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  • Francoise Gielen

3 ways to support people to open up

Updated: Jan 9

As a facilitator, do you recognize this? In the individual intakes the team members share a lot of wisdom. Yet once together, nobody speaks up. Now what?


You could share back the wisdom yourself (anonymized)…. However, if you go down that road, chances are high that people will remain silent. And you’ll end up you doing all the work. The better option is to create a space where people will open up themselves. This blog shares how to do so.



The power of opening up


When Sarah concluded her story, you could hear a pin drop. Her peers were clearly moved by her courageous share. About how from childhood onwards she had taken too much responsibility, especially after her mother had left. She had become aware that that experience blocked her from asking for help, always being the strong woman people could rely on. This had led to a successful leadership career but at a detrimental cost to her work-life balance. This made a lot of sense to the rest of the team: she would never take their advice or support. And not knowing the story behind the pattern, each had their own interpretation of it. David for example honestly shared he felt Sarah never really appreciated his ideas. Sarah in turn acknowledged she did appreciate his efforts and should have listened better. Yet her automatic default always had been to do it herself. But now she was determined to free herself from this limiting behaviour. She asked her team members to help her do so.


Why is it important to create a safe space?



Now a whole new conversation started unfolding in the team. People started speaking up as well and participating fully once they saw that opening up was safe and valuable. This created a safe space where they could learn and grow together.


This safe space allows group members to take interpersonal risks, such as sharing vulnerabilities or asking for help, without fear of punishment or repercussion. And we know, thanks to the great work of Amy Edmondson, that this is a hallmark of high-performing teams. Each time people experience they can rely on each other, trust and support will grow within the group, leading to stronger connections and more effective teamwork. And of course, creating such a safe space allows for a more inclusive and equitable environment where everyone's voices and perspectives are heard and respected. In short:


a safe space brings out the full potential



What are the basic conditions for a safe space?


It was not only Sarah’s courage, there was also a fundament she could step on. We had built it right at the beginning of the workshop. This is the fundament of basic human needs.



In a group, we as humans monitor three questions:


- Am I safe here? - Will I not get hurt?

- Am I accepted as part of the group? - Will I not be rejected?

- Can I do what we're up to? - Will I not fail & can I do it my way?


When these basic needs are not met, concerns will arise which will keep group members from bringing themselves in fully. You may recognize this for yourself, although it often happens subconsciously. Start paying attention to it. Especially when you enter a newer group, you might be able to hear your ego acting out on these topics. And that’s fine, your ego is just trying to keep you safe. But usually in an unskillful way. And your participants will do the same.


How to contribute to a safe space as a facilitator?


We do not have the illusion to be exhaustive here but is always a good idea to attend to these basic needs right at the start of a workshop. At least within the first hour. How to do so? Below are the 3 proven steps we recommend.


1. Am I safe here? - Establish yourself as a safe pair of hands

The group needs to believe they are in safe hands being led by you. First, through your experience and expertise. You have done this before. And if you are early on in your career: you have done this type of work before, for sure on yourself. Or when you were a student, a leader in a different context, as a parent etc. It also helps if the formal leader shares why she/he has chosen you to be best candidate for the job. It’s not about bragging about yourself (it is not about you anyways) but for the sake of the participants feeling safe. And last but not least: you will need to be safe with yourself. Especially at the beginning of my career, I learned to work on this (a lot…) before entering the room, and I still have it as a check-in with myself today. Guess what happens with your participants if you do not feel safe yourself?


Feeling safe in yourself creates the space for others to feel safe as well


Secondly, you need to open up yourself. By taking a personal risk, such as disclosing something vulnerable or sharing a weakness, you signal to the group that it is safe to do so No need to go all therapeutic on yourself but there is a way of being vulnerable and poised at the same time. Which shows you can handle this. And the golden nugget is when the (in)formal leader does this as well. We often ask/coach the leader in advance to share a personal story including their struggles. Guaranteed that the openness of the leader ends in the top 3 highlights of the participant feedback.


2. Am I accepted as part of the group here? - Building the social field


Creating a sense of belonging is another step in creating a safe space. One way to do this is through small, low-entry disclosures amongst the group members. For example, you can do a speed date session where people talk in changing pairs in 3 short rounds about personal things. For example, what are they grateful for, their childhood dreams, highlights working for the company, their values etc. Choose 3 questions (one for each round) that are universal and meaningful. At the end close off each person sharing one answer in the full circle. Participants are always amazed at how easily and quickly they can bond around such personal topics. And it brings out a lot of positive energy as it makes people feel connected in their shared human experience.


3. Can I do what we're up to? - Giving people the confidence they can do it, in their way


Giving people the confidence to do what they are asked for is the third important step in creating a safe space. One way to do this is by providing a clear outline of the day's activities and expectations. This will help group members to understand what is expected of them and how they can contribute.


Besides, it is important to install a learning mindset by stating it is about learning, not perfection. And not only stating: you have to embody that as well. Also, explain how the team will be supported during the workshop. This can help to alleviate any fears or concerns about the ability to participate or succeed.


Furthermore, it's important to establish a contract with the team so that they will be co-responsible for how we will go about it, including managing their own hopes and concerns. This will give them the autonomy and control over their participation, which mitigates the fear of being forced to do something.


By providing clear expectations, a supportive environment and autonomy, group members will feel more confident and empowered to do what they are asked for.




Missing out on the power of disclosure


If the three conditions of safety, belonging, and the ability to do what is being asked for are not met, people will not take the interpersonal risks of opening up. Without a sense of safety, group members become guarded again potentially hurt. Without a sense of belonging, members comply rather than show their true selves. Without a sense of being up to task, people run into fear of failure which decreases ownership. And without a sense of autonomy, people feel forced which will lead to resistance. Ultimately, without these basic needs met, the group experiences more stress and struggles to achieve its goals because they miss out on their full potential which arises when opening up to each other. While addressing the three basic needs is a crucial first step in creating a positive group dynamic, it must be continually attended to throughout the group's development. As group members interact and share personal experiences, new issues may arise that threaten perceived safety, belonging, competence or autonomy. Furthermore, group members may change over time and new members join the team. It is essential to create a culture of continuous attention to basic human needs for the group to achieve its goals. Conclusion Facilitation is a powerful tool for creating a safe space where teams can openly communicate, learn, and grow together. By understanding the key components of creating a safe space, facilitators can help group members to reach their full potential. When facilitating a group, you can build a safe space by attending to the basic human needs of safety, belonging and competence & autonomy. By laying the foundation for these needs to be met, team members are more likely to take interpersonal risks which is one of the hallmarks of high performing teams which bring out their full potential. If you're interested in learning how to facilitate groups and individual leaders in reaching their full potential, you may like Liberation of Facilitation, our Facilitator Development Program. This program will take you on a journey of self-discovery, learning and mastery in facilitating liberation.




Or contact Jeroentje van Joolingen via jeroentje@liberationoffacilitation.com to explore further.

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