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Learning doesn’t happen in a safe environment. We have to be outside our comfort zone to learn (sigh). But, if we’re too far out, in the danger zone, we also can’t learn. So we need to create learning spaces that are safe enough. I’ll leave the critique of the binary concept of safe/not-safe for another article, here I want to share, and invite your insights, on how to make adult learning safe enough.

My guiding principles for safe enough spaces

Fundamentally, I have three guiding principles for making learning spaces safe enough:

  • safety is subjective – different people have different experiences, concepts, and needs regarding safety
  • in adult learning environments, creating safety is a shared responsibility and the job of the educator/facilitator is to enable that collaboration
  • safety is an equity issue – some people are more safe in groups than others because of structural, interpersonal, and internalised oppression and discrimination – strategies for making spaces safe enough need to take this into account.

Some strategies I use

Collaborative not didactic learning – ‘learning with’ feels so different to being ‘taught to’. All the learning spaces I create are on topics that I’m keen to learn more about with others – I facilitate learning at my own learning edge to ensure it stay collaborative. I do still share content as part of the learning spaces, but it serves to stimulate discussion, reflection and going deeper together, not to just fill ‘information gaps’. In this way, every learning space is different, even when the ‘topic’ is the same.

Transparent course descriptions including any wellbeing requirements – I try to be super clear in my course descriptions and am up-front about costs, the time required, topics, etc. This allows you to decide for yourself whether the group is right for you at the moment or not.

Nominated support person – I always have a nominated and well-qualified support person in my learning groups. If you need some extra support in the group, you can type-chat with them via the private chat function, or you can step out into a private breakout room together if you need further support.

Option for affinity break-out spaces – during course registration, you can choose to be in affinity groups for any small group work sections of the course.

Trauma-informed facilitation – in 2017 I developed the course Trauma Informed Facilitation, bringing together what I’ve learned as a trauma therapist with my facilitation skillset (I teach it via ANZPOP). I’ve shared this program with hundreds of people and we’ve collectively developed eleventy-billion trauma-informed facilitation strategies. I integrate a few dozen of these strategies in my groups to help us all stay uncomfortable enough to learn without being so uncomfortable we can’t.

I’m learning – I have a lot of tools and insights for creating safe-enough spaces, but I also have gaps in my awareness due to the limits of my own lived experience. People with different lived experiences are always going to see safety issues that I don’t and I’m always keen to learn what these are.

Group care agreements – I also use a variety of processes to include group care agreements. They help establish a common understanding of what we all need to feel safe enough in the group. They’re also a tool to empower everyone in the group to speak up if they feel something not-safe is happening in the group.

The group care agreements I use

I do group care agreements a little differently depending on the group context. Sometimes I send a list or video of agreements I’ve developed ahead of course commencement, sometimes we’ll spend some time at the start of a new group exploring them together and adding anything else the group needs, sometimes we start from scratch. Some of the group care agreements I commonly have in my groups include (thanks to Zed Xaba for teaching me some of these, I highly recommend her workshops if DEI is your thing):

  • Confidentiality – don’t share other people’s stories or details of their identity outside the group. You can share what you learned and how you were impacted without sharing other people’s stories.
  • Lean into vulnerability (as much as is right for you today) – be willing to not know and to take risks, whilst also taking care of your own boundaries.
  • Expect and accept non-closure – the learning we do here is complex and deep, so it’s messy, life-long learning, the learning will not be complete and we will not have all the answers.
  • Experience discomfort – the topics we explore are often challenging, don’t expect it to be easy.
  • Be open to giving and receiving feedback – we’re allies in each other’s learning journey; being willing to both give and receive feedback is essential for our shared learning.
  • Stay engaged – difficult topics naturally make us want to ‘switch off’ but we can’t learn together unless we make the effort to stay engaged as best we can.
  • Practice deep listening – to listen with humility and to understand, not necessarily to respond.
  • Time is the group’s shared resource – be mindful of sharing it well, remembering to not take more than your share (being mindful that if you have a lot of privilege and are therefore used to speaking a lot, you could best use that privilege to make space for those with less), AND, for those less inclined to speak into groups, remember that we are keen for you to contribute.
  • Be mindful of how you use stories – stories are powerful learning tools and ways to connect, and they can also be unexpectedly unsafe. Before sharing a story, think about why you want to share the story (if it’s to vent or show off, do that directly instead of indirectly through the story), is it your story to share, is the story from your culture, can you make your point/ask the question without the story? If you’re not sure, ask the group.
  • Honour lived experiences and perspectives that are not your own – when we can’t relate to someone else’s experience, we can have a tendency to deny or delegitimise the other person’s experience – resist the urge and remember that just because you can’t relate, doesn’t mean it’s not valid.
  • Acknowledge impact regardless of intention – we’ll hurt each other along the way despite our good intentions – it’s normal and is mostly due to a lack of awareness. When you cause harm, don’t talk about how you didn’t mean it (we know that), respond by acknowledging the impact instead and what you’re doing to learn from it.
  • When things heat up, slow down – when ‘emotional brain’ sparks up, ‘thinking brain’ gets knocked out. Emotions are great but in these moments it’s good to slow down so we can think and feel at the same time and take extra care with the additional vulnerability of the moment.
  • Bring and grow awareness of your own power, rank, and privilege in the group – this is a life-long learning process so no one is expected to be fully aware in the moment of all aspects of their power (impossible really), but we need to be to acknowledge it’s a thing and be keen to learn more about it.
  • Take care of yourself – take care of your body (stretch, drink, eat, etc) and take time out or away from the session if you need it. The body is the learner, its needs aren’t ancillary to learning, they’re central. Also, our learning spaces aren’t like ‘school’, you don’t have to get permission to take care of yourself.

What else can we do?

That’s a few ideas about creating safe enough learning spaces but I know there’s lots more. Add yours in the comment section below to help make it a more comprehensive list.

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