Specializing in the design and delivery of transformative, experiential education.

What is Safety?


November 2015 has been a hard month for me, featuring some very difficult facilitations, and also some of my best moments in facilitation and leadership.  In my recent Authentic Facilitation training, the participants and I had a conversation about safety that has stayed with me.  I've noticed lately that quite often participants in my workshops say "This is a safe space."  I don't believe I've ever made the same declaration of my own or anyone else's workshop space.  Recent events in my workshops have reminded me yet again that any single moment, no matter how seemingly benign to a faciltator or fellow participants, can be deeply emotionally triggering.  Edgy topics and intense emotionality are easily accepted as reasons for an intense triggered or even trauma-based reaction from a person. 

But the most mundane things can also elicit any degree of intense response, reminding someone of a bullying figure, a ghost figure they are battling or an abuser.  The way someone smiles, crosses their leg at the knee, adjusts their glasses, uses a turn of phrase or closes a door can all be deeply triggering.  Each person's landscape of triggers is highly complex, featuring family or origin, culture, all relationships and a lifetime of lived experiences. 

What is safety? 
How can leaders and group facilitators create safe space for transformative work to happen? 
How can everyone's needs be met and triggering avoided? 
Why didn't I ever develop a practice of declaring that a space is safe
What does safe mean in diverse cultural and personal contexts and who gets to decide? 

I like the way that Greg Gurel talks about safety. He has taught his Anger, Safety and Boundary courses at the Haven for many years.  He is clear to define that safety is not a feeling.  It is a set of specific actions, behaviour and expressions defined by a person as "safety".  A person takes in information about their environment, makes interpretations through their lenses of family, culture and personal experiences, and the conclusion of 'safe' or 'unsafe' is reached.  Feelings about this conclusion follow.  Examined in this way, safety as a thought allows empowerment of a person to use their own criticial thinking to consider what they can do to create more safety when wanted. 

During this challenging month on November 2015 my awareness about safety has really surged.  It is also informed by the amazing facilitators/teachers at the Process Work Institute in Portland, where I am doing my MA in Process Oriented Facilitation and Conflict Studies. What has coalesced for me is that we are not really ever fully safe, even from ourselves.  We tend to marginalize aspects of ourselves and to project these challenging or disturbing aspects of ourselves onto others and to experience those we have projected onto as threats.  We are also not safe because all of our ghosts from our pasts are traveling with us. As well, conflict is an inevitable part of being a human being, and yet few of us have had effective, compassionate and non-violent role models for a constructive engagement with conflict.  No wonder feeling relaxed and safe is a hard state to find consistently! 

Camille Dumond, is a trauma therapist and facilitator with Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, shared her thoughts with me as well. She sees the big trap with the safety concept is when we only believe in our high dreams for a group: we will always be at ease, all needs will be met, no reactivity will trouble us.   When conflicts or troubles appear then we fear something is wrong with the group, with the leadership or with ourselves. Then we go into the behaviours that fulfil that low dream prophesy: shaming, blaming, avoiding and freezing.

Acknowledging these factors and making agreements to process, explore and facilitate conflicts and disturbances allow us space to be together and to build community.  Staying together, in whatever level of relationship we can manage in the heat of conflict, to explore and unfold disturbances between us with a caring intention creates the best safety that I believe is possible.  In my Conflict Transformation work, I see in people's stories and response patterns, that many people in my culture (Western, urban, post modern) most commonly experience in conflict is some version of: expression, discovery of differences, polarize/take sides, stay 1 sided/ridgid, allow no vulnerability, then either compete to win/be right or disenage/shut down/avoid. 

For me at this point, a real safety that can be created, offered and held is best described as: an experience of staying together in the discomfort of conflict, and striving to hold a curiousity about self, others and the nature of the conflict itself. 

Yes, easier said than done, but increasingly for me, it is becoming easier at times, and such a relief!  Re-focusing my interests to include the nature of the conflict itself, to get invested in learning more about what is trying to happen through the conflict, and to learn about my edges of comfort, really reduces a huge part of what I experience as the grinding anxiety of conflict, and lets my nervous system slow down a lot.  And there is still so much more to learn. 

Safety?  Invulnerability,fixed policies and winning - not really.    Dynamically following relationships and community - better.