Creating Safe Spaces
Creating a safe space to talk about conflict
What is a safe space?
Safe spaces are often spoken about in community development, and without any clear agreed definition it can be problematic to discuss what they are, what we need to do to create them and how we analyse whether they are working.
The term “safe space” from the Women’s movement, whereby activists brought people together where there was a need to think, speak and act creatively and raise consciousness. Safe spaces can be created where there is a need to talk about something free from being fear, being challenged due to identity and where there are rules put in place to protect participants self-respect, dignity, physical, emotional and psychological safety and encourages everyone to respect everyone’s else’s.
How to create a safe space
One of the challenging aspects of creating a safe space is that there is no definitive roadmap for a safe space! Every each safe space needs to be created, there is no one-size-fits all safe space.
It will vary from time to time, depending on:
- the issues being discussed (why the space was created)
- the participants,
- the facilitator,
- the physical location of the space,
- the timing and the external environment (events being discussed in the space, for example)
A safe space is a negotiated space between facilitator and between participants. A real safe space will need time to develop. It is based on trust and believing that everyone has shared values of what is trying to be discussed or developed- and facilitators and participants need to recognise this from the outset.
A safe space between colleagues or a board whereby participants have experience of working together will still need some work. A safe space for participants who have no experience of each other will have different requirements- but each space needs to be created. There will be different challenges that a facilitator needs to reflect on which will be covered below.
A crucial aspect of creating a safe space is that it is built on agreement not on assumptions. For example, in creating a safe space, it is negotiated between participants, with the aid of a facilitator, about what people feel a safe space is (the facilitator can give examples) and from that what people want can be explored, what rules they want to collectively hold to, how they want to manage it etc
What have Traveller groups used safe spaces for?
Safe spaces have been used regularly within the Movement so many people will already have had experience either as a participant or as a facilitator.
Some examples of when safe spaces have been created include discussions on:
- Domestic violence
- Substance misuse
- Illegal Money lending
- Traveller-only safe spaces (for any of the above, or simply to meet within local and national spaces as Travellers)
- Organisational change within Traveller organisations
- Traveller/Settled partnership
Safe spaces are usually created based on an understanding that the issue is one where participants may find the issue contentious or difficult or where the issue may bring up fears of exposing people talking about real life experience that may be painful to talk about or that has consequences for people directly or indirectly.
Safe Spaces for conflict discussions
Whilst there is no definitive safe space, there are of course principles that can be adapted and brought to each space. But as for any group work, preparation is absolutely crucial- organisationally and individually.
Are we clear in what we mean by a safe space?
- Have we messaged to the community what we mean about safe spaces?
- And that we will use them as part of our role in conflict management?
- Who will facilitate and hold safe spaces for discussions about conflict?
- Have they the necessary skills and confidence?
- How can they be supported before, during and after?
- How do we reflect on making our safe spaces work?
- How do we ensure that more than one person can hold a safe space?
- Are you confident in your own facilitation skills? Is there a way to check in with other staff/management/peers about creating safe spaces?
- Why are you being asked to facilitate this safe space
- Who is being asked to come together
- Do you know any of the participants? What is your relationship to them?
- How much do you know about why you are being asked to create this space?
- How conflict aware are you- are you clear on roles, triggers etc
- Do you know the relationships between participants? Are there power relationships you need to be aware of that could manifest itself?
- What are the values of your organistion in relation to conflict
- If needs be, meet with the participants individually (where appropriate) in advance to build your own relationship (if none exists) but also to begin your own analysis of what potential triggers there could be- and explore what participants want to achieve in advance of the space
Building agreement for a safe space
- A safe space cannot be created on assumptions- never assume that everyone has the same understanding- take time to tease this out a the beginning- and continually revisit this to ensure that people still share an agreement that was developed
- Encourage and foster an honest discussion about what people want from the discussion
- Talk about what the outputs might be from the safe space (greater understanding, better relationships, better communication etc)
- The group needs to be supported to develop some non-negotiable ground rules for the space, which the facilitator can bring values of the Traveller organisation in relation to conflict (it is often useful to flag these values with participants in advance to give them a sense of what you are trying to achieve, usually as part of discussion with community on role of your organisation in relation to conflict.
- Continually stress the success of a safe space is built on trust, which needs time to develop
Being conflict aware for your safe space
Facilitation of any safe space will benefit from a practitioner who is conflict aware and who uses this resource to build on their experience and expand their awareness of how conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Safe spaces, given that they are often about contentious issues, will naturally feature conflict! Your role as facilitator in any space is to decide on creating healthy conflict. Passionate discussions, say on the need for organisational change, will be vital for a growing organisation; however, a facilitator who is conflict aware will prepare by knowing that for some people, organisational change can be a trigger (may call into question professionalism or ethos, see triggers [link])
However, in creating a safe space for discussing Traveller/Traveller conflict, there are a number of factors to be mindful of and prepare accordingly, based on the vision and values of conflict work (link)
- Non-coercion in being there- people have to want to be part of the safe space- not that they are there due to other conditions
- There should be no manipulation of people to get them there, stay there or participate
- It must have agreed ground rules- including in relation to non-verbal communication, time keeping, phones, confidentiality
- It must be a no-blame space
- It must recognise that conflict creates hurt and that this space can explore this
- Preparation needs to be done in advance if discussing specific conflict issues in that participants know and understand their own triggers, and that other people triggers to
- Intent and impact of words has been discussed in advance with participants- and that discussing hurt caused is not either intended to blame nor a place to blame
- Must be an egalitarian space: the facilitator needs to recognise and identify power sources inside and outside of room and try to ensure they don’t impact on space- they will if they are not explicitly named at some stage
- The safe space has to focus on what is important to people and envisioning futures- it cannot focus only on the hurt or it will become stuck only on past grievances and will not allow people to move
- Need to create empathic listeners- that is often assumed to be implicit- but needs work
Create values based on discussion- use values section to explore with participants, if people aren’t clear, don’t assume
Learning from other safe spaces
Many of the principles for developing a safe space can be transferred to conflict work. As an organisation, having a discussion on what safe spaces me, what it means to hold one, what skills the organisation and individuals need to hold a safe space should be discussed.
As mentioned in the how to use section, many of the principles and practices in relation to conflict management are skills we use (or underuse!) in our work as community development workers. If we use them already, how can we build on them, expand them or adapt them to include work on conflict
Or more likely, having become conflict aware, our new framework and analysis will give us greater insight into facilitation of safe spaces.
Does the organisation rely on external expertise too much?
Who do we turn to when we need a facilitator in a difficult discussion? Can we transfer some of that knowledge into the organisation? Are there ways to have continuous professional development? Do we collectively look at our facilitation skills and create ways to share knowledge and expertise? Do we utilise and review best practice guidelines such as the Combat Poverty Guide to Facilitation
This resource is intended to be seen as part of continuous professional development for community workers. In the absence of training resources, groups will have to be creative in sharing the skills within and between organisations.
- Could you approach another worker or board member from a neighbouring Traveller group to talk about safe spaces?
could you offer to return that favour?
- Could sharing skills give a chance to build solidarity & share experiences?
- Could we create a peer-learning space using the conflict management website to embed these approaches in our work?
Exercises for Traveller Organisations in relation to Safe Spaces
For the individual practitioner
Reflect on a safe space you have been involved in before:
Having thought back, now in your reflective journal note:
- Why was a safe space created? Why did this issue need a safe space?
- What worked?
- What skills did the facilitator bring?
- What rules were agreed?
- How did you feel as a participant in the space?
- What were the challenges?
- What would you have done differently?
- If you were to approach that space as facilitator, would you have the skills to manage it- and if not, where will you go to upskill?
- If you were to facilitate that space, what preparation would you put in?
Reflect on other safe spaces and repeat the same exercise, continue to make notes- remember, by reflecting you are actively enquiring about the practice of a safe space and shaping your own analysis of how one would function!
If you have facilitated a safe space (or more), in your reflective journal, use the following questions as prompts:
- What was the safe space you facilitated?
- What was your role? Was it clear from the start? Did it change?
- Why were you chosen to facilitate?
- How much preparation did you get?
- Did you receive any advice?
- What research did you do into safe spaces?
- Did the safe space abide by agreed rules
- Did it achieve its outcome?
- What were the challenges you faced as facilitator?
- If you were to go back in time, what, if anything, would you do differently?
Reflect on the actual space and interactions:
- Would your approach be different if you were more conflict aware?
- Would your analysis of triggers, intent and power influence your approach?
- How would it differ?
- Would it improve the space? How?
- Would it change how you prepare? How?
At a team meeting, bring up the topic of safe spaces in order to tease out the organisation’s views using the following questions to tease out the discussion:
- Talk as a team about safe spaces: rather than talk about specific spaces that have been created, talk about what issues your organisation would need a safe space to discuss
- Ask people what they think a safe space would look like
- Ask where we have done this before
- What skills & experience do we as an organisation have in creating safe spaces?
- What gaps do we have as a staff/board in relation to safe spaces?
- Where can we develop our skills and confidence in relation to facilitating safe spaces?
- How would a discussion on Traveller conflict differ from other safe spaces- what would our concerns be?
- How will we overcome those barriers? What do we need to be able to manage a safe space in relation to conflict?
- Once the organisation has clarity on what a safe space is and how it operates, it needs to communicate this clearly with the community
- It needs to (as part of its communication about the organistional role in relation to conflict) clearly message that the organisation has staff/volunteers who are trained and confident in managing safe spaces
- It needs to let people know that it will create safe spaces to broadly discuss conflict
- Travellers need to be confident of the value of safe spaces on conflict broadly before they can be brought into specific spaces to discuss instances of conflict in the area