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Container Design for Psychological Safety and Trust

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This article is part of the series “Learnings from the Embodying Collective Transformation Residency”. You can find an overview of all posts in that series and an intro to the topic here.

The whole idea behind events like the Embodying Collective Transformation residency is to create a social container, in which people can experience enough safety and trust, to observe their deepest engrained patterns of socialization, trauma, and protectiveness. The theory of change goes a little something like this: we all carry the burdens of oppressive and disconnecting paradigms inside of us. If we want to be truly effective as change agents, we need to transform ourselves and our relationships. On the other side, if we can transform dominant patterns in ourselves, we unleash enormous potential for doing good in the world.

Trust is an Emergent Phenomenon

So, we’ve established why this kind of work is important, that it goes deep and that trust is crucial to go deep. How do we create this trust now?

Let’s start off with something seemingly simple, yet profoundly important: you can not trust anyone. At least not in the active sense. Has anyone ever told you: “Just trust me, it’ll be fine!”? What does it feel like to be told to “just trust”, when clearly parts of you have reasons not to trust a situation or person? Not so great right? Trust is rather an emergent property of a social system with enough psychological safety, so that we feel like we can show up fully, with all our parts, polarizations, feelings, and needs. A system can be tweaked in a way that makes the emergence of trust more likely.

people in leadership positions modeling vulnerability, compassion, and appreciation

In self-organized spaces, the power of a great leader lies in them recognizing the impact their small actions are having, seeing that people look to them for guidance on how to behave in this space, and what is and isn’t acceptable. If held with care, a leader can make a great contribution to an overall sense of safety for everyone, by showing their vulnerability, engaging others with compassion, and being prolific with precise appreciation. This “setting the tone” of interaction is the most crucial thing a hosting team has to pay attention to (and I think it was beautifully done at ECT).

clarity and transparency about power

Since there is always going to be power differences, even in spaces with the intention of getting rid of power, the most valuable thing we can do, is to talk about it, to be transparent and clear about how much power we think we have, how we feel about that and if and how we would like to change something about it. Relating to the first point, it is very useful if leaders open up this conversation, so people can rest assured: the people who hold more power can be approached about this topic, they will not take it as an attack on their authority and they also have an interest in sharing power.

a shared understanding and lived culture of consent

Sharing a common understanding of consent, especially around physical contact and intimacy, contributes greatly to psychological safety. While this understanding might evolve organically in more long-term groups, it can never hurt to have an explicit conversation about it. Especially in temporary communities, where people come in from different backgrounds, it is crucial to establish a shared reality. One great tool that was introduced by the hosting team at ECT is the Wheel of Consent – highly recommend checking it out.

clear, commonly agreed upon and accessible support systems for emotional support and conflict transformation

In addition to a lived culture of vulnerability, compassion, transparency, and consent, a more formal system for emotional support and conflict transformation is important to create safety. This might be as simple as making the resources in the room visible: who feels they generally have the capacity to support others in moments of disconnect? In a long-term community, it might be useful to have a regular time to check in with the whole community about their well-being, and any simmering tensions or conflicts. For example, at ECT we met every Wednesday evening for a community meeting, with the explicit purpose of voicing any tensions and making requests for support or dialogue.

shared language to talk about feelings and needs

What made it easy to engage in vulnerable conversations at ECT was, that we all shared the same language for talking about what was going on inside of us. Having a way of expressing complex emotions and knowing that they will be understood, increases trust and makes it safer to share freely what is going on inside. A culture of reflective listening also greatly contributes in a similar way.

Spaciousness Enables Trust, Depth, and Real Progress

In a day of training, you can grow more than in a two-hour workshop. In a week you can get to know 20 people to the degree that trust can emerge. In a month you can start feeling like you’ve never been anywhere else. This trust and familiarity is the substrate for inner development. At a certain point learning shifts from sessions to the in-between. The normal friction and tensions that arise between humans who share space for a prolonged period are the learning material. What kinds of transformations and learnings would become possible in 3/6/12 months? How would we be able to relate if we stayed?

Having built trust is vital when conflict inevitably comes up. Transforming a conflict requires that both sides see and acknowledge each other both for their humanity, and their core needs, but also for the impact that their actions have and the pain that may have been caused. Revealing these deep parts of us can feel vulnerable and requires a high degree of psychological safety and capacity to co-regulate our nervous systems. Having a resilient support structure in place is just as crucial for everyone involved.

What we need to trust can vary

All of the things above are generally good ideas to create a safe container in which trust can emerge. However what I need to feel safe might vary a lot to what you need to feel safe. It is very important to check in with a group and have a sense for where they are at. Who is in the room? What capacity for holding themselves and others do they have? Which structures might be called for to support everyone in the room to thrive?

Minimum Viable Structure serves to Satisfy Basic Needs

As I’ve already talked about in my article “Key Learnings from the Microsolidarity Gathering”, minimum viable structure (MVS) is the art of creating just enough structure, to do the job, but not so much as to create additional overhead draining energy and time.

In the case of this residency, the MVS ensured that basic needs like food, emotional support, and psychological safety were met and kept our shared spaces and resources, like the kitchen, bathroom, session room, laundry, or dishes, in a good state. The MVS is the sum of all the boundaries, that provide orientation, transparency, and clarity. It structures the social container and serves to create a space in which emergent things can happen (read the article linked above for a more general discussion of what it is, here I will dive deeper into what the MVS looked like at ECT).

The main takeaway for me here is: what shape MVS takes depends very much on what you are trying to do, what resources are available to you, and what level of skill people bring. For example, at the microsolidarity gathering in May, home care was not part of the MVS, because we stayed at a venue where we were cooked for, and the common spaces were cleaned by someone else afterward (as far as I can remember). This was feasible because we stayed for a week and people could afford to pay for the service. At the ECT residency, we couldn’t have afforded someone to cook and clean for us for a whole month. Also, the intention was to practice community living in a more self-sufficient way. To satisfy those needs MVS had to include home care as well as pods (small groups that meet every day at a fixed time to support each other, practice tools that were introduced in sessions, and just provide a less overwhelming environment compared to the wider community), emotional support, and an open space agenda.

So: when thinking about how much structure or what kind of structure your community, event, activist group, or flat share needs, think about what it is that you are trying to do first. What’s the intention? What are the conditions you are trying to do this in? What resources are available? And what kind of capacity do those involved have?