Pattern #76

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Safety First Then Challenge Card

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Safety First, Then Challenge

Safety First Then Challenge Symbol

Pattern Heart

Most people don’t step far out of their comfort zone, even though change and challenge demand that they not back off or close down. So help people feel safe in ways that enable them to truly and effectively engage with the challenges they face. Then present them with challenges that help them grow and serve quality of life for all.

Some related patterns:   18 Consulting and Abiding by Willingness
28 Equity   33 Feeling Heard   41 Groundedness   65 Privacy Guarantees   70 Range of Tolerance
  90 Well-Utilized Life Energy

  • What is too much safety? What is too much challenge? What do we do about this dynamic tension?
  • What would help the people here feel safe enough to take the risks they need to take to accomplish what they need or want to accomplish?
  • How can we make everyone feel safe when person A may need person B to step out of their comfort zone – e.g., for person B to witness person A’s anger – in order for person A to feel safe?
  • Are there times when it makes sense to challenge people first, before creating a safe context? What do we need to know about that?

Safety First, Then Challenge – going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

There’s a dance between safety and risk. Meeting challenges involves risk, safety and some vulnerability, because you can get harmed. So we want to have people feel safe. The ability to be safe potentially gives people the power to reach further out beyond their comfort zone. But we don’t want people to feel so safe that they just become lazy. We want to have a dynamic dance that develops their capacity to meet challenges. This dance is a perfect example of the yin-yang dynamic: We want to have challenge embedded in the safety, and safety embedded in the challenge.

This pattern notes that most people don’t step far out of their comfort zone. It’s much more comfortable being in your comfort zone, to not have challenges that make you go through all sorts of emotions. We often use denial and suppression to help us stay in our comfort zone. But it isn’t helpful to deny the problems in relationships, to deny climate change, to deny racial difficulty. These reactions do not allow us to actually engage with the real issues.

But if we just get the challenges thrown in our face, it is too much. For most people if you throw the challenge of climate change, or what their partner did to them, or accusations of racism – if these are thrown in their face, they will tend to react with fight or flight. They will back away and close down or they will counter-attack or get defensive, none of which actually helps address the problem.

So for us to be able to apply our intelligence and wisdom to the realms and the challenges we face, we need people to be able to step up at all different levels – on the personal, the relational, and the societal. So we need to know how to create safety and spaces where people can actually take risks and not be harmed. They’ll engage because they know that background safety is there. They can move into a space with other people that creates both safety and challenge for everyone involved.

We don’t want to create safety that has no challenges in it. But if we want people to deal with the challenges, we need to create a kind of safety that empowers them to step forward, and truly and effectively engage with the challenges they face.

Video Introduction (9 min)

Examples and Resources

So much of this dynamic manifests in conversation: people speak their minds and their hearts, and others challenging them, fight against them, express disgust or intense disagreement. The person who’s met with that energy tends to push back or just say “Fuck it!” and sit down and not speak anymore. So it is invaluable to have facilitators who create some safe space. This can be simply helping people speak in turn, which most facilitators do. They may say something like, “Who is going to speak next? Do you have something to say over there? Just hold it for a minute while this first person gets a chance to say their thing.” Or if the current speaker is going on a little too long, they might say “Can your wrap it up soon? Other people have things to say. Thank you.”  They are managing and monitoring the conversation so everyone is getting a turn and not interrupting.

More potent forms of facilitation involve active listening where the facilitator is making the space especially safe for each speaker. They are responding in ways that tell the speakers they’re being heard and understood, and that somebody is compassionate for their perspective. The facilitator may or may not agree with the speaker, but they communicate that it’s really okay for each speaker to say all the things they’re saying, to feel all the things they’re feeling. That’s the aim of active listening.

Nonviolent Communication uses an empathic practice that offers educated guesses and checks with the speaker, “Is this what you’re feeling and needing?”

And similarly a dynamic facilitator very empathically and actively listens to the people who are speaking. They very consciously make space safe for them, and then move on to the next person. Even if that next person has a totally different perspective, the facilitator is making the space especially safe for them, too.

In doing all this we need to realize that normally marginalized people – minorities or women – when out in society, experience forces pushing them out of the conversation, making them silent and invisible, giving them a lot of shame about whatever they may say or do. They tend to be either much quieter, withdrawn, and not speaking their minds, or very forceful and in-your-face because that is what they’ve found they need to do in order to be heard or safe. So there is special recognition and attention given to that, maybe even giving some preference for them. It’s like, “Let’s now hear from the women.” That is the kind of energy that a facilitator or process can bring. Sometimes it is very formalized in the overall process, other times it is light and informal but still clear.

Fishbowl is a process where groups of people with very different perspectives are set up to hear each other. Consider all the women and men in a group. All the women sit in the center talking together about their experiences, and all the man or the other parties are on the outside listening to them talk. Then you flip over and you have the men (or whoever the other main group is) in the middle talking amongst themselves. All the women, or whoever the other party is, sit around them and listen. You go back and forth like this, in a kind of breathing, in and out, alternating perspectives. You are taking turns hearing each other’s worlds. The interactions among the women and among the men provide different insights that you can watch emerging. There is safety because the women and the men can say to each other what they are thinking. The women can talk to the women, and the men can talk to men, and it is much easier than when women talk directly to the men or the other way around in certain situations. So the structure of the process allows a lot of interaction and insight to happen in a caucus kind of arrangement.

Arny Mindell’s Deep Democracy and World Work processes are other examples. They actively evoke the voices that want to be heard, the voices that are being suppressed in a charged field like racism. He does a lot of work with racism working with groups of mixed races.  He values every perspective and makes it clear he wants them all to come out and be heard. He sees the voices not as coming from the individual speakers but rather from the psychosocial fields we’re all embedded in – for example, from the field of racism. Arny used to be a quantum physicist and field theorist. He brought that to psychology inspired by Carl Jung’s ideas about collective consciousness and the collective unconscious. There’s a sense in which when we speak our thoughts and feelings about a charged issue, we are speaking out of a field we are all immersed in. That framing – and the actions of process facilitators – can create safety. It’s a different kind of experience: “I’m not just speaking for me, and if you do attack me, you and I can notice that you’re attacking with the energy from the field.  It is not from you as an individual, it’s from the field. It includes these voices in the field that want to be spoken and heard. We are hearing these voices and are becoming channels for them.”

Another thing that makes engagement safe is that when you enter into a discussion, it’s clear that we’re not going to force you or pressure you to come to any agreement, or to conform to some pre-ordained result. If there’s something that we are going to say together at the end of this, it will be something that authentically comes from us all. It is a legitimate expression of what we all deeply feel rather than something you are being boxed into or pressured into. Being assured of this ahead of time can make a person feel much safer about participating.

Another totally different kind of safety is if you are going to show up in our collective councils you may need support to do that – such as recognition that you need childcare, you need some financial support or something else in order to show up. That creates a space where you can show up and be present in ways that you otherwise may not be able to do. If nobody is going to take care of you in that way, you can’t come and take the risks in your life that would be involved in showing up.

Speaking of infant care, when you are trying to raise a child, a big part of your challenge is to have the child be safe and feel safe enough to reach out and take risks as they grow up. Most parents feel this very poignantly, the need to keep the child safe physically in ways that the child may not appreciate but are still needed. How do you keep your child safe while they’re able to go out and endanger themselves in various ways in order to learn how the world works? That dance is part of what childrearing is all about, and you are always in that dance.

So childrearing is in a funny way very resonant with the kinds of needs we’re dealing with in order to have a wise democracy where people feel safe enough to reach out, and actually do reach out and engage with the challenges that we are all trying to deal with together.