measured.1
However, if you quickly notice you are having an emotional reaction and choose to breathe in and feel something else, you can maintain the safe connection. Being aware of emotional reactions in your body, and shifting back to feeling curious, caring, and respectful of the human in front of you who is trying to resolve a difficult challenge is the most critical skill to practice.
You have deeply embedded patterns of reactions in difficult conversations. You might defensively explain yourself, express frustration in your subtle or obvious gestures, or tighten up as you fear losing control.
Don’t be embarrassed or angry about your impulse to defend yourself, convince others, or shut down. No matter how emotionally mature you think you are, your brain will prompt reactions before your “higher self” has a chance to intervene.
Notice Your Reactions, Then Choose to Feel Differently
Emotional intelligence means you have the ability to choose your emotions following a reaction.
Start by noticing tension in your body and changes in breathing throughout the day. What muscles tighten when you feel irritated, afraid, or frustrated? Can you recognize when your heart speeds up or you hold your breath? Stop yourself at least three times a day to check in with your body to develop your emotional self-awareness.2 Then practice choosing what you want to feel instead.
During your conversations, practice these steps to maintain psychological safety:
- Tune in to your body. Are you tensing up in your stomach, shoulders, or neck? Are you breathing quickly or not at all? Is your jaw clenched? Quickly noticing physical reactions keeps you in control.
- Fill your body with your chosen emotion or two. Consciously remind yourself you want to feel caring and calm, or curious and kind. Sit up or stand straight. Tilt your shoulders back so your chest is open. Inhale the emotions you want to feel, letting them sink into your body.
- Acknowledge what you did well at the end of the day. Your brain needs evidence of success to support the changes you want to make. Instead of beating yourself up for what you didn’t do, thank yourself for what you attempted to do better. You’ll soon create the habit of tuning in and shifting in your conversations.
Quit Giving Feedback
One final tip—take the word “feedback” out of your vocabulary.
Feedback is generally focused on finding fault. The “helpful” information you give people often raises defenses or lowers confidence, decreasing their desire to engage and create with you.
Most people are not able to comfortably accept criticism. Even if they ask for feedback, their brain prepares for an assault. This closes instead of opens the mind to seeing situations differently.
Professors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone found that even well-intentioned feedback, “…spark[s] an emotional reaction, inject[s] tension into the relationship, and bring[s] communication to a halt.”3 People want to learn and grow, but they also have a basic human need for acceptance. One-way feedback hurts.
Most people want to get better, but they want safe conversations that pull out and explore their ideas as well as to hear your suggestions. Using a coaching approach to conversations is helpful.
How to Use a Coaching Approach
- Start with curiosity. Start by asking for their perspective on the challenges they are facing. Listen and summarize their assessment of the situation and their behavior. Ask how you can support their desire to get better results. Ask them to make suggestions for improvement before you offer your own. Show you believe in them and their ability to find a workable way forward.
- Don’t focus on what went wrong. Discover their desired goals and keep the focus on what they can do next time.
- Be comfortable with negative reactions. If you stay present, grounded, and caring, they will process through their emotions. Give them a chance to learn and grow before you stop or save them.
- Be patient. Self-reflection and grasping new ways of thinking take time, during the conversation and beyond.
During my first class at my coaching school, the founder, Thomas Leonard, said we can only learn how to coach by doing it. We resisted, saying we didn’t know what to do. He said, “Just go love them. You will learn the skills along the way.”
Most people want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect.
1. Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. The Energetic Heart: Biolectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People. Chapter published in: Clinical Applications of Bioelectromagnetic Medicine, edited by P. J. Rosch; M. S. Markov. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2004: 541-562.
2. Marcia Reynolds, Outsmart Your Brain: How to manage your mind when emotions take the wheel, 2nd edition. Covisioning, 2012: pg 137.
3. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, Find the Coaching in Criticism, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/01/find-the-coaching-in-criticism