How “safe” are your groups for diverse people, operational styles and opinions? How safe do you feel in groups? How about right now? The concept and importance of safety in group dynamics can be elusive. We might be looking for a definition we can all depend on, but in fact, safety is defined by the person who doesn’t have it. It’s individual, subjective and momentary.
It’s also seated in the gut. So much so that we’re often not intellectually aware of our safety or lack of it. We’ve all felt those hairs on the back of the neck sound an alarm. Safety can be as physical as a fight-or-flight situation. But for some people, often people who lack privilege, the absence of safety is a low grade static state. It might be marked by what the person doesn’t say, what the person doesn’t do.
Some people are eminently safe in groups. They’re often the first to speak and often have the “great idea” to solve a problem. But even these individuals can fall out of safety in moments.
Many people don’t think of themselves as “out of safety,” but during meetings they speak very little because “it’s just not worth it,” or “someone else will say it,” Or, maybe as a woman or person of color, or anyone who’s seen repeated group dysfunction, they view a group as “nothing new/same-old-same-old” in which others are oblivious to what life is like for her/him.
In the groups you belong to, do newcomers check out the group but leave after a few meetings? In meetings, do the same 3 or 4 people do most of the talking, with 3 or 4 others speaking once, and the rest just listening, as if watching a TV program? Does it seem like a tiny core group do 80-90% of the work of your group, with a large membership who are just “tourists” or “consumers,” enjoying the fruits?
Most people say that these dynamics are just the nature of groups, that this is to be expected. But are you sure? Have you ever interviewed a new member who left your group? Would that person tell you the truth? Is there a way to increase participation? How significant is the question of safety?
Fiopa Consensus Collective
I wrote the handout above as a conversation starter for small groups at the beginning of a workshop we held at the library in Chico, California. I’m not really blogging these days but I have been cleaning up my computer files and thought I’d share some writings here. You’re welcome to share the above, only if you credit Wren Tuatha & Fiopa Consensus Collective, and do not alter the content.