Creating Safety and Inclusion Online

How can we create online meeting and learning spaces where people feel as safe as possible? Safe to do what you might ask? Make mistakes and feel safe to reveal to others where their skills or knowledge might lack. How can we foster open communication, show trust, empathy, and friendliness? This is how many people define psychological safety.

I add the R very intentionally when I use the word safe. Using the word safer acknowledges that we may not always get it right, even when we are trying hard to do so as facilitators and leaders. We can’t always anticipate the needs of everyone in our meetings, events, and courses. A great way to model psychological safety is to admit that you don’t always know the answer and invite others to share.

I’d like to suggest 7 Ways to foster psychological safety online:

  1. Do a needs assessment.

How can you anticipate the needs of participants and learners if you don’t know what they are? Creating a simple needs assessment in google or Microsoft forms is easy. I start with a few questions, for example, “What do you most want to get out of this course or event?”, and “What gifts do you bring that you’re willing to share with the group?”  I ALWAYS ask, “What would help make the learning environment safe and inclusive for you?” This helps inform my learning design and group agreements in Tip #3.

  1. Acknowledge land and pronouns.

Open with a land acknowledgement. We are all treaty people in Canada, and a meaningful, personal land acknowledgement is a simple but important reflection on our work toward reconciliation.

Invite participants to change their names to add their pronouns. For a cisgender person (a person whose gender is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth), there is little to no risk in sharing your pronouns. When you’ve never questioned what pronouns people use for you, or even thought about the idea of pronouns, sharing your pronouns online is easy and costs you nothing. For a person who is transgender or nonbinary, sharing pronouns can be a bit riskier. For a trans or nonbinary person, sharing their pronouns can spark a lengthier conversation or offensive commentary.

That’s why I invite cisgender people to lead the change by sharing pronouns. It normalizes the process, has little risk, and actually makes for a safer environment for everyone.

  1. Build trust and respect early in the agenda.

You might build trust through introductions and icebreakers or sharing something about yourself before asking others to share. You can also create group agreements from the needs assessment answers. Often my group agreements include respect, confidentiality, take and make space, use “I” statements and speak from your own experience, among others. I invite participants to add their own to the list. If you encounter any issues in your meeting or event that are counter to the group agreements, you can go back to them and remind the group about the importance of creating safety for everyone. Remember focus on connection before content!

  1. Foster an atmosphere where asking questions and sharing information is a desired activity.

Look to your participants and learners as experts and tap into the wisdom in the virtual room. Do you also have wisdom and insight to share? Great! Ensure you create space before and after your own content sharing for participants to check-in with themselves and others re: their knowledge and reflections on the topic. Save lots of time for Q&A.

  1. Check in re: accessibility, provide support, feedback, and clear instructions.

For every new tool you use, check-in to make sure everyone has access to it. Maybe you’re showing people how to annotate an image in zoom, or quickly brainstorming on a topic in Google Jamboard. Whichever virtual tool you use, demonstrate it, or walk through it before inviting participants to use it. Then check-in to see if everyone was able to access it. If they can’t suggest alternatives. For example, I usually suggest participants share their responses with me in a private or collective chat, and I can then add it to the annotate or Jamboard.

  1. Provide materials in different formats so everyone’s needs are met.

By providing materials in different formats (i.e. text, visual, and audio), you ensure that content is accessible to everyone. Learn about accessibility options by using alt text for your images, and ensure your materials are compatible with screen readers. Use the CNIB’s Clear Print Accessibility Guidelines to make your materials as clear and easy-to-read as possible. These simple steps to make materials more accessible means that ALL learners are included.

7. Facilitate meaningful openings and closings.

Meaningful openings and closings do not have to take a lot of time. And when you don’t include them, you miss out on natural opportunities for connection and reflection. For small groups, ask questions like, “How are you coming to the meeting today?”, or “What is one intention you have for this learning event?”. Connection before content means that we tap into emotions, well-being, and purpose before diving into content. Invite participants to share in one sentence, or in one breath. In larger groups, ask the same kinds of questions, but move participants into breakout groups. Closings can include questions like, “What are you taking away?”, “What story will you tell about this event?”, “How do you feel?”, or “What action will you take as a result of this session?”

7 Ways to Foster Psychological Safety Online:

  • Do a needs assessment.

  • Acknowledge land and pronouns.

  • Build trust and respect early in the agenda.

  • Foster an atmosphere where asking questions and sharing information is a desired activity.

  • Check in re: accessibility, provide support, feedback, and clear instructions.

  • Provide materials in different formats so everyone’s needs are met.

  • Facilitate meaningful openings and closings.