Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

Safety First!

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Image: Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, hosts the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration at the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC, in 2009 (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

I make a habit of observing the way public speakers go about engagingan audience. Recently I watched with delight as an expert leading a workshop I attended positioned himself as a facilitator and a partner rather than a Lord of All Knowledge who had been invited to bless the room with his wisdom.

By acknowledging the past experience of participants and calling on us to share it to help others learn, he made everyone feel safe and smart. I was transfixed as I watched the workshop leader quickly and magically transform a suspicious and somewhat reluctant set of attendees into engaged learners.

The decision to treat an audience with respect was in stark contrast to the approach I had observed a few days earlier when a speaker lost his audience soon after beginning what was essentially a sales pitch. In trying to rally support for a new (and actually good) idea, the speaker began by assuming that everyone was in agreement with the proposal. He used annoying and unfamiliar jargon. When people raised questions, he dismissed their concerns and suggested that they simply didn’t understand the landscape enough to have valid opinions. Within just a few minutes most of the people in the room began to hate him.

Making an audience feel psychologically safe and accepted is critical to advancing your ideas. At some point, when my annoyance with Jargon Man subsides, I may send him an easy-to-read book that could help him be more successful in the future: Chris St. Hilaire’s 27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences & Win Allies. St. Hilaire, a corporate messaging strategist who applies Buddhist principles in his work, advances an effective and ethical approach to getting people to support concepts and approaches. He begins with a foundational principle that applies to every situation: Before giving a talk or engaging in a serious conversation, make others feel protected and comfortable.

“Throughout the conversation,” St. Hilaire writes, “whether they are conscious of it or not, your listeners will be shifting from feeling threatened and feeling safe.” When people feel threatened, he says, their minds cannot be opened to new ideas. If they feel safe, however, they will be willing to explore different possibilities.

So how do we make others feel safe?

We can take a lesson from the workshop leader I described. He chatted with workshop attendees before the session began and expressed genuine interest in their current projects. Once the workshop got under way, he recognized and validated the participants’ expertise, used their language, built upon their ideas, acknowledged their concerns, admitted what he didn’t know, and made it easy to ask questions. Perhaps most important of all, he positioned himself as a problem solver instead of an untouchable expert.

What strategies have you used to create a sense of psychological safety with an audience?

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