Meetings are an essential part of any organization, allowing teams to align, make decisions, and solve problems together. However, many meetings fall short of their potential, filled with guarded conversations that tiptoe around key issues. How can leaders transform their meetings into open forums for candid discussion and collective insight? The key is to focus on two areas: giving permission and creating safety.
Giving Explicit Permission
One of the simplest yet most powerful things a meeting leader can do is give participants direct and explicit permission to fully express themselves. Permission allows people to seek what they want, give honest feedback, and speak up about problems. Without it, people may hold back out of uncertainty about what's allowed or fear of negative consequences.
Leaders can grant permission through clear invitations, questions, and statements. For example, at the start of a meeting, a leader might say, "I want this to be a space where everyone feels free to share their true perspectives, ask any question on their mind, and have an honest dialogue together." Direct permission-giving statements like this free people to participate more fully.
Leaders can also invite permission-seeking from the group, asking members what permissions would help them contribute fully. This empowers individuals to define what they need to speak and act freely. When leaders actively grant the permissions people request, it builds trust and psychological safety.
In addition to permission, psychological safety is critical for free-flowing meeting conversations. Safety means people can voice views, ask questions, or admit mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retaliation. Without safety, people censor their words and withhold their true thoughts.
Leaders play a key role in fostering safety by how they respond to contributions in the meeting. Three specific behaviors build safety:
Giving full attention to each speaker, actively listening without distraction or interruption. This shows respect and care for each person’s perspective.
Allowing space for people to take their time expressing thoughts. Resisting the urge to jump in or complete others' sentences provides patience for ideas to emerge.
Sharing appreciation for people's questions and comments by identifying what is helpful or insightful about them. This builds trust that all contributions have value.
Beyond leader responses, the overall environment also impacts safety. Having regular members, a relaxed setting, and non-hierarchical participation increase comfort to speak openly. Psychologically safe meetings are grounded in mutual care, respect, and empathy.
The Benefits of Permission and Safety
When leaders consciously cultivate permission and safety in meetings, the benefits are profound. Conversations become more candid, creative, and constructive. People share deeper insights and challenges that they would otherwise keep to themselves. Diverse views get welcomed into the dialogue rather than suppressed. Difficult issues and interpersonal problems can get raised and resolved. Teams leverage their collective wisdom much more effectively.
In psychologically safe meetings, leaders also get more honest feedback and input, gaining invaluable understanding about how their ideas and strategies are being received. And team members feel valued for their perspectives and empowered to do their best work together.
On the other hand, without adequate permission and safety, meetings underperform. Conversations stay superficial, guarded, and sterile. People hold back concerns, reinforce each other’s assumptions, and avoid challenging the status quo. Hidden tensions simmer under the surface. Important issues never get addressed. And groupthink limits exploration of alternatives. The organization misses out on innovating and improving.
Permission and safety unlock a group's full potential. They enable the shared vulnerability, candor, and trust that allow meaningful conversations. By being intentional about fostering permission and safety, leaders can dramatically increase the freedom, engagement, and impact of meeting interactions. When people feel free to express their real thoughts and emotions, that's when collaboration truly flourishes.
Creating an environment of permission and safety is foundational to having productive, honest dialogue in meetings. Leaders play an essential role through directly granting permission, inviting the permissions that individuals need, and responding with care and respect to foster safety. With permission and safety established, teams can have more authentic, vulnerable, and courageous conversations, leading to greater collective insight, innovation, and performance. Leaders who aspire to bring out the best in their people must make their meetings a safe space for truth-telling and genuine connection by focusing on permission and safety.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.