Berthoud Consulting

Berthoud Consulting

Safe Space

I often get called into facilitate groups where there is tension, sometimes among peers, and sometimes with a manager or leader. People typically ask that there be safe space for the conversation. What do they mean? People generally answer with phrases like, “No repercussions,” “What I say won’t be held against me,” and “There won’t be any negative consequences.” Is this possible?

Groups need to have conversations that haven’t happened yet because members have been afraid…of disclosing something about themselves, demonstrating need, admitting ineptitude or mistakes, confessing limitations, committing to something they aren’t certain they can accomplish, or in some way standing out from the crowd or the previous image they had constructed for themselves. All of these are risks. By definition, they take individuals and groups beyond the safety of the known, which has been insufficient to get them where they want to go.

Yet people often want the safety that exists because they haven’t taken a risk. This is the classic catch-22. Safety means doing what’s known or comfortable. Change involves doing something new and unknown. There are no guarantees. That’s the very nature of risk. To demand safe space in advance is to limit the opportunity to make needed change.

Rather than guarantee safety, I have come to appreciate the need to manage risk, as we do in daily life all the time. If it’s raining we put on rubber boots, carry the umbrella, and hope we don’t catch a cold. Safety would have meant staying inside but it wouldn’t get the groceries in the kitchen. Likewise, in groups, we can manage risk of disclosure, conflict, and the like.

First, I find groups need a grounded risk assessment. That is, individuals and groups need to look at both the possibility and the likelihood of possible outcomes. For example, people often voice fear that they’ll be fired, reprimanded, or otherwise punished if they speak up. Yet a look at past practice reveals that their fears are just that, fears. It could happen, but it’s unlikely.

Second, individuals can determine their ability to withstand the possible consequences. Identify needed supports in case the negative consequences happen. It might be a day off, lunch with a friend, the chance to complete a task you know you’re good at. That is, if negative consequences happen, be sure that you have something available to help you deal with them.

Third, agree to honor the chances members in the group take. It could be a simply saying thanks or acknowledging that making the contribution was difficult for the person.

Ironically, safety develops as a result of taking risk in groups, when someone says what’s true—that last project was less than successful, I don’t know how to lead that way, I have a better way, racism happens here—and the floor doesn’t cave in. Soon, others engage in real conversation and before long, group members experience the safety they wanted.

  • What do you mean if/when you ask for safety?
  • When have you taken a risk in a group? What happened? Immediately? In the long run?
  • What supports your ability to take reasonable risk?


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