Remember 2020? The pandemic, wildfires, racial reckonings and the dangerously divisive presidential elections?

(Just writing that line makes me feel like I should have given you a content warning!)

With all that we were experiencing, 2020 was the year folks around my newsroom started talking about psychological safety. What does it look and feel like? Why is it important? And how do we create more of it on our teams and across departments?

My organization wasn’t an anomaly. I started seeing posts about psychological safety pop up regularly in industry press, Twitter threads and Slack channels. I found plenty of resources for creating more emotionally safe spaces in the workplace. But as the person who bridges newsrooms with communities and focuses on engaging sources and partners in our reporting, I wondered: how do we create these spaces when working with community members?

That’s just what storytelling event guru Megan Finnerty takes on in her essay. She shares a bevy of practical tips for how to operationalize emotional safety in community and public settings.

Creating safer spaces is big work. Like all forms of care, it takes time, attention, curiosity and follow-up. But Megan showcases simple steps that can help you get started. And while her focus is on community storytelling, most takeaways apply to everyday journalism and even breaking-news reporting.

–jesikah maria ross

How to create an emotionally safe space

By Megan Finnerty

Find the full essay here.

The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments describes emotional safety as when someone “feels safe to express emotions, security, and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new.” That looks different for everyone, depending on the medium, the audience or the outcome we seek to create.

Anyone can work toward creating emotional safety anywhere they have agency over the room or in the space. This is a quick look at ways to operationalize emotional safety, whether in-person, virtual, one-time or ongoing.

How do we create emotional safety?

This work requires a commitment to creating a space where expectations are set and met for a specific group of people, at a certain time, in a limited context. Creating emotional safety is a commitment to specificity and place-making through asking questions and making choices designed to meet your invitees’ emotional, social and sometimes spiritual needs.

Why does this matter? What happens when people don’t feel emotionally safe?

At minimum, the people you’re trying to reach will not want to stay in the space you’ve created. And if they stay, they may not want to come back. Beyond that, people may feel taken advantage of, shocked, unprepared or worse — like something was asked of them that they could not provide, or did not want to provide.

How do I create an emotionally safe space? What does that look like?

Creating an emotionally safe space is part of a set of behaviors that make places welcoming, comfortable and suitable for what people are working to accomplish at a given time.

1. Set goals: Know what you’re working to accomplish. Be specific and detailed. Be narrow. Be clear on what you are NOT doing.

For example, we are hosting a live storytelling event featuring everyday community members as curated by the local newsroom. The newsroom is doing this to create empathy and support democracy by encouraging people to gather and see each other as neighbors worth caring about. Community members attend because they want to be entertained and feel a sense of community. Community members tell stories because they have something to share, and they think it will be fun, challenging and essential in their lives in some way. We are not reading essays. We are not doing open mic. We are not performing poetry. We are not featuring slide shows, music, etc.

2. Set expectations: Know when, where and with whom you’re working.

  • People’s expectations vary by time of day, venue, nature of event, etc. You expect cursing at a late-night rock concert but not a morning religious service. You expect things to start on time virtually, but within 10 minutes in person.
  • People’s expectations begin with the venue. You expect comfort at a big civic theater, but might anticipate something edgy at a black box.
  • People’s expectations vary depending on who is organizing something. If civic groups are involved, you might expect professionalism. If something is organized by students or experimental groups, you might expect more risk.
  • People’s expectations vary if something has age ranges, dress codes and other signifiers. If children are involved, you might expect something interactive and emotionally safe. If something is black tie, you might expect something with a lot of ceremony and little vulnerability.

3. Manage emotional safety for one group of participants at a time.

Emotional safety for performers or officiants differs from emotional safety for audience members or staff. But usually, you’ll have different groups in the room. Plan for everyone by picking and workshopping ideas for one group at a time.

  • Ask yourself what your values are vis à vis this group. For my work with community-based storytellers, some key values are:
    1. They must be able to return to their jobs, their communities and their families without harming or compromising their relationships.
    2. They must feel good about the experience, that it makes sense for them personally, professionally and spiritually.
    3. They must know what they are getting into by participating so we don’t accidentally do harm to them by letting them share their stories.
    4. They may not do harm to others by sharing their stories.
  • What values will be important in your place-making? The values we have for our storytellers are different values than the ones we have for audience members:
    1. The audience must know what to expect and feel we’re giving them this.
    2. The audience must not feel like the storyteller wants something from them other than attention.
    3. The audience must be open to receiving stories. We need to help them prepare to do this.
    4. The stories must be universal and able to be received by diverse audiences of everyday people.

4. Ask yourself what language you need to write down to outline these values. Do you need a script? An onboarding document? A guide? A series of FAQs and primers? You might need a LOT of language, or just a few lines. Some of the language we scripted early on to help inform our storytellers includes:

“We can only produce stories that support our storytellers’ three primary roles: who you are in your family, at your job and in your community.”

“We will work with you to make sure you don’t share anything that would  jeopardize your relationships or role in those spaces in your life. It’s not that we think you’d intentionally want to light a match and run. It’s that some things in life need a LOT of context to understand, and we’ve only got eight minutes.”

5. Ask yourself what behaviors support these values.

Do you need training? Rehearsals? Onboarding sessions? Do you need to send pre-event emails and prep notes? Do you need people to agree to things in writing? Verbally? One-on-one or in a group?

That is a start. I know it’s a lot! But making emotionally safe spaces is a ton of work — let’s not even get started on renting the right chairs and figuring out the parking!

These are some ideas to get you thinking about what emotional safety is, how to create an emotionally safe space, and what that space might look like for different groups of people. Don’t worry if it seems overwhelming at first — it takes a lot of thought, a lot of planning and a lot of work to make these things happen.

Megan Finnerty is a journalist and storytelling consultant who creates transformation and connection for nonprofits, brands and communities. She was part of a team of journalists who won the 2018 Pulitzer for explanatory journalism. As founder and former director of the Storytellers Project, a nationwide series of live storytelling events from Gannett, her best practices have helped almost 7,000 people tell stories on stages, and driven subscriptions, revenue and brand affinity while collaborating with everyone from NASA to the NAACP.

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