Saying what you mean and sharing your feelings authentically can be difficult, especially if it has been rewarded with negativity or punishment in the past. No one wants to deliberately be shocked by an electric fence, and no one wants to be chastised or shamed for their honesty.
The definition for psychological safety is “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Stacey Cordivano, DVM, explained the concept in the following way at the 2022 AAEP Convention: “Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute and safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.” She reported that she asked in a survey question on the Facebook site Equine Vet-2-Vet, “Have you been penalized or punished at work for a mistake or for offering an idea?” She said that 67% of respondents answered “Yes.” Globally, studies have shown that only 47% of all employees feel that their workplaces are psychologically safe.
Generally, this safety is not present when people are conflict avoidant or have a high-conflict personality. If you work at a practice or are in a relationship where it isn’t safe to voice your opinion or share your feelings, you may want to reconsider whether this is the healthiest place for you. However, learning to persist in speaking your truth in a neutral, non-aggressive way and pointing out when a response is hurtful can begin to affect change. Using the three phrases “I saw/heard…”, “I felt…” and “I need…” in that order can be helpful in citing the facts in a non-confrontational non-blaming way. In a personal relationship, the help of a therapist can be significant.
Having Difficult Conversations
Difficult conversations take place frequently in most people’s lives, whether to resolve conflict, voice disagreement or share feedback that may be hard for the recipient to hear. People generally fall along a spectrum in their comfort level with crucial communication. Many people fear conflict and avoid it whenever possible. At the opposite extreme, some have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reduces or resolves it. Still others are aware of their own biases in perception, communicate their feelings without difficulty and are neither judgmental nor reactive.
Many difficult conversations arise due to conflict or disagreement between two parties. Disagreements can be over values, motivations, perceptions, ideas, desires and/or behaviors. When a conflict triggers strong feelings, a threat to a core need is often present. These core needs are to feel safe and secure; to feel respected and valued; and/or to continue to have a strong relationship. Conflict resolution allows people to find a peaceful solution to a disagreement among them. The disagreement might be personal, financial, political or emotional, but it arises from two parties having different needs or desires. The best approach involves reflective listening, curiosity and the desire to be open to others’ perspectives.
Conflict Avoidance in the Helping Professions
Conflict avoidance is common among those in the helping professions. People who are conflict avoidant view conflict as a threat to their survival and often have an instinctive reaction to stay far away from difficult conversations. Often early experiences in their lives have created a people-pleasing behavior that expresses itself as a fear of upsetting others. They expect that speaking their truth will make things worse, and expect negative outcomes if they share their thoughts, opinions and feelings. Sometimes they ignore the issue by simply denying it exists, or they may detour the issue by pivoting to a new subject. Commonly, those who are unnerved by conflict simply shut down and withdraw. This can look like going silent, and enduring uncomfortable situations instead of expressing issues openly until enough pressure has built up that they explode. Explosions are rarely effective conversations. In addition, some conflict avoidant people talk incessantly about their issues with others, but never with the person with whom they have an issue. This triangulation is unhealthy and lowers morale in the workplace.
Speaking Your Truth
Working hard to understand the situation through a different lens—the lens of the other party—builds empathy and more effective resolution of conflict. When you demonstrate genuine caring about others’ outcomes, obviously value a future relationship and aim for mutual gain, fear decreases. By focusing on commonalities rather than on differences, and on interests (why you want it) rather than on positions (what you want), you will be more successful in communicating your truth.