In the past, I often saw how workshops would be announced promising confidentiality on the exchanges. Nowadays this promise evolved to promise a safe space.
It is a promise that is there to make the workshop more attractive to participants. However, what isn’t clear is what that safety will be. Just like any value, the understanding of safety is individual. It results from the way people relate to others and a given situation. It is also a reaction to the people in the room and how one has felt welcome.
The individual experience of safety will vary, just as much as the expectations of what it means.
It will not only vary it is also constantly changing. The felt quality of the relationship and the dynamic of the interactions transform how people experience their sense of difference with others and how able they feel to join.
Most of us will know how the sense of safety varies depending on shared background like a common experience or being a member of the same organization, but there is also the shared experience and how it evolved. Looking back, there are many groups I’ve been part of, that started with a lot of optimism and sometimes a sense of wanting to keep an existing relationship and transform it into a new entity. Most of these groups failed. But whenever a group was able to remain active, it was the result of taking the time to build trust and a sense of a shared activity that was valuable to all.
A crucial element in this has always been how members didn’t rely on others, creating their sense of safety. What they did was to allow themselves some vulnerability and to test how that was welcomed by the group. They relied on their ability to know the voluntary risk they would take.
What these groups also did was pay attention to the governance within the group. They gave themselves rules and processes they could use to intervene when their sense of safety went beyond their willingness to be vulnerable.
Without such governance, the risk is that silence hides the lack of a sense of safety.
People avoid what feels to them like a possible conflict or a risky intervention. They fear to be perceived as too vulnerable, to disrupt the group’s norms and expectations, or to see themselves as not good enough when they feel unsafe.
Promising safety without following up when setting up the group or without regular inquiries into the group atmosphere is almost a guarantee for uneasiness in the group. One that will easily lead to missed expectations and loss of trust. Another risk is that participants find it hard to develop their responsibility to name any concerns they experience and develop an expectation to feel safe.