Raising and Lowering the Pressure in a Group

Credits Craig Higson-Smith Last Updated 2014-08

The impact of any training program depends upon the participants’ ability to integrate new information and use that information effectively. Security training emotionally challenges both trainers and trainees in many interesting ways. The study of fear is a deep and thought-provoking area, and as trainers, we learn about ourselves and about those we teach.

By Craig Higson-Smith, of the Center for Victims of Torture

Our skill as trainers is measured in part by our ability to manage the way in which our groups work with difficult material.

Not only can security trainers read the “anxiety pressure” of an individual or group, but skilled facilitators also learn how to raise or lower the pressure so as to achieve the greatest impact. The aim here is to move each participant and the group as a whole into the Green Zone—the zone in which people are motivated and capable of learning. Some activities serve to raise the pressure and can be used to motivate those who are not sufficiently engaged. Other activities can be used to lower the pressure. These are very useful when participants are anxious to the point that their automatic survival responses are interfering with their ability to integrate new information and skills.

Raising the Pressure

It is often assumed that providing people with information about danger will motivate them to make themselves safer. While this is true in some cases, it is clearly not true in others. A good example can be seen when looking at the billions of dollars poured into HIV education and the limited impact on sexual behavior. It is likely that digital threats have much in common with HIV. They are invisible and their consequences are often delayed. Digital security trainers must do more than merely provide information. It is relatively easy to help people understand the threat, but how do we make them feel the danger? Without the emotional response, it is unlikely that people will be motivated to implement acquired digital security practices.

To increase the impact of our trainings, we need to understand the fundamental nature of anxiety and fear more deeply.

Anxiety and fear are the emotions that tell us that something is wrong in our immediate environment and motivate us to do something to make ourselves safer. But where do our anxieties and fears come from?

A few of our most fundamental fears are instinctual - these include our fears of pain, death, darkness, loud noises, high places, and perhaps deep water—primary dangers that our species has faced for millennia. However, most fears are not instinctual, but learned, and most are learned when we are young.

As children, our brains are still growing and changing quickly, and there is ample opportunity for many threats to be hard-wired into the emotional systems within our brains. As children we learn about danger in several ways: (1) through direct experience, that is by doing things that cause us pain or discomfort (one shot learning was discussed previously); (2) from our parents and family who warn us about the dangers in the environment and punish us when we endanger ourselves; and (3) observing the frightening experiences of others.

As digital security trainers in the current age, we face a challenge that other trainers do not:

Human beings have no evolutionary template for digital threats, nor were today’s adult generations warned against digital threats as children.

As a result, there have been no opportunities for our brains to hard-wire the connections between digital threats and our emotion-based survival system. When a dog growls near us, we immediately feel anxiety and move away from the animal. But when our antivirus software shows a warning, we sigh with irritation and may ignore it. Most people demonstrate a cognitive response to digital threat, but there is very little emotional reaction. We know that these things are dangerous, but we don’t feel threatened. Security trainers need to help people feel the danger, not merely think about it.***

This is not to say that training participants have no experience of digital threats or are unable to learn as adults. This would make our roles as security trainers completely pointless. But as adults we learn about danger more slowly and in different ways. Most participants in a digital security training workshop will have had some experience of direct digital threats, and all will know people who have been compromised as a result of inadequate digital security. Certainly all will have heard about digital threats through word of mouth and media channels. However, these experiences that occurred later in life are not likely to be strongly connected to those parts of the brain responsible for our emotional reactions and survival activities.

So the question remains, how do we evoke the healthy emotional responses that motivate adult human beings to protect themselves against dangers that they were not warned about as children? Merely describing the threat in an abstract way is unlikely to be effective. Rather, we need to emphasize the human impact of the threat and its relevance to the individual. This is most easily accomplished by telling stories!

The stories we tell to raise the pressure must have two key elements:

  • They should involve people who are as similar as possible to our target audience.
  • They should involve human consequences for which the emotional parts of our brains are wired.

Experienced digital security trainers build up collections of actual case studies involving a broad range of people and digital threats. By providing enough information about the goals and nature of the work, they capture their audiences’ curiosity and interest. Wherever possible, they give their case studies names and backgrounds to emphasize their humanity and essential similarity to the target audience - however, for moral and ethical reasons, security trainers will often need to provide false names and alter other identifying information.

Experienced trainers thoughtfully pick case studies that mirror the aspirations, values, work, and socio-political contexts of their target audience. The message the trainer aims to send is, “If this can happen to them, it can happen to you!”

Experienced trainers also emphasize the human impact of the threat. While we are not hard-wired to respond emotionally to the digital threat itself, we probably will have an emotional response to the logical consequences of that threat being realized. Thus, when we present our case studies we must follow the story through to its ultimate human consequences. These consequences need not be the torture of innocent people or the extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders.

Remember that if we push people into the Orange Zone or start triggering the traumatic memories of the Red Zone, we run the risk of losing them altogether.

Many other human emotions can be used to motivate people to protect themselves. Such examples include: the frustration and disappointment of a project failing, the unfairness of incurring the costs of replacing equipment, the anger at wasted time spent collecting data that is lost or stolen, the embarrassment of losing one’s job, the constant worry about how exposed information might be used, or the shame of having to explain to others that because of you their security has been compromised. In each case, trainers are able to increase the emotional impact of the case study by encouraging participants to identify with the subject of the story.

Good discussion questions that help people to identify are:

  • What would you have done if this had happened to you?
  • What would you have been thinking in her position?
  • How would you have felt if this had happened to you?

Consider the following example:

Sonja, a digital security trainer, is working with a group of social researchers and would like to encourage them to secure their electronic data more effectively. She begins by telling them that if their data is not adequately protected, it might fall into the wrong hands. The researchers all nod their heads, but Sonja knows that they have not “felt it.” She then tells them a story of a social researcher in a neighboring country that had been conducting research in a related field. She explains a little about the research and then begins to share how the researcher’s unprotected laptop computer was stolen, along with all the data.

She then asks her class to think about what they would do if this happened to them.

They decide that they would need to meet with each of the research participants individually to explain that confidentiality had been breached. Sonja reflected with the group on how terrible it would be to have to repeat that conversation over and over again. She also gets them to think about how much time and effort would be wasted on this whole enterprise.

How we tell stories is often more important than the stories we tell!

Only when she sees that her class is identifying closely with the unfortunate subject of her story, does she begin to ask questions about how this situation might have been prevented. The trick here is that the trainer is deliberately using the case study to activate her group’s emotional responses to the threat, thereby motivating them to engage more meaningfully in the digital security lesson that follows. Security trainers can motivate participants by telling stories about security that touch on everyday human stressors and emotions.


It is possible that trainers may read the anxiety level of the group incorrectly—refer to the notes in the previous section about survival responses and mixed signals as often as needed. If a participant is actually very anxious or traumatized (Orange or Red Zone), but presenting as someone who is disengaged (Blue Zone), their distress will rise quickly when asked to identify with situations similar to their own. A case study might elicit even more frightening and unpleasant feelings and the pressure will rise in unhealthy ways.

It is for this reason that trainers need to continually assess the anxiety pressure levels at both an individual and group level, and adapt their strategy as necessary. Otherwise, their efforts can backfire. For more on the negative consequences of such a mistake, stress, trauma and re-victimization will be discussed in more detail further on.

Lowering the Pressure

When trainers feel that participants have become too anxious, they should work on relieving some of that pressure. The obvious approaches of offering reassurance, or telling people to relax, will often have the paradoxical effect of raising their anxiety. Instead, trainers should focus on making people feel safer.

A sense of safety in groups is achieved by paying attention to the following four principles:


This refers to respecting each person’s right to share as much or as little of their personal experience as they choose. It is usually very helpful for workshop participants to learn from each other’s experiences. However, trainers should be careful not to establish a culture within the group that pressures people to reveal more than they are comfortable sharing. When people experience this kind of pressure, they start to feel unsafe and their ability to learn is compromised. Trainers should inform participants that they can share as much or as little as they like, and should protect members of the group who wish to preserve their privacy.


This refers to people’s ability to predict and control what happens to them. When people understand what is happening in their environment, they feel safer. For this reason, trainers should explain the program for the workshop in advance and create opportunities for participants to ask questions and express their concerns both publicly and privately. Similarly, trainers should explain the content and purpose of group activities before each activity begins. The more anxious members of the group are, the more important this principle becomes.


This refers to people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. It is very important that people participate in digital security trainings because they choose to, not because their supervisors or employers do require them to. Similarly, workshop participants should be given permission not to participate in particular activities that they find stressful or uncomfortable. Here again trainers should give participants permission to engage with the training in a way that makes the most sense for them.


This refers to the respect due to every human being. If people feel that their dignity is under threat, their anxiety will increase and they will disengage from the training. While most trainers are offended by the suggestion that they might not be respectful of their participants, it is surprising how often workshop participants do in fact feel disrespected. A sarcastic remark to a late-comer, an off-color joke at the expense of a minority group, or a frustrated sigh in response to a question that has just been answered, are all examples of disrespectful facilitation. Also, exercises that cause people to lose their composure in public can also undermine participants’ dignity.

When trainers facilitate their groups in a thoughtful manner that explicitly upholds these four principles, the sense of safety in the group is increased and participants are able to relax and better engage with the material.

Primum non nocere! (Above all else, Do No Harm!)

Another way to make people feel safer is to reduce any threats in the environment. The most common threats in the security training classroom are:

  • The danger of revealing one’s own ignorance or poor security practices.
  • Confronting one’s fears.
  • Accessing disturbing thoughts and revisiting memories.
  • Losing one’s composure in a professional setting.

When many people in the group are in the Orange Zone, trainers should be careful of any activities that might exacerbate these threats. For example, going around the group asking each person to describe the encryption software they use, knowing that many people in the group do not know what encryption is, will make anxious people feel even less comfortable.

Similarly, asking people to describe their worst fears or to reflect upon past traumatic experiences may not be helpful. While certainly relevant to security training, these conversations handled badly do not help people learn.

So, how do we help people confront fears and learn from past experiences in an effective manner? How do we allow people to talk about sensitive issues, in a way that doesn’t cause distress or fear?

These are all important questions for security trainers. Most importantly, the distress caused by re-experiencing past traumatic experiences can in fact be harmful (this will be discussed more in relation to traumatic stress further on). Trainers should keep in mind one of the most fundamental ethical tenets, seen in the title above - Do No Harm!

Do’s and Don’ts to Do No Harm

Below is a list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” when facilitating conversations about disturbing material, which will reduce the possibility of causing harm:


  • Create space for people to talk about what is important to them.
  • Remind people that they can say as much or as little as they like.
  • Listen respectfully.
  • Ask about what happened, what they did, and what they learned.
  • Monitor body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions for signs of increasing anxiety.
  • Help people finish their story, even if it means skipping over the most upsetting parts.
  • Thank people for sharing difficult experiences.
  • Give distressed people space to recover, by moving on to other topics and distracting the group.
  • Follow up with distressed people privately to see if they would like further support.


  • Dismiss, minimize, or reject any part of the experience.
  • Pressure people into talking about their fears or past distressing experiences.
  • Ask people to close their eyes and imagine bad things.
  • Ask probing questions, especially those relating to feelings and thoughts.
  • Blame people for what happened to them.
  • Offer unsolicited advice, suggest counseling, or label a person’s mental state in public.
  • Over-react to their distress, and in so doing, make it worse.

Also, do not offer meaningless platitudes such as “You were so lucky to survive, it could have been worse!”, “I know how you feel!”, and “It will be alright!” None of these are in fact true, and all are potentially insulting. Finally, skilled security trainers use energizers and other activities to lower the anxiety pressure in a group. Anything that involves laughter and movement is good, and so are activities that increase the sense of support. Singing and prayer are helpful in the appropriate cultural contexts. Always leave enough time at the end of the training day for some of these kinds of activities. That way, participants will leave feeling safe and will not take their anxieties home with them.

Working with a diverse anxiety group

The most difficult groups are those whose members come into the room with very different levels of anxiety. For example, a couple of people might have recently experienced a very difficult event, while others believe that security concerns are exaggerated and are only present because their supervisor expected them to be. In these situations, two principles apply:

Trainers should adopt conservative strategies.

Remember the fundamental ethic of doing no harm. One should never endanger the emotional health of one participant in order to motivate another. Attempts to raise the pressure are always in danger of causing distress to those who are already anxious.

Groups tend to cohere.

Individuals in the group influence each other, and very quickly a group that looked very disparate in the beginning becomes much more unified. This can work for or against the trainer. If the anxious or traumatized people in the group are more powerful, they will increase the pressure of the group at large into the Orange Zone. If the bored, disengaged people have the loudest voice, they will work against the training by undermining the importance of the work.

However, the experienced trainer with a good understanding of groups can use this situation to his or her advantage.

This is done by identifying articulate and influential group members who are in the Green Zone. Work to give them “extra air time” in the initial group discussions. Their thoughtful and emotionally calm input in the group will serve to engage the interest of their disengaged colleagues and provide a sense of safety for those who are more anxious. By giving people in the Green Zone more power in the group, the trainer helps other group members engage more effectively.