Creating a Safe Space in our Virtual Space

What is a safe space? A space where everyone feels valued and respected. A space where everyone feels heard. A space where all contributions are given equal consideration, regardless of the race/gender/sexuality of the contributor. A space where anyone can speak up to express their thoughts and feelings, from disagreement to hurt to anger.

Why do we need safe spaces? Because people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community don’t always feel protected and encouraged to speak up in white, male dominated spaces. Our society tacitly accepts the privilege of those of the dominant caste (typically white males) to speak first, speak loudest and direct the conversations. Unless we are intentional about creating safe spaces for all employees, we run the risk of unintentionally sidelining, or worse, hurting some employees by ignoring their contributions and perspectives. Bottom-line, if we are not encouraging all staff to speak up, to discuss (even hard issues) and to contribute their wisdom, we are not developing our talent to their fullest and we’re missing out on valuable contributions.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of a safe space for difficult conversations, particularly those centered around race, gender and sexuality. But, as managers and team leaders, we also need to be sensitive to creating safe spaces for all of our online, virtual meetings and one-on-ones. One of the downfalls of online spaces is the inability to completely read body language, the difficultly of group dialogue, and the ease of literally fading into the background. These factors all contribute to creating an environment where a few people can dominate conversations and meetings and others just watch, or tune out.

As long-time moderator for in-person and virtual discussions and meetings, here are some of the tips that I’ve gathered over the years for creating a safe space:

  • Set ground rules and guidelines for meetings and discussions. As a work team, these can be reviewed once a year, or once a quarter. Encourage participants to contribute ideas and suggestions that would help them feel safe and respected.
  • Ensure that each meeting has a “moderator” who can keep the conversation on track when it diverges or gets repetitive, call on people who have not yet spoken, and hold people back if they are dominating the conversation. This person does not have to be the convener or the boss (although they should have buy-in from the convener).
  • Respect people for who they are. Let people share their preferred pronouns and ensure that everyone uses them. Be mindful of different perspectives due to race or culture. For example, starting a Monday morning meeting with a Black colleague, following another weekend shooting of an unarmed Black man by police, by asking “What did you do this weekend?” might not be sensitive to their experience. Better to ask, “How are you feeling about the events of this past weekend?” Don’t be afraid to address the issues that are affecting your staff.
  • Give permission for people to speak up if they feel uncomfortable, threatened, or insulted by another’s language or comments. Encourage dialogue and discussion for education and understanding, not bullying.
  • Encourage active listening. Don’t allow people to interrupt or talk over one another. Practice mirroring back what you’ve heard someone say. Refer back to what someone said earlier. Give appropriate credit for new ideas and suggestions.

Ensuring a safe space for all participants, establishing guidelines, encouraging participation and actively listening for verbal and nonverbal cues can create better meetings, encourage real dialogue and help all participants feel valued.