Facilitation Friday #7: Create a Safe Climate

If we want people to engage honestly and authentically, they have to believe it is safe to do so in the meeting or learning environment.  Ask people what they define as a safe climate and they will tell you: understanding of goals and roles; knowing the process and expectations; ground rules or shared agreements; a comfortable environment that makes it easy to engage and interact; permission to share thoughts not fully formed; no fear of retribution; time to think; respect for differences and individuality; knowing enough about the other people in the conversation; and much more.

Effective facilitation helps create this safe climate, and the climate metaphor is useful in several ways.  Let's examine them first in terms of weather and then their corresponding application in facilitation:
  • Depending on your where you live, your typical climate can vary.  Depending on where you reside in an organization or community, the culture and climate varies.
  • Weather can change rapidly for both better or worse.  A day that starts out sunny might end with brief afternoon rain showers.  In meetings and workshops, the same is true.  A safe climate established at the start of a discussion may deteriorate into stormy conditions when certain topics are raised later in the agenda. A group that struggles early on may become more engaged once a degree of comfort beings to take hold.
  • While climate trends are reasonable indicators for seasonal or even daily conditions, they are not 100% reliable forecasts.  While what worked or didn't work in past sessions of a workshop or meeting on a similar topic are reasonable predictions for a future iteration, they also aren't sure indicators of what will unfold.
In Facilitation Friday #2, we explored Kurt Lewin's assertion that behavior is a function of people interacting with their environment.  When you are preparing to facilitate a group, it is useful to gain an understanding of what seems safe or safe in the existing organizational environment, to/for whom, and why.  Every organization (or workshop or conference) has normative behavior in its culture: this is the way we do things around here.  People bring those norms into any individual meeting environment (i.e., don't bring up controversial matters), and the environment in which the meeting is to occur often is set to reflect the organization's norms (i.e., every session at a conference has a head table on a riser with a podium).

So helping create a safe climate when facilitating requires you to think about the overall climate or culture of the organization and what implications it has for the meeting or workshop you are going to facilitate.  I find it useful to think through a series of questions:
  1. In general, how safe is it in the organization to speak your truth(s), offer feedback openly, and raise tough questions or challenging issues?
  2. What are the desired outcomes for the meeting or session I am facilitating and who will be participating?
  3. Given the general organizational culture, the specific session outcomes, and the individuals who will be involved, what will be required to help produce a safe climate?
  4. How can the meeting or workshop physical environment be changed and how can the way our conversations occur be facilitated to help produce a safe climate? 
When facilitating it is incumbent upon us to do this advance thinking and to prepare accordingly.  We also must think about potential climate shifts that could occur and how we might handle them.

But ultimately, safety is in the eyes of the individual.  One of the more challenging, but ultimately rewarding conversations we should facilitate is posing this core question to the group itself: What do we need to do collectively to ensure that people can speak their mind freely today and that we can produce the results you want to achieve by the end of our time together?

The best way to create a safe climate for facilitation often is facilitating a discussion on what that climate would include and how each individual can help create it.

Every Friday in 2012, I will post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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