Creating Safe Spaces for Difficult Discussions
The success of everything we do that involves another person or persons literally comes down to how effectively we communicate, whether we can get our point and needs across, and whether we can field a healthy interaction that acknowledges the needs and differences of another. This skill is responsible for cohesive growth in any group, be it at home, at school, at work or in a social environment.
And yet it is one of the skills most lacking across the board. Why is that? I can’t think of many groups of people from families to corporates who have easily developed these safe spaces that allow all stakeholders to input into the needs, growth and success of that group.
I believe the reason it takes such determination, intention and patience to develop these spaces is that doing so requires us to address some of the fundamental gremlins of our humanness.
Firstly, we all have a different style of communicating. Some of us like facts and details. Some of us like a more descriptive overview of how it all fits together and influences the whole – the pretty picture. Some of us are adept at finding the language to address what we’d like to deliver, and some of us simply struggle to express ourselves accurately. Even if we are practiced at delivering our point in our own way, our ability to deliver changes the more difficult or emotive a discussion becomes.
Difficult discussions require us to address various opinions, points of view, value systems and perspectives that differ from our own and that we may not share. This kind of discussion requires honesty and openness, at the same time as it evoking impassioned feelings about the topic at hand. Not only does emotion change our ability to deliver a point, but it requires us to be vulnerable in front of the group that’s holding the discussion.
Being vulnerable, finding the words to express ourselves when we feel emotional about a subject, and not only withstanding but welcoming differences of viewpoint and opinion all require immense amounts of courage. As soon as the space we’re in causes us to FEEL something, to express something of a personal opinion, or requires us to listen to the opinion of others that may clash with our own, our egos get involved. Our egos want to protect us, so at the very first sign of any perceived threat, they are online.
Our egos that are attached the oldest and most primal part of our brains – the reptilian brain; where our fight, flight or freeze instinct hangs out. The part of our brain that’s otherwise referred to as our “caveman brain” and which hasn’t been updated in millennia. The job of our ego is valid, and we’re more than capable (with practice) of acknowledging our ego coming online and examining its concerns so that we can find an adult way to respond. Rather than having an internal conversation with our egos and finding an adult way to respond, we often allow our egos to speak for us, and little good comes from that. Our egos are concerned with one thing, and one thing alone – self-preservation. If we allow our egos to speak for us, that is what the conversation will be about.
When we are looking for a conversation that is about collaboration, it is VITAL that we “man up”, have an internal discussion with our egos first and then respond from a position of adult calm and reason. Not to take the emotion out of it or we revoke the invitation to invest openly from everyone else too, but to manage our emotions so that we can deliver them effectively. This takes practice, patience, self-control and courage. Being willing and prepared to do this is one of the greatest gifts of self that you can give another.
Creating safe spaces for difficult discussions is also a process. It doesn’t happen overnight because the lack of it will have created a build-up which must be cleared. When we have lacked a space for open and safe discussion, people who reside in that space will have started to feel insignificant. They may have started to try and balance their need for significance by asking in different ways for discussion, and failing that, they will have moved over to the shadow side and either become indifferent, apathetic or quietly resentful and they will have started to fight for significance in more petty and stick-in-the-mud ways.
The initial invitation to create a new space may result in an outpouring of this build-up and the anticipation of that is daunting.
Creating a safe space for discussion is also an invitation to differing points of view and opinions. This is threatening and requires all of our resolve to appreciate. It’s hard for any of us to listen to and speak about things that challenge our beliefs or challenge the way we do things – ESPECIALLY if we’re responsible for implementing how things are done or upholding how they’ve been done for a long period of time. Once again, this is an open invitation for our egos to get involved and requires some serious adulting on our part.
At the end of the day, there are many gremlins to creating a safe space for difficult discussions. Most of them involve our egos and require us to not only be adult, but to be vulnerable. This is the very definition of UN-safe for most of us – hence the necessity for the creation of a safe space to be vulnerable in.
A safe space ultimately means that we can raise our points without being shouted down, without being victimised for having certain thoughts, needs or beliefs. It means that everyone within that space can be heard, listened to, given the opportunity to finish their complete thoughts and explain them where necessary to get everyone on the same page. A safe space requires that we encourage everyone to speak and that we support and accept their viewpoint because it is true for them, even when it differs from our own. It requires that we ask questions in ways that aren’t offensive – that we adult rather than allowing our egos to speak in our defence. Safe spaces require that we appreciate and respect the vulnerability of others and grace it with our own.
As many gremlins as reside here, most will stand down at least for a time, if the space is led by strong leadership who create and guard the integrity of that space. Leadership willing to show its own vulnerability first in order to encourage the vulnerability of others. Vulnerable is the last thing we wish to be in a space full of differences, and yet it is THE KEY to allowing other egos to stand down. If you willingly open yourself up, you allow others to see that you feel safe and courageous enough to do so. You call not only on their own egos to stand down, but for them to meet your courage with theirs.
When we can agree to allow that leadership to call us gently to order when we start to lose our cool. When we can acknowledge personally that we need to question ourselves about our perspectives, beliefs, self-talk and responses, then we’re on the road to collaborative discussion that encourages growth. We must lead ourselves first before we can lead others, and we must lead ourselves with the same gentle compassion that encourages openness from others as opposed to the hard line commands that shut others down.
Creating safe spaces for difficult discussions is one of the biggest challenges of humanity and is a pinnacle of modern society. Creating it is no mean feat. It is perhaps THE most valuable and productive challenge we can aspire to.
Additional thoughts for creating strong and vulnerable leadership:
Who Comes Out of Your Mouth When You Speak?
For Us or Against Us?
The Courage To Ask Relationship-Building Questions
The Power of Imperfect Leadership
Whether You Win or Lose, Lead or Follow, Be Humble
by Christen Killick
November 18th, 2019
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Thank you for this article. I noticed some gender biased language, namely the phrase “man up”, that reinforces harmful stereotypes and wanted to draw some attention to it. Thank you.
Thank you so much for your engagement. The article suggests, “When we are looking for a conversation that is about collaboration, it is VITAL that we “man up”, have an internal discussion with our egos first and then respond from a position of adult calm and reason. Not to take the emotion out of it or we revoke the invitation to invest openly from everyone else too, but to manage our emotions so that we can deliver them effectively. This takes practice, patience, self-control and courage. Being willing and prepared to do this is one of the greatest gifts of self that you can give another.”
Please share with me your thoughts on how the use of the phrase “man up” here is enforcing a harmful stereotype? I’m genuinely interested to explore and understand.
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