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psych safety noticing 550 px

When I start to play with a new idea or concept, I begin by noticing when it shows up in my life and also when it is not present. Psychological safety is my focus for 2018, so I’ve begun to hunt for it in my daily experiences.

It’s important to note that this discussion is just about noticing. I’m not judging or deciding what I should do about it. I’m just noticing. Being able to recognize psychological safety, or its absence, is the first step in mastering and creating it.

I found it easier to come up with examples of when psychological safety is missing. The first example was small and insignificant but a revelation nonetheless. I was clearing supplements out of a cabinet in the kitchen. Some were expired, and others I’d tried and not liked. I was throwing out a lot of bottles. As I was doing it, I thought, “I’m glad that my husband isn’t here to see this.” In my head, I imagined him berating me for wasting money.

There is a lot to analyze here, such as the validity of my assumption in the first place, but let’s stick to noticing. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel free to share the fact that I was tossing out supplements. I was happy to keep it a secret.

The result was an “aha!” moment. If we want to keep something secret because we fear someone’s reaction, psychological safety is not present around that issue in the relationship.

I remembered a friend who told me that she kept her shopping purchases in the trunk and then gradually placed the items out in her home so that her husband wouldn’t notice. She didn’t feel free to tell him about her shopping spree.

Children often try and hide mistakes because they fear the consequences. That made me consider my own past parenting. Had I created a space for my own children where they felt free to admit mistakes? I don’t think that I could give an honest yes on that one. Maybe about some things, but not others, which led to a second revelation: We can feel psychologically safe about some issues or topics in any given relationship but not safe being totally open about others. So we can’t automatically label an entire relationship as psychologically safe or not.

I thought about my own childhood and realized that I did not grow up in a psychologically safe environment. In my family, mistakes were remembered and glorified. When I was learning to read, I pronounced “Winthrop” as “Win-throp.” The pronunciation made sense to a four-year-old because it ended the same way as “hop.” Actually, it’s pronounced “Winthrup” with the emphasis on the first syllable. Any time I made a mistake from that point forward, the family’s response was, “Way to go Win-throp!” As I grew older, I went out of my way to present an impenetrable façade in order to avoid ridicule.

I began to wonder if I was creating a safe space for my friends to share their feelings and actions. I remembered a time when a dear friend casually mentioned something she’d done with a man of whom I did not approve. It dawned on me that she hadn’t told me about it at the time. She must have feared my reaction to her decision. I don’t think I create psychological safety for others all the time.

Wow. I was feeling kind of down. Was psychological safety that illusive for everyone, or just me? I tried to think of a positive example. Finally, I remembered one. I was having lunch with my oldest son right before his wedding. We have very different views on the world, and he brought up one that we definitely don’t agree on. I asked him, “Are you sure you want to talk about this? You know we don’t agree.”

He looked a little surprised and said, “Mom, you and I can talk about anything!” Yes! A moment of confirmed psychological safety. I have to say it made me feel warm and fuzzy when I remembered it. His statement felt like a gift of trust and confidence in our relationship. I felt honored by his response.

From my noticing exercise, I came to two conclusions. First, secrets are a big flashing sign that psychological safety might be missing. Second, feeling free to share is a sure sign of its presence.

I also realized that psychological safety results in a grand feeling of acceptance, confidence, and trust, which confirmed the value of exploring and mastering the topic. I want more of those positive feelings!

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If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.