Safe spaces

November 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

The idea of the ‘safe space’ is crucial to psychotherapy. What relevance does it have to climate change?

Listening and respect

Many people find it hard to accept the reality of climate change and the need for both urgent action and widespread socio-political change. This is often an emotional rather than an intellectual problem: climate change threatens much that people hold dear. ‘Safe spaces’ where people can come to terms with what may happen, the changes that are needed and their own feelings about it can be crucial in helping them take action both in their personal lives and politically, as citizens. In psychotherapy the safe space is created by the therapist who initiates a relationship that:

  • Is non-judgmental and offers tolerance and respect
  • Accepts the complexity and strength of feelings
  • Embodies belief in the possibility of change and development
  • Offers challenge as well as support
  • Encourages and trusts in people’s creativity

Safe enough for challenge

The ‘safe space’ is not one which feels cosy but one which allows creativity and change to occur. It is safe enough to think, to feel, to question, to become uncomfortable, to be upset, to argue, fall out, make up and survive. If the safe space becomes merely comforting or self-congratulatory it is not doing its job.

This is relevant to climate change because people do not change their opinions or adopt new behaviours through being given information or being put under pressure. Information on its own doesn’t work. Telling, arguing, shocking or bludgeoning just don’t do it. What does help is creating situations where people can reflect and get in touch with their own conflicting feelings, motivations and creativity. Creating situations that draw on the idea of the ‘safe space’ can lead to some interesting outcomes.


In my work for the charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint, the idea of the ‘safe space’ lay behind the Carbon Footprint interviews we conducted with over 2500 people in the City between 2005 and 2008. 32 questions about their home, their travel, the money they spent and the food they ate took people quickly to the heart of their carbon-dependent lives. Although an answer emerged at the end which told people where they stood in relation to the national average footprint, the point was the conversation that took place. Training the interviewers to make this a non-judgmental, exploratory, welcoming experience was key.

My subsequent work has continued this emphasis on safe spaces. Training volunteers in personal communications skills helps them judge quickly how a climate change conversation is going, alerts them to the subtle resistances that people bring to difficult subjects and helps them offer appropriate support and challenges. Carbon Conversations, now organised nationally by COIN, brings people together in small facilitated groups to share their responses to climate change and explore how to make major reductions to their carbon footprints. Again, it’s the creation of the safe, responsive space which is key to the success of these groups.

Safe spaces are not unique to psychotherapy. They can be found in many other contexts and can occur spontaneously where people trust each other enough to open themselves to new ideas and possibilities. Sharing values is often key and I experienced a good example of this at the recent Sustainability in Crisis conference in Cambridge. This was a conference of people from faith groups, primarily Christians, and so it had the ease of understanding and acceptance that comes when people know that their basic premises about life are likely to be affirmed and understood by others. Into this conference, (which like many meetings of like minds carried a risk of cosiness) flew Bill McKibben, the US environmentalist and activist, fresh from cooling his heels in a Washington clink, having been arrested during a demonstration about the planned oil pipeline from Canada. Warm, engaging, sharp and inspiring, McKibben embodied the creative challenge that the safe space both needs and makes possible. McKibben was uncompromising in his argument that the additive process of individual action won’t work. Political engagement is critical. He reminded his audience of the origins of non-violent direct action in the Christian tradition and encouraged them to stand up, take part and risk arrest. Conversations over coffee and supper were testament to the way he pitched his challenge but it was the context of the safe space that made it possible for him to be properly heard.

Politics and campaigning

In more directly political work the tension between the need to challenge and the need for a safe space can be tricky. Confrontation, uncompromising demands and irresistible pressure on those in power are necessary. The clue is to think about who needs to be confronted and who needs to be safe. There is often a dual audience, those in power who need to be challenged and a potentially sympathetic public who need to be engaged and encouraged to come on side and take part. Climate Rush with their mix of humour, drama and surprise is one group who seem to have a good balance of confronting those in power without alienating those who witness their demonstrations. Occupy London   seem similarly well positioned in engaging the public while causing grave discomfort to those in power. Bill McKibben’s plea was for climate protestors to abandon the polar bear outfits and come dressed in respectable suits in order to demonstrate visually to the powerful that this is a protest of mainstream opinion and to mainstream opinion that here is a protest they can identify with and participate in. However it is done, the capacity to create the space in which ordinary people feel safe enough to pause, become curious, explore and then act is essential.

P.S. You can sign the petition to support Occupy London at and make a donation if you wish


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