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.

Making Meaning of a Death Count by Walking in a Cemetery

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my attempts to make sense of death counts. Yesterday, my friend, Joe Mathews, wrote about his own brilliantly simple way to do the same: he took a walk in a cemetery.

Joe chose to walk in the original Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. As he explains:

Since Forest Lawn opened here 114 years ago, in 1906, it has interred 340,000 souls on this property. Under current projections, the United States will experience 340,000 COVID deaths by sometime in January, 10 months after the March lockdowns began.

Such statistics are sobering and tragic. They also reflect a fundamental human failure: We experience individual death intensely, but struggle to recognize death in the aggregate. That’s why we can more forcefully rally together in response to one death—like the police killing of George Floyd—than in response to escalating numbers of COVID deaths scrolling across our screens.

Our myopia is why we need cemeteries right now, and not just as places to bury our dead.

Read the whole piece. There’s lots of good stuff about the history of Forest Lawn and of some of the folks who are buried there. And go take a walk through a cemetery. I’ve never walked any of the cemeteries in Colma, as Joe suggested for Bay Area folks, but the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland is a peaceful place to walk and think.

Norms, Strategy, and Thanksgiving Duck Revisited

It’s been nine years since I and my family started eating duck for Thanksgiving. I have also happily introduced several friends to the concept, although surprisingly, I know of no permanent converts. Some (many?) of my friends actually like turkey. But I think the biggest factor is that culture, norms, and traditions are remarkably powerful.

I get it. My family ate turkey for over thirty years before converting. When I consider how much more I enjoy Thanksgiving now, and how much less stressful it is to prepare the meal, I marvel at how long it took us to make the switch.

I see individuals and groups struggle with this all the time. Goal-setting and strategy are more often an exercise in documenting what you’re already doing rather than a deep examination of where you’re trying to go and why. The latter requires that you make a choice, and making choices is hard.

That’s not to say that doing things because that’s why you’ve always done them is a bad thing. The most important thing is that you’re being intentional, and that you know why you’re being intentional. Chesterton’s Fence definitely applies.

Firing People and Being Fired

You can tell a lot about a person’s relationship to power from whether or not they’ve ever fired anyone and how. Do they understand the scope of their power, both formal and informal? Do they realize that not firing someone can be just as impactful in both positive and negative ways as firing someone? How do they deal with the aftermath?

I would love to experiment with getting folks to talk about their experiences firing others and being fired as a way to talk about power and to align around what success and failure might look like for everyone involved when power is wielded.

Good Group Process Is Like a Duck Gliding Through Water

People vastly overrate the importance of facilitation in group process. Preparation and practice are much more important. While good group process always has an element of emergence, when I observe or hear stories about processes or meetings that go bad, I can almost always trace it to poor preparation.

I was recently talking about this with my sister and my partner, and my sister compared it to a duck gliding in water. It looks seamless on the surface, but it belies the rigorous, consistent paddling underneath. “Yes, that’s it!” I exclaimed. Both my sister and my partner were incredulous that I had never heard of that metaphor before, but I don’t care. I love it!