Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person. – Dinah Craik
“Safe Space” is one of the thousand plus words added to the Merriam Webster dictionary this week. MW defines a safe space as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”
I must take exception to that last bit, although I understand its purpose. No one should be physically or verbally threatened or attacked. However it is likely in conversations about highly charged issues that one’s assumptions, worldviews, and belief systems will be challenged – if not threatened. In that sense, it’s not a safe space.
I address this issue in my book as it applies to interfaith and intrafaith conversations.
For some people, entering into an interfaith experience can be confrontational. For some, engaging in intrafaith conversation can be equally or more challenging. For this reason, I usually begin a new group with the poem, “It Is Difficult, O God” by C.S. Song. I do this to let them know that discomfort is to be expected, in fact it is perfectly normal. Having said that, it is essential to create an environment of respect and safety. By safety, I do not mean that one’s belief system may not be shaken. It is entirely possible that it might be. What I mean by a safe environment is one in which viewpoints are respected and in which the leader is capable of managing the group process under all circumstances. There will inevitably be challenging ideas and differences of opinion. There will often be conversations that will cause some participants to become distressed or upset. The idea is not to avoid conflict, disagreements or upset, but to manage them in appropriate and safe ways.
I am coming more and more to the belief that this is the same kind of basis we now need in order to enter into interpolitical conversations. Many of us are recognizing that people on opposite sides in our polarized nation need to talk to one another. But what I also hear again and again is that we don’t know how to do that. From both sides I hear the expectation of not being heard and/or verbally attacked.Thankfully, help is becoming available. I’ve recently discovered a resource called Reaching Across the Red-Blue Divide, a free download from the Essential Partners website.
Most of us have at least one important relationship that has either been strained by painful conversations about political differences or silenced due to fear that it could get ugly. Bring it up and fight about it or avoid the conversation – and sometimes the person – altogether. Both options limit who we can be together as friends or family and limit what we can accomplish in our communities. What alternatives are there? You can let media pundits and campaign strategists tell you that polarization is inevitable and hopeless. Or you can consider reaching out and taking a journey with someone who is important to you. With some tools to support your best intentions, you can actually learn about what motivates other people and understand how they’ve come to believe the way they do. Connecting across our differences is both possible and necessary.
The introduction promises to:
help prepare you to speak about what is most important to you in ways that can be heard, and to hear others’ concerns and passions with new empathy and understanding even if — especially if — you continue to disagree.The guide offers a step-by-step approach to inviting another person — someone whose perspectives differ from your own — into a conversation in which:
- You agree to set aside the desire to persuade the other and instead focus on developing a better understanding of each other’s perspectives, and the hopes, fears, and values that underlie them;
- You agree to be curious and to avoid the pattern of attack and defend;
- You choose to ask questions and move beyond stereotypes and assumptions.
A lot of the process they outline is very similar to what I advocate in The INTRAfaith Conversation. But there is material specifically geared to the interpolitical, such as how to be at our best on social media.
So – now there’s no excuse. The plan is pretty simple. We – I – just have to do it. As I read my words describing interfaith and intrafaith conversations, I wonder if I can substitute political and be able to say the same thing. I think it’s worth a try.
I learned that entering into an exploration of other peoples’ religious faith and practice is a wonder-filled experience. For me, hearing another’s story is an intimate look inside that person’s heart, and that is not something to be taken lightly. In both my interfaith and intrafaith encounters, I have heard stories of joy, as well as stories of pain and hurt. In many of the encounters, each participant brought his or her whole self into the process. Entering into an examination of religious beliefs took us even more deeply into one another’s lives. It was crucial that an atmosphere of safety and trust had been created because, as I came to realize, the ground of this kind of encounter is a place of extreme intimacy and vulnerability. It is sacred ground. I often found myself in awe at the willingness of many of the participants to give of themselves, not only in terms of time, but more importantly in terms of openness — to me, to others, to their own growth process. It is a privilege to be in the company of such people.