Creating Brave Spaces*

Setting ground rules or conversation guidelines seems to be the sine qua non of meetings these days. Having ground rules can create a safe space for people to interact, but they can also interfere with authentic conversation because people conflate safety with comfort. Is it possible to be both safe and uncomfortable?

My husband and business partner Roger James and I believe it is and that it is essential to be able to be both safe and uncomfortable without reverting to self-protective behaviors. When we react to discomfort by fighting, fleeing or freezing, we do not have the conversations we need to have to solve tough problems or create the organizations and communities we want to create. It is often in exploring our differences—uncomfortable for many of us—that we deepen our understanding of one another so we can find a way forward.

What’s the difference between safety and discomfort? Earlier this month Roger provided a good example in a workshop we led during the Campus Dialogue on Race at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. After noting that we were married he said, “We have difficult and uncomfortable conversations but I never feel unsafe.”

To tackle tough issues, in addition to tolerating discomfort, we also need to be brave, to stay present and engaged in the face of fear and unease. It takes courage to take risks and say what might be hard for others to hear, to listen to people’s painful experiences, and to hear things that contradict our opinions and challenge deeply held beliefs about the world and us. This is especially true when the conversation involves issues of inequality, inequity, racism, sexism, or agism, i.e., topics related to power and privilege.

Two ground rules that contribute to creating safe spaces but not necessarily brave ones are:

Agree to disagree. People can use this rule to avoid or retreat from a disagreement. If we are brave enough to stay with the frisson of a conflict—not get overwhelmed by fear or anger—we will no doubt learn something new and deepen our understanding of what the disagreement is really about. More constructive ground rules are “Listen to understand, first” and “Speak the truth without blame or judgment.”

Respect. This is ubiquitous in lists of ground rules and is the least controversial or discussed. But what does it really mean? When someone proposes this, ask, “What does respect look like? What would each of us be doing and saying to follow this ground rule?” Ask for examples of how anyone could challenge or disagree with someone else in a respectful manner. There are multiple, cultural understandings of what “respect” means. Talking about it surfaces these perspectives and helps people understand one another better. It also sets the stage for a common definition of “respect” that helps create a brave space.

What ground rules do you think would help one of your meetings be a brave space?

* I am grateful to Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens whose article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”  inspired this blog.

Mary’s award-winning book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is available.  Click here to purchase it.

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