Before using the right facilitation techniques, we must facilitate a sense of safety

Workshop people

I was working with a group recently and afterward, someone told me it was one of the most powerful experiences they’ve ever had.

I asked them to explain which tools and activities were most helpful, but they said more important than the tools or workshop design was the human connections made during the event.

In a follow up survey, someone else commented:

I felt safe to share my thoughts and feelings. I felt my unique perspective was celebrated in a way I don’t always feel on a day-to-day basis.

When we have the opportunity to facilitate a workshop or a gathering of people, we have a great responsibility. The gift of escaping a normal work schedule to discover new ways of creating and thinking together certainly begins with protecting time and space to work and learn.

But perhaps more important, and often missed, is the opportunity to be together in a new way. Working together differently is difficult enough, but learning to be together differently is an art the most intentional facilitators are able to master.

As you’re planning workshops or meetings asking yourself, “Can we do something different together to accomplish our goals?” is a great starting place — but we can take it further.

Asking yourself, “Can we be together in a new and meaningful way?” is how we create transformative and life changing gatherings.

A mentor of mine says all business and work really is is an excuse to be with one another — and we get distracted by the doing.

So how do we ensure everyone’s voice is heard and recognized so we can create a productive and powerful meeting? How do we make sure people feel seen and respected for who they are and what they bring?

This is the real work.

Google made some powerful and important discoveries in their search for what makes the most effective teams in what was dubbed Project Aristotle. They now host a conversation called re:Work about the principles they discovered.

Chief amongst the most important principles for healthy and productive teams is a sense of Psychological Safety — which is best summarized by ensuring each member of the team feels safe to take risks, ask questions, challenge authority and admit mistakes.

From Google’s re:Work
From Google’s re:Work

They then identified three key behaviors practiced by the most Psychologically Safe, and thus, most effective teams. They are simply:

Equality in Conversational Turn-Taking

If each person speaks roughly the same amount, that team is more likely to succeed.

Ostentatious Listening

Show team members you’re listening by repeating what was just said, or closing your laptop to pay attention.

Average Social Sensitivity

The ability to intuit how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

How common sense are those? Your grandmother told you these things.

But we humans like to do what we humans like to do — which is overcomplicate priorities and optimize the heck out of human interactions in order to acquire with the idolized feelings of predictability, certainty and control.

Though certainty is alluring, I like what Craig Groeschel says about leading people:

You can have control or you can have growth, but you can’t have both.

If ensuring Psychological Safety matters on our dedicated teams, it’s equally if not more imperative as facilitators to ensure we’re creating workshops and experiences where people feel OK being themselves so they don’t feel compelled to prove or hide out of fear (hat tip to Chris McAlister).

When leading a session we’re not only asking people to do work in ways unusual to them, we’re asking them to do it in a rapid and high pressure environment. The tactics are sexy, but we must remember our chief responsibility as facilitators is to cast a vision for a temporary place where we’ll co-create something together using methods we’ve never used before.

This can be intimidating and scary.

Safety is our responsibility.

Including everyone is our responsibility.


As you’re gearing up for your next workshop, here are a few guiding principles you can use to implement the wisdom from Google’s re:Work research to create Psychological Safety so everyone can get the two things we most need (in order of importance):

  1. A chance to feel safe, included, valued and integral
  2. Real traction on an idea or initiative that will have real results on their work after the session is over

What do do before:

Prep yourself internally- Remember the workshop isn’t about you doing something to a group of people — it’s about you being with them and helping them get what they need. Success is not adhering to a structure, but as our Liberating Structures friends like to say, unleashing the potential inside of each person.

Survey the group- Use a Google form to ask a few questions about the work to be done and ask a few questions about how people are doing like:

  • In a word or short phrase, please describe how you feel about your work right now…
  • What contributions are you proud of in your work?
  • Where do you feel stuck in your work?
  • When you’re doing your best work, what do you feel like?
  • What makes you feel validated by your team?
  • What makes you feel under appreciated by your team?

How to begin:

Have an activity in the beginning of your session to ground everyone in the room in gratitude where each person shares something going well in their work or lives. This sets the stage by letting everyone share and puts the principle of Equality in Conversational Turn-Taking front and center.

Remember we must have an emotional connection before we can have an intellectual connection. My friend Chad Littlefield calls this Connection before Content.

Lay out the plan for the day, and then pause and allow others to offer their insights on what else might be important to cover. Make sure the whole group is invested in where you’re going.

During the workshop:

Allow for different ways of participating- Prepare activities that vary from between individual reflection, small group reflection and large group conversation to ensure people who process differently have opportunity to digest and share throughout the workshop.

Notice the energy of the room- If folks are discouraged or lethargic, pause and take a walk around the building, or circle everyone up for one of my favorite improv games, Stretch and Reflect. To do this, get everyone in a circle and have each person lead the group in a new stretch, while in the stretch, invite them to share a reflection on the day so far. Make it around the whole room to get everyone’s blood flowing and refocus the group on the task at hand. Beware of experienced yogis in the group! We don’t need an injury due to poorly executed Crow Poses!

Another way of shaking things up throughout the day is to pause for a period of personal connection. Have people share personal stories about their lives in small groups they’ve never shared. I like to use the We! Connect cards to prompt meaningful conversations to deepen relationships.

Affirm dissenting opinions- Be willing to pause if the group seems stuck on an idea or it seems the meeting would be better served if you veered from your initial plan. This gathering is less about you getting your agenda right and more about giving the team what they need. Sometimes this means attending to thoughts or emotions that arise. Shutting them down reinforces the negative idea not all opinions are valued.

Interventions:

  • Throughout the session be sure to monitor the contributions from participants. Are there a few folks who speak more than others? Thank them for their contributions and announce to the room you want to hear from everyone equally — this is Equality in Conversational Turn-Taking at work.
  • When individuals are speaking make sure you’re listening intently and be an example for others in the room. It’s OK to ask folks to put devices away — I like what Jake Knapp says: “When we’re distracted by our devices, the whole room gets dumber — we need everyone’s attention to make progress today.” If there are side conversations, guide the room toward Ostentatious Listening by inviting them to give the floor to whoever is speaking.
  • Notice if individuals are quiet or reserved by practicing Average Social Sensitivity. If someone seems down or unengaged, the greatest insult would be to ignore it. Perhaps it’s not best to call them out in front of the group, but chat with them during a break to let them know their contributions matter and you’d love to hear from them.

How to close:

Give everyone a chance to call out what mattered most to them from the day. I like to say, “Let’s go around the room and have everyone share something they want to make sure we don’t miss — a thought or insight you believe is important for everyone to remember from our time together.” Document what everyone says in front of the room — this ensures minority opinions have equal weight as popular opinions.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash
Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Another way of closing is to have each person write down their responses on sticky notes to the following prompts:

  • I liked…
  • I wish…
  • What if…

These prompts are also powerful:

  • I saw/heard…
  • That made me think/feel/wonder…
  • Now I want to…

Have each person read their responses aloud and place sticky notes on the wall so everyone’s reflections are seen and heard.

How to follow up:

When you send outputs from the meeting, be sure to include all opinions expressed throughout the day. Offer your own insights to leadership about your honest assessment of the culture of the group and what they might try as a team to continue including everyone. Don’t be afraid to be a bit polarizing — they enlisted you for your unique perspective!

If possible, ask if you can write a follow up email to all participants thanking them for participating, acknowledge their commitment to the work (this stuff isn’t easy!), and remind them how continuing Psychological Safety on their team will enable them to accomplish the work you began together.

If you can send a follow up survey, keep it simple. Ask questions like this:

  • On a scale of 1–10, did you feel like your ideas and opinions were heard?
  • On a scale of 1–10, how confident do you feel about momentum continuing after our workshop?
  • Have you or will you change anything about the way you do your work? If so, what?
  • Have you or will you change anything about the way you interact with your colleagues? If so, what?

What a great task ahead of us to create new and inclusive spaces for people. For us to create such spaces, it’s important for us to remember what Bill O’Brien says about the responsibility of leading a group:

The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.

When we take the time to align ourselves with the larger purpose of belonging, we’re able to share that with others. And by remembering the importance of Psychological Safety in our workshops we get what we were after all along: A more inclusive and a more effective experience.


Resources:

  • re:Work by Google — the research behind Psychological Safety and effective teams
  • Liberating Structures — a fantastic treasure chest of easy to use activities
  • Improv Wisdom — a wonderful book about the power of improv and play in business
  • We! Connect Cards — a great tool to help participants have meaningful conversations and connect on a personal level