Is it safe?

Posted by Doc
Apr 06 2009

In any book on facilitation, meetings, or effective communication, you’ll encounter the concept of safety.

I think about safety a lot, because I think so many of us take it for granted, or think it’s safe when it’s not, or have different understandings of safe.

Here’s an example:

Marge: I think we should go to Flerbit’s for dinner.

Frank: That’s a dumb idea! We just went to Flerbit’s last week. Let’s go to Smagger’s instead.

Marge: Whatever you like, Frank.

Frank thinks it’s safe, because he feels comfortable and free to speak his mind.  And, after all, it must be safe because Marge agreed with  him, didn’t she?

Marge feels like there’s just no point in speaking at all, because Frank always points out her shortcomings, makes her feel stupid, and always gets his own way.

Does Marge feel safe?

Let’s try another example:

Dunstan: I just finished writing the tests for the code we’re working on. They all passed.

Ben: Of course they did. You always forget to deal with <situation>.

Dunstan: I don’t forget about it, I just ignore it because you always change the code.

Ben: Oh, so it’s my fault?

Dunstan: Well, if you wouldn’t say it’s done before it’s done…

Does either of these guys really feel safe?

Let’s get back to the definition of safe.  Here’s my definition:

A safe situation is one in which all parties have confidence that they can express themselves and share their ideas and opinions without being attacked, assaulted, insulted, belittled, or otherwise mistreated just for speaking up.

A safe situation is one in which I can make a mistake, misstatement, or incorrect assumption, and still have people treat me with respect.

A safe situation is one in which I can share, have a dialogue, and feel like a whole, valuable human being at the end.

A safe situation allows for criticism, challenge, discussion, different ideas, exchanges of views, and allows all parties equal chance to hear and be heard.

Yes, all of that.

Let’s look at Frank and Marge. Marge made a suggestion. Frank belittled her by referring to it as dumb. Frank would tell you that he didn’t call Marge dumb, he called Marge’s suggestion dumb. Frank doesn’t seem to grasp that Marge has an attachment to her ideas, and that calling her idea dumb is tantamount to calling her dumb. Frank probably doesn’t understand that being abrupt and judging can lead his listener to feel hurt or angry.

Now for Ben and Dunstan.

Both of these guys treat the other with disrespect.  They get into an attack/counterattack mode.  Ben talks to Dunstan disrespectfully, so Dunstan counterattacks. Why? Because it comes naturally. If I am caught up in how you make me feel, then if I feel bad I also feel justified in giving as good as I got. If I’m focused on the contention, then I’m not focused how well we’re communicating, and I’m less likely to share/contribute/participate.

Let’s look at alternate versions of these exchanges:

Marge: I think we should go to Flerbit’s for dinner.

Frank: I like Flerbit’s too, and we just went to Flerbit’s last week. Let’s go to Smagger’s instead.

Marge: Okay – that’s a good idea. I’m up for that, Frank.

Small changes make big differences. Staying away from judging, emotionally loaded words like “dumb” allows the exchange to be positive and friendly instead of hostile and frustrating.

Dunstan: I just finished writing the tests for the code we’re working on. They all passed.

Ben: That’s great, Dunstan. How about <situation>? I know we’ve chatted about it.

Dunstan: I’ve had to rework the tests a couple of times in the past. I’d rather wait until you tell me that it’s really done. Is that okay?

Ben: Ah. Hmm. Yes, I think that’s reasonable. So maybe next time you could tell me “all of the tests, except the ones for <situation>, have passed”? That way I’ll know and we won’t have any misunderstanding. Would that work?

Dunstan: Good idea. Sorry I didn’t say it that way this time.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you behave with mutual respect, engage in dialogue as opposed to attack and counterattack, and commit to mutual goals and understanding.

Here are three questions for you:

  1. What’s your definition of safe for yourself?
  2. What does it take for you to feel safe?
  3. What do you do to make it safe for others?

7 Responses

  1. Twitter Comment


    @athought Excellent post. I’ve thought about this in relation to marriage, but not to work until now. [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  2. Twitter Comment


    Steven List: Is it safe?: In any book on facilitation, meetings, or effective communication, you’ll encounter th.. [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  3. Fabio Lessa says:

    Great post Steven! I have seen a lot of technical discussions go sour simply because of how the “I don’t agree” argument was worded. And I am sure the team didn’t end up with the best solution because the people involved got defensive about their positions.

  4. Twitter Comment


    One more great @athought post helping point out things that our industry needs to understand better! “Am I safe” [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  5. Chris Matts says:

    For me “Safe” is related to uncertainty ( What a surprise ). For me, it is about the integrity of the situation ( You get what it says on a tin ).

    As I go into a situation, if I know how I’m expected to behave, then there is no problem….”Say what you like.” or “Only say positive things”. Whatever is said in the room is ignored and everyone’s behaviour is driven by the culture of the environment. If I know I can speak with impunity I will. Otherwise I will filter for “happy” management-friendly content.

    The problem for me is uncertain new environments. Am I meant to speak or not? Speaking may be a problem. Being quiet might be a problem ( in my case impossible ).

    I have seen a “safety” test at retrospectives where everyone anonymously indicates how safe they feel on a scale of 1 to 4. Everyone always says 1, although there were a few raised eye brows when a 2 was drawn. The test did not really determine the real temperature of the room and did feel a little silly.

    Do you have any safety tests?

    • Doc says:

      Your reference to a safety test (taking the temperature) surprises me. I’ve been in situations in which the range was 1 – 5 and others in which it was 2 – 4, but never in one in which it was all 1’s or 1 – 2. That makes me wonder what the circumstances were, and how the meeting was convened and prepared. If everyone comes in as a 1, then there are many issues to be dealt with. And I’d challenge that the facilitator or organizer or organization is in trouble.

      Frankly, if I started a meeting and everyone came in as 2 or less, I would be inclined to have an entirely different meeting that focused on how to increase the sense of safety of the group. Why? Because if everyone feels that unsafe, no meeting will be successful or productive.

  6. Evan says:

    Very nice. I will definitely be looking around this coming week to see where I can practice this. 🙂

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