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Creating A Healthy Space For Dialogue

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Creating a safe space

You may have heard comments lately about needing to create a safe space for conversations, engagement, and collaboration. Creating a physiological safe space is not a new concept. Dr. Amy Edmondson in the late 1990s published a paper titled: Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams

The premise behind Dr. Edmondson’s research is the idea that team psychological safety is a shared belief among members of a team that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking without repercussions. Psychological safety also supports team efficacy in learning and performance in organizational work teams.

In a previous post titled: Leader or Not to Lead… Ability or Motivation? I encouraged readers to conduct a personal assessment in four areas of leadership and then ask people they work with to share their observations about what they see in you as it applies to those four areas.  

The four areas to assess are some of the key characteristics that are present in effective leaders:

  • Communication behaviors
  • Influencing behaviors
  • Relationship behaviors
  • Humanitarian behaviors

Truth or dare

Thinking about your team environment how honest would your team members or your peers be about what they see and what they would tell you about your abilities? 

It’s not easy to hear that you are not as good as you thought you were. I struggle with that all the time, we are human and as adults, we don’t like to be wrong or told we are wrong. We like to believe that our experiences, knowledge, education, and practices are worth something.

My perception is right and yours is…

From the moment of birth, we start experiencing, processing, and recording the world around us known as personal psychodynamics. Throughout our lives, we develop the source of truth lens. This is the lens we look through to evaluate, assess, and judge the world around us… all based on our own experiences, this makes each one of us a unique individual.

This uniqueness can lead to conflict especially when we close down our minds to others’ ideas, opinions, or thoughts. Each one of us sees the world from a different angle. Our personal myopic view can leave us blind to other possibilities. 

Creating a healthy space for dialogue

This is where creating a healthy space for dialogue comes into action. I am a certified facilitator for Gracious Space: Suspending Judgement and Encouraging Collaboration, this training comes from the Center for Ethical Leadership. Before becoming a certified trainer for Gracious Space, I would always talk to leadership about creating a safe space for discussions. After going through the Gracious Space training myself I began to realize we needed to look at it as creating a healthy space for dialogue. 

A healthy space embodies more of the interpersonal risk-taking without repercussions or judgments, the sharing of ideas, listening to other perspectives with the intent to understand, opening our minds to different opportunities and views, and asking the one question my wife Lisa taught me before I say anything, “What don’t I know?”

Exercise | Deliberate practice

Here is your part. It’s your responsibility as a leader to develop and maintain a healthy space. If this is what you want, you need to walk the talk and make sure it stays professional. Sometimes people will see this as an opportunity to share everything. There is a time and place to share feelings and emotions, this too can be done in a healthy space even in the work environment, you need to decide which space you are working in. 

The Center for Ethical Leadership defines Gracious Space as a spirit and a setting where we invite the stranger in, meaning learning from others and embracing learning in public including learning from your peers, your leaders, members of your team, and the person who cleans the office which I have learned some interesting lessons from because I was not aware they were watching. 

As the leader, you need to bring the spirit which is the intentional creation of a supportive environment.  Within that environment, you need to demonstrate your acceptance to learn from other people even if it happens in public which can sting and allows you to demonstrate how a leader walks their talk.   

Your ability to graciously and professionally accept feedback, coaching, and learning from other points of view is crucial. When others see you deliberately practice your spirit, they begin to believe you are committed to your word and trust begins to develop or increase. Don’t expect this to happen overnight, this is why I use the term deliberate practice. 

Deliberately practice your spirit in every engagement, every conversation, every one-on-one, and every time you ask people to provide their perspective on what they see in you, their opinions about a project or change initiative you are working on, and your ideas. Will you get the truth and do they dare be honest? 

Ask your team what a supportive or safe environment looks like.

You might have a general idea of what a supportive, safe, or healthy environment is or looks like. The question is, how does your team see it, and do they feel safe enough to tell you? Ask them to define or describe what a safe space looks like to them and see how it aligns with your belief of what it is. You have to watch your reactions to what they say, if they feel you will or are judging them no one will speak, if that happens, then you know you have a space where your team doesn’t feel safe. You need to be the one to take the lead and make the space safe.

If you are working to create or support a safe space you need to ensure your people that you are genuinely interested in what they think and there will be no backlash. You need to be very clear about that point. If they catch you smirking or rolling your eyes, then you need to learn in public, in other words, acknowledge you did that and apologize to them, seriously. If you don’t you will damage any trust they have in you. 

If they feel safe enough to speak here are some responses you might hear:

  • It is a space where I feel respected
  • It is a space where I am heard
  • It is a space where my ideas are not shot down 
  • It is a space where I can share my opinion without being put down or laughed at
  • It is a space where I am seen as a team member
  • It is a space where I feel important to the team
  • It is a space where I can be my authentic self

These are some of the responses I have heard when working with teams. Here comes that question, “What don’t I know?” Each response is a clue to something that most likely was a negative reaction that happened to them in their past on other teams or even on your team. If someone says a safe space is where I feel respected, ask them to tell you more, about what that means to them, then listen with the intent to understand.

In your journal, and I suggest you have one, write down their responses and make sure you understand what’s being said. Creating a safe space has to be done based on their perceptions of what a safe space looks like, not just yours. Moving forward, every time you have conversations with your staff remember what’s important to them, grant them that space and you just might be amazed at what you hear.

Dialogue vs discussion

One last item. As you work on your spirit understand the types of conversations you might have. A document compiled by the University of Washington titled, Difference Types of Conversations, might help you to focus on what type of conversation you want to have in a healthy space.

“In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) to understand and find meaning, and points of connection. Dialogue involves a real concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate but yet speak what is true for oneself. In dialogue, one searches for strengths in the other positions. Dialogue creates an openness to learning from mistakes and biases.

Dialogue remains open-ended. In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal.”

As the leader, your job is to create the space, suspend judgment, and encourage collaboration through healthy dialogue. Practice every chance you get.

Your personal leader library

If you don’t have a leadership or personal library, start one. It is easy to forget about something when it is on your computer and you turn it off. However, there is something about a hard copy book staring at you every day as a reminder of what you are learning or would like to change about yourself.

If you are serious about establishing a safe space I recommend Patricia Hughes and Bill Grace’s book Gracious Space a Practical Guide for Working Together.

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.

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