There are many cases where groups can be powerful tools for healing. Whether these groups are in a religious context, a mental-health recovery context, or simply a community context, they need to remain psychologically safe for everyone. This guide is designed to address what should be done before you meet, while you meet, and after you meet to ensure the psychological safety of everyone involved.
Before anyone gets together, they need to understand what the rules will be and what is expected of them. Setting expectations prevents people from arriving at an event unprepared for the rules of the event. Here are some suggestions for rules that every group should have:
- Confidentiality – Except as expressed in the organization of our group or explicitly agreed to by the participants of the group, everything shared in the group will remain in the group. No one will disclose what was discussed except through the rules the group has agreed to.
- Privacy – If you are participating virtually, we ask that you take steps to ensure that the others in the group will not be heard to protect their rights to control who hears what they’re sharing.
- Safety – This group will respect both the physical safety and the psychological safety of every individual. No overtly threatening physical activities or verbal attacks will be tolerated.
- Power Dynamics – In every group, there are a set of power dynamics that are unavoidable. Our goal is to minimize them so that everyone feels free to share.
- Inclusivity – Everyone will be given the opportunity to speak and share. We will not dismiss or interrupt others when they’re sharing.
- Focus – Everyone in the group is present for a reason. We ask that you remove distractions that may prevent you from fully participating, including silencing phones and removing other potential distractions.
- Curiosity – Stay curious about what the other person is sharing, including their values and the perspectives that led to their beliefs.
- Judgement Free – This group will remain judgement free. Everyone is entitled to their own values and experiences. We don’t have to agree with them. Our goal is to understand them.
Further, for groups that are intended to create space for hurting individuals to share, it’s recommended that you add:
- No Commentary – Participants should not directly address other participants’ comments unless specifically requested and approved by the person who’s being responded to. Even positive comments may be interpreted negatively or reinforce the perception that they’re being judged.
In addition to the rules, it’s recommended that participants receive invitations to the behaviors that are desired. Some desired behaviors are:
- Titles – Please introduce yourself without unnecessary titles, certifications, and credentials. Consistent with our stance on power dynamics, we don’t want to imply that anyone else’s perspective is less valuable.
- Preferred Pronouns – We encourage you to signal to other participants your preferred pronouns, if you desire. It’s expected that others will honor your preferences, though they may forget or stumble. If other participants don’t use your preferred pronouns, we suggest that you model the pronouns you would like to have used.
These invitations and rules help participants prepare for their experience with the group. However, in some cases, there may need to be a broader understanding of why the group is gathering and the expectations of behavior. An introductory statement can set the tone for the gathering even when the tone can’t be translated into specific, defined behaviors. For example, an introduction might look like:
We’re looking forward to everyone joining us for this event. Our goal is to create a safe and inviting space for everyone to feel heard and listened to. We expect to demonstrate our caring and compassion for one another. To do that, we’ve established a set of expected ground rules, which are:
When the group meets, there are two big goals. First is setting the tone for the group, and second is maintaining the integrity of the group.
Setting the Tone
The process of setting the tone has two parts. First, participants should be reminded that they’ve seen the rules governing the meeting, and that their presence is a tacit agreement to those rules. They’re further reminded of critical rules in summary. For instance, a tone-setting statement might look something like:
You’ve all received the set of rules that we’ll be following here, and by your presence here, we accept that you agree to abide by them. As stated, confidentiality about what we discuss here is paramount, and we remind you that what is said here will only be shared in the ways that we’ve all explicitly agreed to.
Second, the first person to share should model the behavior that’s expected from the group. The facilitator or convener should call on someone to start the conversation who can demonstrate the expected approach. This can be someone with whom the facilitator has prior conversation or someone who has experience with the group process and knows what behavior should be modeled.
Facilitators should be on the constant lookout for boundary-pushing or boundary-crossing of the rules that are established for the group. Boundary pushing is when a participant makes a comment that’s inside the rules – but just barely. It’s important for facilitators address participants who are intentionally or unintentionally boundary-pushing, because not every participant will see these as boundary-pushing – some will interpret the response as a boundary-crossing. Boundary crossings refer to those cases when someone feels as if the rules of the group have been violated.
In all cases, the facilitator should start with gentle shaping remarks designed to steer the participant(s) back inside the boundaries for the group. If this isn’t effective, the facilitator should directly remind the participant(s) of the rules that were agreed to. In extreme cases, it may become necessary to provide a single warning that further boundary crossings will result in expulsion from the group. Finally, if a warning is given, and the participant breaches the boundary again, they should be expelled immediately.
In our experience, almost never does the situation require the warning – and in decades of experience, we have only seen someone expelled from a group once. While these are exceedingly rare events, everyone should believe that these measures can and will be enacted if necessary.
After the event, the need to protect the safety of the group isn’t over. A follow up message should be sent, which includes a reminder of rules that persist beyond the meeting and is a summary (without details) of what was experienced.
Typically, the rule that is most necessary for post-meeting is confidentiality. The communication should indicate whom information is authorized to be disclosed to – including restrictions on those not in the group – and, if appropriate, when disclosures will be made. In some cases, the group will have agreed to share notes with those beyond the group. In cases like this, it’s ideal to provide the notes to the members and invite them to review the notes for a short period of time prior to being shared more broadly using the terms and conditions previously agreed to.
In cases where no disclosure is authorized, the follow-up message should state this and provide a generic appreciation and summary of the event. For instance:
Thank you for your participation. We feel that it was enriching experience for everyone and hope that you feel the same way. As you know, none of us will be sharing the details of what was discussed during the meeting, but we’re deeply appreciative of the stories and perspectives shared during our time together. We respect the vulnerability and courage everyone displayed in creating the space of learning and caring.