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Training from the BACK of the Room!: Psychological Safety and The Right to Pass

I’d like to talk about the Right to Pass from the Training from the BACK of the Room! Practitioner course. This is a follow up to my previous post about Psychological Safety and C1 – Connections activities. We often overlook choice as part of bringing Psychological Safety to the training room. If a participant has permission to opt out, they will feel more comfortable. For me it is a 2-way street as it also brings safety to the trainer, but more on that later.

What is The Right to Pass?

Man takes right to passSharon Bowman talks about The Right to Pass in the book Using Brain Science to Make Training Stick. Through experience I have found it to be a key building block of safety in the training space. The Right to Pass explicitly provides course participants with the right to opt out of any activity. You tell the class, “All of the activities in the training are optional. At any time, you can exercise The Right to Pass and observe rather than participate.”

The implication is that you invite people to take part rather than make them take part. We invite participation, rather than demand or expect it.

Why does this Matter?

The right to pass for me, matters for 2 reasons. First, let’s think about the participant. When they choose to participate, they take responsibility for their learning. When they use the right to pass, they can be comfortable in that choice. It’s OK to take a break and observe. We’ve agreed that contract.

To illustrate the second reason the right to pass matters, I would like to tell you a story…

No Right to Pass

In March 2016, I received an invite to conduct a workshop at a Meetup in London. I had prepared my session well and was ready to deliver it.

A good number of people attended, which was great for cold, but dry Thursday evening. The session was about to begin, and the host called everyone into the main room. As is often the case, people spread themselves around. While most of the tables in the room were full(ish), there was one at the back which had two participants… not enough for what I had planned.

I invited them to join the other tables to make bigger groups. I explained that we would be doing some group activities and that it would be better that way. One of the participants moved to another table, the other remained. Remember – there was no Right to Pass in place.

Everybody has a plan until they get hit.

Mike Tyson

This really threw me. I was already a little anxious. This was one of my first ever public sessions like this and I hadn’t bargained for this. What had I said? Had I done something wrong? Maybe they didn’t like me?

It took me a few moments to compose myself and I pressed on regardless. After a few minutes, the lone participant got up and left. Once again, I wondered what I could have done differently. The stress hormones began to kick in again. Fortunately, the rest of the room was in full flow so I wasn’t distracted for long.

Let’s try again, but with The Right to Pass

Now – if I had given everyone the Right to Pass, how else might this have played out?

Let’s imagine that I had started the session with agreeing the Right to Pass. When I invited the 2 participants on the table by themselves to join the other tables, they could have said, “We’re going to take the Right to Pass and observe, thanks very much.” and this would’ve been OK. There would be no stress on my part, no awkwardness on their part. I would have been at peace with their choice, given myself permission that this was OK and moved on.

But what if everyone takes The Right to Pass?!?

This question often comes up in our Training from the BACK of the Room! Practitioner courses. I can honestly say a participant has taken the right to pass twice when I have offered it. Of the many training courses I have run and the many people I have trained, only 2 people ever have taken it. And that was not on the same course either. So it is highly unlikely that everyone will take The Right to Pass at the same time. It is also improbable that many participants will take The Right to Pass in the same course.

But really, what if they do?

OK – let’s imagine that a significant part of the cohort you are training decide to take The Right to Pass. Imagine that so many do that it derails what you had planned. You have given them permission to do just that, so what’s the problem? You can discuss alternatives and figure out where the cohort’s comfort zone is. Maybe you pushed too far too soon? Perhaps you tried something which didn’t work with the flow of the course? It might be as simple as people need a break. Whatever the case, you have permission to remain relaxed about this and not get stressed. This is an expected, potential outcome.

Sharon says that if a large proportion of your group takes The Right to Pass, there will always be some people who can’t help but get involved. Once they start, others will follow (remember the Dancing Guy from Derek Sivers). So you always have the choice to carry on regardless.

Try The Right to Pass in your next training

In this article, we’ve examined The Right to Pass taken from the Training from the BACK of the Room! Practitioner course and Using Brain Science to Make Training Stick. When you use The Right to Pass in your training, you give your participants the choice to participate. You provide them with the safe option to observe if they need to. You also give yourself permission to relax when someone in the class takes The Right to Pass. The training space becomes a psychologically safe space for your participants and for you, the trainer. Give it a go in your next training.


If you would like to learn more, consider attending one of our Training from the BACK of the Room Practitioner Courses.

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