An involuntary shout of ‘Nooooo!’ was, and still is the strangest reaction I’d ever had to introducing a workshop exercise.

Getting individuals to open up isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it’s necessary when trying to garner valuable insights. Drawing from his personal experience, Ed Herten discusses how creating a safe space can build trust in the client-customer relationship.

Ed Herten

Executive Director at C Space

With over 20 years of research and innovation experience, Ed Herten loves to experiment and push his clients to be more customer inspired. This often requires multiple-techniques and big leaps of faith. But without a few risks and the odd night of cold sweats, how else can we push ourselves further?

That shout still makes me chuckle when I think about it. But what had we asked and why?

On the face of it, we hadn’t asked anything particularly challenging – we’d not asked people to dance or sing Karaoke, or even to wear incontinence pants for the day (before you ask: it’s warmer than you might expect). We’d asked them to share one professional, one personal and one private thing about themselves with a colleague from their team.

We were doing it to create a ‘safe space’ for this big, new team who only peripherally knew each other and who would be severely challenged over the coming eight months on a new project. The client’s reaction to the challenge shows how hard it is to be open with colleagues and peers. Yet mutual vulnerability is a critical factor for success. So we wanted to foster trust to create a safe space between them to share, challenge and empathise with each other as the work got harder.

So how much thought should we give to creating a safe space in which we can interact with each other and with customers? A space in which we can build productive and equal relationships, space for listening, yes, but also talking, probing, testing out thoughts, sharing our problems, asking for their help. The short answer is lots – the longer answer is below:

We know that, in the right environment, customers can help our clients solve their challenges, but it’s up to us to design the right environment for the task at hand. This can often be a physical space – (recreating a full Christmas experience for a workshop in August, complete with a professional Santa, tree, presents and carols) or a virtual one such as our Shape community, where a whole new environment is created for agencies across the world to contribute to client challenges. Shape is an example of where the spirit of collaboration truly shines. When you’ve got the second largest agency holding company in the world (Omnicom), pooling together the best talent from: public relations, branding, digital innovation, advertising, insight (and many, many more), you’re likely to yield the best results when trying to solve a difficult client challenge.

Our maxim has always been that relationships are the source of results – and to that end we spend a lot of time trying to create a safe emotional space between ourselves, our clients and their consumers. Three important dynamics are intimacy, safety and creative confidence.

We recently needed to convince women across the world to share videos of how they shave their most intimate areas for a hair removal project, which meant thinking really hard about creating a very safe space for them. As intimacy in this case was the goal, safety was the lever – so the first step was establishing this sense of safety. We did this by asking them what level of intimacy they’d be comfortable with and then running warm-up activities to establish an open and honest environment. To cement it our moderators also went on every step of the journey – sharing their thoughts, feelings and fears as well as leading by example in the more demanding tasks like ‘a week without shaving’. The resulting video debrief was a hugely honest view of the minds, bodies and bathrooms of women across the world.

“If shaving your intimate areas is a mildly awkward topic – dying is off-the-scale hard.”

But it’s an area which we have worked very hard to find and create this safe space. A recent video project with terminal cancer patients in our health business drew on the techniques and learnings from the survival series Alone to find it. From this we learnt that people alone in extreme survival situations seemed to go through bursts of wanting to self-film and talk, and periods where they wanted to hide from the world.

Building on this observation we gave a group of individuals living with terminal cancer a series of topics and asked them to record themselves talking about them when they felt like talking across a whole month – making no demands about what they filmed or sent. The results were some of the most insightful and moving videos we’ve ever had the privilege to receive. They were so powerful because the subjects felt safe and unpressured enough to open up to the camera when they felt up to it, delivering heartfelt soliloquies that they had often not wanted to burden their loved ones with.

When it comes to co-creation – where we deliberately have our clients work with their consumers the one thing we insist on is sharing the problem. This can make clients nervous – they can feel exposed – but it has the opposite effect on their customers, who then feel empowered.

Once consumers hear that even the brands they love wrestle with issues day in day out, and that they are just normal people trying to do their best in a tricky environment and they want their help we really see the barriers drop. It makes the consumers feel useful, valued and above all safe to express their views directly and incredibly clearly.

We still hit barriers with some clients in this area, as it can still be hard for them to trust consumers with sensitive information, or even to appear vulnerable in front of them. But in most cases we usually just need to wait for a while, and after spending time with their consumers our clients start to trust them, and will volunteer the problems directly to them because they feel safe enough to ask for their help.

We see so many pennies drop in sessions like these, and always try to film vox pops of the management teams at the end of the day when the revelations are fresh – before they go back into their day jobs. They act as mementos to them of how viscerally they felt the consumer points of view at times when competing pressures could tend to crowd these out.

Making a safe space

Next time you’re working with consumers in a workshop or online, or with colleagues in a new project you might want to ask yourself:

How safe does everyone feel?
What kind of feeling will the space I choose give off?
What tone will it set?
How can I make them feel safe enough to really tell me what they think and to really want to help me solve my problem?

 

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