How Do You Create Safety?
For many years in my life, I struggled to form real connections with others. I hid my feelings, even from myself, and rarely could I manage to articulate the intricacies of my heart and mind. On some unspoken level, I didn’t feel safe.
Aware of this need for safety, I was on high alert for danger cues, vigilant for signs that someone may be untrustworthy or some other form of bad news. But the truth - to paraphrase doctor and researcher Stephen Porges - is that safety is so much more than the absence of danger, and that safety can be created.
Now, as a life coach, it’s my job to create a safe environment for my clients - to explore their fears and dreams, to be open to discovering and sharing more of what’s true for them. I treasure this role.
We don’t talk about creating safety much in our general culture, not nearly as much as we talk about avoiding danger. Sure, we have First Aid and Fire Safety courses, lessons in schools on how to cross the street and all sorts of admonitions to avoid strangers (now sometimes referred to as ‘tricky people’). We even have anti-bullying campaigns, doing important work to combat the cruelties in our nature. But what about interpersonal safety, emotional safety, that feeling of being safe, seen and accepted? Short of surrounding ourselves exclusively with the ‘right’ people - how do we create that? And, what’s the value in that?
As mammals, we're deeply social creatures. One of the worst things for a mammal like us is to be isolated and left alone. We’re wired for connection with other humans, and it’s the feedback of others - through their interested faces or warm utterances - that encourage us to open up more. To know ourselves and to let ourselves be known.
Not all feedback is created equal. While we can fake smiles, will our faces into appealing shapes, and think of consoling words even for those we despise, our voices, according to a new body of psychological research, don’t lie.So while a warm smile or a choice string of words can help create safety, our voices communicate safety (or its lack) much more powerfully.
Think of a new baby, crying out in distress. His devoted mother approaches her infant and investigates - does baby need milk, a diaper change, a blanket? Ruling all of these out, she starts vocalizing to her baby in coos and babbles, pitching her voice up and down in a melodic sing-song. Baby miraculously calms down. Not because his mother said the right thing, as his grasp of vocabulary is undeveloped. Rather than what she said, it was how she said it. Called “prosody,” this way of speaking - the tone and cadence and pitch of voice - is one of the greatest ways we create safety with others. Prosody triggers our nervous system to relax.
It’s not just in our early relationship with our caregiver where voice is so important. Other studies have indicated that within relationships, only 7% of meaning communicated is from words themselves, and 38% is from tone and pattern of speech.
You know what else is cool? When we interact, we actually co-regulate each other’s physiology. So, while interacting with an angry person can make us angry, interacting with a calm and caring person can calm us down. We regulate back and forth and typically have more power to change the tone of a conversation than we may think. We can create more safety by being aware of our tone of voice and employing a gentle, pleasing tone, for starters.
Of course there’s more we can do. Amy Edmondson, working at Harvard Business School, defined a version of “psychological safety” from research she conducted at various workplaces. She outlined three keys to creating safety at work. (And I would wager that these tips can be translated to the rest of our lives - anywhere we find ourselves interacting with others with shared goals or shared spaces.) The keys are as follows:
- frame the work as a 'learning problem', acknowledging uncertainty and interdependence
- acknowledge our own imperfection. Say simple things like “I may not see everything; I need your input.”
- exemplify curiosity; ask loads of questions
What does this have to do with creating safety as a coach, or in outside-of-work relationships?
We make it safe to be our full selves - “imperfections” and all, by first acknowledging the impossibility of perfection. Life is in rapid flux, we can’t know exactly where things are headed, and we actually all do depend on each other. This fact of interdependence requires us all to share our voices.
We can more readily admit mistakes under these conditions, and when we do that, we show others it’s OK to do that too. And this is how we actually learn from our mistakes, and feel safe and supported rather than hiding in anxious shame. We also make it safe for others to reveal themselves - moles and all - by actually asking about them. This is one of the key tools of coaching, and it can be applied to daily life. When someone says something that’s confusing to us, or doesn’t say anything at all - when we don’t know or don’t understand them, the best way to bridge this gap is to actually ask. Show people that you’re interested and invite them to share. This active invitation creates more safety.
Creating safety can not only serve to create a more pleasant and human environment, but is actually shown to improve performance. When people are empowered to admit their mistakes, they have the chance to learn from them. When more information is shared, individuals can function as a team rather than anxious adversaries.
When we feel safest in our connections, we take bolder risks and express more creativity. We express more of ourselves. We actually access parts of our brain that lock up when we’re fearful. Having a secure base is what lets us explore wider and deeper, because we know we can always come back to home base.
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