Safe Spaces in Community Programs

by John McShane, Community Programs Director

I worked recently with the senior staff at an Indianapolis hospital on a team building and renewal workshop series. There were about 50 participants. This was our second meeting. In our first, we discussed assumptions and how they might feed into misunderstandings and even conflict. Session one also reviewed conflict styles and communication strategies.

Something about session two was very different. We began the session with a concentric circle exercise. People are assigned dialogue partners and are tasked, alternately, with only speaking or listening roles.  The three questions for the short conversations (about 90 second each) were:

  • Tell me about a time you felt left out, unwelcome, or even discriminated against.
  • Tell me about a time you saw someone left out, unwelcome, or even discriminated against.
  • Tell me about a time you saw someone left out, unwelcome, or even discriminated against and it worked out well or was a success story.

The questions follow a pattern we typically use in our professional development workshops. We begin with reflection and an examination of self, our stance. We then follow with work and dialogue considering our impact on and with others. Finally, after discussing self and others, we move to community. Specifically, we discuss what impact participants can have on their own communities. In this context a community can be a workplace, a family, a neighborhood, a professional association, a place of worship, etc.

The total time of this circle exercise was less than 15 minutes and, yet, the level of dialogue and intimacy was remarkable. People were telling their own stories, laughing, teary-eyed, and even hugging. Somehow, we had managed to break down barriers. Empathy emerged. It was more successful than I had expected.

Another powerful moment came during a “Speak Out” exercise. This is a participative conversation where people get to tell others what they think we might need or want to know about themselves. The exercise comes from a Quaker tradition of dialogue with dignity and respect. One participant told her story of “loss.” She had recently lost a sister. The room was quiet, and you could feel a sense of mutual compassion, warmth, and support. A few others shared stories representing themselves, all to a very attentive and interested audience. Topics of faith, family, dependency, and loneliness emerged. Lastly, a woman who had worked there for years told her story of being diagnosed with a mental illness. None of her colleagues knew – even though she had been working there for years. She had been afraid for years of what others would think, how they would label her. She had been afraid they would judge her, think of her as weak. Now, she felt safe to “speak out.” After telling her story, all she found was love, support, and understanding. No one judged.  I hope I don’t forget this moment – witnessing the relief of all that fear being dissipated by the support, understanding, and compassion of others.

All this happened over the course of just two, ninety-minute workshop sessions. This is what we strive to do in our PLC Community Programs – create a space where everyone is welcome, and no one is alone or afraid.

You can find out more about our workshop offerings by contacting our Community Programs Director, John McShane at


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