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ATD Blog

Speaking Up: Cultivating Psychological Safety in Virtual Training

Monday, April 18, 2022

In an ideal situation, everyone would join live online training as themselves and not worry about putting on a “work face,” right? Welcoming the freedom to raise concerns or doubts without repercussions, learners would offer new ideas free from criticism and feel comfortable asking potentially difficult questions. With the support of the group, they’d feel empowered to take interpersonal risks such as asking for help. Amy Edmondson calls this collective group dynamic psychological safety.

What Is Psychological Safety?

First coined in 1999 by Edmondson, the term psychological safety was later popularized by Google’s Project Aristotle, where this quality was determined to be the most important characteristic among high-performing teams. According to Edmondson, “Psychological safety describes a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas.”

Given that we now live in a virtual world, how might we apply psychological safety to virtual training programs and hybrid classrooms? Although virtual training may feel different than in-person collaboration, it still has a group dynamic. Open sharing among learners and good questions asked by participants are important to active learning. So, how we can help virtual participants feel comfortable speaking up during virtual training programs?

The Iceberg Metaphor: The Seen and Unseen

Using an iceberg as a metaphor, think about virtual learning environments holistically. More than than labeling the session interactive or pausing for questions occasionally, nurture a virtual learning environment in which you as the leader or facilitator shape unseen conditions of support, acknowledgment, and appreciation. Model psychological safety yourself, and reward learners for interpersonal risk taking. Once the conditions are in place, speaking up will occur organically.
Iceberg Metaphor for creating psychological safety

Appreciation: What Gets Rewarded Gets Repeated

To reap participation, we need to sow appreciation. Positive reinforcement goes a long way. A “thanks for that” or “thanks for sharing” or “anyone else?” response has its place but can also come across flat, especially when overused. An authentic response that points out the highlights in a learner’s observations communicates more meaningfully. Even encouragement like “Love how you’re thinking about that. Tell us more,” communicates that the learner’s input—whether verbal or typed—is valued.

Reward virtual learners who take interpersonal risks like expressing a concern, raising a question, offering a solution, sharing a mistake, or respectfully disagreeing and explaining why. Remember: How you say what you say as facilitator makes a difference. Your words and tone must be in sync. If you say, “That’s a great point,” learners need to hear that expressed in your tone, too.


Keep Breakouts and Class Sizes Small

Dividing participants into smaller groups is a fantastic way to make learners feel more comfortable sharing. Ideally, place three to four participants in a breakout session. This way the small group is larger than a dyad but small enough that no one feels overwhelmed. Even keeping the entire class size small with 15 learners or fewer can help lead to greater engagement.

Anonymity as a Tool

Another tip for fostering greater psychological safety in virtual training is to leverage learner anonymity through platform tools. Anonymity can elicit greater participation and honest responses. For example, if the whiteboard on your virtual training platform enables anonymous contributions, use it for deeper sharing activities.


Polling (and third-party apps like Mentimeter) allows learners to voice opinions anonymously. In “How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings,” Edmondson and Gene Daley explain, “Anonymous polls make it easy to express an opinion without fear of being singled out.” These initial anonymous activities can trigger richer and more candid discussions afterward. Although chat is not necessarily anonymous, it also provides a venue for participation that feels safer because it doesn’t cast a single spotlight on the learner.

Additionally, avoiding session recording encourages participants to speak freely without worrying that their comments will live on for all posterity.

Create Psychological Safety Through Cultivation

As you facilitate virtual training programs, remember first to nurture the conditions below the surface. Cultivate virtual training environments where the free exchange of ideas and opinions is supported—even when comments run upstream. Psychologically safe environments are shaped by the things facilitators do and don’t do, say and don’t say. Nurture virtual environments of transparency, respectful disagreement, support, and appreciation, so that speaking up surfaces naturally.

To learn more about psychological safety in virtual training, attend the session The Top 5 Virtual Training Tips to Advance Your Facilitation at ATD’s International Conference & EXPO in Orlando this May. You can also pre-order her new book entitled Next Level Virtual Training, which is available on Amazon.

About the Author

Diana L. Howles, MA, is an award-winning speaker and international virtual trainer who brings 25 years of experience in the learning industry. As a world-class facilitator, she has trained Fortune 100 and 500 companies and facilitated virtual programs in more than a dozen countries. Diana is currently CEO of Howles Associates. She earned a master's degree from Colorado State University and is a frequent presenter at international in-person and virtual conferences. She is author of the new book Next Level Virtual Training: Advance Your Facilitation available on Amazon. She can be reached through her website, via LinkedIn, or on Twitter @DianaHowles.ions.

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Very insightful and it makes sense when facilitating others, to consider the psychological safety within the learning environment.
Exactly, Warren . . . thank you for your comment! What we do and don't do as facilitators, say and don't say, our energy, our attitude, and more all shape the shared virtual space where learners, ideally, can be themselves and thrive.
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Great information, thanks
You're very welcome, Dianna!
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Insightful and practical. Thank you!
Thank you for your feedback, Kathy! It's important we continue to nurture online environments that positively shape learner behavior...
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