What Does It Take to Create Safe Space?

Touchstones to Set the Tone for Trust

It’s so much better to be in a workplace where you can be your real self and contribute to the work in a meaningful way.
― Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization

This month I had the honor of co-facilitating a virtual retreat called Reframing Resilience, Renewing Leadership with my friend and publisher, Shelly Francis. We invited and opened the circle with the touchstones that are central to the practices and principles of the Circle of Trust® approach.  Shelly and I took turns reading the touchstones, asking the participants to share which ones spoke to them.

The experience took me vividly back to my first Circle of Trust retreat in 2008. I received the invitation to attend a retreat at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I arrived only with knowledge shared by a friend who had attended a similar retreat previously. All he said to me was, “Don’t miss the retreat; it is the best experience.”

I was at a time of my life when I was questioning my purpose and my worth both personally and professionally. I was curious!

We settled in at the retreat center, a place nestled in the beauty of nature, seemingly disconnected from the busyness of our lives, with no WiFi or television, only a journal with a welcome note on the desk in our rooms.

We gathered in a circle where I was welcomed with genuine smiles. I was meeting everybody else for the first time. A candle was lit in the center and I was introduced to the touchstones for the first time.

The first touchstone was an explicit invitation to give and receive welcome, something I had taken for granted. But this was an intentional invitation to receive welcome also while giving welcome. How often do we think welcome is just to say hello in passing and not even wait for a response? I personally was guilty of this also.

As we read on I found myself pausing at the one that stated, No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other. An invitation just to listen to understand, listen with empathy with deep concentration. Well that seemed totally different than what I thought I was doing of course.

I was the fixer at home in my personal life. As a physician and an educator, I am always striving to make things better, to fix situations or patients, and my job as an educator is to advise.

Another touchstone that really spoke to me was to practice asking open honest questions. questions that were in service of me, devoid of any assumptions or to serve the curiosity of the person asking. I thought I knew what good open and honest questions were! Being the recipient of open and honest questions gave me a different, deeper and a beautiful understanding of the generosity of receiving these open and honest questions. It was transformational.

What a pivotal moment in my life.

However, what was most palpable was the liberating feeling. I was amongst a group of ten leaders, none of whom I knew before this visit, yet I had the comfort of feeling safe and that I could trust them.

During the opportunities for self-reflection, I found myself exploring issues I had buried and ignored either because it was too painful or it would open gaping wounds that I would not know how to manage. In our group reflections, I found myself sharing personal and professional issues openly without the fear of being judged, ridiculed or even ignored.

Instead the experience to be listened to with empathy—just to be understood and not judged—was unique and in many ways life-giving. I felt that I could be me, with all my weakness and vulnerabilities, strengths and gifts. I did not have to try to pretend and conform to what I thought was wanted. I found myself not just speaking from my head but also having heart conversations!

It brought true joy, I felt lighter and filled with an energy that I had not had for a while.  I was excited about coming back with new ideas and new spirit and vigor.

Having had the experience of being in teams with colleagues where I could be authentic, I now have a hyper awareness of when this safe space is not present.

I now use the touchstones as tools to build relational trust, a slow and often painstakingly tough endeavor. As I wrote in my book, “culture change happens at the speed of trust.” In an environment already plagued with hierarchy and mistrust, the interwoven and interconnected messy pandemics of 2020 are shouting out for the urgent immediate need for safe space where each voice can be heard and respected! Let’s strive to make this happen!

I continue to ask myself each day, “What can I do today in my sphere to invite the heart conversations with the head conversations? How can I create a safe space?”

#REFLECT: What do you do to create safe space? What resources would help you?


As 2021 is unfolding, how do you tend to self-care, community and resilience? I will continue posting reflections on these themes and invite you to join in the conversation here or on Twitter or Instagram with your thoughts or what you are doing for self-care and care of others. My book explores such ideas too: Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being.