How to create psychological safety in a learning environment

IMage of a group of people around a laptop to help show creating psychological safety in a learning environment.

Psychological safety, a term coined by Amy Edmondson, is an important element for learning and growth. It is a shared belief that can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn). That’s a formal definition. But what does it mean?

What’s an amygdala hijak

You’ve heard of fight or flight? This is your amygdala, (or your chimp brain if Dr Steve Peters is to be believed) which comes to our aid when we feel unsafe in an environment. The priority of this part of our brains is to protect its host. In a threatening situation, (for example, coming face to face with a large predator, or in more modern times, nearly being hit by a car) we get what is known as an amygdala hijack.

This is when the primal instincts of our brains take over to protect us. It can happen in a heartbeat and the effect is instant. Adrenaline is pumped through the body, giving us the energy and strength to deal with the threat; to outrun the predator, or jump back onto the pavement to avoid the car.

Notably, when we are being controlled by the amygdala hijack, our pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain, shuts down. It makes sense. If you are faced with a big predator, the last thing you need to do is ‘analyse” your situation; determining if the beast is friend or foe and thinking through a logical course of action. You don’t have time to do this, so the primal part of your brain comes to the rescue, to remove you from the situation before you are eaten. Or get hit by the car. With us so far?

When we put this into a learning environment, you can still feel threatened by the situation, even if the danger is not a tangible one. To the primal part of our brain, a threat is a threat. This results in a partial hijack; you still feel the adrenaline, the increased heartrate and feeling the need to run away but in response to a threat that cannot be faced head on.

But what causes this to happen?

Situations can feel threatening because they are unknown; walking into a training workshop full of people we don’t know, can be intimidating. This feeds fears that our primal brain generates.

We know that when learners don’t feel psychologically safe in a learning environment, they are unlikely to benefit from the workshop. Their brains are in defence mode; self-preservation and self-protection is paramount, which is detrimental to a successful learning transfer. 

How do we create psychological safety in a learning environment?

1. Getting started

How much information do you give learners who are invited to the programme? Do you let them know who the other participants are? What the learning style is going to be like? Timings and content are also good things to know. By disclosing as much information as you can before the workshop, you keep learners from feeling like they are going into an unknown situation.

If you are the facilitator, you will welcome your learners as they arrive; being warm, friendly and instrumental in introducing them to each other. We do this in a virtual training workshop too. Learners can be greeted as they log on by their smiling facilitator through a webcam, instantly engaging in chatter and being welcoming and accommodating.

2. Setting the tone

Setting the tone of the workshop upfront can help learners to see and feel from the outset that it is a safe environment to learn in. If there is no roleplay, for example, tell them so. Sometimes you will hear an audible sigh of relief!

It can help to introduce the idea of a ‘Vegas’ rule; What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Learners often like this concept as it means that what happens in the room, what we talk about and experiences we share, won’t go any further. It allows learners to feel more comfortable about sharing their challenges and can empower them to get involved in practice sessions. It’s important that everyone gets on board with the concept for it to work, but when it does, it can cultivate a much more relaxed atmosphere for learning. 

If you want to learn more about how your learners can feel psychologically safety in your learning environments, check out one of our Principles blog – safe hands for more tips and hints.

Read next: How virtual training means learning for all.

3. Singling out

No one likes to be singled out and this is true in a training workshop too. Almost everyone can remember a time when they have been called on when they didn’t want to be or weren’t ready. These kinds of experiences can create fear in learners that prevents true engagement in a learning environment. 

Some cultures, like the US, encourage learners throughout their education to contribute verbally to lessons; often their grades are affected by how much they do so. This doesn’t mean all Americans delight in being vocal, however. 

Other cultures, in France for example, is very different and learners are instead encouraged not to speak out in sessions, cultivating a ‘listen and learn’ environment. If a single learner is required to answer a question put forward by a facilitator, we suggest giving as much warning as you are able; “John, I’m going to ask for your opinion on this”. Also, be careful to avoid questions with a direct right or wrong answer. This way, your learners feel like they are part of a conversation, instead of under a spotlight. 

Final thoughts

The bottom line is that learners have a right to feel safe and secure in their learning environment and that it is the duty of the facilitator to ensure that they do. By tackling the different challenges that can arise, through careful positioning and a warm atmosphere, we can all create workshops that are psychologically safe for everyone involved. Need some help ensuring your sessions are psychologically sound? Or just want to talk more about psychological safety?

More of our latest news