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9 Ways to Create a Thriving Environment at Work or Home

The power of creating cues of safety and positive feedback.

Key points

  • We can take an active role in creating positive environments where those around us are more likely to thrive, using a few concrete strategies.
  • Our negativity bias and our tendency to scan our environment for cues of "threat" can get in the way of thriving.
  • When we can help create cues of safety for others and provide genuine positive feedback, we create an environment for everyone to thrive.
 Pezibear/Pixabay
Source: Pezibear/Pixabay

What does it take to thrive?

Plants are fairly straightforward—give them the right combination of soil, sun, and water, and they begin to thrive. It is so amazing to watch the tomato plant off of our deck grow little green tomatoes now turned deep red right before my eyes, following nature’s blueprint. Given the right conditions, we humans thrive too. While there are many ingredients that play a role in this, two that I would put right at the top of the list are: 1) a feeling of safety (in this case, focusing on emotional safety in interpersonal relationships, so the other person feels at ease) and 2) positive feedback.

I had a recent experience that allowed me to see this in action during a six-week writing workshop taught using the Gateless Writing Method. This method (created by Suzanne Kingsbury and taught in this workshop by Terri Trespicio) has a few simple rules, one of the main ones being that when people share their writing, others respond with only positive feedback (so there is no fear of criticism, judgment, or negativity). It is up to the listeners to find what works for them in the piece, what moves them, what they find most powerful or appreciate most in writing, and share this with the writer. Additionally, those giving feedback address the writer by referring to them in the third person (e.g., “what I most appreciate about this writer’s piece is the craft with which they…") so that the writer can relax a bit more and take in the feedback, rather than feel under the spotlight.

How amazing to watch how, under these circumstances, a group of strangers can come together, support one another, point out each other’s strengths, and in doing so, draw forth creativity, inner brilliance, and self-expression that may not otherwise have found its way out. When we cultivate the conditions of safety and positivity, things are possible we may never have imagined.

What gets in the way of thriving?

There are two evolutionary tendencies that we often default to which can easily get in the way of us thriving: 1) when we are under the grips of our fight-or-flight response, which gets turned on when we perceive “threats,” and 2) when we experience the negativity bias—the tendency for our minds to hold onto negatives and overlook positives. Let’s look briefly at each of these tendencies.

Through a process of neuroception, our nervous system constantly scans our environment for cues of threat or cues of safety. While threats for our ancestors in the wild included lions and tigers, our modern-day version of threats within interpersonal relationships can include the worries in our own head about what others will think of us, the tone of voice in which someone says something, or not feeling safe to express ourselves and trust that we’ll be heard. When our fight-or-flight response is engaged, we tend to have tunnel vision and a narrower perspective, and our resources are used primarily to try to protect us from perceived harm, leaving little room for creativity or possibility. When our fight-or-flight response is dialed down, and cues of safety are present, we are more open to learning, exploration, connection, creativity, and seeing things from a much wider perspective.

Another survival strategy built into our brain’s wiring through evolution is our negativity bias, our tendency for our mind to hold onto negative experiences and overlook the positive ones. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Think about what it feels like when you criticize yourself or someone else criticizes you. I know for me, it immediately makes me contract, shut down, close off, and not want to open back up or contribute. On the other hand, genuine positive feedback, someone pointing out the things I am doing well, or me appreciating my own strengths, has the opposite effect. When offered to others, positive feedback tends to help people see their own strengths and motivate them to do more of that thing that is being recognized.

Ways to help people feel safe:

Whether you are a parent or a CEO, whether you want to improve your work, home, or another environment, here are some strategies you can use to cultivate safety and positive feedback to help others thrive.

1. Create safety through spoken and unspoken cues.

While kind and thoughtfully chosen words are essential for positive communication, much of the cues we pick up that indicate threat or safety are nonverbal ones. Tone of voice, nonverbal body language (uncrossed arms, open posture), soft eye gaze, and maintaining friendly eye contact are important ways that we can communicate cues of safety to others.

2. Set clear boundaries, rules, and expectations in advance where appropriate.

For example, you can say: "During this brainstorming session, when someone is sharing an idea, we’ll make sure not to interrupt the speaker, and we will welcome and write down all ideas without censoring or limiting them. All ideas are welcome!"

3. Know where your own nervous system is.

Don’t expect others to respond calmly if you approach them in a state of fight-or-flight. One dysregulated nervous system begets another dysregulated nervous system.

Instead, take time to make sure your nervous system is feeling calm and settled before you approach conversations, especially difficult ones.

4. Engage in respectful and mindful listening.

Take an interest in the other person’s perspective and take time to listen and understand where they are coming from.

Examples:

"I’d love to hear what is working for you and where we might make some improvements."

"I notice you seem upset, and I wanted to see if you wanted to talk about it and how I might support you."

"Tell me more. What is that like for you?"

5. Approach conversations with non-judgment.

Instead of “What is wrong with you?! I asked you to do it this way, and you didn’t do it for the n-teenth time.”

Try this instead:

“I notice that this didn’t get done, and I wanted to understand what happened and see if we can troubleshoot together for next time.”

Ways to offer positive feedback:

6. Point out what people are doing right and what is working (consistently and repeatedly!). This will help inspire and motivate people to do more of this.

Examples:

Don't say, “I see you cleaned your room finally. Thank goodness because I could hardly see the floor before, and those dirty clothes were really piling up and starting to stink."

Try this instead:

"I love the effort and focus you put into cleaning your room and picking up your clothes. The space looks clean and organized, and I bet it’s easier to find things."

7. Celebrate small successes. Don’t wait for the big things.

Examples:

"I really appreciated the fine touches you put on this letter. It has a warm, welcoming tone, and I think it will be well received by others."

"Please know that your taking the time to unload the dishwasher didn’t go unnoticed. Thanks!"

"I know it’s not been easy for you to speak up at meetings, and I really appreciate your contribution today."

8. Be specific.

Instead of making general statements, such as “good job” or “you’re a good kid,” be particular about what it is that you see and what someone is doing well.

Examples:

"I love the way that you were able to listen right away when I asked you to take the trash out."

"That was a difficult meeting, and you really stood your ground, made clear points that were easy to follow, and engaged the others in some very provocative questions for reflection."

"That’s really interesting how you blended the colors together here to create a sense of depth that makes this image pop."

9. Create ways for people to notice others’ successes on a regular basis.

Examples:

At home, keep a jar where parents can write down whenever they catch their kids engaging in helpful or prosocial behaviors. Read these together at the end of each week at a family dinner. (If you have more than one child, make sure to come up with genuine positive things for each child.)

Partners can do this for one another as well, writing down what they appreciate about each other. (How often these little things go unsaid!)

At work, have some way of catching positive contributions and acts of kindness each week. One business owner I know has a jar where anyone can write down something they appreciate about another’s behavior, and at the end of each week, one slip of paper is selected, and this person receives a small gift card. The other slips of paper are distributed to their respective people, so positive feedback is received and shared on a weekly basis.

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