Leadership Inspirations Facilitator Content

Creating a Safe Space

To understand the importance of a safe space and how to create it for your group

WHAT IS A SAFE SPACE

A safe space is place where people can freely contribute their thoughts, ideas, feelings, and emotions without fear of judgment or repercussion from their group. This kind of trusting environment invites people to be willing to share to a greater degree than they would if they feared that their responses could result in unpredictable consequences for them. Everyone benefits when they have the opportunity to share their opinions and experiences, while also feeling valued. A safe space is a culture, climate, or atmosphere, not inherently a physical place. These spaces are created and honored by the leaders and members of the group who establish their tone and norms.

A safe space can provide a critical advantage because the trust and transparency that are fostered can be used to get the best ideas through debate and discussion. A space like this allows people to share freely, which is crucial for collaboration and team growth. When people feel safe, they will participate to a greater degree and everyone will feel equal within the group. Operating in a safe space can be difficult for individuals because it requires them to step outside of their comfort zones and not shy away from topics that may challenge them or make them uncomfortable. In this way, safe spaces naturally create opportunities for growth that can help your group develop deeper relationships with one another and achieve new levels of performance.

WHAT IF A SPACE ISN’T SAFE

Think of a time or situation when you felt uncomfortable or awkward in a group. Many times people feel uncomfortable around new people, in tense situations, under pressure. This may bring up feelings of fear, anxiety and conflict, or maybe frustration or distrust. These situations and feelings are indicative of a space that isn’t conducive to open sharing and collaboration between group members. When a safe space isn’t present, people may limit their contributions or keep thoughts to themselves, thus robbing the organization of potential opportunities. This can mean that the best idea in the room is never heard, never put into play, and the group can never gain anything from it. Additionally, when people feel like they can’t share, there is little debate on different or alternative strategies for the group or organization. When there is no debate or diversity of opinion in the decision making process, groups can lose out on potentially lucrative opportunities, or even set themselves up for problems that they could have otherwise avoided. This environment is stifling for both individuals and groups, and can lead a team to ruin unless someone can establish a space where everyone can feel valued.

HOW DO YOU CREATE A SAFE SPACE

On the other hand, safe spaces within a team or organization allows everyone the opportunity to contribute and feel included. Setting up a safe space doesn’t always have to be a lengthy, emotional, or ‘deep’ process. It starts with setting groundrules, defining expectations and describing how these will help the group reach their vision. Agreeing on groundrules that set the group up to have a positive experience together can help create an environment that fosters teambuilding or brainstorming. We are big fans of a simple Five Finger Contract! Establish these rules with your group before beginning your training, workshop, or retreat! Have them define them in their own words and if needed add any rules that they think will help them to achieve their goals.

Five Finger Contract

  • Safety – physical, mental, and emotional
    • The pinky finger represents ‘Safety’ because it’s the easiest finger to break!
  • Commitment – to our team, our workshops, our process
    • The ring finger is for ‘Commitment’ because a wedding ring is a symbol for commitment
  • No Zingers – Zingers are anything that we say that can be considered offensive – swearing, put downs, name calling and insults, sarcasm, sometimes even inside jokes
    • The middle finger (which is never to be held up alone!) stands for No Zingers, because in the United States holding up this finger is considered an offensive insult.
  • Responsibility – Be personally responsible for your own actions! Volunteer yourself, not others
    • Our pointer finger can be used to point at others, but when we point it at ourselves, it represents personal ‘Responsibility’
  • Have Fun! – Learning, growing, and developing together as a team should be a fun and enjoyable experience!
    • A thumbs up means that we’re having a good time! That’s why the thumb stands for ‘Fun’!

You should model the behavior and interactions that you desire from the group so that they can follow your lead. Check your own biases and assumptions and be willing to be vulnerable yourself. Give everyone the opportunity to share their opinion and have it be valued and you will create a safe environment that allows your group to flourish. This will look different for every facilitator and group but can include behaviors like active listening, appropriate nonverbals, asking questions, providing words of affirmation, or expressing empathy and support.

Once you’ve established these expectations, you must also reinforce the space when your group or organization is together. As the leader, you must make sure that at all times, individuals opinions are heard and validated. If putdowns or negativity are directed at any one person or group, it is your responsibility to mediate and refocus the conversation.

This can be challenging if you experience resistance from members of your group. When people disengage, for any reason, it can be a detriment to the learning possibilities for the rest of the group. The role of the facilitator is to understand the possible causes for this kind of behavior so that it can be effectively managed. It’s important not to take resistance personally and to allow your group to express themselves fully so that you can understand how to better engage those individuals, find solutions, encourage participation, and create buy-in for the shared space. Even checking in or out routinely to assess how the group is doing creates an opportunity for individuals to express themselves.

As a facilitator, you have to intentionally and continuously be working to provide a safe space. Many or all of the suggestions above will help you to do just that!

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