The Power of Psychological Safety in Learning

I attended a coaching training course a few years back, as a sort of assistant facilitator to the excellent external trainer. The course was targeted at a group of Technical Mentors of our Software Engineering Trainee programme.

I was there for a few reasons – to help relate the learning to expectations of the technical mentor role, to be an extra person when needed to give an odd or even number depending on the activities, for use in demonstrating a coaching conversation, to help make sure all groups received feedback during the practical exercises, and to see first hand how our mentors responded to the training content.

We know from TBR (Training from the BACK of the Room) that psychological safety has a substantial impact on the quality of  learning, and from experience I was very aware that beginner coaching conversations on superficial problems tend to be fairly insubstantial and unsatisfactory.  So I decided to lead by example and pick a genuine topic (with some vulnerability associated with it) to be coached on in front of the group.

When listening to the coaching triad practice sessions later in the day, I was pleasantly surprised to find my Engineering colleagues were having high quality coaching conversations on fairly substantial topics. The external trainer remarked on the unusually high quality of the coaching conversations given that these were first time attempts.

In discussion with colleagues later, I learned that while they had expected a fairly ‘fluffy’ training workshop, they actually felt it had been exceptionally useful.  On further reflection, they decided this had a lot to do with the coaching demo earlier in the day.  By choosing the ‘vulnerable’ topic (and stating to the class that I was intentionally doing so, on the basis that this was a safe environment, so I would lead by example), two things happened:

1) the learners were able to observe what a high quality coaching conversation looked and sounded like, complete with seeing first hand the substantial impact reframing a question had on the output. [“what else could you do…”, vs “what would you tell someone else to do if they were in your situation…” vs “what if we removed the constraints altogether, what could you do then…”].

2) the learners felt safe and empowered to talk about things that were more meaningful to them, because of the psychological safety established in the initial demo.  They became invested in their coaching conversations, and worked very hard to frame the questions from the GROW model to help their colleagues get the most out of the conversations.

Although I had hoped the demo would set a positive tone, I did not expect such a direct impact, or for anyone to explicitly notice, so I was delighted I had taken the ‘risk’ in the demo.

In summary – don’t underestimate the importance of psychological safety to the learner’s experience – we build this through connection activities, and we reinforce it throughout the day, in the activities we run, and in the example we set.