Groups Want Safety – A Facilitator’s Guide to Creating Safe Space


With a recent event in the US around a mass shooting in a nightclub in Orlando, I grieve once again for the fact that safety is not apparent or a given for many people around the world. I was born and spent most of my life in a country, Canada, where we have not had war break out within our own borders for a very long time. This gives me a sense of safety. My own Whiteness, gender identity as a female heterosexual, religious upbringing as a Protestant, current class (Middle) and education (University) give me a sense of safety. However, I also come from a background, a part of my country, and a time (Cold War era) where there were many things that did not feel at all safe for me. So I deeply understand fear. I have been trying to face it down all of my life. It is for this reason that I think I am quite good at creating safety for groups. I give it a lot of thought. I have done much transformational work on myself to really be aware of my own fear and use it well to be a better facilitator.

For this blog, I’ve also asked some experienced and wise colleagues to share some of their practices that intentionally create safety for groups. Ethan (Jerry) Mings (The Desk Consulting Group, Toronto, Canada) is one of my co-collaborators today because within a few minutes of me sending out a request this morning, he gave me excellent feedback. That is a true friend and colleague. He has been a consistent supporter of my blogging efforts and offered wise counsel to me on many occasions. I just love Jerry. Another special-to-me contributor who also wrote back right away was Teresa Lingafelter, a facilitator extraordinaire who lives in Portland,Oregon where I live now. If you want to hire either of these fine facilitators, I highly recommend them. Ask me how to reach them.

This blog answers what things we can do before, during and after an event to ensure we get:

    1. 1. the products we want
    1. 2. the level of honesty needed in discussions
    1. 3. the sustained engagement we seek in the activities we choose.

Are you systematically doing these things before, during and after an event? Do you assume that every group you work with feels safe?

So now, are you ready to deeply explore what it is we must do to create the UTMOST safety for groups when we are facilitating, teaching, mediating, and/or coaching them? If yes, we have embedded tons of resources in this blog to help you do that, including examples of what to do and say with a group that may not be feeling very safe with each other or are facing challenging times:

    1. – template for an invite letter
    1. – a sample agenda with clear meeting aims
    1. – context setting opening words
    1. – an audio gift of a short guided meditation to help you face your own fear
    1. – photos throughout our blog to intrigue you and coax you to make this a priority.

My goal is to make you think about this in a way that you may never have thought about it before!

Before the Event


duckleaderOften, the leader herself or himself may not feel safe. I have been working with a couple of groups recently where I know for a fact, actually I don’t know it – but I sense it, that these leaders do not feel safe in their own team situations. One of them is working with team members who speak quickly, often demand things in too short of a time, and in the past have been asking each other to make substantial changes in a timeframe that doesn’t allow a sense of spaciousness around planning and preparing for things. This can make the leader feel that he or she is not able to control the team or plan with the level of conscientiousness and efficiency that they would like.

Another leader is an immigrant and another a person of color in predominately White organizations with few immigrants. I know that they probably work a lot harder to feel that they are respected and honored.

One of the things you can do to really help the leader feel safe, is to spend enough time with him or her beforehand to appreciate qualities they might not notice in themselves. Find ways to consistently show them that you will support them, protect them if needed from being undermined, and help their own team coalesce around or helpfully add to their thinking.


Here is a tip from Ethan (Jerry) Mings, “If I suspect safety will be an issue, I include the following questions in the design meeting:

Question – “What is the group’s experience in doing something together?”
Question – “Can you give me an example of what they have done together?”
Question – “What does a safe environment look like for the group?”
Question – “Can you give me an example of a great space where the group said they felt safe?”

A “must do” before the event is to talk to a number of different people in the organization. Help them know you so they will feel comfortable on the day(s) of the event. Ensure they know that you will listen with interest to their perspective and help the group hear it also.


And finally, I would ensure that your invitation letter is warm, welcoming, concise, clear around objectives, agenda timing, and content. Give them some pre-reading if it helps. Make sure they know what the key questions being addressed in the session will be. Make sure those key questions are some of their own!

**Download a sample of one of my invite (email) letters with agenda and meeting aims below.**

During the Event


I think the single most important thing that I do is to write out the context or opening words I will use with the group. I might do this in the form of the mind map to help me quickly glance at it as I am saying it. And or I might put it in my facilitator’s guide. If it is really critical with a group that I know in advance feels extremely unsafe, I will practice it out loud. I often practice my opening “speeches” in the car as I drive or as I walk toward the building in which I am setting up. This means it is fresh in my mind and I am unlikely to forget the key points I want to make. Sometimes I will help the leader write out his or her context setting speech as well. This can help create safety and confidence for the leader too.

**Download an example context setting speech below.**


Jerry shares this tip for setting safety during an event, “Walk through the ICAAi (Institute of Cultural Affairs International) Working Assumptions (Reference – Everyone has wisdom, etc.). Have a discussion on what is a “threat” and how everyone can participate in a manner that does not create threats.”

If you go to our previous blog, Creating Group Guidelines for Terrific Teamwork, you will see also some of the guidelines to which Jerry is referring and more.


Teresa Lingafelter offers these tips:

1. Listen, listen, listen….and then listen some more

2. Show that you are listening…look at the speaker, ask questions

3. Demonstrate that you hear what is being said

4. Affirm the speaker…a nod, a “thank you”

5. Treat every response with equal attention thus demonstrating to the speaker and the group that each person’s participation is honored

At the Close or After the Event

Jerry ensures he includes a closing conversation that has relevant, effective, summarizing questions that engage the whole group. He advises to include a time to discuss what about the space, activities etc that made it safe for you to participate. The Focused Conversation method developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs uses this technique most effectively. See also the resources section below on how to get more “embedded” in this method.


A Final Tip

My final tip for creating safety in groups after the event is to let them know that you will encourage them do the right kind of follow up. You should include this as part of your budget. It might look like a two hour follow-up meeting with the whole group. It might look like a series of action items that you can check-in with them on. It might simply mean meeting with the leader and or planning team and asking a series of questions to help them assess their progress and figure out next steps. Typical questions would include:

    1. What of you heard people say about the event?
    1. What else has happened since we had our event together?
    1. Which of these things seemed indicate progress?
    1. Which of these are indicating potential issues or challenges to do with?
    1. How are things different?
    1. How are things the same?
    1. What needs to be happening for sure to feel that you’re making progress from the time we spent together? What help do you need to me?
    1. What communication do you want to have happen to the rest of the team?
    1. What are our next steps?

I hope I have impressed upon you that safety ensures honesty, engagement and productive results. When you do this in a systematic and conscientious way, everything can change. May the force be with you! (That is a quote from Star Wars for those of you who don’t know that. :))

Warmly, Barbara

Many thanks to Jerry Mings and Teresa Lingafelter



Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Aimee Peterson on October 12, 2018 at 3:12 am

    Thank you for these resources.

    • Barbara Mackay on November 14, 2018 at 2:19 am

      Thanks Aimee! I get a lot of pleasure out of providing ideas for people to practice creating a safe and inviting place to do important work together. I’m glad you liked this blog.

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