From Safe Spaces to Empathic Spaces

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I’d recently read about the controversial workplace policy changes that Basecamp had made to it’s workspaces and that got me thinking a bit about “safe spaces”. Specifically, if these are the kinds of spaces we need, what the word “safe” could incorrectly convey about the space and how it is meant to be perceived.

It should be noted, before we continue, that we are talking about ideological safe spaces, not physical safe spaces. I think everyone is entitled to live in a space where they feel physically safe. Ideologically, however, we need a space where we can grow and learn.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about safe spaces.

Safe Spaces

Safe spaces were initially conceived as a way to help people feel, well, safe. It was supposed to be a space where you could voice your opinions, have conversations and be heard.

But over time, I feel that this idea was misunderstood and it came to be seen as a space where you would not be challenged, where you would not be pushed out of your comfort zone, because, who feels safe outside their comfort zone?

This shift in the purpose of a safe space seems to have reduced how useful these spaces can be to help people come together and grow together. It has hindered how people can use these spaces to understand each other.

Part of the issue here, in my opinion, has to do with how people perceive the word “safe”. What constitutes safety varies from person to person and, similarly, what constitutes a threat to one’s safety also varies. By calling these spaces “safe”, I think it incorrectly gave the notion that anything said or done in a safe space would be accepted as is and without challenge — that everyone would just nod their heads and say “you’re right”. But that doesn’t really help anyone in the long term.

So, what do we do about this?

Enter, “Empathic Spaces”.

Empathic spaces are more than just a shift in the nomenclature. They are, as I hope they can be, a better representation of what a safe space should strive to be and achieve — with the added benefit of having a name that doesn’t misconstrue it’s purpose. Think of it as a re-branding of sorts.

The goal then with an empathic space is not to feel “safe”, but to truly understand each other’s opinions and ideas. To listen with the purpose of understanding, rather than to respond. To speak with the knowledge that you will be challenged by those with opposing ideas, but also that you will not be ridiculed or shut down — there will always be mutual respect.

I’ve said this word a few times already, but in case it’s not obvious already, the goal with an empathic space should then be, ultimately, understanding. At the end of a conversation in an empathic space, you may not necessarily agree with each other, but you’ll have a deeper understanding of why you each thought the way you did. You’ll also have ideas and arguments from the “other side”, which would help you refine your own ideas and come to a much better understanding of the issue at hand itself. As a friend of mine put it, it’s about searching for what is true, over trying to be right.

With greater understanding, my hope is that people will leave empathic spaces with a deeper appreciation for why divides exist and how we can still come together despite them.

What does this have to do with companies?

If you read the Basecamp story I linked above, you’d know that Basecamp banned all “societal and political discussions” from their workplace communications. This, naturally, brought up some pretty strong opposition.

To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this. I can see how this could be a bad thing — the issues of many marginalized groups tend to be part and parcel of broader political and social issues, so how do people feel comfortable bringing up potential bias/mistreatment if it could be shut down as “too political to be allowed”?

But on the other hand, like Basecamp said, it is also a company’s responsibility to allow those that do not want to engage in a conversation to have that right. By the nature of hard conversations, people heavily impacted by these issues will feel more passionate — but if that passion grows to the extent that anyone not participating is labelled as “complicit” due to their silence, that’s not great either.

I’ll link a great article that I read on this from 2 different perspectives (an employee and a manager) here.

Is it a privilege to stay out of a conversation? Yes it is. But it is still a right that anyone should have. (Besides, I also think that in many cases, people stay out of the conversation because they don’t necessarily feel “safe” voicing a potentially dissenting/not-as-passionate opinion).

With empathic spaces, I think companies could set guidelines on how conversations should be treated and carried out — i.e. with mutual respect. No one is shamed for not participating (though participation is encouraged) just as no one’s opinion is shut down for being different to the consensus. In this way, people on both sides of the issue (or on no side of the issue) could have respectful conversations and come to a higher plane of understanding around the issue.

There could, of course, also be other guidelines around the space, such as:

  • Trying not to judge someone’s opinion and seeking to truly see it from their perspective.
  • Considering how your own opinion may be wrong — spaces could bake this in by asking that each participant argues both sides of the argument, so as to see why someone may support a particular opinion.

And so on and so forth. The exact guidelines can vary from one space to another, but, of course, the overall purpose should always be achieved in every case — promoting greater understanding of each perspective, while allowing your own to grow through exposure to these different perspectives. In other words, it’s not about agreement or winning or passion. It’s about understanding (have I said that enough yet? 😅).

I think there is more to be said about how companies themselves can implement these types of spaces and exactly how to do that or create a culture that supports that, but I definitely need to do more thinking on it and have more conversations to have a better understanding of what that looks like (perhaps a follow up post some time in the future 😬).

But, will it work?

Obviously I hope it does. But it helps to consider some ways it may not.

A friend of mine offered the following perspective by way of an example:

Imagine you are in an empathic space with someone and, through your conversations with them in that space, you realize they hold racist ideologies against you and your community. Let’s say you have your conversations and they still decide that they are right and continue to believe in their racist ideology. Would it be a good thing that you had that conversation or would it have been better for you if you had not known about their views?

This was a bit of a doozy 😅. But, after thinking about it for a while, what I settled on was this:

I believe that radical views (on any side) against any group of people are fueled by a lack of understanding about particular communities or groups. What fans the flames of these kinds of views is that those that hold them rarely know or interact with people with whom they hold views against.

So, in that light (and I could, of course, be wrong with that belief), as they gain more understanding around other groups or gain further understanding of someone else’s lived realities, that should serve to curb their own radical views (assuming, of course, that they stick to the purpose of the empathic space and yearn to adjust their own perspective with the new information they hear).

So, will an empathic space work? I have no idea. I just have hopes that it might. It also just seems better in the long term, to me, that people have these conversations and come together, rather than avoiding them and letting things fester.

I truly believe that if we just understood each other and the context with which we view the world, we’d find fewer reasons to fight and fewer opportunities to take on radical points of view. We’d still disagree, but without the excess baggage of hate and from a more respectful and understanding vantage point.