The (Psychological) Safety Dance


Truthfully we are at the point that the metaphor runs into problems. I’ll acknowledge that “spewing” is a very emotive term. I tend to type from the heart, without always moderating my words.

Your response definitely makes sense and is very much how I would approach the issue. I was trying to draw it out for others and to make sure I my head was in the right place.

I have encountered the outpouring of negative emotion a few times over my career both in a group situation and personally.

Handling (and yes I’m aware this isn’t the best term) this well is difficult, but can ultimately lead to a positive outcome. Not always, but it is definitely possible.

In a group, I have observed that allowing the expression of emotion to occur is vital. Getting it out into the light of day important. I focus on not letting the monkey brain kick in and really try to hear. This isn’t easy and I fail at this more often than I find comfortable. It is hard to listen when all you feel like doing is going into defense mode.

I like to acknowledge the underlying emotion and try to reflect back the core of the message. It gives me time to settle my own emotions, and buys me time to process. I will often pause to allow space for the processing on both sides to occur. If I feel that the interaction will cause harm, alarm or distress and isn’t relevant to the topic at hand. I again acknowledge the importance and make a firm time to follow up. From here, it is roll with it.

If it is relevant to the conversation at hand. I acknowledge the emotion, but start focusing on the issue and working through really understanding A the thing that is said (often a symptom) and B the underlying cause.

If an action that moves this issue/cause forward can be made, let’s do it.

In the individual situation, it really depends on the relationship and the safety of both of us in the conversation. If I feel there is a risk to either party, I will bring somebody that we both trust into the conversation. A senior(ish)/sane person that won’t take my side is my preference, but it really comes down to trust. It isn’t about trying to “win”, it is trying to move things forward in a way that supports the person involved.

As said, this is HARD to do. I definitely do not get this right every time. The results can bare some amazing fruits and develop real trust.

Empathy, understanding, honesty and sincere desire for the very best for the other person underpins so much of what we do. Having the respect to let people breach the ‘taboo’ as you called it and bring their whole self to work is as we mentioned is messy, but worth it.

Thanks Chris, @chrismurman, it helps a lot.


Not unless it is exposed to them. Exposing a single team may be risky though. Anonymous and a wider net might be better.

Tools such as might help. There is another that has been shared with me on the boards, but I can’t seem to remember the thread. One of the board shared it with me.

Edit: found it with thanks to @andycleff


I like to take a lot of things from my non-work life (parenting!) and work/agile life and cross-pollinate them. In this case…

I find that people confuse “safety” as not creating friction for “speaking up”. It’s commonly confused in the current US political climate when talking about things like free speech vs. hate speech, etc. One person sees free speech and another sees an unsafe space being created.

To make this more constructive, I like to refer people to NVC as a potential tool (Non-violent communication). Very specifically, teaching team members to have the courage to say “I feel…” statements instead of “you …” statements.

Instead of "You pissed me off when…"
Teach people to say “when event x happened, I felt Y way…”

This takes out the emotional finger-pointing and focuses on the patterns and take-aways hopefully.

To the original post… “psychological safety” is a jargon that will likely get overused and fade away, but as agile leaders, we are culture leaders and the concepts of creating a space that allows courage with safety is imperative.


Jurgen Apello has a concept of the “Feedback Wrap”…


I’m a big advocate of NVC. As a scrum master, I always try to get the team to learn and adopt it. I’ve found this to be a great resource for learning: