I. Psychological safety, feeling “gotten”, and the social engagement system
(this is part two of a four-part article called “On Relational Facilitation: Supporting the Creative Potential of Divergent Perspectives”)
As a practitioner interested in theory-building, one of the more exciting encounters I’ve had recently has been with the work of Dr. Amy Edmonson¹⁴ on the importance of psychological safety for effective work in groups. Her work helps explain one of the key principles in Dynamic Facilitation (DF), which is to create a space where each person can feel safe enough to risk being creative.
Ia. Psychological safety in DF. One of the key ways in which we create psychological safety in this method, is through a very active role on the part of the facilitators. Initially we work in a dyadic fashion with each participant in the group, drawing out and reflecting back their contributions, while the rest of the group is informally listening and observing. This is very similar to what Covey calls “listening to understand”¹⁵, and what has been known for decades as “active listening” or “empathic listening”¹⁶. It is also similar to what The Center for Understanding in Conflict calls “looping”¹⁷; in DF we, too, follow up our “reflecting back what we have heard” with a question to actively check whether we have in fact understood: e.g., “Did I get it?”
Whenever “looping” (or active listening, empathic reflection, resonant listening, or whatever we may choose to call it) is done in an authentic manner, motivated only by the desire to truly understand what another person is communicating, the results can be quite powerful. While not focusing on active listening itself as a tool, positive psychology researcher Dr. Barbara Frederickson writes in depth about the outcome of active listening: the experience of “feeling gotten”. In her general-audience book “Love 2.0”¹⁸ Frederickson describes how these “micro-moments of connection”, of feeling seen and understood by others, are not just emotionally satisfying; they are also one of the most beneficial experiences that humans can have on a physiological level.
Likewise, Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory¹⁹, which is being widely used in trauma therapy, illuminates the tremendous difference between humans being in a low-level of fight-or-flight stress reaction (which neuroscientists have been verifying is quite common in many group situations) or instead, being connected with what he calls our “social engagement” system — the nervous system’s state of being relaxed yet alert, which allows us to be curious, take in new information, play, and engage in complex problem-solving with others.
From this perspective, the role of the facilitator in DF can be understood as simply supporting each person in the group to feel psychologically safe enough to stay in their “social engagement” zone, while the facilitator is also actively welcoming divergence and creativity. This allows each person’s natural drive to create meaning to work unimpeded, and allows the entire group to engage constructively and emergently with a complex set of multiple perspectives. Of course, there are more details about how we do this; but more and more, I have come to see this as the essence of the work.
Ib. Psychological Safety in other facilitation modalities. There are other interesting and effective ways to create psychological safety in a group. For example, “functional subgrouping” as developed by Yvonne Agazarian²⁰, a renowned group therapy practitioner and theorist, also has useful applications for organizational and community contexts. It offers a way to move beyond polarization with a series of sequential “fishbowls”. First one “side” gets to explore an issue with others who feel the same way; this becomes the “inner circle” of the fishbowl, while others with a different perspective simply witness the first side’s interactions, sitting or standing in an “outer circle”. For the second half of the process, those aligning with the “other side” of the issue move into the center of the fishbowl, where they get to explore their perspectives with others who feel similarly, while the original fishbowl occupants now observe from the outer circle.
A different process, Future Search, is Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff’s format for a three-day whole-system working conference²¹. It is designed to find and build upon common ground, not to explore controversial or emotionally charged issues. In addition to developing Future Search, Weisbord & Sandra Janoff have also developed a minimalist approach to group facilitation, described in their book Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There²². There and elsewhere, they credit Agazarian for inspiring one of the very few group interventions they use: inviting participants to “join” someone who has gone out on a limb within the group.
In that kind of situation, they ask the group, “Does anyone else feel that way”? As others “join” that person, this prevents that participant from becoming isolated or silenced. In essence, this creates a version of a “functional subgroup”, even though Weisbord and Janoff do not necessarily implement the “fishbowl” aspect of it; they feel that simply knowing that this is not the “only” person in the room who feels that way, is usually sufficient to shift the dynamics. (For a related insight on the power of group pressure, see this discussion of Solomon Asche’s experiments on social conformity.) And, in the rare event that no participants respond to the invitation, the facilitators themselves will find a way to “join” the person. It is worthwhile to note that this, one of Weisbord and Janoff’s very few active interventions, serves the crucial function of creating psychological safety in a group.
Then there is Open Space Technology²³, the original approach to self-organized “unconferencing”. In this format, the Law of Mobility (aka the “Law of Two Feet”) can be seen as a sort of “safety valve” that allows people to self-regulate. On a systemic level, it serves as a kind of “checks and balances” that limit the possibility of a topic convenor or dominant participant abusing their role. The “Law” proposes that whenever a participant feels they are neither learning from, nor contributing to, their current group or conversation, they are free take a moment’s pause, remember their agency and mobility, and choose to go elsewhere — even in the middle of a session or conversation. The intention is to encourage participants to take responsibility for their own experience at an Open Space gathering.
At the same time, how we interpret this law may be influenced by our gendered experience. Anne Stadler offers a reminder that “The Law of Two Feet” is also an invitation to take a stand for what you believe in. According to Peggy Holman, Anne’s take highlights that “For many women, who may be culturally conditioned to stay quiet, the law is an invitation to speak up.”²⁴ This requires courage, and possibly the psychological safety that comes from knowing that we have some allies in the room.
While Council Circle practice²⁵ is very different than Open Space, one similarity with reference to our current topic is that the structure itself creates some degree of psychological safety. Whenever we “go around the circle,” each person knows when it is their turn to talk, and also knows that they won’t be interrupted. This often allows participants to “drop down” and communicate from a deeper level than they would otherwise.
Ic. What psychological safety is NOT. Some group facilitators offer a valuable concern when the topic of “safety” comes up. They want to make sure I am not implying that a facilitator can guarantee safety from external consequences. Thus, I have found it helpful to clarify that I am specifically referring to psychological safety within the group, not what happens afterward.
Thinking about external consequences is especially relevant for facilitators working in an organizational context, though it’s also useful for all of us to consider. As group facilitators, we are not generally in a position to ensure safety for participants with regard to external consequences that may later ensue as a result of having shared something vulnerable within the room. That’s a different matter altogether, and safety in this regard is something that we can neither assume nor guarantee.
In the planning process before an event, we can certainly inform meeting sponsors about the negative consequences that are likely to ensue if participants “open up” during a meeting and are later “punished” for that by others. If we sense that this is likely to happen, we may have an ethical obligation to refuse the engagement. At the same time, there is usually some degree of safety built in, in that participants are usually quite aware when they are in an unsafe context, and are likely to remain quite closed in those circumstances for their own protection. So this would be another practical reason to refuse the engagement, as we are not likely to be able to do much good in those circumstances.
A different (yet often related) concern regarding safety is the topic of social inequities. “Psychological safety” as it applies to DF, means that the facilitator is doing their best to offer basic respect to each person, along with preventing any overt put-downs, criticism, or undercutting of anyone’s ideas or contributions. It does NOT mean, however, that no one in the room will ever utter an unconsciously racist, sexist, or classist comment. To be able to respond effectively to this kind of situation requires those of us who are facilitators to be developing our own sensitivity in these areas in an ongoing manner, through cultural competency trainings, equity and inclusion trainings, etc. By doing this, we will be better able to recognize these kinds of difficulties when they happen, and respond in a useful manner that supports a learning environment for all.
A third concern about emphasizing psychological safety, is how it can unintentionally support conflict avoidant behavior. As Peggy Holman writes, “I see the risk of attention to safety, as shutting down difference so that no one is triggered […] facilitators who get fearful and tamp down people’s comments can squash authenticity, sometimes in the name of civility.”²⁶
In the next section, we’ll be looking at what we have learned to date about welcoming authenticity, while still creating enough psychological safety to encourage creative thinking.
III. Relational facilitation, a regenerative culture, and “taking all sides” This last section also includes a brief closing section on “New Perspectives on Research”, as well as a full reference list.
¹⁴ Edmonson, 1999, 2019; for further applications see Duhigg, 2016 and Reynolds & Lewison, 2018
¹⁷ Friedman & Himmelstein, 2008
¹⁸ Fredrickson, 2013
¹⁹ Porges, 2017
²⁰ Systems-Centered Training and Research Institute, 2012
²¹ Weisbord & Janoff, 1995
²² Weisbord & Janoff, 2007
²³ Owen, 2008
²⁴ Peggy Holman, personal feedback
²⁵ Baldwin & Linnea, 2010; Zimmerman & Coyle, 1996
²⁶ Peggy Holman, personal feedback