How to Build Safety in a Group

You can probably think of many reasons for group safety. One reason is that for people to grow and learn, they generally need to do something different than their usual behaviours. That means taking a risk. Taking a risk requires a group where it’s safe to experiment, to fail, to stretch, and to grow.

Safety shouldn’t be confused with a space where people feel comfortable and easy with each other. In fact, if you do good job of creating safety, the group will often try new things outside of their comfort zones to stretch and grow. (Read more about expanding comfort zones.) So being uncomfortable can be be a natural result of creating safety.

What can facilitators do to create safety?

Early in a workshop or the life of a group, people often look to the leader to find out what kind of space this is. Therefore, especially early on, your modeling makes a difference. Give warm attention. Tell the group you value safety. Give support for forgiveness, including acknowledging your own mistakes and modeling self-forgiveness (who wants to be part of a group where nobody can make mistakes?).

Another important attribute is modeling being okay with a range of people’s expressions. We don’t have to get anxious because someone is angry, emotional, or in crisis. When we model being okay with people, we help participants know they don’t have to be care-takers or stop people from having “bad” feelings.

At the same time, we can invite the group to take responsibility for the whole group. In the Pacific Islands some trainers create a group treaty, by having the group find some people to lead a process of making agreements on how the group wants to operate. Then the facilitators leave the room and let the participants collect responses and make a group agreement. That process allows the group to take responsibility for and own the processes.

How can facilitators use design to support safety?

Safety is built as people build trust and relationships in the group. Many facilitators assume that means something like a “go-round” where everyone speaks—but people cannot meet the whole group at once. What helps most people experience safety is lots of small group of different sizes (trios, fours, pairs). As they build up small relationships, it creates safety for the overall group.

Some facilitators include a buddy system or some kind of ongoing support groups. It’s been shown that people learn more when they have at least one other person who is intentionally and regularly checking-in about their learning.

This brings up a general principle: in many cultures using clear structures (like precise formulations of sentence completions, or clear and concrete explanation of what will happen next) is important for groups. It often supports safety because people know they are being taken care of by the facilitator. It builds trust and safety to have rigor, like giving precise amounts of time for a break or when the facilitator does what they say they will do.

Another design technique that can be useful is to have participants individually set goals for themselves. What do they want to get out of the workshop? How will they make sure they get it? Then check in about those goals periodically.

People develop safety by taking risks and finding it turns out okay—so a design should give people opportunity for increasing risk-taking appropriate to the group and their safety. One example is a training of trainer workshop where people are asked to stand in front of the room and introduce themselves to the group. People experience risk—but when they complete the task and see others supporting them, their sense of safety grows.

The design should think about differences that may be marginalized. Is there space for people who have historically marginalized identities or approaches that are unique among the group? Is there more information you need before you can design? Have you built in some time for you to check in with different margins and get feedback to make sure you are on track?

Also have you structured questions that it’s okay for a range of self-disclosure? Some people may share a lot about themselves, and others may share less. Whatever they share is okay.

If you manage to do many of these things, you’ll likely create a group with some safety—the safety required for them to learn to be bold, active change makers!