Safe spaces are not comfortable spaces

While Spring has officially begun, Winter continues to exert its presence in the form of cold winds. The story in this issue of the Affinity News talks about the paradox of emotional and intellectual ‘safe spaces.’ I would greatly appreciate your input through a brief survey that supplements the essay.

This essay will serve as background for the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table on April 21 and the Servant-Leader roundtable on April 28. I hope you will participate in one or both of these conversations, as appropriate.

As always, your feedback and sharing of these posts with others is encouraged.

In this issue:

Story: Safe spaces are not comfortable spaces

As the television series “This is Us” comes to its end, I ponder why I am so attracted to the show. The writers have used the memory loss of the family matriarch as a tool for the characters reflections on their pasts and making meaning through the events of their lives. A consistent theme throughout the run of the show has been the meaning the Pearson clan makes of the events of their lives. What is so striking to me is the fact that, despite their internal (and external) struggles, the characters consistently make time to have important conversations with their loved ones. The show demonstrates the power of conversations that are the building blocks of making meaning from relationships and events.

I use these essays as background for the roundtable conversations I facilitate each month. I have adopted the practice of having one topic for two parallel groups: the Servant-Leader roundtable, and the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connectors Table. The Servant-Leader roundtable started in 2011. When I started, we were five individuals. Ten years later there are at least five Servant-Leader roundtables in Southeast Wisconsin. The roundtable I facilitate on the fourth Thursday of the month is focused on the intersection of Servant-Leadership and equity. The MoMS Connectors table is a gathering of persons with disabilities (PWD) who participate in professional/skilled settings. Sometimes the conversations are closely parallel, other times, not at all. When the two conversations diverge significantly I become aware of how little understanding is present.

One of the challenges in gathering people together is making a space for people to be themselves. In the 1990’s, my wife and I started facilitating conversations between couples preparing for marriage. The conversations included family traditions, handling money, religious beliefs, and sexual relationships. Part of the work was creating an atmosphere where couples were comfortable exploring (sometimes) uncomfortable topics. Years later the term for the atmosphere we supported would come to be known as a “safe space.”

The term safe space is one that is a recent addition to popular culture. Unfortunately, the phrase, “safe space” has become a culture war code word. A justifiable reason for the controversy is the fact that an intellectual safe space is likely to be disturbing and an emotional safe space avoids intellectual challenge. Safe spaces, like intellect and emotion, are not binary concepts. Individuals engaged in deep conversations in safe spaces are challenged both intellectually and emotionally. One of the most rewarding things a facilitator can hear after a deep, sometimes uncomfortable, conversation is, “I have a new understanding after seeing the topic from a different perspective.”

Lessons learned:

A problem with gathering people to make meaning from the many challenges we face in our culture seems to be fear of going beyond our comfort zone.

When I started the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connectors Table, I intended it to be a gathering space for persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional settings and persons who value diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I quickly found it a challenge to connect with people for whom DEI was as closely intertwined with their identity as disability is intertwined with the professional lives of persons with disabilities (PWD). It was more efficient to conduct the Connectors Tables for professionals with disabilities outside of the umbrella of DEI. Similarly, as the topics of the Servant-Leader (S-L) roundtable focus more directly on the intersection of Servant Leadership and equity, I find it more challenging to attract individuals who are open to sitting in this (sometimes) uncomfortable space.

I recently reached out to the Program Directer of the Ziedler Group to do some brainstorming on how we could be both more effective and collaborative in our public conversations. I had attended a Public Conversations Training: in November, 2011 with the founders of what would become the Ziedler Group. I didn’t get a response from Ms. McMurray, but I received a message through the Ziedler Group mailing list that they were suspending operations while they examined how they could be more effective in the community. There is no comfort in knowing others are also finding it challenging to gather people together to have meaningful conversations.

As I have developed my facilitation practice I have found two useful guiding principles:

  1. When we speak for ourselves, from our own experiences it is always a meaningful conversation
  2. The wisdom is in the room

These principles serve to remind participants that speculating on what others think is not useful and that the assembled group represents a unique combination of beliefs and experiences. Click the link for the simple, but comprehensive Operating agreements.

Like the Ziedler Group, I am curious about how I can engage more people in important conversations. I find the principles of Servant Leadership a useful set of guidelines for exploring topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

These things I know are true:

  • Inequity is a real thing
  • Injustice is a real thing
  • The impact of climate change is a real thing
  • The guy at the end of the bar who says, “All’s what you got to do is…” Probably doesn’t have a clear understanding of the whole picture
  • We are, most likely, the leaders we were hoping to find


A call for your feedback

I recently read an essay by Arthur C. Brooks called A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds. Brooks talks about the futility of judging others based on their positions and encourages readers to explore their own values and the values of people we don’t agree with. He points out the research that supports his assertion. I always appreciate a case statement that is supported by verifiable research. The essay was a welcome find as I was developing this piece.

I have the luxury of facilitating the Servant-Leader roundtable and MoMS Connecters Table as passion projects. I have very little overhead expenses and what I learn from engaging with wise people more than makes up for the time I commit to coordinating the conversations. At this point I would like to hear from you about attracts you, and what challenges you, in engaging in deep conversations with people you don’t necessarily know.

Here are a few questions that have raised my curiosity. I believe I would learn a great deal if you would be willing to share your thoughts. You can respond through an anonymous survey, by clicking here.  .


  • Is the celebration of the diversity of ideas and people a part of your organizational life?
  • The organizations I am most closely associated with, have diverse leadership teams – Is this true for you?
  • What do you need to feel safe in a conversation?
  • What do you need from a group to be willing to take a risk in what you say?
  • What are people avoiding that they don’t think they’re avoiding?



Brooks, Arthur C. (APRIL 7, 2022). A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:


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