The Asymmetry of Safe Spaces

11 minute read

Safe space is the name given to a moment in time between two or more people where a person can feel confident to not be judged, criticized, harassed, and in general that they will be able to be themselves with no harm, neither present — nor future.

Years ago I wasn’t able to create a safe space for others. I wasn’t also able to accept when others created such space to me — thanks to some of my own inner demons. While the latter was a more pressing problem for my well being, the work I was doing to overcome it made me learn very closely how safe spaces work and how they can be created.

Why are safe spaces hard?

One of the questions I wondered about for a while was: why so many people are unable to create and accept such spaces? While there are surely as many reasons as there are individuals, I realized that part of it was the frequency of our direct experience with the lack of it. As kids interacting with kids, neither is able yet to create this space. Maybe we were lucky and our parents were able to create a safe space for us, but still we realized quite soon that most of the relationships we had aren’t able to. It takes a fairly evolved individual to be able to create it, and as such, the default expectation is “no safe space”. We learn to live our lives (mostly) without them.

As adults, it doesn’t help that society has no good role models for this. Most of the books, movies, and songs, require tension and that’s easily create with misunderstanding and emotional struggles of our fellow humans. Stories that show us safe spaces are rare, so rare I can’t even point you to one. Even when good relationships are shown, these are usually shown as idyllic representations, an utopia where everything goes well. They are all pure shine. As such, they are also deeply unrealistic.

We know humans are flawed: we have light and darkness. Every single one of us, even the best person you can imagine, is a human with limitations. Yet, in our mind, in our stories, we divide characters between “good” and “bad”. We need to tell more stories of complex humans, showing both light and darkness, and to learn to embrace both in the people around us.

What this means is that safe spaces aren’t beautiful spaces: they are spaces where other humans can express their joys, worries, struggles, and emotions. They are raw, a beautiful rawness.

Safe spaces as such aren’t comfortable, quite the opposite: they are tools to be used when difficult, provocative, and challenging discussions needs to happen. It’s like a reaction chamber where chemical reactions can reach even extreme temperatures while still being under control. There would be no point in having a reaction chamber for a normal reaction, right? Its purpose is to allow highly reactive ones.

An asymmetric model

The first image we have when we think about relationships between people — regardless of it being peers, friends, or lovers — is of a symmetric equal connection between them. While this is an ideal scenario, it’s also not realistic in the vast majority of cases. Even if we respect each others as equal, each of us is likely at a different stage of our personal evolution.

What happens more likely is that one person creates the safe space, the other steps inside it. The two people could both be able to do that interchangeably, which would be indeed an excellent relationship goal and, I would argue, also something that would make a solid, lasting relationship. The foundation of safe spaces is thus asymmetrical.

One person does the work in creating the safe space, the other opens themselves and walks into it. In my experience, the creation process requires these criteria:

  1. Presence
  2. Unconditional acceptance
  3. Ownership of emotions
  4. Ability to listen
  5. Ability to withhold advice
  6. Ability to keep the conversation private
  7. Ability to act appropriately after it

Presence doesn’t just mean to be part of the conversation, but it’s also the ability to be there without distractions, to make them feel that they have your attention, fully and completely. Note that this can be also digital presence, even if in digital it takes a different form – like the timing of the response, or the absence of other activities on other shared channels. In person it’s easier, and it can also take a higher intensity. If you have ever had that friend that is able to make you fell that the entire world is paused while you’re having a conversation, that’s the kind of power presence can have.

Unconditional acceptance is probably the hardest skill to master, and it’s probably worth for this reason to be split in two big components: rational acceptance and emotional acceptance.

Rational acceptance is likely the first you can work on. The first step is to measure your words when you reply and keep the conversation going. Try to validate their experiences and personal struggles, and try to avoid unnecessary contrast even if it seems an important part for you to discuss.

The second step is to become aware of your internal thoughts, which can be major challenge for many people. Specifically, try to pay attention to what your inner voice is saying while you listen the other person. This could create some interesting discoveries about yourself, and it might lead to some internal dissonance that could make the rational acceptance more difficult. It’s not unusual to find out how hard our internal judge is, or that we are subtly biased, sexists, racists, or other things. Remember this is not “you”, it’s your inner voice: you have decision power on what to do with it. This awareness can bring great things to you, and to the person you’re listening to.

Emotional acceptance is how you feel about what’s being said, and we are able to be ok with what their feeling are. Some people can be angry, frustrated, sad — the entire gamut of expression of humans. Being able to bear the impact of strong emotions requires practice. The key to understand emotional acceptance is that their emotion is coming from somewhere, and it’s a strong pointer to something deeper. While it’s not always necessary (nor advisable) to dive deeper, it can be useful in the right situation to ask some good and tactful question about it.

Owning our own emotions means not just being able to identify if you are mirroring the emotions of the person speaking, or if something they said upset you, but also to know what to do once that emotion happens inside yourself. Trying to hide your own emotions will just lead to breaking the safe space, because it’s a form of insincerity that is impossible to hide. If you feel something, it’s better to acknowledge it and depending on the situation it might even be worth taking a moment to verbalize it to the other person, reassuring them you know the emotion is there and it’s fine even it might be challenging. Owning the emotions in a constructive way instead of hiding them can be a powerful example, and reinforce the safe space further.

The ability to listen in this context doesn’t just mean the physical act of receiving the information, but also to assimilate it and being able to ask good questions. While this might sound obvious, you have to be extra careful because they might be saying something that is very loaded for them, even it might not mean much for you. Spotting these moments, or just saying sorry if you missed it, is very important to keep the safe space trusted and effective.

Giving advice is something that comes very natural because we always have the instinct to ease the distress of another human being, and as such it might be very difficult to withhold advice. While sometimes advice could be useful, it’s much more important to focus on acceptance and avoid advice entirely.

Safe spaces have often two moments: a moment for destruction, and a moment for creation. The destroying moment is when people vent and rant. They can be dramatic, and they can exaggerate things as the problem could be overwhelming from them. That’s totally fine. In that moment giving advice is disruptive because, in simple terms, it interrupts the person before they are done with the destructive moment. The destructive moment instead needs its space, and while it might last too long and sometimes it would be wise to rein it back in, most of the time it exhausts on its own. Sometimes when people get out of the destructive moment it’s like fog dissipating: they know already what to do without the need of a creation moment – thus, they won’t be needing advice.

Also, advice has to be contextual to be useful. It requires asking the rights questions, understanding the other deeply, and then assessing the situation. Good advice often comes in form of “Have you tried… ?” and not in absolute forms or abstract rules. As nice as aphorisms and strong sentences sound, they are often not a good idea.

The safe space then wraps up, and that’s when the expectation of privacy becomes very relevant. There’s no safe space if what was being said comes out from you at a later time, even if it has all the good intentions. Note that this might mean that they don’t expect to refer back to it not even in private with them, as they might have shared something challenging for them, and they might be caught off guard if you say it in a moment they don’t expect. It’s also quite obvious that the expectation of privacy is something that requires time. Before a safe space happens, you can just send signals of being trustworthy, and after a safe moment happens you can reinforce it by holding up to its privacy. And to be clear even if it’s something obvious: this also means you can’t use that information to joke or tease them.

While doesn’t always happens, sometimes there are actions to be taken after something has been shared in the safe space. The ability to act appropriately means first and foremost that you demonstrate you have taken their words at heart. It also means that if there are expectations from the other person for you to do something, these expectations were clarified by you as much as possible before wrapping up the shared space.

One thing that might seem obvious but I don’t consider necessary in a safe space is respect. While this is very important and very advisable to have it, I also experienced situations where it was possible to create this space even when lacking respect for the other person. Think for example if the other person did something you consider unforgivable and unacceptable. It’s likely you won’t be able to respect them. Yet, it’s possible to practice enough and be able to withhold judgement.

Walking in a safe space

As I mentioned initially, deciding to recognize and accept that someone is creating a safe space is also a challenge for many people. It’s a challenge because it requires to:

  1. Trust that safe space
  2. Be able to be vulnerable
  3. Be able to face our own dissonances

Trusting the safe space is mostly relational, and it depends on the person that is doing that for us. It usually require a level of reciprocal understanding and acceptance. Mind, this is also why safe spaces aren’t to be taken as a trust test: if we can’t walk in that safe space doesn’t mean we don’t trust that person. It might be related to our ability to open up.

Being vulnerable is the next step: yes we trust them, but are we ok to be vulnerable and open in with them… and with ourselves? Sometimes we feel that vulnerability is correlated with strength, which is correct, but not in the way commonly understood. Strength doesn’t come from the (impossible) task of being invulnerable, but from the ability to be vulnerable with someone.

In our mind, a dissonance happens when we hold two beliefs that are in contradiction one with the other. Usually the first step is to be able to acknowledge that a dissonance exists: we need to overcome our own denials. This means it’s obvious that we can’t walk into a safe space if we aren’t ready to potentially question and face our denials. “I believe I’m a good person, but I did something bad, that can’t be possible!” — that is possible, and it’s also ok. That’s why we discuss together about it.

Note that we could be trustful and vulnerable, but we might not be ready yet to deal with a specific dissonance. That’s ok, some things require time. What will happen is that the space created, even if it wasn’t useful this time, is still able to cast a positive effect for the future, because the person now knows they can rely on that safe space.

The asymmetric model above is a tool you can use to ground your own practice in improving creating and walking into safe spaces. Try to review yourself each of the components above — even better if you can do it with someone you trust. Then each time you happen to be in a situation when a safe space could be useful, try to do it and focusing on improving one of the components. Were you able to withhold advice? Were you able to be truly present? How did you deal with your emotions?

I believe that the ability to create and accept safe spaces are two universal skills. I hope this model is going to be helpful in your work and your life.


Thanks to Delilah for having asked this question over a year ago, Tammie Lister for reviewing the article and the insights, Cate Huston for the constructive feedback, and Noémie Girard for a wonderful discussion and further sources.