Hanna Barczyk

Creating Safe spaces

As facilitators and team coaches, a key part of our work is to create safe spaces for participation. This latest article by the Ethics Centre got me thinking about the safe spaces I try to create.

Tim Dean writes that there are two types of safe spaces:

  • One where people are safe from possible threats to their wellbeing. Such safe spaces do not trigger past traumas, raise issues participants believe are harmful or involve views they find morally objectionable. Safe ‘from’ spaces.
  • The other safe space is where people are ‘safe to’ express themselves authentically and engage in good faith with others around difficult, controversial and even offensive topics.

Early in my career my notion of a safe space was one with minimal conflict, or if there was, it was labelled as ‘creative tension’.

I recall shutting down what in retrospect was a crucial conversation. It was messy, it was loud but it was needed. The topic at hand surfaced opposing beliefs and values. At the time I was unskilled to allow the conversation to continue and guide the flow so that the dialogue took place in a way that focused on building understanding behind the beliefs and avoid the attacks – play the issue, not the person. As Dean writes “norms require us to withhold our judgement on the person speaking while allowing us to judge and criticise the content of what they’re saying.”

What I have since learnt over the last 25 years, battle scars and all, is that the safe space is not just a place but a process. Whilst we may enter the space to debate, we can achieve more through dialogue, taking turns in speaking, clarifying and responding. Pause before reacting in order to build upon others and not shut them down.

Our role is as Dean write is create complementary spaces. It is only when safe from and safe to are combined that we can both protect the vulnerable from harm without sacrificing our ability to understand and tackle the causes of harm.

How as a leader do you go about creating safe spaces? How do you build trust and safety?

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