• Psychological Safety and Burnout: Do You Feel Safe to Say What You Mean?

    Have you ever found yourself desperately trying to offer feedback to someone in a way that is direct and honest, and yet you find yourself adding pillow after pillow of niceties so that, just in case their feelings might get hurt, your strategy will lessen the blow? You know exactly what you want to say, but instead of doing it, you revise it several times, often dampening your meaning or softening the statement’s impact? If you’re familiar with this concept, then my friend, you are a partaker in a communication pattern that I am calling “couching.” Since this has been a consistent topic in some of my conversations of late, I wanted to share some thoughts about this and put out there that I bet it’s running you down and contributing to your burnout. This concept is also highly correlated with whether or not we have what is referred to as Psychological Safety in the relationship – that safe, unconditional acceptance and understanding. When this is missing, our behaviors, including the way we use our words, will inevitably change.

    “Couching” is NOT a technical term or a therapeutic one, but it refers to the lengths to which we (very often women) will go to communicate a need or desire to someone else in a way that is ultimately, very caretaking of the other person’s feelings. It’s a verbal communication pattern that often sounds soft, indirect, and perhaps a little “dancy” in which we meander around what we REALLY want to say. We take the nicest possible “backdoor” approach to stating what we want. We are so hesitant to just put out there our true reaction or statement, largely because we fear the reaction of the person receiving it. 

    And if you think about the emotional energy that this caretaking habit takes, it adds up fast. Here’s an example:

    The thought – “I need her to rework that article.”

    What I want to say – “Hey ____, I need you to rework the article for clarity and grammar.”

    Time spent thinking about how to say it in a way that doesn’t hurt ________.

    What I actually say, using “couching” – “Hey, _____. I was wondering if you would consider reworking the article so that it reads more clearly and flows a bit better.” 

    Now, I am all for preserving family and/or work relations, but I also think that if we could have an agreement to say what needs to be said, in a direct yet kind way, we could spend a LOT less emotional energy in the “couching” process, and thereby NOT engage in this ongoing word tango. Just like moving furniture takes work and energy, so does our often elaborate and energy-draining linguistic acrobatics to “kindly” get our point across. And this energy AND time suck contributes to… burnout.

    Right now, many of us are in the process of potentially renegotiating our needs and desires at work, with the widespread return to offices looming or underway, and we may find ourselves using couching to communicate what we need. But if we overdo this, our actual motivations might be lost, misconstrued, or too easily bypassed. So let’s look deeper into what is contributing to this pattern and ask ourselves how we can move away from it.

    Psychological Safety and Communication

    I am guessing that, if you take time to examine when you engage in “couching” most frequently, you will see that it happens in certain relationships or spaces. And I would also wager a bet that you are least direct and concrete in your communication when you have concern about something called Psychological Safety, defined as, “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation” in a recent Harvard Business Review article by Amy C. Edmonson and Mark Mortensen. Likely, you have a mostly strong sense of psychological safety with your spouse or kids, but you may feel less of it with a boss or colleague. 

    Here’s an example of how we might talk to someone with whom we feel psychological safety:

    “I said, pick up the clothing from the floor NOW!” versus,“Please might you take a moment to pick up the clothing from the floor?”

    We are far less likely to couch with those people in our lives with whom we feel most secure, loved, safe, comfortable, and with whom we experience psychological safety. We know they love us, in spite of and perhaps because of our flaws and occasional crabbiness, and so we don’t take the time to self-censor. We respond authentically and fully, articulating our needs and desires. And, ironically, these are the relationships in which we are least likely to feel burnt out and resentful, until the burnout feeling creeps in from the OTHER more “couchy” areas of our lives.

    As we maneuver potentially tough conversations with managers or supervisors, it can be really helpful to consider our relative levels of psychological safety and to even broach the concept with a supervisor prior to engaging in these important, self-advocating conversations. 

    Today’s suggestion is for you to take a moment to consider what you want to say, how much you are or are not willing to engage in couching your language, and move ahead with your words if you feel like it’s safe enough OR if the risk in sharing what you need to is worthwhile enough. Ask yourself how safe you do or do not feel to speak your truth, and engage a thoughtful colleague about his or her relative comfort in the same type of conversation. You may want to eat your words as soon as they come out of your mouth, but instead take a deep breath, hold it, and release slowly. The world is still spinning, and you’ll probably feel a hell of a lot better and have spent a LOT less energy figuring out the “best” way to say what needed to be said.

    Many of us have these difficult, yet brave, conversations ahead of us, and we can move confidently toward them as we tread into a new era of what it might mean to feel psychological safety both at home and at work. 

    About the author

    Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC is a licensed professional counselor in PA and MD, providing online counseling services for women dealing with burnout, with particular focus on the motherhood experience. She’s a lovingly direct counselor and a co-parenting mom of two daughters. In former lives, she was a Spanish teacher, a sex education instructor, a school administrator, a wine vendor, and she is pretty sure she was a mermaid.