Climbing the pole for the high ropes course, my palms were sweaty. I paused a few rungs up, took some deep breaths to steady my nerves then kept going.
I repeated, “I’m safe” like a mantra.
Once I reached the top, I stood on a small platform waiting for the rest of our group to ascend. I was pretty nervous and tried not to look down. The group leader paired us up to go thru the course. Cheering on my partner helped me keep my own nerves in check, I wanted to show up for her. The first element we tackled was a series of planks assembled like railroad ties.
Throughout the course, I returned to my breathing anytime I felt a surge of nervous energy. We walked along rope bridges and balance beams suspended 25 feet in the air. Each element was separated by a platform and transitioning often felt like an acrobatic feat. We'd complete one component only to be faced with a new, more difficult challenge.
Finally, we reached the end of the course, the finale. The only way down was to jump off a platform, with two wires attached to each side of my harness and swing to the ground.
The harness squeezed my legs and waist. I was not at all in my comfort zone but I was safe.
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1” I jumped. Swung and unclipped to finish my descent down a ladder.
It was thrilling. Uncomfortable but invigorating.
This is what it’s like to create a safe space for difficult conversations. Feeling safe doesn't remove feelings of discomfort. And feeling uncomfortable doesn't mean you should avoid the situation. Unfortunately, our society has trained us to confuse comfort for safety.
The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin explores the myth of comfort as safety. In it he says, "We assume that what makes us comfortable also makes us safe...The safety zone has changed, but your comfort zone has not...There's still a safety zone, but it's not in a place that feels comfortable to you...The new safety zone is the never-ending creating of ever-deeper personal connection."
Navigating differences and conflict rarely feel comfortable when you're in the thick of it.
When clients bring me in to mediate a disagreement at work, I feel the itch of discomfort. I feel my own nerves move closer to the edge. I wonder, can I really help them? Then remind myself it's not if I can help but if they're willing to do the work! I need to know, are they willing to climb up to the ledge and walk the tight rope course even though it's scary and uncomfortable?
Part of creating safety during times of heightened emotions and conflict (the two go together like peanut butter and jelly) is fostering a sense of connection. As humans, we are hardwired to feel a sense of connection and belonging. And what that means might look different for different people. My Mom is a classic introvert, and she feels a great sense of connection when being together in silence. For others, that feels awkward and might even be internalized as rejection.
When I meditate, I foster connection by meeting with each individual involved one-on-one first. I listen to their perspectives and learn what makes them feel a sense of safety and belonging. I strive to understand what they hope to accomplish and support them in figuring out how to best show up in the situation.
Last year when I mediated for a client, I learned one of the parties involved, we'll call her Tammy, never experienced safety in conflict before because she grew up in a verbally abusive household. Tammy was a young professional, and this was her third job. She told me that she didn't know how to navigate disagreements or misunderstandings in a healthy way. Instead, she had a habit of shutting down.
What's more, Tammy was aware of how problematic this pattern was for her both personally and professionally. While she relayed her story to me, she cried. Tammy had already lost a best friend because of this pattern and now she was worried she would lose her job.
I listened to connect, showing her compassion and tenderness. Her pain and suffering had clearly fueled debilitating fears. But her desire to lean into this challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow was strong. Encouraged by her therapist, Tammy was willing to do the work.
I pulled from her, the things she needed in order to feel safe. The fact that I had already listened so intently to her story made her feel seen and heard, which laid the groundwork for her to experience safety moving forward. I assured her of what I would do to set the tone and hold the space for her to continue to experience safety.
Part of the reason Tammy needed an objective facilitator like me, was because she was scared to share her story with her employer. Her past experiences were deeply personal. And while she knew her employer cared about her wellbeing, she felt too vulnerable to share her back story with them. Yet having her whole self seen and acknowledged was foundational for her to feel safe.
All their previous attempts to resolve the conflict in-house were bound to fail because Tammy had not felt seen and heard on a deeper level. So she entered the conversations shut down and stayed that way. Her employer was wise to bring in someone with the expertise and skills to shift the interaction dynamics in positive ways.
In addition to hearing and honoring Tammy's past experiences. I shared a few communication techniques to help her find and use her voice. In other words, I gave her a simple roadmap for moving past shut down so she could engage in healthy conflict with her co-worker. She took what I offered her and ran with it.
When we all came together for the actual mediation, I set the tone by sharing some ground rules. These were simple guidelines for engaging in the conversation based on the needs I heard from both parties. I had already primed them each - they expected I would share norms for the conversation. And I saw Tammy exhale a sigh of relief when they both agreed to uphold those expectations.
Once the safe container was set, Tammy and her co-worker began to have a constructive conversation about their disagreements and concerns. The two spoke openly and kindly to each other. They listened closely and sought to understand what the other was saying.
I sat back and held the space. Occasionally, I offered a nudge - typically in the form of an open and honest question. Those nudges were like the transition points on the high ropes course. They shifted from one element to the next, getting to the heart of each of their grievances and needs.
For the finale, I asked what specific commitments they were going to make personal and to each other. We documented those together, then agreed on how they would stay accountable to fulfilling those commitments. Shifting from talking about their problems to agreeing to a course of action was like taking the final leap off the high ropes course. It wasn't comfortable, they were both stretching but they were safe.
The changes in their dynamics were seen instantly. Both parties had learned how to best show up for each other. The support I provided was successful because they were both committed to doing the work - moving thru the discomfort to a safe landing.
Are you in the midst of a difficult situation or conflict with someone else? How has your approach to navigating this worked out so far? What would make you feel safer to move through the discomfort so you may constructively address the issue at hand? Tell me about it - I love to hear from readers!