When I’m facilitating a discussion about highly emotive issues, which unsurprisingly come up a lot in funding decisions, I reflect on what role a facilitator has in keeping people safe? Specifically, I’m talking about mental and emotional safety.
I think most would agree that we have, if not a right, a reasonable expectation to not be made unsafe by the actions of others. I am a firm believer in the concept of safe spaces, that is “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or any other emotional or physical harm”. This article isn’t about opening up a debate about safe spaces themselves (as I’m frankly not all that interested) but rather if participatory decision-making can always allow for them. As such, it shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion for how you ought to move through the world outside of participatory spaces.
Usually with safe spaces, anyone who makes a space unsafe for someone else is asked to leave the space – it’s a blunt tool but sometimes that’s all you have the capacity to use. There are many instances where this is useful but I think it stymies the potential of participatory decision-making as a site for bridging divides and changing people’s minds if it’s the only tool you use.
The more I think about it, the more it feels like we need a more nuanced toolbox when it comes to participatory decision-making. At the end of the day, either you believe everyone has the right to participate in decision-making which affects them, or you don’t. And if you believe in the former then that universality means having people participate who may say things that others find objectionable, offensive, or hurtful. Personally, I believe that there is nothing a person can do or say that justifies removing their right to participate in decisions that affect them.
And you know what? This belief is an incredibly difficult one to hold because there are many, many things which challenge it. If you also believe it, I thought it might be helpful to share what helps me to navigate and hold true to that belief.
I have started to think about safety in facilitation as like a seatbelt:
A seatbelt won’t stop the vehicle you are in from crashing (you might not even be in control of the vehicle), but it does greatly reduce the chance of something bad happening in the event of a crash. Using a seatbelt reduces risk to you but it’s not fool-proof and, as anyone who’s been in a crash while wearing one can attest, it’s going to hurt.
We also use different seat belts for different contexts – the classic 3-point in most cars, the waist buckle in aeroplanes, the harness in rally driving and so on. Each one serves a specific purpose but all with the general goal of minimising harm. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to safety. It’s up to you as a facilitator to work out what your seatbelt looks like.
This is what my seatbelt looks like:
- I’ve had facilitation training in a method called Deep Democracy, which I’ve drawn a lot of this thinking from. What it’s very good at is drawing out feelings which are under the surface and naming them and providing the tools for a group to deal with those feelings.
- I make workshop plans with timings and communicate these to participants so they know when there is space to contribute. This helps prevent people feeling they need to claim time to ‘state their mind’.
- I start each meeting (re-)establishing the terms under which we are coming together. This necessarily has to include something around mutual respect for hearing ideas and trying to understand why someone might hold them.
- We agree collectively what behaviour isn’t tolerated and people will be reminded when they step out of these boundaries and what the consequences might be.
- I keep notes throughout the meeting against a register to help me track mood and either follow up in the meeting or afterwards (e.g. “oh, I noticed you went quiet when X talked about Y…”).
Whatever your seatbelt looks like, make sure you use it! If we’re running late, we still take a few seconds to put our belt on. If a belt is broken, it’s fine to cancel your journey. If someone refuses to wear a seatbelt, they’re not just a risk to themselves but those inside and outside the car. No matter how many times you may have flown on a plane, they still show everyone how their belt works in case it’s someone’s first flight.
I don’t think it’s an option for participatory decision-making to leave people outside the vehicle if they can’t or don’t want to wear a seatbelt – rather, we must do everything we can to convince them of that first so that we can get to a shared destination together. If we don’t put in this effort, then we risk leaving them to get into an unsafe vehicle going to who knows where.