I've written before about the importance of safety as the foundation for the risk-taking and experimentation that are essential precursors to learning and change. In any setting where we're seeking to grow and develop, it's essential that we feel safe with each other and trust each other. In the absence of safety, trust and emotional intimacy, our efforts to learn and grow will be severely hampered. And this applies everywhere--not only in explicit learning environments such as the classroom, a workshop or a coaching relationship, but also in our day-to-day organizational and personal lives.
But safety and trust aren't ends in and of themselves. The process starts with safety and trust, but it doesn't end there. The safer and more trusting we feel, the more risks we can take, the more we learn and grow. Ultimately safety and trust are valuable resources that become even more useful when we push (and extend) their limits.
Obviously there's a balance that must be maintained. Safety and trust are highly dynamic qualities, and the risks we take in service of learning and growth can strain or even damage the safety and trust that have been established up to that point. But if we cling too tightly to safety and trust once they've been established, we'll fail to take the risks that are necessary to support growth and learning.
I see this process in action every day in my work as a coach. A few months ago a client made a glancing reference to the fact that he and his wife had begun fertility treatments. This is obviously a highly personal topic, and potentially a sensitive one as well. Our conversation was focused on another issue at that moment, and I felt an impulse to respect his privacy and to let the remark pass without further comment. But I also realized that at some level this was an emotional bid, and that by making it my client had created an opportunity for us to connect--but in order to do so, I had to take a risk.
I paused the flow of our conversation and acknowledged the importance of the topic he had mentioned. I said that I knew the process was challenging and stressful, and I empathized with him and his wife. I also shared that while Amy and I have chosen not to be parents and are comfortable with that choice, at the same time I'll always feel a pang of regret that I won't experience fatherhood--an emotional bid of my own. The whole interchange took just a minute or two, and yet it left us feeling much closer and more trusting--and the key was making use of the safety we had established in our previous conversations to step into some small (but increasing) risks.
And it doesn't always go smoothly. Last week I participated in an exercise at Stanford that involved having our students focus on a tightly-kept personal secret, presented them with opportunities to share the secret or withhold it, and then assess how they felt at various points throughout the process. I'm purposely omitting details to respect the privacy of the class, but believe me when I say that it's an emotionally arousing experience that intentionally pushes the limits of the safety and trust we've established with our students. We've conducted this exercise for many years and found it extremely useful, but this year it was unusually intense for some students, who found the feelings it evoked difficult to manage. While it was important to acknowledge the challenge this experience presented for some students, and we'll assess the cause of this year's results, I remain convinced of the value of the exercise.
Powerful learning involves being challenged in fundamental ways, and at crucial moments we have to take the plunge and step into the risk. We may--and will--make mistakes by pushing too far, but it's also a mistake not to push at all. And yet one final point on that note: Even though I believe in the importance of pushing the limits of safety and trust to support greater learning and growth, I've also realized that I can't complacently rely on my own definition of "safety." We all have different comfort zones, and I need to be keenly attentive to the stress levels of my clients and students in challenging situations. This requires a heightened sense of empathy and a recognition that even--and especially--when pushing the limits of safety and trust, these qualities are the foundation of any learning relationship and are never to be taken lightly.
Photo by ariel wants a chip. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.