How to create a safe environment for learning at your event

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In the events world, the word “safety” has a couple of meanings. The first is objective: the degree of protection from undesirable environmental hazards. At events we maximize the objective safety of attendees by eliminating or minimizing the likelihood of tripping, slipping, falling, falling objects, food poisoning, etc.

The kind of safety covered here is subjective safety: How safe do attendees feel? As the following quote indicates, if we are to optimize learning at a meeting we want participants to be relaxed but alert; in a state I like to call nervous excitement.

“…brain research also suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance between stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat. The brain needs some challenge, or environmental press that generates stress as described above to activate emotions and learning. Why? Stress motivates a survival imperative in the brain. Too much and anxiety shuts down opportunities for learning. Too little and the brain becomes too relaxed and comfortable to become actively engaged. The phrase used to describe the brain state for optimal learning is that of relaxed-alertness. Practically speaking, this means as designers and educators need to create places that are not only safe to learn, but also spark some emotional interest through celebrations and rituals.”
—Jeffery A. Lackney, report excerpt from the brain-based workshop track of the CEFPI Midwest Regional Conference

It’s easy to create a meeting environment that feels unsafe for most if not all attendees. Without careful preparation, asking people to walk barefoot over hot coals, dress up in costumes and dance on stage, or give impromptu talks to a large audience will evoke feelings of discomfort and fear in almost everyone.

It’s also easy to create a safe event environment by treating people as a passive audience who are not required to participate in the proceedings in any way. Unfortunately this is often the choice made by many meeting organizers who are themselves afraid of what might happen if attendees are subjected to something “new”.

So, how do we strike a balance between unduly scaring attendees and treating them as inactive spectators?

It’s not easy.

Creating the right amount of nervous excitement for a group of people is challenging, because each of us responds uniquely to different situations. For example, meeting someone new at a social might be easy for John and scary for Jane, while Jane has no problem skydiving from an airplane at 12,000 feet which is a prospect that terrifies John.

Ultimately, we can’t control other people’s feelings (let alone, often, our own)! Consequently, we are unable to guarantee that anyone will feel safe during a meeting session. But there are some things we can do to improve participants’ experience of safety when they are faced with the new challenges invariably associated with learning and connecting.

Create an environment where it’s easier to make mistakes

“Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures.”
—Laura Grace Weldon, Fun Theory

Why is feeling OK about making mistakes important? With traditional broadcast learning, your comprehension of the material presented—or lack of it—is something that happens in your brain and is essentially invisible to everyone but yourself. In a social context, this creates a great deal of safety; no one can easily see that you don’t understand.

But because experiential learning requires us to do something external, like talking to our peers about our understanding or ideas, or physically performing an activity, we lose this invisibility safety net. This brings up the possibility that others may experience us doing something “dumb”, “stupid”, “slow”, etc. (For an example, read the “Graduate student story” on pages 62-64 of my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.)

As someone who was educated in a school where knowing the “right answer” was praised and lack of knowledge or understanding denigrated, I felt ashamed about “making mistakes” in public for many years, and, unfortunately, this is a common experience that almost everyone learns to some degree while attending school as a child.

So how can we create an event environment where it’s easier to make mistakes? Here are three suggestions:

1) Tell participants that it’s impossible to make mistakes
A simple way to create a safe environment for what participants might otherwise feel is risky is to tell them that whatever they do is the right thing.

For example, when I introduce the opening technique The Three Questions at an event, I tell participants that it’s impossible to answer The Three Questions incorrectly. Whatever answers they give are the correct answers. This sounds almost too simple—but it works surprisingly well!

2) Improv exercises
One of the first games used to introduce improvisational theatre (improv) to those with no prior experience is keep the ball in the air, usually shortened to ball. Players stand in the circle and a ~12” diameter hollow rubber ball is tossed into the air. The object of each game is for the group to keep the ball in the air with any part of their body, with the game ending if anyone contacts the ball twice in a row or the ball touches the ground. Holding the ball is not allowed. Each ball touch adds one to the group’s score, which the group shouts in unison after each contact. A game rarely lasts more than a minute or two, so many rounds can be played in a short time.

Games of ball get a group working together on a goal, provide a challenge (reach a higher score than in prior games), include physical movement, and are fun to play. Sooner or later, every game of ball comes to an end because the ball hits the floor or is touched twice in a row by the same person. But because ball is a lighthearted game the thought that the last person who contacted the ball failed in some way never really matters. Everyone just wants to play another game of ball.

There are many improv variants of ball, played with one or more imaginary balls. When you are tossing and receiving multiple imaginary colored balls to people in your circle, everyone will “make mistakes” (if they don’t, the leader just increases the number of balls), and again it doesn’t matter. Everyone making mistakes is simply part of the game.

Improv exercises provide wonderful opportunities for people to get used to making mistakes. That’s why they are increasingly used for leadership development and organizational team building. Games like ball provide an enjoyable transition to environments where making mistakes is the norm, rather than something to be ashamed of.

3) Model being comfortable with messing up
It’s crucial that facilitators and leaders of conference sessions model the behaviors they wish participants to adopt. If I am not comfortable with facilitating new or impromptu approaches which may or may not work, how can I expect my participants to be comfortable attempting them? This doesn’t mean, of course, that I should deliberately mess up, but responding in a relaxed manner when I do provides a reassuring model for participants to adopt and follow.

The right to not participate
It’s important to explicitly give attendees the right not to participate. Clearly state that people do not have to take part in any given activity before it begins. When working with a group, do not put specific individuals on the spot to participate; ask the group as a whole for feedback/ideas/answers/volunteers instead.

At the start of an extended (adult) event I tell participants that I want to treat them like adults. I encourage them to make decisions about how and when they will participate, and explain that they are entitled to take time out from scheduled activities, or devise their own alternatives when desired and appropriate.

However, it’s also fine to set limits on non-participants—a common example would be to ask people who do not want to participate to leave the session for the duration of an activity rather than staying to watch.

Provide clear instructions
I think that one of the hardest things to do well when leading a participatory activity is providing clear instructions. After many years it’s still not unusual for someone to complain that they don’t understand the directions I’ve given. I recommend writing out a narrative for exercises beforehand and practicing until it feels natural and unforced, but this won’t cover ad hoc situations when unexpected circumstances arise and you need to improvise.

Besides sharing instructions verbally, also consider displaying them on a screen or wall posters, or providing a printed copy for each participant. Once you’ve shared your instructions, ask if there are any questions, and then be sure to pause long enough for people to formulate and request clarification of what they don’t understand.

Learn from participant feedback. Remember what was not clear and revise your instructions as soon afterwards as possible, so that the next time you run the exercise you will, hopefully, be better understood. It may take several attempts before you find the right choice of words, so don’t give up!

Consider providing explicit ground rules
Providing explicit ground rules at the start of sessions and events can, in my experience, significantly improve participants’ sense of safety while working together.

Conclusion

“There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
—Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

As Keith Johnstone reminds us, people choose to participate or not for their own good reasons. Respect their choice, while making it as easy and safe as possible for them to take the risk of trying something new.

Photo attribution: Flickr user willowpoppy