You may have heard the term “safe space” slung around in the political arena, usually as a negative term. You may have even been told to “take your safe space and f**k off” or something to that affect. The term has gathered momentum since the rising of the liberal movement, and the equal rising of the republican/conservative movement—both sides using it as a weapon against each other. But what neither seems to understand is that a safe space is a tool to allow someone to be heard. It’s not a weapon.
A safe space isn’t a place to stand on a pedestal and shout abuse at people that disagree with you, neither is it a tool to be mocked. Safe spaces are effective when used in the proper way. For a safe space to work one side needs to be fully listening, and the other side must be committed to giving an actual account of what is going on in their deepest thinking trenches, it is a tool to speak and be heard, and for that moment not to be judged. It’s to help people move on. Not hinder.
The first time I was introduced to a proper safe place was around the time I started my last job. I was building a project and at the same time I was hiring a lot of people; the trickiest part was trying to come to grips with the dynamics of my new team. Everyone was new and I was a complete stranger to the inner workings of a group of people. I remember the issues some people were having at the start and the sheer tolerance I had to have, making it work for everyone, putting my ego aside for the greater good.
I remember there was one really shy man that I brought on. Life hadn’t been kind to him, he wasn’t the best at telling what was truly on his mind because he thought he would be punished for speaking what he thought. And who could blame him; no one had really given him the chance to speak on his own before. It was hard at first. For me, knowing the direction my volunteers were moving in was pivotal so that I could have a better understanding of where they were going and to be sure that no one was working against each other.
And yet no one had believed in this man before, trying to squeeze his opinions out of him was like talking to a reflection of myself; he didn’t want me to hear what he actually thought, he wanted me to hear what he thought I wanted to hear. But that was no good for me; I wanted a person with full control over their thoughts and actions. I was building a service. Thoughtless drones were good for jobs that didn’t require much thought, but this required a lot of thought.
I had to build an incredible amount of trust with him, praise him for jobs well done, sit there and allow him to reflect on how he thought, allow him to boss me around on the odd occasion. Slowly but surely over the space of a couple of months we had worked this man’s on-the-job confidence from zero to hero, and before long he was truly telling me what he thought, even if it went against the grain of my thinking. I loved that. I would revel with awe at the person that I helped to build. He was there all the time. He had a better idea of what went on than I had. Sometimes his ideas were better than mine.
And I’ll never forget the older man I worked with. He was waiting to retire. He had never worked with the service we offered before in his entire life, but we brought him in because of his local knowledge and passion to help – the rest we were able to fill in. You see he was completely different. He was passionate and outspoken, you wouldn’t think this man didn’t need a safe space to speak, but he did. Everyone needs safe spaces.
His first encounter with me; I look back and laugh. He had a problem with something or other and he burst open into my door and started reading me the riot act. Sometimes people handle problems that way, with aggression. It can happen when family/friends/previous colleagues shout and swear over one another in disagreements. I remember his face falling when I immediately said, “Okay, let’s go and sort it.”
I don’t think he was used to that sort of compliance, but by doing so I had taken the wind out of his sails, and he was now ready to go and listen. He had no problem saying what was on his mind, but it took him a while to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t going to tell him off for saying what he thought, even if it was about me. Yet by not judging him on what he thought he was able to focus on solutions rather than getting stuck in the problem. He won a national award in the end. I’m very proud of him for that.
I was big on constructive criticism. Especially amongst my volunteers.
Working like this allowed me to take that mentality further and into my marriage. I found out my wife, the most outspoken person I’ve ever known, was holding back thoughts and opinions from me because I wasn’t providing her with a place to speak openly and freely. Seemed right that I should start doing this with her too. It’s harder with family though; there are so many more emotions involved. But it worked.
Apparently, I shut her down whenever she wants to open up to give me insight into how she’s thinking or feeling. Sometimes she’ll be angry that she’s been asking me to fix something for months and I haven’t come round to it, but anytime she asks I say, “I’ll do it later.” And with that she feels not listened to.
By that and a combination of many other things I’ve effectively shut her open communication lines off with me. I’m glad I asked her when I did, and so I allow her to speak freely now, and that I won’t get offended and just listen. Look for a solution. It’s helped us a lot in our relationship. Sometimes it’s hard to sit there and listen to your life partner pick apart all of your insecurities piece by piece, yet by doing so we’ve focused on solutions, and worked through them.
Safe spaces are worth it.
Don’t misuse them.
Don’t take the piss out of them.
You never know when you might need on.
Photo: Getty Images