Productive conversations about the most divisive issues in America require a safe space to occur. A safe space is somewhere people can express their honest impressions, thoughts, and attitudes without fear of appearing uniformed or ethnocentric. A safe space also demands that its occupants are open minded and attempt to empathize with others’ honest feelings and attitudes, in spite of their individual positions. And while it may be virtually impossible for thoughtful adults to approach some dialogues without an opinion, it is essential that they allow their opinions to be challenged and remain open when the dialogue or data is persuasive.
Many well intentioned and caring individuals have attitudes or positions about certain populations that could be construed as intolerant of hateful. But anyone entering this safe space must remember that any “wrong” attitudes or beliefs are often the result of a lack of understanding or knowledge, and not to hateful or ill motives. It is my belief and experience that most people hold ignorant positions without hating. Moreover, likely the greatest sin of those who are intolerant is that of judging, which coincidentally is likely the greatest sin of those attacking a perceived intolerance. It is natural for people to be cautious or fearful of the unknown, including those who comprise otherness in a wide variety of ways. This is precisely why we must find a way to create a space where judgements are suspended while we attempt to break down the barriers of otherness and increase our tolerance and understanding.
This safe space must begin as a judgement-free zone for a variety of reasons. Judging others inevitably leads to labeling the other’s attitude. In politics this practice is rampant. Unethical opponents call each other any number of names: liar, racist, misogynist, or warmonger, without apparent remorse for the damage they are causing. Negative labels can be long-lived and stigmatizing. They can harm a person’s career and personal life. This practice has no place in the safe space we are trying to create for our students. A safe space for problem solving must avoid these unproductive, hurtful, and distracting maneuvers.
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 absolute truths. In this space, we make statements about “how one feels,” rather than ascribing blame for feelings. We can ask others to reconcile their opinions or attitudes in light of what appears to be conclusive evidence to the contrary, however, judgmental statements assigning motive are never appropriate in this safe space.
Although the safe space is not a therapy group, the environment should follow many guidelines common in successful group counseling, which have been informed by the psychological and counseling theories of the past century. In particular, the Person Centered Therapy approach proposed by Carl Rogers in the 1950s outlined conditions that he felt were necessary and sufficient for therapeutic change. I believe that at least three of his six conditions, when applied to the group dynamic present in 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 possess a willingness and desire to have empathy for 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.
A person’s ability to make an effective argument is in direct proportion to their ability to understand the counter argument. Empathy does not mean that one must agree with another’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes but rather attempt to understand their unique perspective. It is unrealistic to expect total agreement as the result of even an honest debate of any complex issue, however, the ability to understand the counter position ultimately generates better understanding for the empathizer.
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 we face as a nation, all of 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 to honestly seek to know reality. When understanding, as opposed to defense, is the goal — resolution of divisive issues is possible.
Unconditional positive regard is the willingness to accept another person’s innate worth as an individual. It does not imply the 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 in order to have a productive conversation.
Sadly, our national conversations are often dominated by an adversarial form of debate that relies on labeling and name calling to undermine or combat opposing views. Public figures hope that vilifying another’s position will conversely bolster their own. 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.
There are many issues that divide good and decent people along political, theological, and cultural lines. At times the difference is simply a matter of semantics, but more often it is a matter of different perspectives or life experiences that lead to different understandings. It is my belief and conviction that we will see little real progress nationally or globally until we can create a safe space for these difficult conversations to occur.