4 Ways to Build Safety in the Coaching Relationship

I’ve been reading an interesting book this last month. I‘ve read lots of books on coaching and coaching in leadership over the years. Some have stayed with me; some confused me and a lot I’ve forgotten.

I learned a lot from this latest one. It’s a new book – just released on February 29th.It’s called The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever and it is written by Michael Bungay Stanier (2016).
(See a more detailed review of this book in Recommended Resources listed below)

Among a host of insightful gems I discovered were really interesting and useful ideas about establishing ‘safety’ in the coaching relationship. The author argues that most people enter into any interaction making judgements about the level of danger vs the level of safety in the relationship. When people sense a higher level of danger or risk, defences rise and protection becomes the 'main game'; when people sense safety the new, riskier perspective is more easily explored.

All this got me thinking about how closely related these ideas are to ‘Relationships: Building the Trust’ phase of the GCI GROWTH framework. Ever since we developed the use of GROWTH we have always highlighted the importance of the additional ‘bits’ that ‘top and tail’ the GROWTH framework – ‘Building the Trust’ at the top and ‘Celebrating Results’ at the bottom.

The TERA Quotient

In exploring the Risk/Safety situation in Building the Trust the author proposes the TERA acronym as a way of considering the key factors that can influence the level of perceived danger or safety. In this framework - T stands for Tribe; E for Expectations; R for Rank and A for Autonomy. It is these four dimensions that influence the perceived level of safety or danger in the relationship. If danger is sensed some form of retreat will begin; if the environment is seen as safe higher levels of engagement are likely to result.

In relation to T –Tribe, the key question is about whether you are with me or against me. Are you likely to get my perspective on this or not? This ‘Tribe’ factor helps to explain how a fellow principal can often quickly build rapport and connection with another principal. A common past experience addresses the ‘are you part of my tribe’ question clearly and quickly.

In relation to E-Expectations, the question to resolve is around ‘do I know what’s coming?’ If I have some sense about what might happen next and how things might play out, I am more likely to feel safer and willing to engage in the process. This factor highlights the value of contracting and clarifying how the coaching process will proceed.

In relation to R-Rank, issues of power and hierarchy come into play. If my status in the relationship is reduced I am likely to feel less safe, less likely to engage and take risks. This is important when leaders coach those for whom they have direct management responsibility. The difference in power, unless carefully and explicitly managed can create a significant barrier to effective coaching. It is for this reason that highlighting confidentiality, clarifying the purpose of any notetaking and clarifying if the conversation is purely for learning and growth (or not) are particularly critical.

In relation to A-Autonomy, this aspect of TERA highlights the importance of ‘choice and voice’ in the interaction. Will I have a say in how this proceeds or not? Do I have some control as to the direction this takes? These are important questions helping to define the level of autonomy that will be part of the relationship. Higher levels of autonomy help drive engagement in the interaction and ownership of the actions that flow from it. (Autonomy has been highlighted as one of the core, universal drivers of motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

So what’s your TERA Quotient?
  • What can you start doing more of to raise it?
  • What might you do a little less of so that rapport and trust and engagement are not undermined?
  • What do you want to make sure you continue doing in the light of the TERA framework?


  • Bungay Stanier, Michael (2016).The coaching habit: Say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever. Toronto. Box of Crayons Press.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.