Rooms across the country were energized with creative debates on ways forward. Women and men from different backgrounds and experiences were actively contributing to discussions on how to put a stop to gender-based violence.

Over the summer, I had the honour of moderating several sessions in support of my federal client’s search for an inclusive, cross-country debate on this important topic. One particular session stood out from the rest. This group was more intimate. Eight women from all walks of life were now in a room with high-ranking government officials who were there to listen.

The accounts of abuse were gut wrenching, leaving no one unaffected. Their voices were also filled with hope, pouring out of their need to create a better future for themselves and to stop this from happening to anyone else.

Our discussion lasted over two hours. As moderator, I used a light hand moving the conversation from person to person, while maintaining a safe space for empowerment and healing.

I’m grateful for this experience. It convinced me more than ever that when you create and maintain a safe space for people to be heard, magic happens.

What contributes to creating a safe space?

Creating a safe space sends a clear message to participants: You, as you stand in this moment, are welcome here. This is probably the most significant aspect of facilitation in real time.

I identify 4 basic components to safety. You may want to add to this list.

Physical space: A comfortable temperature-regulated room, well supplied with food and refreshments demonstrates thoughtfulness and care.  And in our case, my client also made sure that childcare was available on site.

Communication space:  Minimizing interruptions proves to all present that their input is important, and people are listening. You may consider the need for language or sign language interpreters to ensure an inclusive discussion.

Mental space:  A human-to-human discussion on real life challenges means leaving official titles at the door.  Space to think, formulate and share ideas depends on a level playing field. Are your participants clear about that?

Emotional space:  Providing a safe emotional space means demonstrating openness on my part and on the part of my client and her staff. Not an ounce of judgment could be detected in our body language, tone of voice, or wording. We listened with our hearts.

Consider a safe space a catalyst for change

After the meeting, participants thanked us, openly appreciating the quality of our listening. They felt no need to justify their experiences. They were believed, without question, by what could be perceived as authority figures; their experiences fully validated.

I have been in rooms before where poignant testimonies and dramatic stories were shared. This time, I was moved, as rarely before, by the women’s courage and willingness to be vulnerable again as they spoke of the trauma that permeated their lives.  A safe space can become a catalyst for change.

What questions do you have on creating a safe space?  I look forward to replying to them in the comments below.


1 thought on “Creating a Safe Space”

  1. Dominique Dennery

    Thank you for these insights on key cultural differences and work environment challenges Marie-Joséphine! You have your work cut out for you. You also have the competency to deal with what comes your way!
    A coaching question for you to ponder: What have you tried that worked in facilitating safe meetings in this setting? What advice would your African mentors give you?
    The facilitator in me would like to suggest that you try asking participants what they would propose as the best modus operandi for key face-to-face meetings given the constraints of their phone system. Another thought, given that titles and protocol are paramount for many, maybe there could be someone more junior on their team who could take messages during the meetings. Finally, I have found useful in dealing with officials to actually bring their role into the conversation by asking participants: What would your response be if you were an observer at this meeting or if you were a constituent (i.e. putting aside your official role) I have found that this can sometimes free individuals from these constraints albeit temporarily, particularly when looking at a safe space for innovation.

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