When Inclusive Isn’t Safe

One of the key skills of a facilitator is ensuring all voices are heard. It’s something we keep in mind in every meeting and in the overall design of projects. Within the core competencies of the International Association of Facilitators, we pledge to promote inclusiveness by encouraging “positive regard for the experience and perception of all participants.” In the IAF Statement of Values and Code of Ethics, members “strive to engender an environment of respect and safety where all participants trust that they can speak freely.” Hearing from everyone in the room is part of most facilitators’ DNA.

Can you already hear echoes of the contradiction I’m struggling with?

There are times when the “experience and perception” of some participants can undermine the ability of other participants to “trust that they can speak freely.”

This truth began to crystallize for me in a meeting last June when a participant [rightly] called me out on one of the session objectives which referred to co-creating a “safe and inclusive space” for opinions to be expressed. She said, “If this space is truly inclusive of everyone, meaning that anyone could show up here, it’s no longer safe for me.” (Challenging in the context of a public meeting).

In another session, someone said, “If you want to hear from everyone equally, you’ll perpetuate patterns of power. ‘Equal’ participation is not equitable.”

In yet another workshop, a participant said, “I am only interested in hearing from people with lived experience of the issues we’re discussing. If that’s not you, you may listen but not speak.”

I’m currently in the midst of a public participation project where the design question is being asked, “Do we want to hear from a representative sample of the full population so that the data is seen as credible by decision-makers, or from a smaller sample of those with direct experience of the issue so that the data is seen as credible by the community?”

These are just a few examples of navigating fraught issues in difficult days. I’d love to hear from others who are trying to figure this out in real life and in real time. How are you balancing full participation with hearing from (and not harming) those whose voices have too often been missing, silenced or quiet?

8 Replies to “When Inclusive Isn’t Safe”

  1. It appears some of the participants had more assumptions. Sometimes these sessions are time bound hence does it cause an impediment to show empathy to those who have the assumptions? With empathy perhaps the safe space can be created.
    The questions you have are not easy, it is a journey of discovery. thanks for sharing.

  2. Innovation using Design Thinking calls for as many divergent views as possible before converging. A leader needs to make sure everyone present freely contributes to discussion enriched by ideas real or imaginary.

  3. Wow, that’s fascinating. I love the frame that ‘equal participation is not equitable.’

    The lived experience requirement really resonates with me: if you don’t have lived experience, then you may listen but not speak. We would learn much more collectively, if people could learn to refrain from contributing their opinion if someone else is sharing lived experience.

    1. Such a challenge, as although I don’t want to undervalue that lived experience, I also see other kinds of “data” as useful and know that diversity on teams is a huge asset to performance. It can also fly in the face of “facilitator content neutrality.” Grateful for a ton of engagement on this post, across multiple channels. Lots to think about!

  4. Hey Rebecca – thoughtful post. I’m on a board that is really working through inclusion and diversity issues right now and we’re experiencing some of the micro-paradoxes you describe – how, for example, the path to inclusion involves several key steps that are uninclusive by design. It is interesting, and for many of us, brand new, conversational territory.

  5. Rebecca, These are profound questions. I don’t have an answer, and usually revert to a case-by-case decision. The design question is really representative of the entire conundrum, by making evident that the decision makers are not the people with the lived experience. Thank you for making us think.

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