Psychological safety has become a buzzword in corporations and conversation-based professions. It is a misunderstood concept because it’s not something you say to or do for people that eases their minds. With no shared understanding about how to establish psychological safety, there is a risk the two words will become superficial jargon, like empowerment, business acumen, and authentic self.
We know 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 revert to fight or flight mode to ward off threats. Even if you had a good connection at the start of your conversation, when safety vanishes, people disengage to protect themselves.
How then do you create psychological safety? And what sabotages the safety you create, breaking the connection you carefully formed? This post tells you how you can quickly make others feel psychologically safe throughout a conversation with you.
The essential element for establishing psychological safety
The skill for creating psychological safety is not verbal or behavioral. Impacting someone’s mental state depends on the energetic exchange. You generate safety with your emotions. The emotions you experience throughout your conversation facilitate or diminish the safety others feel. Emotions that reflect how much you care 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 labelled.
The founder of the coaching school I attended, Thomas Leonard, taught my first coaching class in 1995. He said the only way to learn how to coach was to coach. We would get better as we learned and practiced the skills.
We protested, wondering how we could coach if we didn’t know what we were doing. He said, “Just love them.” You provide value when they feel cared for and respected.
Looking at the testimonials from my first clients, I realized how valuable it was to them to safely talk about their dilemmas. It might have been the only time in their days they could fearlessly show up fully as themselves.
This may make sense but it is easier said than done. Anytime you feel fear, confusion, or impatience, your emotions could 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 ones you try to suppress, can be measured.1
However, if you can 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, appreciative, and caring is a critical skill to practice.
What breaks the “safety bubble?”
Your brain also wants to feel safe. When it perceives a threat, it rises to the occasion. You have deeply embedded patterns of reactions, causing you to defensively explain yourself, express frustration in your subtle or obvious gestures, or you tighten up as you fear losing control. Your reactions decrease and possibly extinguish the safety you established.
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.
Don’t try to stop yourself from reacting. You’ll only get frustrated when you fail. Instead, start by noticing tension in your body and changes in breathing . What muscles tighten when you feel irritated, afraid, or frustrated? Can you recognize when your heart beats speed 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 how you want to feel instead.
Emotional intelligence means you have the ability to choose your emotions following a reaction.
Three steps for maintaining psychological safety
Noticing reactions is the first step. Your power lies in deliberately shifting to feel emotions that establish trust.
Viktor Frankl said in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Here are three steps you can quickly and continuously take to maintain psychological safety:
1. Tune in to your body. Do you hold irritation in your stomach, shoulders, or neck? When you are anxious, do you breathe more quickly or hold your breath? Does your face heat up? Do you clench your jaw? Quickly noticing these reactions keeps you in control.
2. 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.
3. 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.
You have an amazing ability to observe your brain at work. You can even laugh at your brain, and then choose to feel, think, and act differently so people not only feel safe, but enjoy having deep conversations with you.
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.