Is it safe?
As trainers we often talk about “creating a safe environment”, but what does that actually mean? What elements are present in a safe environment? Are there some seemingly small elements that can make a big difference, such as smiling? While there are many ways to create a safe environment, this article provides a starting point and some food for thought of what specifically this safe environment can include.
Category: Communicating Meaningfully with Others
Why did I choose this tool?
I chose this tool because it states the obvious. Sometimes we look for complicated theories and research when actually what we need are just some simple and obvious, but often ignored, steps. We can take a look at this tool before every training or can be made as a checklist to be discussed at the beginning and during trainings to ensure that we aren’t neglecting anything important. It’s a fully customizable guide for having an emotionally safe training environment.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
A lot of what we do as trainers is with the goal of creating a safe environment. The getting-to-know-you games, the energizers, the level of information we give to participants in advance, all work towards the goal of making participants feel safe. Because whether we realize it consciously or whether it’s just embedded into the training process and we do it automatically, participants must feel safe before they can learn and grow. It’s just the way it works. So rather then going through the motions of creating a safe environment, it’s preferable to be fully conscious of every step so that we can see if it is producing the desired results or if there is more that needs to be done in order to establish (or in some cases re-establish) the feeling of emotional safety in a training setting.
The following are some guidelines for how to create an emotionally safe environment for learning. It is by no means comprehensive and different trainers can have very different approaches to doing this, but it can be used as a kind of template that you can develop as you wish according to the needs of your particular trainings. When you’re in doubt if something is important or not, just ask yourself “is this helping the participants to feel safe” or “could this be what’s making the participants feel unsafe”. If the answer is yes for either one, then it is worthwhile to do whatever is needed so that the participants can feel safe before going forward, since this one factor can have a huge impact on the participants and on the training outcomes.
Pay attention to the physical space
Is it common to start off your training with a pristinely clean training room, but by day 3 or so it starts to look pretty chaotic? What about factors like fresh air, sunlight, and water? Is there enough of this in the training room, or at least a place outside the training room where participants can access these easily (in terms of location and time)? Is drinking water replenished regularly, or are you always running out? All of these have the potential to affect the learning experience, and will either support the participants learning and growth or stifle it and take their attention away from it.
Some participants will quickly ask for what they need, whether it’s an open window or a bottle of water, but others may not be so bold and will “suffer in silence” until it gets really bad. For this reason, it’s best to think of all these things in advance so that it doesn’t even get to the point where they need to ask.
It doesn’t mean you have to do it alone, you’ll probably never get any breaks if you’re always cleaning, organizing and taking care of the water supply after ending one session and before beginning the next. But you can agree with your co-trainers how to handle it, or you can even ask the participants for their support. From my experience they are happy to help and would rather participate in creating an inspiring learning environment then be a subject to a chaotic one.
Celebrate and appreciate accomplishments, both seemingly big and seemingly small
Believe it or not, there’s a little child in each of us that always wants to know, “is it ok”, “is it good enough”, “did I pass (even when we explain in advance that it is non-formal education and that we are not giving grades)”, “did you like what I did”. I have worked with adults of all ages and backgrounds, including those who have a lot of experience with non-formal education and those who are experiencing it for the first time. This need for approval and validation doesn’t change regardless of any of these factors. When participants do well, in plenary or out of plenary, it is such a boost to morale to say things like:
“That was amazing what you did!”
“Your group came up with such a creative idea in such a short time, impressive!”
“I appreciate so much that you took the initiative to explain verbally what was happening to the blind participant, thank you for that!”
“You expressed that really well, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Thank you for that!”
“Thank you for being open about your thoughts and how you’re feeling about the training process.”
And a million other similar sentences that you can come up with on the spot. Naturally it’s important that you’re being genuine and that the appreciation/compliment is based on something real and not just a generalized “you are awesome no matter what you do” otherwise it will lose its effect and it will seem phony. The truth is however that we see what we focus on, so if we have the intention of recognizing what the participants are doing great (and our co-workers for that matter) we will find it. And it’s actually complimenting the things that they think no one is noticing or caring about that can have the greatest impact.
The reason why this matters in terms of psychological safety is that when they realize that you are not there to criticize or reprimand them, they can start to relax, be creative and grow. Regardless of what a great person you are, they may be coming the training with baggage from how they were treated by parents, teachers, colleagues or anyone else who may have had a negative impact on them. They need to clearly see that you don’t fit into any of these (negative) roles before they can truly relax and be themselves with you, which is the only way that they can genuinely learn and grow.
At the end of the training or of some significant group accomplishment within the training, make sure that you do something to celebrate it or at least to acknowledge it. This will greatly enhance the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction of the participants, and yours too!
Create a list of guidelines so that the participants know what is expected of them
This may not be necessary in all cases, but it can be a real “life saver” or “training saver” in others. Trying to deal with a problem after it has happened is much harder than preventing it from happening in the first place, with a clear agreement.
While you could create this list of guidelines yourself and then go over them with participants and have them agree to it, another way is to have the participants come up with it themselves. Most likely everything that you would have included will be put there by them anyways, and this way it becomes the “group law” rather than “your law” (more democratic). You can even include it as one of the tasks in the well-known “mission impossible” exercise. Just make sure to go over it afterwards to make sure everything important is there. A sample list can include:
- Be on time for sessions
- Participate fully and contribute when possible
- Personal information shared in sessions stays between us and doesn’t get shared with anyone who was not in the session
- Look after each other’s physical and emotional well-being, if someone doesn’t seem well help them in any way you can (for this you can make the buddy system so each person has one person to look out for)
- Participate in keeping the training room clean and organized
- Use only English (or whatever language everyone speaks) during the sessions and social times so everyone feels included, use own language only in private
- Enjoy the experience and learn from it!
Exactly what will be included in your list depends a lot on the nature of the training, how personal you imagine it will get, the age range, etc. What’s important is that the elements on the list make the participants (and you) feel safe and confident that this training will be good for them and that there is no need to feel worried or anxious, especially about expressing their thoughts and feelings and about having a sense of belonging in the group.
Be flexible in how the activities can be accomplished
The activities in a training should never be the goal in themselves, but rather the means to reach that goal. Participants might do things differently then you expect, or they might even think of ways of accomplishing the task or reaching the goal that you haven’t thought about. Don’t be rigid in how the activity should be done, only put the parameters in place that you believe are necessary for reaching the goal, leave everything else up to the participants’ imagination and creativity. If despite your explanation participants with good intentions still go in a different direction, find a way to use that instead for the learning outcome rather then saying “you did it wrong”. If there is no way to make it better, let it be and make the best out of it.
Stay calm and in control no matter what happens
Being calm and in control doesn’t mean that you suppress your emotions or that you come across as not having any feelings. It means that you are in control of how you react to your feelings and that participants can feel safe and confident that you won’t start yelling at them or get super nervous when you’re running out of time or when things go wrong.
You may feel anger at complacent behavior, or you may feel stressed when you realize you are running out of time and still have a lot to cover. But rather than acting mindlessly on the emotion, focus on fixing the problem that’s bringing that emotion in the first place. Talk to the participants that are being complacent about what they need to more fully engage in the activities, and if necessary, adapt some activities according to what they share. Discuss with your team how to manage the remaining time better, and what could perhaps be eliminated from the training while still reaching the most important goals.
Emotions are contagious, so if you don’t solve the problem and gracefully handle your anger, stress or whatever other negative feelings you have, participants will pick up on it and it will make them feel unstable and unsafe. In addition to this, share with participants only what will be useful for them to know, and tell them what they can do about it.
For instance, it’s very different to keep telling participants “we’re running out of time” than to say “because we’re a bit short on time today we will start tomorrow by finalizing the discussion from today”.
And of course, never show conflict or disagreement with your fellow trainers in front of the participants. This can make them feel very unsafe and anxious, and can take away their trust in the trainers and in the training itself. If the other trainer does something that you don’t agree with, just go along with it in public (provided they’re not physically or emotionally endangering anyone) and talk to them about it in private. You can always mention something later to the participants if necessary, after you are in agreement with your co-trainer about it. Also remember, you co-trainer also needs to feel safe in order to perform well, and they won’t feel safe if you are ready to jump in at anytime and correct them in public.
Remember the phrase “the show must go on”. The “phrase finder” explains this phrase’s meaning and origin as:
THE SHOW MUST GO ON — “Don’t let calamity interrupt the proceedings; we mustn’t stop what we are doing, even if something unfortunate has happened; it would make us look bad or worry the spectators. The saying and principle are traditional in the theater, but apparently they both originated in the 19th century with circuses. If an animal got loose or a performer was injured, the ringmaster and the band tried to keep things going so that the crowd would not panic.” From “The Dictionary of Clichés” by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985)
Seeing the trainers as confident, positive, kind and genuine gives the participants the feeling that they are in safe hands and that they can trust the trainers and the training process. And it is only with this feeling that they will be able to let their guard down enough to engage in and learn from the training.
Practice useful failure and turn “mistakes” into learning opportunities
There will inevitably be times when the participants, or even the trainers, make mistakes. If these mistakes aren’t known by the whole group, they should be rectified by whoever already knows about it or is involved. However, if it happened with the whole group, you should resolve it also with the whole group. Stay upbeat, be creative, and turn it into a learning opportunity. Here is an example of how I did this while giving a training to a group from a Turkish company:
We had already given the same training to the first group from this company, and although they were skeptical in the beginning they soon engaged in the process and we achieved monumental learning outcomes. The second group however was different, in the sense that it seemed like most of the group wasn’t there to learn but just because the company sent them. They just wanted to have a good time, and they were doing that mostly by trying to tear apart what we were saying, the same content that had such great results with the first group and with many other groups before that. The talks between them (and criticizing us) were incessant, so my co-trainer asked them to please stop talking between themselves and to focus. This caused them to lash out at us and to say that they didn’t like our authoritarian and inflexible style, and was reiterated by more than one member of the group. At the moment we answered that it wasn’t our intention to be authoritarian or inflexible, and we are sorry if we came across that way. During the break my co-trainer and I discussed how we could use this as a learning experience. As a result, when we jumped into the session on non-violent communication right after the break, we used the exact phrases that they have used, and asked how they could express the same thing but without judging and blaming us (which is the whole point of non-violent communication). This turned the training around as they realized that we weren’t there for our own egos (which would have been very hurt by now) but rather so focused on the learning outcomes that we could even turn their accusations of us into a learning experience of how they could better express their negative feelings.
Naturally, genuine kindness shouldn’t be a training method but a way of being, in and out of a training environment. Sometimes though we can get caught up in our own problems or even in the topics or the goals of our training and forget about the importance of kindness and what a difference it can make. This video is an excellent reminder to “be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This concept can be applied to all the participants in training. It is likely that they are struggling with things that we know nothing about, and having kindness as our MO can prevent us from saying or doing something that we later regret and which hinders the participants/training process.
Move around and interact with participants, create connections with them
Participants should feel that you are with them on their learning journey, not an emotionally distant lecturer. Some participants may need your support more then others, but everyone should feel that if they want to approach you, ask something or just have a chat with you that it’s not only ok with you but that you would welcome it and be happy to engage with them in that way. Participants who feel supported and cared about will have much better learning outcomes than participants who don’t.
Be patient and smile often
Never make someone feel bad or “less than” because they don’t know something, don’t understand something or didn’t do something right as this will cause them to shut down. Honor all questions with a clear explanation, and make it clear that further questions are more than welcome. If you are giving a training in English and it’s not the native language of all the participants, tell them it’s totally cool to ask for certain words to be explained, expressions clarified, and even to ask you to slow down if they need it (this is something that I actually say, because I know that I lose track of my speed once I get engaged in the training process and they can always ask me to slow down, or even ask me to repeat something in their language if I know it). Smiling makes the participants relax, feel that all is well and that it’s safe to engage. If a serious topic is discussed, make sure to balance it out with something that can make participants smile and laugh afterwards so that they relax emotionally.
Show your emotions and be vulnerable
This doesn’t contradict the point mentioned above about “always being calm and in control”. The first one is about how you react to your emotions; you need to be calmly in control of them. But this one is about showing the emotions themselves, whether it’s represented in some tears when someone shares something that is sad, or whether it is laughter when doing a funny energizer.
Some people mistakenly think of vulnerability as sharing personal details of your life, or talking about how you are feeling. While this could be a part of vulnerability, a better definition of vulnerability is “to expose your true self”. And I believe it’s less about what you are saying and more about allowing yourself to be seen as you are.
It means not hiding behind a mask, especially not the mask of being “vulnerable” to create a specific reaction from participants or to manipulate them. It means just being honestly what you are and not trying to hide it or put up a front, so that people can connect with the real you.
No one will be able to connect with you if you’re wearing a mask and don’t show your real emotions, what would they be connecting with? It’s ok to be human, in fact it can make a training great. And what’s more, it sends the message to the participants that they can be themselves and show their emotions as well.
An example of this is when I was delivering a training that included discussing the situation of refugees in different countries. Most of the day was spent absorbing information of this nature, and by the end of the day I felt so heavy I knew I couldn’t go on without a change of state. So I created an exercise for emotional closure of this topic, and also to give a chance for me and anyone else who wanted it to acknowledge the emotional impact of this heavy topic. After this exercise, participants were coming to me and thanking me for allowing this space for emotions, since they too were feeling sad and heavy but thought they were alone in it and didn’t know what to do about it. Having the trainer talk about these emotions out loud gave them permission to feel them fully, and then to let them go.
“And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.”
On a scale from 1 to 5, how much do I implement these elements into the trainings that I deliver?
Paying attention to the physical space
Celebrating and appreciating accomplishments
Creating a list of guidelines
Being flexible in how the activities can be accomplished
Staying calm and in control no matter what
Turning “mistakes” into learning opportunities
Always being kind
Moving around and interacting with participants
Being patient and smiling often
Showing emotions and being vulnerable
For the ones I rated myself lowest on, do I think that implementing them more will increase the quality of my trainings?
If so, what is my plan for implementing them next time I deliver a training?
For the ones I rated myself the highest on, how does implementing those elements add to the training experience?
How to apply it to everyday life
It’s hard to switch hats and become one person when we’re giving a training, and another one in our real lives. And when we are doing something, for example being kind, just because we are giving a training, it can be felt as not being genuine and will not have the impact we desire. All of the above elements can be applied in some way or another to our everyday lives, and if we are used to applying these elements regularly it will come much more easily and naturally to apply them in training.