Psychological Safety and Swimming

I had a conversation with my friend, Eugene, the other day about psychological safety in groups. It reminded me of an experience I had several years earlier in an adult swim class.

I don’t know how to swim. My parents enrolled me in a swim class when I was five, but I wasn’t able to learn. Over the years, friends and family have tried to teach me, but no dice. However, all that trying has made me relatively comfortable in the water. I’m able to stay calm, even if I’m in too deep. I’ve even been snorkeling (with a life vest and a noodle, but it still counts).

Several years ago, I took an adult swim class. There weren’t that many of us in the class, and most of us were older with a good sense of humor about our incompetence. The teacher was young and way over her head. She clearly was a strong swimmer, but she wasn’t able to break it down for the rest of us. Still, she was kind and patient, and she was clearly trying her best.

At one of our first classes, a middle aged woman showed up with her daughter. The older woman was clearly terrified of the water. Her daughter held her hand and tried to help her stay calm. The first exercise our teacher had us do was to hold onto the wall and put our heads in the water. We were standing in waist deep water, there weren’t that many of us, and in addition to our teacher, there was a lifeguard. Objectively speaking, we were absolutely safe.

That didn’t help the woman. She started weeping, saying she couldn’t do the exercise. Her daughter and our teacher tried their best to calm her down, but she was inconsolable. Finally, her daughter led her out of the pool.

It was incredibly hard and sad to watch, and I was thankful she was surrounded by folks who felt compassion toward her and by her daughter, who could take care of her. Still, it didn’t matter if she was safe. She didn’t feel safe, and that feeling was real. Who knows where that fear came from? Maybe she had a traumatic experience when she was younger. Maybe she was just a fearful person. None of that really mattered in the moment. That space wasn’t safe for her.

Safety is contextual. You can’t be responsible for how people feel, but you can be empathetic and human, and you can act accordingly. The only thing that made that space even close to safe for that woman was the presence of her daughter, who held her hand the entire time.

Safety is also developmental. I didn’t start off feeling safe in the water. I learned how to feel safe in the water by spending a lot of time there and by having many loving guides along the way. Who is responsible for that development? I don’t know if that’s a useful question. All I know is that there were people who acknowledged and created those developmental spaces for me, even though they could have easily said to me, “Figure it out on your own, and then you can join me in the water.” Supporting people’s development is a choice, but that choice can benefit everyone.

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