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  • Writer's pictureBarb Bickford

Creating Safer Meetings

Updated: May 2

In my recent blog, "Group Leaders: are your meetings safe?" I mentioned recent reports of bullying in churches in the United Kingdom, and how bullying can happen anywhere.

"The echoes of this issue reach beyond the Church of England. It serves as a reminder that aggressive behavior and bullying can infiltrate any institution, even those built on love and compassion. As we move forward, let's strive for open dialogue, empathy, and a commitment to upholding the dignity of every individual."              -- Muhammad Jawal *


In other words, bullying is not unique to churches or to your group. Unfortunately, it's common. And we can aim for something far better.

a group of people sitting in a circle in a brightly lit room

What can we do to create safer meetings?


If we want to strive for open dialogue, empathy and dignity in our meetings, how exactly do we do it? What steps can we take toward creating safe spaces where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas?  

The group of facilitators I mentioned in my last blog post tackled this question too. Here are their suggestions: 

Build comfort and connection: The first step in fostering a safe environment is to establish comfort and to connect with others in the room. Choose a physically safe and welcoming location. Arrange chairs in a circle if you can, with a space between two chairs that communicates "there's a way out." Encourage people to come early to just chat. Prioritize building connections before going into riskier parts of a meeting, by intentionally incorporating short conversations, team building exercises, and even humor and play. Add food --it always helps!  

Create agreements about behavior in meetings: Have a discussion about what the group values. Develop agreements around these values, including commitments to keeping confidences and behaving respectfully. Read the agreements at every meeting. You might even put them on your agendas. This can help everyone in the group know what is expected and to feel empowered to mention it when the agreements aren't being followed.

Model vulnerability: Share stories and opinions with humility rooted in a sense of equality, not from a feeling of being better than or less than. Leaders can set the tone by sharing vulnerabilities first.

Use participatory meeting structures: When designing the agenda and activities, incorporate structures and instructions that encourage everyone to speak.  Even a simple practice of allowing a minute or two of silence before beginning discussions will enable those who are more introverted or who don't speak the language well, by giving them time to gather their thoughts. Paired or small-group conversations before (or even instead of) large group discussions, will enable everyone to feel heard and connected. 

Acknowledge discomfort and explore it: It is essential to acknowledge and explore discomfort. Break into pairs or small groups to discuss and create collective responses about what the group is experiencing. 

Encourage taking risks, while attending to power dynamics: Be aware of what people need to be ready to take risks. Create space for anonymous voting. In discussions, ask the people who feel the least powerful, or who represent a minority view, to speak first. Encourage participants to share their personal stories with vulnerability. Ask "what is the risk of NOT doing this?"

Frame failure as a benefit: Shift negative perspectives about failure by being curious about how experiences are learning opportunities. Emphasize the reward behind every risk, highlighting positive deviants who didn't conform to norms and fostered positive change. Build towards creating a learning goal instead of an accomplishment goal. 

Take it a step at a time

Did you find an idea above that might help you in your situation? What is a tiny step you might take you toward the vision of open dialogue, empathy and dignity?  Start with that one step. Congratulate yourself, immediately, every time you try it. Learn from what happens and iterate toward the vision.  

Fostering safer meeting meetings takes intention, effort and consideration. When done thoughtfully, one step at a time, your meeting culture can and will shift toward safety. Applying these strategies will create more collaborative, inclusive, and productive meetings that also build up the trust within your group. 

What idea would you like to try in your meetings? Share it below.  

Previous post: Group Leaders: Are your meetings safe? --------------------

Photo credit: StudioRoman on CanvaPro

*Source: Muhammad Jawal, "Bullying in the Church: A Call for Change," on BNN Breaking

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