Productive conversations on the most divisive issues requires a safe space. A space where people can express honest impressions, thoughts, and attitudes without fear of ridicule. A safe space demands that its occupants be open minded and attempt to empathize with others’ feelings and attitudes, even those with whom they differ.
While it may be virtually impossible for thoughtful adults to approach issues without an opinion that has been formed from their experiences, it is essential that safe space occupants make a sincere attempt to hear and process the opinions of others. Equally, participants must be open to allowing their opinions to be changed or altered, when encountering dialogue or data that is persuasive.
This safe space must begin as a judgement-free zone. Judging others inevitably leads to labeling the other’s attitude. Negative labels can be long-lived and stigmatizing and they can harm a person’s career and personal life. Therefore, many people will refuse to engage in discussion around a sensitive topic for fear of being labeled, so labeling others cannot be tolerated in the safe space.
In this safe space, people must own their attitudes and feelings and avoid blaming others or circumstances for those attitudes. We must refrain from interpreting each other’s motives; and express our attitudes and opinions as ‘from my perspective,’ instead of as absolute truths. In this space, we make statements about “how one feels” rather than ascribing blame for feelings. We ask others to reconcile their opinions or attitudes considering what appears to be evidence to the contrary, however, judgmental statements assigning motive are never appropriate.
Creating a safe space should follow many of the guidelines common in successful group counseling. The Person-Centered Therapy approach proposed by Carl Rogers in the 1950s outlined conditions that he felt were necessary and sufficient for therapeutic change. At least three of his six conditions, when applied to the group dynamic involving difficult conversations, are beneficial in creating the safe space. The conditions that are most relevant to this discussion are empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard.
All participants in the conversation must be willing to empathize with others’ beliefs, feelings, and attitudes. Empathy is defined as the identification of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another; seeing the world through their eyes. This is essential in creating a safe environment, but it also assists in gaining a more complete understanding of the issue.
Empathy does not mean that one must agree with another’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes, but rather attempts to understand their perspective. It is unrealistic to expect complete agreement as the result of debate of any complex issue, however, the ability to understand the counter position ultimately generates better understanding for the empathizer. A person’s ability to make an effective argument is in direct proportion to their ability to understand the counter argument.
Congruence refers to the match between one’s ideal-self and one’s real-self. Essentially, a person is more congruent when their ideal aligns with their reality. This does not imply that one cannot improve their reality, in fact it argues that improvement can only occur when one is congruent or honest with the way things really are. Likewise, for effective resolution to occur on the difficult issues, all the parties invested in the process must be willing to reconcile their perceptions with reality. This requires not only a willingness to change one’s position, but also, honestly seek greater understanding. When understanding is the goal — resolution of divisive issues is possible.
Unconditional positive regard is a willingness to accept another person’s innate worth as an individual. It does not require acceptance of their attitudes, opinions, or actions but rather a recognition of their worth as a human being. Safe spaces require that all persons involved in the conversation show unconditional regard for each other. Despite opposing positions — however repulsive, uninformed, or ridiculous they seem — a respect and value for each other must be maintained to have a productive conversation.
Sadly, difficult conversations are often dominated by an adversarial form of debate that digresses to labeling and name calling, as a way of undermining opposing views. Some believe that vilifying another’s position will bolster their own standing. This strategy is the antithesis of what is necessary for the safe space that I propose. When empathic individuals engage in conversation in pursuit of congruence between views and realities, and they do so with unconditional positive regard for the others, positive results can occur.
Many issues divide good and decent people along political, theological, and cultural lines. Often the difference is simply a matter of semantics, but more frequently it is a matter of different perspectives or life experiences. It is almost certain that no progress will be made on resolving our most divisive issues unless we create a safe space in which these difficult conversations can occur.