Create an equitable, inclusive, and safe climate

One of the core principles for effective facilitation

Approximate reading time: five minutes

For people to engage honestly and authentically, they must believe it is safe to do so in the meeting or learning environment. 

Ask people what they define as an equitable and inclusive climate and they often say:

  • understanding of goals and roles

  • knowing the process and expectations

  • ground rules or shared agreements

  • a comfortable environment that makes it easy to engage and interact

  • permission to share thoughts not fully formed

  • no fear of retribution

  • time to think

  • positional power and personal politics do not dominate

  • respect for differences and individuality

  • knowing enough about the other people in the conversation

Effective meeting or workshop design and facilitation help create this climate.

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Why Climate?

While many think of such work in terms of safe (or brave) spaces, I find the climate metaphor more apt.  Let's explore three reasons why, first in terms of weather and then the corresponding application in facilitation:

1.  The typical climate varies depending on where you live.

People’s experience of organizational culture and climate varies depending on where they reside in an organization or community, as well as their role and tenure. First-time attendees to a conference, particularly ones also new to the profession, will experience a conference clmate very differently than veteran attendees ready to reconnect with colleagues.

2. Weather conditions can change rapidly.

A day that starts sunny might end with brief afternoon rain showers.  In meetings and workshops, the same is true.  A safe climate established at the start of a discussion may deteriorate into stormy conditions when certain topics are raised later in the agenda. Or a group that struggles early on may become more engaged once a degree of comfort takes hold.

3. Climate trends are reasonable indicators for seasonal or even daily conditions, but they are not 100% reliable forecasts. 

While what worked or didn't work in past sessions of a workshop or meeting on a similar topic are reasonable predictions for a future iteration, they also aren't sure indicators of what will unfold.

Creating the Climate

Having an understanding of what seems safe in the existing organizational environment, to/for whom, and why will enhance your session design and facilitation.  Every organization (or workshop or conference) has normative behavior in its culture: this is the way we do things around here.  I also find it helpful to consider how existing norms enhance or impede equity and inclusion, as well as for whom.

People bring those norms into any individual meeting environment (i.e., don't bring up controversial matters). This can create interesting conditions—think weather fronts colliding—when people from different departments or sites of a large organization enact their respective norms, ones which aren’t always identical.  The same occurs in workshops or conferences.

Helping create an equitable and inclusive environment requires facilitators to think about the overall climate or culture of the organization (conference) and what implications it has for the meeting or workshop design and facilitation.  Drawing on the iceberg model from the discipline of systems thinking can help us dig deeper into the conditions and culture influencing equity and inclusion. A sustainable climate often requires design and facilitation work that addresses those iceberg elements below the surface.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall is generally credited as the source of the iceberg concept. Ernest Hemingway is also known for this icebger theory of writing. Text and terms in the image above is drawn from/inspired by many sources.

Digging Deeper

I find it useful to think through a series of questions, ones I contemplate on my own, as well as often explore with participants through surveys or individual interviews.

  1. In general, how safe is it for people to speak their truth(s), offer feedback openly, and raise tough questions or challenging issues? How does this “show up?”

  2. How do perceptions of equity, inclusion, and safety seem to vary?  For/by whom and why?  What conditions are most in play?

  3. What are the desired outcomes for the meeting or session I am facilitating and who will participate?

  4. How might I design the session components (advance communications, pre-work, physical or virtual environment, session materials, opening and closing, et al) to accelerate and enhance participants’ sense of safety, equity, and inclusion? 

  5. What existing norms or “rules of engagement” may need disruption or interruption to create a better conversational climate?

Effective facilitation requires this advance thinking and preparation, as well as anticipating potential climate shifts that might unfold in real-time and how to respond to them.

Who Owns the Climate?

Ultimately equity, inclusion, and safety are in the eyes of the individual.  Creating and maintaining that environment is not our responsibility alone, but one shared by all who have a stake in the session’s outcome. Remember, anyone can—and everyone should—make facilitative contributions during a meeting or workshop.

To make it easier to distribute this responsibility, one of the more rewarding, buit potentially challenging, conversations we should facilitate poses the following core question to participants themselves (either in advance or at a session’s onset):

What must we collectively do to ensure that people can speak their minds freely today and that we can produce the results you want to achieve by the end of our time together?

Bottom line?

Helping create an equitable and inclusive climate for discussions and decisions often begins by facilitating reflection and conversation about what that climate would include and how each individual can help create it. Future posts will explore additional tips, tools, and resources to help make this easier.


© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2021. All rights reserved.

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