Group process: creating safe space

I recently attended a conference in Michigan (2011 Local Future Conference: Vision, Action, Leadership) which also had some elements of a retreat. The organizer, Aaron Wissner, presented participants with some guidelines that I think are generally useful in group situations, especially those in which the sharing of deeply personal experiences and feelings are important to achieving the goals of the group. I’m not sure where they originated but here they are:

1) COME TO WORK WITH 100% OF THE SELF. Set aside the usual distractions of phone mail, e-mail, things undone from yesterday, things to do tomorrow. Bring all of yourself to the work, not just the parts of yourself and your experience that would be obviously relevant to this work. “I” statements–speaking for oneself–help to support this full presence.

2) PRESUME WELCOME AND EXTEND WELCOME. Understand that in so doing it is possible to emerge refreshed and less burdened than when you came, even with some surprises!

3) UNDERSTAND THAT THERE IS GENUINE FREEDOM IN THE CIRCLE. The rule is INVITATION not INVASION, OPPORTUNITY, not DEMAND. It requires that we acknowledge Silence as an honored and eloquent member of our community.

4) LISTEN WITH “SOFT EYES,” WITH COMPASSION. The safety of our space will be enhanced as we listen without interruption to each other’s stories, with compassion and understanding, finding that of ourselves in each other, and in our varied experiences. This is what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke called being present with “soft eyes.”

5) DEEP CONFIDENTIALITY, DOUBLE CONFIDENTIALITY. Our work requires us to commit ourselves to a special, deep confidentiality which promises that you will not speak outside this group of what is shared here. Further, double confidentiality requires us to commit ourselves to never raise again with the sharing person, or others in the group, the deeply personal confidences shared especially in a clearness committee, or walk-and-talk.

6) WHEN THINGS GET DIFFICULT, TURN TO WONDER. Commit yourself to a new approach to being together: when you hear difficult things, mysterious things, or perhaps ideas which seem to fly in the face of your usual way of looking at things, let your first response be that of WONDER rather than harsh judgment or criticism. Switch from saying to ASKING–from stating to QUESTIONING, from advocating for your opinion to INQUIRY about the other’s…move from knowing WONDERING. Thus we are open to learning from each other.

7) NO FIXING. Believe in the voice of the Inner Teacher; believe that there is wisdom resident in each of us which allows us to bring extraordinary light to bear on our own issues. No “SAVING” allowed here!

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