Learning together without shame

Sep 01, 2020


How the trainer can increase psychological safety in group situations

Some years ago I attended a training program in France. I arrived there early in the morning and exchanged a couple of words with the trainer before we started. The group was about 40 people, sitting in a huge circle along the walls in a large room. I didn’t know anyone there. In the beginning the trainer said something about the training and about himself. I looked around and wondered, who are all these people. Then suddenly the trainer asked me something. I wasn’t paying attention at all and I didn’t really get the question. Everyone was staring at me and I was staring at the trainer in silence. He repeated his question. I was put on my guard. Still silent and then mumbling some fuzzy answer. I felt ashamed of not being fully present, scared of maybe not understanding the questions right and afraid of not giving a professional appearance. Shame and alienation is not a fertile ground for starting to learn together.

Collaborative learning requires psychological safety

Collaborative learning methods include sharing experiences and discussing applications of new ideas. However, learning together can push some people out of their comfort zone. How to reduce anxiety, fear of failure or the discomfort of sharing your thoughts with others? Why is it necessary?

Google made a research about the secrets of effective teams (Project Aristotle). The number one of the five key findings was psychological safety. People in high performing teams experience high levels of psychological safety. They feel safe to take risks and to be vulnerable in front of each other. In a psychologically safe environment I can feel accepted and respected, be myself without negative consequences. I have no fear of becoming embarrassed.

I will now share some of my ground rules for increasing psychological safety in trainings and other group situations.

Concrete ground rules

First, think about yourself as a participant in a training program. What would you need in order to feel like you belong in the group? What could you do to feel comfortable about participating in whatever lies ahead of you together with all these people?

Usually people need social acceptance, security, trust and a stable environment, to be able to perform well. We need to connect with other people on a personal level.

What could the trainer do to increase psychological safety among the participants? What could be done to make everyone feel that they can be themselves, just the way they are?

How to increse psychological safety

Here are some of my ground rules based on my 18 years of facilitation experience and even longer experience as a teacher. Address people’s primary needs first.

  • Give focus: What is this training about, what’s the overall structure and way of working. People need to know when they get food and when the show is over. Keep the schedule of the training program visible. Half way through the session you can remind people where we are and what the goal is.
  • Help people connect with each other in the beginning. Use easy personal topics, for example how was your morning, what’s your source of energy. Avoid making titles, experience levels, religion or political stands visible. Avoid questions that might make people feel unequal – “How was your holiday? We couldn’t afford a holiday”.
  • Allow silent thinking time alone before asking people to talk to each other. Especially introverted people prefer to gather their thoughts before talking. Some people form their opinions faster than others, and in group conversations they might overrule others. Individual thinking time creates more ideas and perspectives and it activates more people to take part in discussions.
  • Encourage active listening. You can say for example “Try to understand others first and then to become understood”. Give equal air time for diverse opinions.
  • Give clear instructions. Explain beforehand what will soon happen. Take different learning styles into account: Write the instructions somewhere everyone can see them, explain them verbally, you might also demonstrate what to do and show the format of the expected outcome. This way nobody needs to feel ashamed of not understanding the task at hand.
  • Stay content neutral when you wish to get all participants’ opinions out. Encouraging one person’s idea might discourage another’s opposite idea without you noticing it.
  • Model an open attitude and curious behaviour yourself and create a foundation where participants get inspired to know more about each other. Be relaxed, transparent, easily approachable, accepting and open. Be human yourself. People don’t feel good about themselves next to superhumans.



Build on positive experiences

Remember the last time someone was inspired by something you said or did. How did it feel like? Which physical signals or behaviours tell you that you have enough psychological safety – or not?

I wish you all courage to get out of your comfort zone and share your key insights with a stranger next time you see an opportunity for it. Discover how it feels and congratulate yourself for your courage to learn more in interaction with others.

I’m happy to help you learn how to apply these ground rules in practice. You are welcome to attend a training at Grape People.


Piritta van der Beek has worked with corporate client groups since 2001. She leads workshops built around client-specific complex content. However, her best skills involve creativity – delivering facilitation of innovation-oriented workshops and training innovation methods. She is also highly adept at leading strategy workshops or team development processes. With her tremendous energy, she is able to instil enthusiasm in everyone in the group.

Piritta is an author of three books. She holds a Master’s degree in Art Education and is a Certified Professional Facilitator.

About the organisation

Grape People was formed in 2003 out of a desire to make organisations more inclusive.

As organisations and working environments became more complex, it was no longer enough to have strong and knowledgeable leaders – the traditional type.

A new kind of leadership was needed to solve hard problems: facilitative leadership. So we set out on our mission to spread facilitation awareness so that leaders might be better equipped to lead the organisations of tomorrow.

We help organisations create and implement change through facilitation and facilitation training. Whether the task is to create a shared vision; to implement a strategy within the organisation; to understand and act on an important change; or to improve team efficiency, we are here to help.

This certification program is the product of countless hours facilitating workshops and training facilitators. Between our facilitators and trainers we have facilitated more than 1,000 workshops and trained more than 25,000 facilitators worldwide.

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