Developing Safe Space for Difficult Conversations

Developing a safe space for difficult conversations is hard.  It doesn’t matter what the conversation is about, who’s involved, or whether you’re trying to have it at home, at work, or with a friend – we have an innate fear of being a part of difficult conversations because they are threatening, feel unsafe, and often call us to account.

Consequently, rather than learning the skills required, many of these conversations go by the wayside, un-had and unheard.  Needs go unheard and unmet.  Distance creeps into our teams and partnerships making it increasingly difficult to bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be.  Our own relative comfort is chosen at the expense of connection and the combined energy we could achieve fades to non-committal.

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 don’t believe that any group of people, from families to corporates to communities, easily develop these safe spaces where all stakeholders can input into the needs, growth and success of that group.  Doing so requires focus and intention.  Trial and error.  Patience and determination.  Care.

Firstly, we all have different styles of communicating.  Some of us like facts and details.  Some of us like to understand the pretty picture of how it all fits together and influences the whole.  Some of us are adept at finding the language to articulate what we’d like to say, and some of us struggle to find the words to express ourselves even when we can feel and see it clearly in our heads.  Our ability to deliver a point is often hampered by the difficulty of the emotion or depth of discussion.  As soon as we’re uncomfortable our brains want to protect us, prompting various responses from awkward silence to terse statements that shut others down.

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, openness and consideration at the same time as it may evoke 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.  Funnily enough, it is this willingness to be vulnerable that is key to achieving a safe space.

Being vulnerable, finding the words to express ourselves (especially 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 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 activate.

Our egos are attached to 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.  Often, we allow our egos to speak for us rather than having an internal conversation with them first and finding an adult way to respond.  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 have an internal discussion with our egos first before attempting to respond from a position of adult calm and reason.  To do so is 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 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 that 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.  They may 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.  This is where courageous and compassionate leadership is essential.

Creating a safe space for discussion is also an invitation to differing points of view and opinions.  This can be threatening and may require our resolve to appreciate.  It’s hard for any of us to listen to and speak about things that challenge our beliefs or 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 for the conversation to remain open and collaborative.

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, and the courage to implement it.

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, and 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.

Safe space is led by strong leadership who creates and guards 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 calm and 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.

We can agree to allow that leadership to call us gently to order when we start to lose our cool.  We can acknowledge personally that we need to question ourselves about our perspectives, beliefs, self-talk and responses.  When we can do these things, 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.  It is needed in our homes, in our classrooms, in our businesses and in our society.  Creating it is no mean feat.  It is perhaps THE most valuable and productive challenge we can aspire to.

by Christen Killick

April 11th, 2022

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