In the past few months, I have been in a number of conversations about the merits of safe spaces. Many of these relate to an Arka Brotherhood squad, a ceremonial men’s work space, an intentional community, or a shared living situation; the background and engagement of the participants in the space may vary widely.
In the past I have described an Arka Brotherhood squad as a safe space, but always with a caveat: I tell men…
“This is not a space where you will always feel safe, this is a space that is safe and also one where
we can rile each other up, piss each other off, make mistakes, and work through all of that because
we know we’ve all committed to coming back week after week.”
This feels like a losing battle against language: here, I’m working too hard to explain what this phrase means for this specific context. Let’s go back to the phrase “safe space.”
Today, it’s generally used to label a space where the participants are not going to be criticized, shamed, challenged, invalidated, or otherwise triggered. The connotation when it is applied to a setting like a university classroom is that participants are bubble wrapped, facilitators walking on eggshells lest they trigger an emotion.
(That being said, I found out while researching this article that I was holding on to an out-of-date stereotype about university classrooms; the reality is that a bunch of really smart people realized that this framework for facilitating a group was, frankly, crap, and they came up with the idea of “brave spaces” to replace it. More on that later.)
This is the definition I was working against until something clicked, and I thought “why bother?”
I don’t want to talk about a “safe space, with context,” I want a proper label for the kind of space I’m talking about. If I’m going to label it, I have to understand it and what makes it different from “safe” space.
What are the defining features?
The space has longevity. It exists for days, months, or years. It might exist independent of the
people in it, like a shared house, or it might only exist during the time people are coming together to create it, but either way it is something that endures and eventually carries with it a history, a depth of time.
Conflicts and mistakes are assumed to be inevitable. They happen whenever people get together to share ideas, work, chores, personal stories, or physical space; the space is built with this in mind.
The participants are invested. The people creating and occupying the space have a motivation to stay in it, work through conflicts, reconcile, and stay in relationship with the other participants.
Mature, skilled mentors participate and guide others. Mentorship and relationship skills are key to moving through difficult conversations while managing emotional arousal, and finding productive resolutions to conflicts.
A code of behaviour governs participants and strengthens group bonds. Participants avoid gossip and other behaviours that corrode group bonds. They deal with interpersonal conflicts directly or seek support from a mentor to facilitate a conversation.
When all these ingredients come together, they create space, a group dynamic, that is anti-fragile: it is resilient to conflict, mistakes, and character flaws because they are an opportunity to deepen connection between the participants, for the participants to grow and learn. Bonds become stronger over time instead of accumulating damage.
This might be a community of people focused on growth and healing; it might be a men’s circle like an Arka Brotherhood squad; it might be a shared living situation; it might be a romantic relationship. In any form, it’s a space where we can do the things we do in an Arka squad: rile each other up, piss each other off, make mistakes, and work through it; this is possible because we are committed to the space.
I’ve taken to calling this kind of space a “secure space,” because the attachments holding it together are secure attachments (or become secure attachments over time). It feels like an apt description, one that’s more likely to invite questions and curiosity than the term “safe space” with all its attendant cultural baggage.
Secure spaces let participants take risks in communication and relationship that are necessary for personal and relational growth. One communication risk might be workshopping an interaction in a difficult relationship, then getting feedback. A relationship risk, for a lot of men, might be letting their guards down and showing themselves as vulnerable and emotional; another might be asserting boundaries that have been neglected. A lot of the growth that I’ve seen come out of the squads has been men (myself included) learning they have a secure space in the brotherhood of the squad, then working on communication and boundaries to grow that feeling of security in other relationships.
In Arka Brotherhood squads, we traditionally close the space by standing together and shouting “Ho!” – it reminds us of our collective strength and individual voices, and we’re left standing in a fluid arrangement that wants to push apart, put chairs away, gather jackets, have small side conversations.
That said, I think the concept of a safe space — where participants are not going to be criticized, shamed, challenged, invalidated, or otherwise triggered, and where they will be witnessed or otherwise cared for — has value, because there are situations where this space is called for an where this is an apt description. These spaces might be a vulnerable conversation, a ceremonial or healing space, or a witnessing process in front of an audience.
What would be the defining features of a safe space?
It is a facilitated space, created between a participant, facilitator, and possibly audience. The audience’s role is to witness the participant, the participant is there to be witnessed, and the facilitator is there to open the space, hold it, and close it back up again.
A participant expects not to be criticized, shamed, challenged, invalidated, or otherwise fixed, whether they know they are expecting that or not. In my admittedly finite experience, a safe space is created so that someone can talk, share, process something, or be witnessed. The space is time-limited, transitory. It is opened in some way, and it must be closed in some way.
The opening is a matter of communication and trust: the facilitator communicates to the participant that a safe space is available, and the participant completes it by choosing to trust the facilitator.
The communication could be a combination of body language and asking an opening question, it could be implicit in a setting such as a therapist’s office, it could be two relationship partners sitting down to hold space for one of their feelings. When the participant acts into their trust in the facilitator by sharing something, saying something, or doing something that they would not do outside that space, then both are committed to the co-creation of the space for the duration.
The closing of a safe space can happen a number of different ways, but the important thing to remember is it always happens. One undesirable way for the space to close is for the facilitator or audience to violate the expectations of the space, causing the participant to lose trust and pull back. To say that this outcome runs counter to the intentions of why the safe space was opened in the first place would be putting it mildly: it leaves trust damaged, the original intentions unfulfilled, and emotions wounded.
How are safe spaces and secure spaces related?
They are both intentional spaces; they both take effort to create; they both act as places of healing and growth.
A safe space sets a high bar for how space is held and is very much a fragile creation: if the conditions of a safe space are violated (ie, if conflict arises), trust is damaged and can be very difficult to repair.
A secure space benefits from healthy conflict, disconnection, repair, and reconnection. Where a secure space facilitates conversation — thesis, antithesis, synthesis — and can encompass a large group of people, a safe space facilitates processing or storytelling and is more of a one-way street.
Some spaces or groups of people are neither; they might just be people flailing around without communal intentions or agreements, and it might be a roll of the dice whether they are productive, stable, or long-lived.
It’s worth examining the spaces you participate in and thinking about how they function versus how you expect them to function.
- Do you expect them to be safe or secure spaces?
- Are they actually safe or secure spaces?
- What are the explicit and implicit agreements that for part of the space?
- If there are implicit agreements, how do you know everyone is functioning on the same agreements?
- Are there some conflicts that would be explained if you knew people were bringing divergent
expectations to the group?
As far as brave spaces go, I’m just going to link to some resources that I’ve found useful for
thinking about how I can show up better in squad, how I can lean in to my challenges, and how I
can set context for holding space.
I’ll close by sharing the agreements that form the container of Steelhead Squad here in Squamish. It’s been a productive and secure space, and I value it highly.
Steelhead Squad Core Agreements
These agreements are the foundation of the container that we use to dive in and go deep on
everything and anything that requires trust, privacy, commitment, and history.
0. Standing: Every man in the squad has the standing to call another man out if he isn’t holding up these agreements.
1. Commitment: Attend all meetings. Show up on time. Stay connected.
2. Holding Space: Put your phone away. Arrive sober. Listen in order to understand. Don’t hijack a share and make it about you.
3. Departures: Make space to say goodbye. Don’t leave because you’re looking for something better.
4. Participation: Share what is going on in your life, whether celebration or sadness. Relate your own experience, if relevant. Lean into processes.
5. Personal Growth: Keep learning about yourself. Try new things. Take action in your life. Level up where you’re weak. Be enthusiastic.
6. Communication: Pay attention to the group chat. Have some fun with it. Check in if you miss a meeting.
7. Confidentiality: Do not share other men’s stories outside the container of the group, even if you don’t use their names. Do share your experience of the meetings, but focus on your thoughts, emotions, and sensations.