6 Tips For Facilitating Psychological Safety in Emotionally-Charged Training Topics (Part l)

by Feb 2, 2022

Written by: Toni Herndon on 1/31/2022

As trainers, of course we want the material from our learning objectives to be delivered.

But we also want to create a safe environment for learning where people feel seen and inspired to action – where the materials come to life. Certainly this goes beyond simply sharing any drafted curriculum.

Civility Partners’ is always training on topics that ignite a lot of emotion in our clients’ learners – harassment and bullying prevention, bystander intervention/allyship, equity and inclusion… to name a few (more information here).

Creating that psychologically safe space is of paramount importance in our world. Bringing the material to life in these sessions includes difficult and emotional conversations, and trainer presence must be strong to facilitate them.

One trick I use, for example, to get the safe space going is to start sessions off with an explanation that we are co-creating a container with everyone present in the physical or virtual room.

Below are three tips to building a psychologically safe space while facilitating training. They hold true whether your program is virtual or in-person.


Tip # 1) Be Hyper-Aware.

Check yourself and notice when your own triggers are appearing and where you might be showcasing defensiveness versus curiosity. Participants are tapped into how you respond to others when determining their own safety to speak up in a group setting.

Notice any judgements you have, and recognize any bias appearing on your side of the fence.

Be careful not to emotionally bypass people who are being vulnerable. It’s too easy to want to lighten things up quickly when difficult topics are discussed. Instead, attempt to validate your participant’s lived experience and gently bring them into the discussion. 

Be sure to model the leadership you hope to see in your participants and be aware of where your message may be incongruent from what you are showing in your own behavior.


Tip # 2) Take a Pause.

Encourage your participants to use reflective pauses before responding, so that they can go deeper into their thoughts, and also to allow extra time for introverted folks to offer their answers as well.

When you feel reactive, take a pause in the form of a breath or two before responding to participants.

Be aware that you may feel pressure to fill moments of silence, and yet in the rush to release some discomfort you might be silencing a powerful learning moment.

Build your patience in between your training sessions by adding a personal practice of mindfulness or other methods to slow down. Research shows that when calmness and reflection becomes a habit, it is easier to demonstrate in moments of higher stress.


Tip # 3) Get Vulnerable.

Be willing to share your own life experiences and lessons where appropriate. This helps participants see you as a real person and allows them to be more patient in their own learning process.

Model openness and encourage vulnerability in participants by validating their experiences. No-one feels safe if they feel like they are going to be told they’re wrong, or corrected in front of others.

To encourage a shift in perspective, first validate the learner by normalizing the experience. A well placed, “I used to think that too” or, “Yes, that’s how many of us were taught to respond.” After that, you can introduce new material in a way that does not sound dismissive or overly corrective.

Seek to increase safety wherever possible, and one good way to start the training off on the right foot is to set ground rules around confidentiality and asking questions openly. Give everyone permission to disagree with the training material and each other in a respectful way.

Keep an eye out for the next three tips! Meanwhile, enjoy the higher level of engagement and connection coming your way now that you’re following these tips.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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