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Are your spaces brave?

We're committed to facilitating conversations where people can be honest and open, where everyone feels comfortable to speak and ready to listen, without judgement, or discrimination.


We’re committed to facilitating conversations where people can be honest and open, where everyone feels comfortable to speak and ready to listen, without judgement, or discrimination.

You might call them safe spaces. You’ve probably heard the term and tried to create them in your teams too.

But is a safe space really what we should be looking to achieve?

The ever-insightful Brené Brown thinks not. In her Dare to Lead podcast she discussed the validity of the term ‘safe space’ with Barrett Guillen – whether it was achievable and even appropriate for people to pursue.


Safe for who?

The benefits of ‘psychological safety’ are widely known. Research has shown that when people feel safe in the workplace it can contribute to increased performance, innovation, and diversity in teams.

But Brené and Barrett have been rethinking the concept. And asking if we should instead be looking to create brave spaces.  

Drawing on insight from Anand Giridharadas book ‘The Persuaders’ and his conversation with activist and scholar Loretta Ross, they talk about the ‘overpromise’ of safe spaces.  

As Loretta Ross puts it:

“We told people, particularly abuse survivors, that we could create safe spaces, when in fact all we can do is create spaces to be brave together. To call people into a brave space was to summon everyone to try something together. To promise people a safe space was to make everyone a promise about everyone else. And that’s impossible to keep.”

Anand writes, “somehow, Ross felt the idea of the safe space, the worthy idea of it, grew out of the idea of social justice work, by definition, should be a safe space.”

The feeling of safety is a deeply personal one, and one that we as leaders, as facilitators, can’t guarantee for the rest of the people in the room.

Often when we are in a position of power – or assumed power – we are in a privileged position where we do feel safe. But from that position can we invite people into a space and guarantee they will be safe too? In reality no.

As Brené said: “Because I, as a white woman, am not going to stand at the front of the room, even as a very seasoned facilitator, who’s really comfortable with the hard conversations about race and gender and disability. And I’m not going to stand up there as a white woman and say, listen, y’all, I’ve created a safe space. First of all, I don’t know what other people in the room are going to do. And secondly, safe for whom?”

The judgement problem

So rather than claiming to offer a safe space, instead we should be looking to offer brave spaces. Where people feel equipped and empowered to speak out.

And there’s one big thing we need to deal with before we can do that: judgement.

If people feel like they are going to be judged, criticised, or personally critiqued, they aren’t going to be brave.

How do we counter judgement? With empathy. As Brené says:

“When we’re actively practicing empathy and actually compassion, different things, but when we’re practicing both, we have to be able to hear someone’s story and believe them even when their story does not reflect our experience of the world or our lived experience.”

“The first step in real empathy is understanding that the lens that I use, the lens through which I see the world is soldered to my head. I can’t take it off and pick up your lens. All I can do is listen and hear you tell the story as you experienced it through your lens and believe it as truth, even though it bumps up against how I see the world.”

We can’t live someone else’s experience, so we can’t see the world just as they do. If we invalidate or diminish someone else’s experience because it’s not one we recognise they will stop showing up, stop being brave, stop sharing.

Creating a brave space

As leaders how can we create brave spaces? First up we need to lead by example, we need to stay open, listen without judgement, and with genuine empathy.

We need to honestly start the conversation around safety and bravery. To acknowledge that it takes courage to show up and celebrate contribution and challenging conversations.

We need to ask people what they need, how we can support them, and then develop ground rules that will help everyone to be braver and give others the space to be brave too.