The Importance of Psychological Safety

I just saw this spot on article on LinkedIN from my good friend Daniel Goleman.

Worth every minute 🥇

By Daniel Goleman

Marie was an executive at a large tech company. While she loved her work, she found the company culture–which she described as a “boys club mentality”–difficult to navigate. Marie eventually accepted a job offer from an industry competitor, hoping to find a better culture fit.

Marie’s new employer offered her a coach to help ease her transition in the company and to hone the emotional intelligence (EI) relationship skills needed for her role. Her coach, Kat, had experience helping women navigate the nuance of leading in the tech industry. This shared understanding, paired with the clear expectations and confidentiality Kat established, began a collaborative coaching relationship rooted in emotional safety.

Marie, feeling her coach’s support, opened up about the negative experiences in her previous role, as well as her fears about her new position–particularly that she would experience condescension from her male colleagues and direct reports. Kat helped Marie explore these fears and understand where they were holding her back. Together, they developed strategies to help her better manage her triggers around condescension and lack of respect. This improved Marie’s competencies, particularly when it came to influence and teamwork, and created a transformational shift in the way she approached her new role. Where she once felt fear, she now had confidence. 

Psychological and emotional safety is the understanding that being honest and open is okay and won’t have negative repercussions. When we feel safe, we’re able to shut down the brain’s hardwiring for defensiveness. This, in turn, fosters healthy risk taking, innovation, and enables us to unleash fuller strengths.

In contrast, an environment that lacks safety keeps us in survival mode. The amygdala–our brain’s radar for threat–takes control, preventing us from innovating or learning new things. Emotional safety shuts down this amygdala hijack and releases us from the fear and anxiety of survival mode.

The concept of emotional safety has its roots in John Bowlby’s research on parent-child relationships. Bowlby claimed that children need to feel such safety in order to develop and explore the world. We now know that this need for safety continues into adulthood.

In a coaching relationship, emotional safety enables growth. When a client feels permission to explore and make mistakes, they become far more likely to understand the root of what’s holding them back and take steps toward positive change. 

To create a container of emotional safety for their clients, coaches can establish an environment of trust and mutual understanding when beginning their work. In the coaching intake session, the coach can let the client know what to expect, encourage questions, and realign expectations if necessary. 

In this first session, on the other hand, it may become clear that coaching is not what the client needs or wants. For instance, a client may be unwilling to explore their emotions–which would prevent them from benefiting from emotional intelligence coaching­–or may have expectations that would be a better fit for therapy. 

By ensuring that their client is on the same page, coaches begin the relationship with a foundation of trust. And as the relationship progresses, coaches can gauge the client’s comfort, share insights, and offer new techniques.

Coaches who demonstrate “unconditional positive regard” for their clients ensure that the clients will not feel criticized or judged for their thoughts and feelings. Clients feel held emotionally, and are able to go deeper and get to the root of what’s keeping them stuck. In this way, emotional safety in coaching cultivates a richer experience, which is more likely to pave the way for transformational change.

If you’d like to become an EI coach and master a coaching methodology rooted in emotional safety, consider applying for my Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification. And if you’d prefer to get coached, you can learn more here.

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