I’ve written quite a lot over the last few weeks about Safety in team discussions. What I haven’t really discussed is how to detect when the safety is starting to fail. Imagine you’re in a conversation with someone, at work or at home and they’re starting to feel unsafe. We know that this means they will stop sharing and will result is poorer group decisions. But how do we know if someone is feeling like that and what can we do to prevent it?
If you haven’t read it already I strongly recommend picking up a copy of the book Crucial Conversations. In it, the authors discuss that people generally go one of two ways when they’re feeling unsafe. They either go to silence or violence.
When someone goes silent they often stop talking or become very monosyllabic in their responses. Perhaps they want to shut down the conversation or move onto another, safer topic or maybe they’re only sharing certain parts of the story – the parts which support their argument rather than discussing the potential problems with it. However silence manifests it’s usually because the person doesn’t feel comfortable with the topic and wants to move on or gloss over the real issue.
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Other people tend to go to violence. I’m not talking about physical violence (at least I hope we’re not making people so unsafe they have to lash out). I’m talking about attacking an idea or, even worse, a person. Comments like “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” or “only a moron would say that” are attacks. People raise their voices and try to dominate the conversation through shear volume rather than calmly discussing the topic with someone else.
It’s important to realise that both of these are natural reactions when someone feels insecure discussing something. It may be that you’ve said something which has upset them, or it may be that they’re worried about the whole topic of conversation.
In the example I gave a few weeks ago the developer had an idea which he refused to share with the group because he didn’t think the team would listen to his opinion. However, he could equally have turned to violence and tried to force his point on the group by making them feel unsafe challenging him. Both of these are defense mechanisms. It’s our role as colleagues, as human beings, to look for signs that someone is starting to feel unsafe in a conversation and to look for ways to reassure them so we can resume constructive dialogue.
Collaboration is hard, if we really want the best decisions then we need to hear all viewpoints and listen to everyone’s experience. We can’t do that if we bulldoze our view too firmly. The next time you’re passionate about an idea take a look around you and see how others are reacting to you… are they going to silence or violence? We cannot change other people’s behaviour but if we try and support other people’s confidence then we’re likely to get ideas and suggestions presented which we’d never have considered ourselves – after all, isn’t that the point of a team?