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Making Meetings a Safe Space for Honest Conversation

Meetings are an integral part of most workplaces. They provide opportunities for collaboration, decision-making, and sharing of ideas. However, many meetings fail to achieve these goals because participants do not feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly. When people hold back their true thoughts and feelings, meetings become unproductive.

Creating a safe space where everyone can share freely is essential for meetings to be successful. But this does not happen automatically. It requires intention, planning, and continuous effort. Leaders must be proactive in fostering an environment of psychological safety in which people believe they can express themselves without fear of negative consequences.

Today we will explore tangible ways leaders can make meetings a safe space for honest conversation.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

What exactly is a “safe space” in a meeting context? It does not necessarily mean people feel comfortable sharing private details about their lives. Rather, it refers to psychological safety - the belief that one can speak up without facing retribution or ridicule.

Amy Edmondson, Harvard professor who popularized the concept of psychological safety at work, defines it as "a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings.” When psychological safety is present, employees can ask questions, challenge ideas, and admit mistakes without fear of negative consequences to their status or career.

Psychological safety is crucial for honest, unfiltered conversation during meetings. Without it, people resort to self-censorship. They withhold suggestions that may be valuable but could also risk disapproval. Or they shy away from constructively criticizing someone else’s idea to avoid seeming unsupportive. Communication breaks down.

Suppressing questions and concerns creates an illusion of agreement and harmony. But this stifles debate, problem-solving, and innovation. It causes stagnation.

Leaders must counteract these detrimental effects by cultivating psychological safety. This enables people to fully engage in meetings without hesitation or apprehension. Once established, psychological safety unlocks the free flow of perspectives so groups can have meaningful dialogue and make optimal decisions.

Strategies to Build Psychological Safety

Fostering psychological safety requires effort from leaders before, during, and after meetings. Here are some best practices:

Before Meetings:


  • Set expectations for respectful debate. Make it clear that differences of opinion are welcome, not something to avoid discussing. Conflict over concepts can be healthy.

  • Acknowledge power dynamics. Leadership status or seniority may naturally inhibit some from speaking up. Assure that all views will be heard, regardless of role.

  • Ask for feedback anonymously. Solicit input about issues people want to discuss but may be sensitive. Anonymous surveys can uncover these.

  • Review conversation norms. If your group has guidelines for discussion, reiterate them. If not, establish some norms.

  • Share conversation goals. Explain hoped-for outcomes so people know if the purpose is brainstorming, decision-making, or another aim.


During Meetings:


  • Start with an icebreaker. Simple introductions or a quick personal question allows people to get comfortable talking.

  • Demonstrate openness. Leaders should model receptive body language and actively listen to show interest in what is said.

  • Consider the space itself. Have people sit in a circle or at a round table so no one is physically head or corners do not create cliques.

  • Offer affirmation. Validate contributions by thanking people for sharing and identifying insights you gained.

  • Manage reactions. If someone questions or challenges an idea, keep dialoguing rather than shutting it down.

  • Balance participation. If some dominate, invite less vocal members to share perspectives. Alternatively, ask frequent speakers to let others chime in.

  • Allow time for reflection. Occasional short breaks let people gather thoughts so they can contribute meaningfully.


After Meetings:


  • Solicit anonymous feedback. Ask what worked well regarding psychological safety and what could be improved. Responses should be anonymous.

  • Review key decisions. Summarize the main choices made and commitments undertaken to ensure clarity.

  • Discuss next steps. Outline action items and who is responsible for each one so expectations are defined.

  • Share takeaways broadly. Communicate broadly, not just with meeting attendees, about the meeting’s purpose, tone, and outcomes.

  • Follow up on concerns. If someone voiced worries but no resolution was reached, follow up to address their issues.

  • Analyze your facilitation. Reflect on what you did well or could improve in making space for candid conversation.


Specific Examples of Psychological Safety

To illustrate what the above strategies look like in practice, here are two hypothetical scenarios:


Leading a Brainstorming Session


Sam scheduled a brainstorm to gather creative ideas about a new project. To promote psychological safety, he started with an icebreaker, asking everyone to share what book they recently enjoyed. This got people talking casually.

Next, Sam reviewed the goal - to generate as many innovative concepts as possible - and reminded everyone that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. He reiterated that the wilder the better.

During the session, Sam actively listened, taking notes and thanking people for contributing. When James proposed an unconventional approach, Sam could tell others were skeptical, so he said, “Let’s explore this further - maybe it can spark additional approaches.” This reaction kept the conversation flowing.

Afterward, Sam sent a recap explaining which ideas they would pursue first based on the discussion. He included an anonymous survey asking what helped people speak freely.

Facilitating a Contentious Meeting


Lisa knew a proposal she planned to present would be controversial. To get authentic input, she first sent out an anonymous survey asking people to share concerns. She began the meeting explaining she wanted constructive debate, not universal consensus.

As the proposal was discussed, Lisa noticed Tanya and Diego grimacing at each other’s opposing views. During a break, Lisa thanked them for raising important perspectives and asked that they try to understand the reasons behind different opinions.

When Diego later interrupted Tanya, Lisa gently reminded him to let her finish before he responds. After the heated discussion, Lisa concluded by appreciating everyone’s honesty and summarizing the key pros and cons articulated to guide decision-making.

Conclusion

For meetings to unlock their full potential, psychological safety must be established so participants can authentically share ideas, ask questions, and constructively criticize. Leaders play a pivotal role in cultivating an environment where people feel safe to converse honestly.

Using strategies like setting expectations, demonstrating receptive body language, affirming contributions, and facilitating respectful interactions, leaders can transform meetings into open forums for earnest discussion. They should continue reinforcing psychologically safe communication before, during, and after each meeting.

While not instantaneous, over time these efforts institutionalize values of mutual trust, transparency, and candor. Ultimately, by making their meetings safe spaces for unencumbered conversation, leaders enable better debate, smarter choices, and optimal solutions. The organization becomes more innovative, agile, and resilient.

 

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.



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