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Crossing to Join the Herd: Psychological Safety and Relationship

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Beth Killough

Photo by Carla Richardson

I spend time outside with our herd in the horse pasture a few times a day. It’s a nervous system reset for me and a way to find my way back to the most stable parts of myself. 

Recently, I’d had one of those days where all the machinery around me broke and things just seemed hard. I was so excited when I finally had time to walk through the pasture gate with my border collie Georgie by my side and to go find my herd. It was that magic hour when the sun streams through the trees as it starts to set. Everything glows, beautiful rays of sunlight breaking through tree branches. I found a spot to sit down at the creek’s edge, a great place to be near the horses without interacting directly.

I sat in the dirt with my back against a eucalyptus tree, getting grounded in the most literal terms. And I could feel my interior world begin to settle. My mind quieted and my thoughts untangled. My thinking slowed down, as I felt my heart open. I noticed some tender feelings, just a bit of– sadness I’d been guarding against. While it was a bit hard to feel, it was real and I’ve come to trust that real is good. 

Even with the sadness there, I could feel some joy watching the herd graze near each other, coming in and out of connection. Off in the distance, the hawks were calling to each other overhead. Neighborhood dogs barked a bit, kids played, and there was this always present sound of a steady wind. It was a stunningly beautiful environment all around me.

As I was sitting at that creek, I felt ready to enter more directly into the herd. And some questions began to emerge. 

How often do we sit on the sidelines of our lives? 

How much do we take an observer role and how much do we dive in? 

When do we take a step forward and give up that protected position and start taking relational risks? 

And, if we don’t step forward, at what point do we lose the opportunity and miss the most profound and beautiful rewards of relationship? 

As I sat on one side of the creek while the herd was on the other, I thought of the creek as a form of psychological safety. I had been alone on my side of the creek for some time, and it helped me get more balanced and grounded within my own self leadership. I felt psychologically stable but I was in my own relational system. Perhaps I needed that time to just be, to come back into my own body. But I noticed a desire and readiness to be with the herd. I wanted to graze with them, touch them. I wanted to be as close to them as they were to each other. While the creek protected me for a while, it had become an obstacle. It was in the way, preventing me from being as connected as I wanted to be. 

So, as a first step, I engaged with the creek bed. We had been getting a lot of rain. The creek was flowing rapidly bringing new materials from the hills, beautiful stones and sticks from trees we don’t have here on the ranch. There were also random objects — the top of a five-gallon paint jug, some garbage from other people’s properties, pieces of glass, and other things. I spent time exploring what was in the creek, what had arrived without intention from this new flow of water, all of the things that had settled there. 

Then I engaged with what was keeping me from crossing that creek. I meditated on the idea of psychological safety as an active co-created process, rather than something we arrive at as a destination in the relationship. I was grateful to have those moments on my own side of the creek so I could right myself. I had been busy earlier which led to some irritability and unmanageability in my thinking and in my emotions. had allowed too much time to pass without slowing down and attending to my core needs. I became guarded and tense—the pressure built up in my body. I could feel it like an overfilled balloon, pressure in my skin, my muscles, and in my joints. It was only after I sat alone by the creek myself that I was truly ready to cross and begin relating. 

I started by watching each horse up close, touching them, and letting them touch me. I watched them carefully move through the grass with their lips, choosing which blades to eat and which not to eat. I listened to them chew.  I heard the sounds of their hooves on the soft ground. I could see them move in and out of relationship with each other and I could feel the energy from those interactions. Only with closer contact could get such details. Which horses were more interested in engaging with me and which ones wanted to do their own thing? Who wanted to graze and who had other agendas?

Only if we cross the creek and leave the sidelines of our own psychological safety, can we engage in what it means to build relational safety. As I grazed with the herd, I could feel them allow me to join their system, to merge into their safety. I brought my stable self and became part of their stable group. I found their tempo and I matched it. When I had a new idea or desire like closer proximity or touch, I let it be known. They accepted me and my needs. 

What would have happened if I had walked away and not crossed the creek because I wasn’t willing to risk the unknown of the relationship with the herd? I would’ve still been okay. In fact, I would have been more intact and whole than I had been when I arrived. That quiet sitting at the creek was nourishing and restorative. But I would’ve missed out on the very essential process of participating in safety. 

My time on my side of the creek aligned my natural leadership and allowed me to be one hundred percent at peace with all that happened when I was with the herd. I was willing to adapt, adjust and move with each horse’s needs. I was responsive and didn’t take things personally, staying with the herd no matter what. 

Relational safety is a core capacity we have to build together as humans. It’s much easier to feel that sense of psychological safety when we’re sitting alone on one side of a metaphorical creek. Perhaps we sit quietly in a meeting and don’t share our ideas. Or, we long to say something vulnerable to our loved one, but we don’t and we hold onto the sentiment. We have so much more control when we are only responsible for only ourselves. But what does it take to leave that spot, cross the creek, and be willing to enter the dynamic world of relationships? 

We have to take the stability we gain from grounding ourselves as individuals and use it to navigate the unpredictable. The control is tempting. Low risk means less hurt. But the truth of the matter is that relationships are a high contact sport. To reap the benefits, you have to be willing to tolerate the risks. The relational world provides a place for us to show up, to grow, to be of service. And, when we need it, a psychologically safe group offers a space for us to be deeply supported to be our best selves. 

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