Safe Spaces for you, your groups, and your work

6 minute read

Even when we are just at the beginning in our learning in how to create and accept safe spaces, they can be incredibly useful due to how well they can adapt to a wide variety of different contexts. While not every situation is fit for the creation of a safe space, these are three different contexts that highlight different sets of characteristics:

  1. In a personal relationship
  2. In a peer group
  3. In a workplace

Personal relationship safe spaces

In a personal relationship there’s a very private one-to-one context. Due to a high level of trust and possibly intimacy, the two people can get incredibly deep in personal themes that can open up the very fundamentals of our behaviours, beliefs, …and beings. We might even discover a side of the person we have never seen before, and it could be unsettling. We need to remind ourselves that the person isn’t a different person just because we know something new, and again unconditional acceptance is key.

This also means that sometimes the space is going to be created to resolve something about the relationship itself. The person creating the safe space could be doing that to either talk about a problem they are having with the other, or to allow the other to express something difficult about the person.

It’s a situation that makes the safe space hard to maintain: how do you deal with emotions when you are the target of the venting? How do you take action after it? Can you really withhold advice and avoid being defensive?

A way to del with it could be to be able to pause a safe space. Some people use a safeword for it: if a specific, previously mutually agreed word, gets raised by either party in the discussion, then the safe space is paused and everyone takes a break to breath, deal with their emotions, and think about it more. This can be very effective, as sometimes emotions could get too intense.

Difficult emotions are ok to be felt: anger, disgust, fear, sadness. While we might feel hurt ourselves by seeing these emotions in the other, it’s also not the emotion, it’s what the other person does with the emotion that matters. One can feel anger and decide to not act upon it. This means they aren’t the angry person, they are the one that decided to do otherwise.

“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them”.
— Eckhart Tolle

If both the people in the relationship are mature enough to create this space for each other, it’s an ideal scenario where it’s likely for growth to happen and for a fuller expression of themselves to flourish.

Group safe spaces

In a group the privacy is extended to multiple people. The depth the group can reach usually depends on how safe is perceived the least trusted person in the group, which means that the larger the group the harder it is to reach personally challenging topics. There might be various types of groups, but here I’m referring to these groups where people relate to each other as equals, one of the contributors to the group trust is being built on the idea nobody is better than others.

Even if they can often lack depth, groups provide additional benefits. One, the most obvious, is the ability to receive a diverse number of perspectives from multiple people, that can enrich and open the mind even further. This is not just about receiving “more”, it’s also about the likelihood that the right perspective is contributed to the discussion.

Group safe spaces are also more effective as any discussion between two members can be more easily mediated by the others. This also means that it potentially allows for more growth for the individuals as the external perspective is likely to be more balanced and can avoid stalemates. Growth also happens not for the individual that walks into the safe space, but for everyone contributing.

Having multiple people helping is also an incredibly powerful source of energy for the individual, as it’s not just a personal matter, or one person opinion, but there’s the backing of an entire group.

Workplace safe spaces

In a workplace we find both one-on-one and group safe spaces, but what usually changes is that there are power differentials at play that don’t show up in the other two as they are considered all between peers. While the power differential can make harder to create safe spaces, it also drives usually conversation toward more utilitarian topics: goals, work, career, collaboration, emotional impact of and on others, and so on. The loss in depth and the challenge of power differentials is offset by avoiding too intimate topics.

Due to the competitiveness and hierarchies of many workplaces, it might also be difficult to begin creating the trust necessary for them to exist. A good way is to use our own vulnerabilities first: accepting errors, admitting faults, and then showing that’s no problem and that we deal with these well, is a good way to create the preconditions that later allows safe spaces. It can take some time.

The ability to create safe spaces in a workplace is something that I personally consider essential for managers and leaders to execute and master. Often the discussions about safe spaces in business take the shape of “one on ones”, the personal discussion a manager has in a private space with an individual. But what is that if not the preparatory pieces for a safe space to exist?

Due to the power differential inherent in many organization between managers and the rest of the team, it’s important for the manager to be able to separate clearly:

  • Safe spaces
  • Evaluative discussions

Evaluative discussions are all discussions that in positive or negative relate the individual to the company, but need to go through the boundary of privacy that the safe space requires. This includes discussions around performance, evaluation, salary, firing, and so on. Mixing evaluative discussions and safe spaces will violate the privacy criteria because some actions the manager have to take will require to share things outside the private discussion, and that’s not compatible with a safe space. Doing that will break the trust, which is why it’s important to be clear when a discussion is evaluative.

It’s possible to get explicit consent to share something from the safe space outside, but that ideally shouldn’t be the norm, as in the long term might impact the trust as well.

If you’re a manager with a more democratic or affiliative style this is even more important, as you’ll be tempted to make every discussion as a safe space. Be clear about what’s happening.

As for the group dynamics, I was kicked off in the right direction by what seemed to be a minor passage in a lecture by Marie-Louise Von Franz:

“When Jung founded the Psychological Club in Zurich, he wanted to find how a group would work in which the inferior function would not be covered up, but where people would contact each other by it. The result was absolutely amazing. People who walked into this society from outside were shocked by the rude behaviour and the absolutely unending quarrels this group displayed”
“One day Jung said to me “Do you not want to join the Psychological Club, or do you not dare join it?”. I said “I did not dare join it, but I would love to”
— Marie-Louise Von Franz (1986) Lectures on Jung’s Typology

I didn’t know at the time, but this I believe it was the direct application, even if a bit extreme, of a group safe space in a work context. Imagine all these people, all professionals, able to challenge each other often, while at the same time keeping their personal relationships going within that space.

Clearly that’s an extreme example because they were purposefully working on the under-developed parts of their own psyche — that was their work — yet if it works in that scenario, it’s even more likely to be effective in a normal work context.


Thanks for Tammie Lister, Marie-Cécile Paccard, Nicolò Volpato, and Nathalia Scherer for the feedback.