I’m working with an organization that is committed to getting better at “crucial conversations”. Crucial conversations are defined as conversations where (1) there are differences in opinion, (2) the stakes feel high, and therefore (3) emotions will be involved.
Foundational to having these conversations is psychological safety. Psychological safety means the environment is deemed safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
If psychological safety is lost in a crucial conversation, the conversation is no longer crucial. It is failed. These types of conversations define our lives, impact our relationships, and shape our careers. I think this is worth talking about…
When psychological safety is lost, the participants go to “silence or violence” (Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, et al.). Little good can come from that.
What started as a dialogue devolves into a battle of wills and egos and defense mechanisms. In short, author and teacher Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche says it so well in his simply summarized statement of what happens when we become lost in such a way:
“…our minds become confused with thoughts and drunk on emotions, and the results of our actions are going to be painful for ourselves and others. There is no other possible outcome.”
What is the cornerstone of psychological safety that you and I can do to engender psychological safety?
The Cornerstone of Psychological Safety
One definition of cornerstone is “an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.” So what’s the cornerstone of psychological safety? What is the most important quality on which it depends or is based? I’ll give the answer straight away and then put some scaffolding underneath it.
The cornerstone of psychological safety is your own capacity to feel safe in and of yourself, no matter the situation.
This assumes, of course, that the situation does not involve real physical danger, abuse, or things of such extreme nature.
This statement, at first glance, is deceptive. It’s deceptive because most people I know think they have this capacity… yet when they start to feel unsafe they blame their lack of safety on the other person or people involved.
Hello? Do you see how this is not that? “I have it until I don’t have it, and when I don’t have it then is your fault.”
The more self-knowledge we possess, the greater our equanimity. The more we’ve mastered our own selves, the closer we move to a state of being captured so well by statements like ‘an internal flame that doesn’t flicker’ and ‘a peace that passeth all understanding.’
In other words, as we gain self-knowledge and cultivate self-mastery, we depend less and less on the states, doings, and behaviors of others to make us feel safe. Pinning our feelings of safety on what others do or don’t do is a fool’s game.
And yet we are foolish. When others don’t do what we want or do what we don’t want, we become distressed.
I’ve heard it said that most of our suffering arises from our belief that other people are not doing what they should do. Or, as I recently heard, “God, grant me the ability to have compassion for people who sin differently than I do.”
(I just love that.)
When we are suffering because of what others are doing or are not doing, we experience that as distress. Our internal state goes negative. Meaning: our emotional, mental, and physical bodies become distressed.
Depending on the perceived stakes in the situation, we become, in order of escalation:
agitated (and therefore increasingly manipulative)
triggered (amygdala is really stirred up but we still have some of our wits still about us)
hijacked (fight, flight, freeze, feign death).
Most of us do not have an effective strategy for dealing with our own distress. Therefore, the locus of our own feelings of safety is dependent on the other people around us. This puts us in a position of weakness. It doesn’t stop there…
Withdrawing Psychological Safety
Dollars-to-donuts that you are like me and lots of other people. If so…
When your internal state goes negative because the people around you aren’t doing what you think they should be doing, you withdraw psychological safety from them. And for good reason, right? How can they possibly deserve psychological safety? After all, the knucklehead isn’t doing what they should be doing, and that is making me feel less safe. So, I’m justified in doing unto you what I believe you are doing for me.
We seem to be driven by an assumption that if we withdraw psychological safety, the other person will fall back in line and make us feel safe again. They want to feel safe. So, we use that as leverage. We broker an unspoken, one-sided deal — a manipulation. If they start doing what we want them to do, then we will give them the feeling of safety they seek.
Except for this: It doesn’t work.
Yet, if we look at ourselves honestly, we persist in this strategy as if it will work, despite all evidence to the contrary!
The Crazy-Making Loop
Afterward, things do tend to return to “normal” at some point. And we take that as our victory. “See, I withheld psychological safety from you and you came back around. Chalk one up for me.”
Except for this: This “normal” is dysfunctional. (Inconvenient truth, I know.)
Returning to “normal” doesn’t transmute the underlying dysfunction that gave rise to the provocation in the first place. Only a crucial conversation could do that. And we have a failed conversation. Nothing. Changed.
The return to “normal” (an uneasy truce or armistice) simply sows the seeds for the next cycle. The dragon retreated but we didn’t train the dragon (you don’t slay this dragon, BTW).
This is why most relationships won’t change. Which is because the individuals involved won’t change. I’ve got my out. The other person is the problem. Not me. If they acted right, I would and could. They don’t, so how can I possibly?
We get caught in an endless do-loop of:
–> you stop behaving as well as you should
–> I get agitated, triggered or hijacked
–> I withdraw feelings of warmth, connection, and caring (psychological safety)
–> I whip out some of my best counterproductive behaviors so you KNOW I’m PO’d at you (PO here does not mean “post office” BTW)
–> you return fire (of course, in your own inimical style)
–> we call a truce
–> we return to “normal.”
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Perhaps, forever.
Sorry, I get a little cranked up about this stuff.
Clarifying the Problem
Can you see here what the problem isn’t and what the problem is?
- The problem isn’t the other person (even if they are a knucklehead).
- The problem is that you can’t manage your own internal state.
- The problem is that when you can’t manage your own internal state, you withhold psychological safety.
- And you are withholding it when you and they need it the most.
- This is why our most important conversations are often failed conversations.
And you do some behaviors that aren’t very pretty. The icing on the cake.
What I want for myself — and what I want for you — is to learn to manage our internal state better and better. Because if I and you do learn to actively manage and work with our internal state, then we don’t pull psychological safety out of the very situations where we need it the most.
And, whilst we are being real, can I just say that we always, always, always (at some level) feel bad about having withdrawn our warmth, connection, and caring? We can’t hurt someone else without hurting ourselves, and when we withdraw our warmth, caring, and connection that hurts the other person. But it doesn’t stop there….
This also decreases our belief in ourselves. Belief in self is knowing I can discern what is right without my mind being ‘confused by thoughts and drunk on emotion’, and it is knowing that I can and will summon the necessary courage to do what is right no matter the personal discomfort or the negative consequences. I wrote an article about belief in self here.
What does this mean, to manage our internal state? Good question!
Window of Tolerance
Sara introduced me to a very powerful concept called the “window of tolerance”. It is a depiction of what happens based on how we handle “arousal”. (An odd word, but psychologists came up with it, I think.) We have an optimal level of arousal, and when there’s too much arousal for us to handle, our autonomic nervous becomes unbalanced, our amygdala starts beating our prefrontal cortex to the punch, and other amazing things start to happen. We become dysregulated.
The diagram to the left is fairly self-explanatory if you study it a bit.
Seven quick things I’d like to say about it.
- The distance between the two horizontal lines is the window of tolerance.
- Your window of tolerance is narrower or wider than mine is.
- The things that dysregulate you will be different than what dysregulates me (to some degree or another).
- The wider the window of tolerance, the less that various situations can send us off the deep end (dysregulate us).
- Above the upper line, we are “jacked up”: Fight or Flight.
- Below the lower line, we are “shut down”: Freeze or Feign Death.
- You and I can widen our window of tolerance.
- One way to widen your window of tolerance is to learn to better manage your internal state.
Here’s the thing:
The better we can manage our internal state, the wider our window of tolerance.
The wider our window of tolerance, the less often we withdraw psychological safety (and do other stupid stuff).
The less often we withdraw psychological safety, the more often we can effectively deal with our life challenges. Such as other people not behaving like we know they are supposed to. We do more good and less harm.
Here’s the main thing:
Is it dawning on you that learning to work with your own internal state is the art of making your own self feel safe, no matter what (non-physical threat) situation you are in?
The reason we withdraw psychological safety from others when they need it the most is that we feel unsafe.
[Read that bad-boy sentence again.]
The cornerstone of psychological safety is to learn to make ourselves feel safe in situations where — in the past — we felt unsafe.
It’s an inside job.
How to Start with Managing your Internal State
So, how do we do this? How do we learn to manage our internal state?
The basic instruction is simple. Just three parts. (Simple, not easy.)
1. See your pattern, your movement. When you start getting triggered, do you head towards hyper- (fight/flight) or hypo-aroused (freeze/feign death)? Get jacked-up? Or shut-down?
2. Start noticing that movement in-the-moment. What agitates you? What triggers you? What hijacks you? Why? Notice…. how it feels in your body. What emotions or internal state is present. What you are thinking. How your behaviors change as the internal state goes more and more negative. Notice. Observe.
3. Interrupt the movement in-the-moment. Anything that redirects more resources to your pre-frontal cortex and uses other parts of your brain and thus draws energy and blood flow from your amygdala will do.
Interrupting the Movement
How do you interrupt the movement? This is a very personal thing, a personal choice that depends on your needs, predilections, whether your physical, emotional or mental aspect is most out of balance, etc.
Options you can do in-the-moment to shift the movement of your awareness back towards “optimal” and therefore not hyper- or hypo-aroused include but are not limited to:
- Counting to 10 (just like mom told us to)
- Taking a deep breath
- Placing focus on our breath
- Noticing sensations in the body (by, for example, scanning from head to toe)
- Asking the question, “What am I feeling right now?”
- Invoking compassion towards our self
- Disidentifying from the emotion while being fully present to it (advanced)
- Invoking compassion for the other people involved (advanced)
I want to remind you that you are doing this in-the-moment, in the situations, conversation, conflict or whatever. It isn’t navel-gazing. It’s real-time. It may be simple, but it doesn’t start as easy. And you may think you understand it simply by reading about it and imagining yourself doing it. Believe me. You don’t.
These practices are so deceptively simple that you may be tempted to dismiss them. Don’t. Instead, dismiss them only after you’ve tried each one at least 7 times. Don’t dismiss what you don’t understand.
Understanding is not possible without doing, without experience.
The Power of the Practices
All of these practices redirect attention, energy, and blood flow from the amygdala (the alarm center that is firing and making you feel as if your life is in danger when it actually is not), to other parts of your brain.
All involve the use of the prefrontal cortex because doing each practice requires the prefrontal cortex. This is a part of your brain that you want online when you are feeling distressed and are NOT actually in physical danger, such a having difficult or crucial conversations. Such as when you are deciding with someone you love where to go for dinner, or which movie to see, or whether to save that $25,000 or put it into a kitchen update. Or at work. which strategic initiative should trump the other, or telling someone pretty intense that their intensity is draining the life force from the team.
Where should you start with these practices? It doesn’t matter — pick one.
My personal fav is self-compassion. It’s my go-to, though I use them all. I have programmed myself at this point that if I’m hanging by a thread and I can’t think what to do, I go to self-compassion. I’m hard-wired to go to self-compassion. I wrote about it here, and you can find one page of instructions on how to do self-compassion in that article. You may be drawn to another practice that is quite different. But pick one and do it.
The Benefits of Practice
You can master learning to manage your internal state.
- This builds belief in self.
- This enables you to feel safe in situations where you have felt under threat.
- This means you can stop withdrawing psychological safety from others when they need it to most.
- This means you stop covertly punishing people who aren’t behaving the way you want them to behave.
- You do more good and less harm.
I will now repeat what I told you at the start of this article.
The cornerstone of psychological safety is your own capacity to feel safe in and of yourself.
Stop looking for other people to make you feel safe. You don’t need to trust people in order to experience psychological safety. This may seem impossible or totally foreign to you now, but it is true.
Trust yourself. In any situation. (Particularly those where you are not in physical danger.) You don’t need to take my word for it.
Each step you make in moving yourself from feelings of distress and danger to feelings of safety and competence by shifting your internal state via the practices above, you will know for yourself whether this is true. That’s what I love about this type of work. You need to take nothing on faith. All knowledge is experiential. We can know the veracity of it ourselves, through our own experience.
If you can put your own oxygen mask on first, and keep it there, you can be helpful to others when they are gasping for (psychological) air. This is the essence of having the capacity for difficult or crucial conversations. It is the essence of healthy, happy, collaborative relationships, too. Perhaps this is the most fundamental life skill, period.
Invoking our own psychological safety from the inside of ourselves by shifting our internal state breaks that cycle above. It gives rise to a new “normal”. One that is more healthy. You flourish. And you support others in doing the same. Even… yes… the knuckleheads. How do you know?
Because you don’t see them as knuckleheads anymore. You see them as people who, just like you, have hopes, wishes dreams… who desire to be happy and free from suffering, and who currently don’t know how to do that. So they, like you, cause suffering for themselves and others.
How cool is that?
The cornerstone of psychological safety is you, yourself, feeling safe. You have the capability to build the capacity. I’d say now that you know you can, you even have the obligation to do so. In this fear-based world, you being able to do that will bring solace to yourself and others.
Your primary job is to learn to work with your internal state. The better you are at this, the safer you feel out there in this big, bold, mysterious, crazy world we live in… And you stop withholding warmth, caring, and connection just when others need it the most.
Be a lover.
I wrote this post after giving a presentation on the topic earlier this week. I thought I was writing it for you, but I found out as I was preparing to publish it that I had actually written it for myself.
I am having a lot of conflict with someone in my life right now. It’s been going on for weeks. I’m weary of it, which is usually the point that I shift in some way. There’s something about feeling worn down and drained that I can seize to make myself more pliable and capable of change.
This person and I have reached a point where to keep growing and evolving we need to move to a new developmental stage. My experience is that conflict is the catalyst for shaking out the entropy and inertia that can set in during a “plateau” in a relationship. It serves to get me (in particular) off the sofa and moving up the ascent to the next level.
What I noticed last night is that part of what I’m up against here–and a key source of my distress in this conflict–is that I’ve reached the limits of my own current capacity to make my own self feel safe. I am seeing that part of where I’m stuck is that I’m still dependent on the other person–to a degree–to make me feel safe.
This is such a powerful reminder that personal development work is like peeling an onion. I’ve made progress. And there are layers and layers to go. So, my personal work right here, right now is to push my own capability of working with my own internal state to the next click outward. To feel safe within my self in the middle of this conflict, whilst considering the issues that are arising and need to be contemplated and resolved.
Capacity-building never seems to happen in one, fell swoop. It is click after click.
I’m writing this afterword as an admission that I haven’t mastered all this, and also to hopefully inspire you to know that this isn’t conceptual for me and that it need not be for you. As much as you might like reading what I write about, the true benefit only can arise for you through action. Understanding is experiential.
What I love about personal development is that it helps me solve the practical problems of my own life. And it is in that spirit that I write. For you and for me. Personal development should enable each of us to better solve for ourselves the practical matters of our own lives, and in so doing lead to a deeper and deeper knowledge of our own selves. Which brings us closer and closer to being and becoming at-one with something unfathomable. The benefits of true (transformative) personal development are beyond measure, and available to anyone willing to do the work.