Who’s In-Charge of Creating Psychological Safety in a Crucial Conversation?

The answer is as simple as it is challenging: You are responsible for your own safety.

I’ve learned as much from Ron McMillan (my co-author and long-time business partner) as from any other single person about what healthy communication looks like. One striking moment was during a high-stakes negotiation. Ron and I had gone through three rounds in an effort to strike a deal with the CEO of a partner organisation. Each time we proposed a deal, the CEO would begin the next meeting with a substantially lower offer. By the fourth meeting I was about to blow.

Why? Because I felt threatened. I had concluded that this CEO was trying to manipulate and abuse me. I felt like a victim. And I felt like a victim because I had made myself out to be one. I had unconsciously shifted responsibility for my interests to another person. In truth, he couldn’t threaten me. All he could do was walk away from a deal.

When you don’t feel safe, it is for one of two reasons:

  1. You perceive someone is threatening you physically or materially (“I’m going to fire you” or “I’m going to leave you” or “I’m going to hit you”).
  2. You perceive someone is threatening you psychologically (“I don’t care about you” or “I don’t trust you” or “I don’t respect you”).

If you lack safety of the first type, there should be no debate that it’s up to you to secure it. You need to find another job, for example, or repair or replace the relationship, or find protection. If you stand around feeling put out that others have fixed your problems, you’ll get run over by life. Type 1 problems are straightforward.

It’s the Type 2 problems that lead us astray. And our straying leads us to a life of victimhood and rescuing.

VICTIMHOOD

I felt like a victim in the negotiation with the CEO because I had unconsciously shifted responsibility for my psychological safety to him. I had assumed he was responsible for making me feel respected. That was never his job. I didn’t realize this until I looked at Ron.

The CEO opened the fourth meeting by sliding a piece of paper across the table with a handwritten number that was 40% lower than we had previously agreed to. While my stomach churned with acid, I looked at Ron to discover he was the picture of peace.

Ron looked down at the note, looked confused, and said calmly and sincerely, “I can see why this is a good deal for you. I can’t see why it’s a good deal for us. Can you help me understand why we would accept these terms?”

Colour drained from the CEOs face. He stammered, smiled guiltily, then said, “Well, no. I can’t.”

We left with a reasonable deal. But I left with a revelation. Ron wasn’t looking for validation from the CEO. He didn’t need approval or respect. He carried that in himself.

It has taken years of work for me to develop that kind of maturity, but the effort began that day. Whenever I feel like a victim, I look in myself for where I have given up responsibility and where I need to take it back.

RESCUING

The subtle corollary to assuming others are responsible for our sense of psychological safety is that we begin to assume we are responsible for others’ sense of safety. When we aren’t busy playing the role of victim in our own minds, we attempt to rescue those who are.

The argument that you are responsible for your own safety might appear to contradict what we teach in Crucial Conversations. We go to great lengths to teach people how to help others feel safe. But at no time do we suggest you are responsible for making them feel safe. There is a difference between taking responsibility for being respectful and taking responsibility for whether someone feels respected. One is doable.

It is the very belief that we can somehow make others feel respected that justifies the silence, sugar-coating, understating and avoidance that corrupt relationships. We tell ourselves it is our job to rescue others from hurt feelings, so we measure how much of our real selves and honest perspectives we should share before it will cause them to crumble. 

As a result, we commit to a life of calculation and manipulation. The result is relationships of alienation rather than true connection.

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