Five Best Practices for Cultivating Safe Spaces in Engagement Processes­

With a much greater focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, organizations are faced with the challenge of fostering meaningful dialogue with groups that have been historically excluded from decision-making processes.

As public engagement practitioners gather this week at the International Association for Public Participation’s North American Conference, the Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Public Participation team is pleased to provide guidance to conference attendees, colleagues, and clients on how to cultivate safe spaces for dialogue.

Originating from social movements and student activism over the past few decades, safe spaces are environments where participants can be confident that they will not experience discrimination, harassment, criticism, or any other emotional or physical harm. While this commitment to safety is essential for welcoming participation from equity-deserving groups, the reality of public engagement is that the topics discussed are often complex, polarizing, and highly emotional. This is especially the case when participants are invited to bring their lived experiences to the table.

Amidst this tension, the question for those tasked with designing and hosting engagement processes is: how can we bring vulnerability and empathy to dialogue while encouraging the free and open sharing of perspectives and ideas among all participants?

Here are five best practices to get you started in creating and nurturing safe spaces for dialogue:

1. One size does not fit all

Choose your approach based on the topic, purpose, and audience of engagement. The practices you select should speak to their unique context and objectives.

Encourage participants to contribute in diverse ways and at different times. Make use of verbal, written, and creative forms of expression and consider opening opportunities for input before, during, and after engagement.

2. Start with participants

Set the space by facilitating introductions, communicating expectations, and structuring activities. These practices will allow participants to become familiar with one another and start contemplating how to engage in discussion openly and respectfully.

Participants come to an engagement with thoughts, opinions, and emotions. Work with their emotions as much as you work with their expertise. Value and, when appropriate, validate emotions as part and parcel of reactions to the topics that matter to them.

3. Let yourself and others get it wrong

Be prepared to manage discomfort, tension, and even conflict. Even better, anticipate it, normalize it, and find ways to make it productive.

Encourage participants to answer questions, lead activities, and provide feedback. Allowing them to take the lead can improve engagement outcomes and can support you in developing flexibility and responsiveness.

4. Foster caring relationships

As a facilitator, start by acknowledging your own intersectional identities to better know yourself, the group, and your position within it.

As an extension, be an ally to participants from equity-deserving groups. Understand that participants do not engage on a level playing field and that you have a role in leveling it as best as possible.

5. Leverage safe space guidelines

Safe space guidelines are a community-building technique that forms an agreement among participants and facilitators on how they want to be treated and what they can expect from one another.

By co-creating, posting, and modelling guidelines, participants and facilitators are reminded to be active and accountable stewards of the spaces in which they are engaging. The logic is that, when we build and maintain spaces together, we feel invested in and ownership over their safety.

More than being another set of techniques in your toolbox, these best practices help to strike a balance between opening spaces for difficult dialogue and ensuring that this dialogue does not harm participants.

These practices also contribute to flattening power dynamics between and among facilitators and participants, making exchanges more collaborative, engagement more horizontal, and learning more reciprocal. Fostering these types of communities is better for learning and is, simply, the right thing to do.

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