“This is a safe space.” The words, meant to invoke an open and sharing environment, are often used to give the sheen of psychological and emotional safety without actually doing the work. If the space is truly “safe,” then you shouldn’t have to say it.

I attended a program that used empathy and emotional bonding as a kind of accelerant. There was no time for fake trust or hollow words; we cut to the bone quickly and often. Because we put the emotional and personal work up front, we experienced a kind of rare liberation and unexpected efficiency. You didn’t have to expend the mental energy thinking about how to best position yourself with the little bit of exposure you might have, how to choose your words, personify your brand, or expend any effort on any of the hundreds of micro-decisions that we make each day when presenting ourselves. This group already knew me. Everything I did was true because the complexity of the self was already out there. The attitude was generous and forgiving. I knew them too.

I’d never experienced empathy used in this way. Usually, it takes years to get know your team, long layovers, disasters in development, soul-sucking client meetings, midnight happy hours: all trials by fire. Here, they found a way to turn the blaze into a crucible — extreme empathy + a heavy dose of work with a fast turnaround. There is nothing like a crushing amount of work to turn off your filter and push you towards your team, someone, anyone who might know what you’re going through.

We worked for our safe space. The exercises were repeated regularly. As uncomfortable as I was every time we started a prompt, I was just as relaxed once we were in it. To call something a “safe space” is to announce an intention, an aspiration, but it does not make it so. It has to be earned.

Writer, researcher, observer