Creating psychological safety

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Written by Dr Tony Humphreys on 16 December 2020 in Features
Features

Tony Humphreys asks: do you have charge of yourself before you take charge of others?

Freud captured the sad reality of the lack of psychological safety when he penned the lines: “What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant mind of the child and the feeble-mentality of the average adult”.

I am always mesmerised by the fearlessness, determination, dare-devil behaviour, curiosity, persistence, and tenderness of toddlers – radiant mind indeed and a mirror of the fearlessness of our true nature. Tone of voice accounts for most human misery – the tongue is, indeed, mightier than the sword.

When toddlers encounter crossness, impatience, harshness, being shouted at, they wisely, unconsciously, and creatively shift from being fearless to being fearful, from living to hiding and from spontaneity to nervousness. 

The level and depth of fearfulness will depend on the frequency and intensity of the verbal and physical blows to their expression of their true nature. Their fearfulness can be detected in such behaviours as shyness, clinging, lack of eye-contact, nail-biting, reluctance to take on a challenge, sickness, nervousness, cessation of dare-devil behaviour, and bouts of crying or temper outbursts.

The results of such psychologically safe relationships are higher work performance, lower mortality and greater learning

A return to ‘radiant mind’ and fearlessness is only possible when the significant adults in their lives create the psychological safety for them to begin again to give expression to their true and fearless nature.

Clearly, the parents, childminders and teachers who ‘lose it’ with children are unconsciously operating from fearful places themselves and unless these adults find the psychological safety with another to resurrect their own fearlessness, then no resolution is likely to occur for either the children or the adults.

Human suffering is generational, not genetic, and there is an urgent need for a professional service that focusses on how psychological safety can be created for everybody, and, most especially, for those adults who have charge of others – parents, teachers, childminders, managers, leaders, and politicians, as well as medical, psychological, psychiatric and social work personnel.

Clearly too, if it is relationships of an adverse nature that accounts for the creation of fearfulness, then it is enduring relationships of an affirming, empowering and unconditional nature that maintain the fearlessness of our nature or the redemption of it when it had creatively needed to be substituted with fearfulness.  

 

Psychological safety is present and active when we occupy our own ‘I-Land’, do not invade other people’s I-Lands and have clear boundaries around any attempts by others to invade our island. It is a truism that solitude (I-Land) is the basis for all relationships – parent-child, teacher-student, husband-wife, doctor-patient, psychologist-client, manager-worker, leader-employees.

When we are authoritarian, critical, judgmental, aggressive, coercive we are enmeshed with others and we invade other people’s I-Lands and abandon our own one. Equally, when we are passive, shy, timid, dependent, submissive we abandon our own I-Land and allow others to invade ours.

When we maintain our solitude and operate fearlessly from our I-Land, everybody benefits. In any other scenario, everybody suffers. It is only when you have charge of yourself are you in a place to create psychological safety for others to take charge of themselves.

For anyone who has experienced ongoing threats to their wellbeing, trust is a major issue for them to dare risk putting his/her toe in the water of daring again to be fearless. After all, if the most important people in my life were not in a place to provide psychological safety, who can I trust?

Patience and persistence on the part of those adults who have charge of themselves – whatever roles in life they have – is critical to their efforts to create psychological safety for others to recover their fearlessness.

Be assured nobody wants to stay hidden behind the walls of fearfulness, but only the person himself/herself knows the depth of adverse experiences encountered, and the emergence from fearfulness to fearlessness, from surviving to living needs to happen at their pace.

It is refreshing that research demonstrates that managers and leaders who are either already in a place of charge of themselves or on the path to occupying their own inner sanctums, create relationships with employees which comprise care, belief, trust, respect, equality and inclusiveness.

The results of such psychologically safe relationships are higher work performance, lower mortality and greater learning, and conflict being embraced as opportunity for sharing ideas and exploring differences. Edgar Schein captured the essence of creating psychological safety when he wrote: “Psychological safety allows people to focus on achieving shared goals rather than on self-protection”.

The need to keep in mind the ingenuity and creativity of both psychological safety (radiant mind expressed) and psychological safeguarding (self-protection) is paramount. We are always where we need to be whether we have come into conscious charge of ourselves or continue to protectively suspend that authorship of Self. 

There is always a story and non-judgmental and compassionate enquiry are the solid bases for a gradual return to solitude and charge of Self.

 

About the author

Dr Tony Humphreys is a consultant clinical psychologist, course designer and speaker. He is the author of many books on practical psychology including his newest release, 'Creating Psychological Safety'.

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