Three Things to Consider when Designing Safe Interactions

One way to understand the health of your organization is by studying the interactions of your teams.

Here are a few questions to get you started: 

  • What does the body language of the group tell you?
  • What percentage of people are late to meetings? How often?
  • What is the level of resolution and confidence after meetings? 
  • What is the level of active follow through after meetings? 
  • What is the level of preparedness among the group? 
  • What does the tone tell you? 
  • What is the mood of the group? 
  • What is the level of collective understanding among the group? 
  • How do you feel when you leave a meeting? 

Teams, projects, and companies can be made or broken through effective or poor interactions. I’ve seen it go both ways. 

The recent New York Times Magazine issue on work put this dynamic in context with an article about Google’s exhaustive effort to understand what makes good teams effective.

Their conclusion - psychological safety - which Amy Edmonson defines as: 

"A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking."

I find it important to discern between safety and comfort. Just as we must discern between happiness and being content. 

We get comfortable with our team members, we drop our professional guard, and fall into patterns. This may start out as a step toward psychological safety but over time, without thought, you can find yourself cycling through a pattern of comfort. Comfort does not equal safety.

Comfort ≠ Safety

A past client of mine said it well; if you’re in a relationship, you can’t just always go home and eat in front the TV, sometimes you have to get dressed up and go out to a nice dinner to reinvigorate things. What I hear in this is that it’s important to be comfortable with the people you work with and it’s critical to be intentional about how you’re engaging with one another.

Whether you are kicking off a new project, meeting with your team for the hundredth time, or engaging your colleagues on a special project, you have the opportunity to thoughtfully design a safe interaction.

Here are three things that you should consider when designing a safe interactions:

1. Space

The space we meet in is often an after-thought. We shuffle into conference rooms, choose a seat around a table, put all of our things out in front of us, and get to it. This is okay for routine meetings once safety is established but when a team is forming and intermittently throughout the course of a project - it's important to remove distractions and obstructions and connect more deeply.

When designing your meeting space, consider the circle. A circle is a powerful tool and I've had the honor of being part of powerful circles. The circle forces you to show up and be present.

Here's how to set it up:

  1. Arrange chairs in a circle so that everyone can see one another when seated.
  2. Remove any objects from the center that distract or obstruct. This includes tables, computers, projectors, wires, and cables.

2. Roles

Roles are often assumed without being considered and designed ahead of time. Stop doing that. Assumptions can be dangerous.  When engaging any group of humans, it's important to consider the roles that you and your colleagues play. There are three roles that I believe are critical to effective communication and engagement:

  1. The Storyteller engages the group by giving context and establishing a dialogue.
  2. The Observer engages the group by reading the participants' focus and energy and modeling physical presence and body language.
  3. The Inquirer engages the group by asking really good questions that help participants understand the context more deeply and inviting people to speak up.

These three roles can be played three individual people, three groups of people, or one person. The goal is for each of us to develop the ability to play all three roles and understand when each is needed.

3. Boundaries

Without boundaries, an interaction can dissipate. Establishing boundaries is an important practice for teams. Boundaries allow for the group understand what the conversation is and what it is not. There are four key boundaries that I believe should be set:

  1. Participants: Who is present?
  2. Context: What are we talking about and why?
  3. Time-frame: How long will this conversation last?
  4. Agreements: How will we engage with one another?

I hope that these tools allow for improved interactions on your team. I hope that you become so damn intentional with how you design meetings, engagements, and interactions.