How Cecilia Sjöstrand creates space by making people feel safe enough to fail

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Cecilia picked me up on the other side of the bridge that connects Copenhagen to Malmö, Denmark with Sweden. You might know that bridge from the popular crime drama television series ‘The Bridge’ in which the Sontbridge plays a leading role. I got to know Cecilia when working for IKEA. She was part of the team we worked with to set out the leading strategy for the project we collaborated on. We drove to Bjerreds Saltsjöbad just above Malmö, located some 600 meters from the shore, at the end of the Long Pier (Långa Bryggan) at Bjärred village. A really photogenic place with open-air ocean swimming baths with saunas, a restaurant and magnificent views in all directions. You could even spot the Sontbridge on the horizon. The perfect decor for what Cecilia does as a change management coach.

Cecilia came carefully prepared, so we tried a different approach for a change. We recorded her story separately and some video. Then, after a fantastic meal I learned everything there is to learn about space creation from a professional sports cameraman Ulf. In the sauna of course. And learned the hard way that you should never jump into a 2 degrees centigrade sea as an amateur sauna goer. Ouch.


The importance of space

For me, ‘to create space’ is not just a beautiful expression. It is a survival place for many people in today’s society. I think that it is more important than ever to create space for ourselves and not to lose yourself in a world that goes faster and faster. Everyone wants to find and buy themselves time. The brain seeks for a break. I meet so many people nowadays where I have so much compassion for. But sometimes I’m really worried. If we want to get along with everything that we want to experience and be involved in today’s information society. It is an entirely new world where our kids grow up in compared with how I grew up. We have never been here before, so people don’t know how to handle it. The question is: how do we do that then?

I believe that it all starts with you. I think we have plenty of choices in our lives today that we are not aware of. So it all start with yourself to be able to see that. To be curious enough about yourself and your own choices and behaviour you have in your life. And to be able to see your whole reality what you are in. And to take responsibility for your behaviour, choices and actions. If you do so, you don’t need to put energy on blaming others.

I think that the key here is to be brave enough to put yourself in the first place. But for many people that have not chosen to not put them self in the first place, it can be perceived as being selfish, but it is controversial. When I assure myself, I will be able to give to others. If you do not secure yourself first, you have nothing to give to other people. If you can’t secure yourself, you can’t lead others through changes, and you can’t keep creating space for others.

It all start with to be curious enough about yourself, your own choices and behaviour you have in your life. And to be able to see your whole reality what you are in.

But when you do, when you secure yourself first, and you create your own space for recharging or to getting energy or whatever you need, then you are willing to prioritise self-expression based on joy. That allows you to set boundaries for yourself, to take responsibility for yourself and own behaviour, which is much more truthful and mature than getting disappointed with other people’s behaviour. Or to getting discouraged about other people that put themselves first, or by thinking that other people are happier based on what you see in different media.

Being comfortable with the unknown

I am the founder and owner of the company I AM SJÖSTRAND. I work in the field of organisational development. I meet a lot of people every day, coming from all kinds of places in the world. I meet them in their realities, where they try to bring significant changes in their organisations. All these people want to create trusted, collaborative environments, and to transform groups into motivated and empowered teams. A big puzzle and struggle for many people today. At the same time, no one wants to feel incompetent in the unknown. Everyone wants to feel competent enough to handle every situation in their life. It is a struggle for many people today. Struggling to be present in their own life and brave enough to fail at the same time as they should feel competent, liked and significant to others.

I am incredibly curious about life and want to experience myself and see as much as I can. I am like most of us. I have worked and lived abroad and experienced so many things that some people will never experience. I have worked with thousands of leaders and met different cultures and, since I lived abroad, and I have always been curious about other people. I lived in China for many years, and I learn so much from that. Running build-ups and big projects in Asia will never work if you can’t get the people with you. I am incredibly curious about life and people, and I want to experience even more.

Above all, I am curious about myself today, compared with the previous version of me. I am now doing things more based on compassion and joy than out of fear. I think this is the key to the society of today. That you need to be able to find out the true you, your passion and joy in life. To do that you have to create space for yourself. People are looking for a time-out or joy or happiness, that’s why they are trying different things today to get that breathing space. Things like exercising, meditation and yoga.

Mindset shift

When I talk about spaces, I do not necessarily mean a physical space like a place to be in or to go to. I don’t think you need to find the time or have to go away; it is about a mindset shift. It is about finding space, joy and happiness here and now in everything you do. To create your own a mental space for yourself every day and to be more present in your surroundings. I feel that many people live in the past or the future more than they live in the here and now. We struggle a lot to be present in our own lives. I do too sometimes.

A thought that I use when I work with people is: play with that you don’t have any future, and there is no past. The only thing you have to play with is here and now. What actions would you take based on pure joy and love?

It is not just about lack of time that we do not live here and now. That is what we quite often blame things on, the lack of time. I think it has to do with fears people have to get in contact with their feelings. When you are present with yourself, that is precisely what you do. Then you do not run away from them, and you’re not afraid of them. Then you embrace the feelings and fears that are inside you. To be able to be authentic as a leader or a person you need to be able to be with your feelings and fears. That to me is what it means to be present and how you create space.

Creating space for others

When you create space for yourself, you can also create space for others. So, what does it mean to create space for others? One of the critical tasks that people have is the courage to hold space for others in a change journey. It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them. Making them feel not good enough, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome is not what you do then. When we hold space for other people, then we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control. Then we meet people in their reality. To be able to do that you must have secured first that you are fully present and safe. Even the best leaders and coaches need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without the fear of being judged.

Most of the time we fail due to lack of trust of our intuition, wisdom and power to make it happen. Keep your ego out of it. Hold space for other people in a gentle, supportive, and non-judgmental way.

It is essential to permit people to trust their intuition and wisdom. That it is not about a perfect plan that will make you successful. Most of the time we fail due to lack of trust of our intuition, wisdom and power to make it happen. Keep your ego out of it. Hold space for other people in a gentle, supportive, and non-judgmental way. We cannot do that if we are overly emotional and if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. Allow people to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting differences and recognising that those differences may lead to them to make choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make decisions based on cultural norms or values that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control, and we honour differences and we make people feel safe enough to fail.

When you are on a change journey with a huge transition in your company or life, don’t forget that the most important thing to do when you want to do the possible is to create psychological safety with a trusted environment. When people are learning, growing, or going through transitions they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is merely a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and take more time learning from their mistakes. It all about creating trust and psychological safety, and about securing that your team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. You can define it as ‘being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. How you enable conditions in group dynamics and organisations is one of the most studied subjects.

Make people feel safe enough to fail

When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is merely a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and spend more time learning from their mistakes.

To summarise, three points. Create space for yourself whatever that looks like. You need to connect with yourself to be able to connect with others. And the whole world is waiting for that connection. Today you can reach another person wherever they are in a world in one second. So you can start now. 
Create that trusted and psychologically safe environment for others to be able to get other people with you on your journey. And don’t forget when you try to change or do something new in your life or organisation: it’s all about testing and learning, failing fast, one step at the time with a systematic follow-up.