What is emotional safety? We hear words frequently but don’t always know what they mean or how they are used. Context is very important because emotional safety is defined subjectively. A few key variables involve language around feelings of security, stability and comfort found within a relationship or setting. In a group setting, each person’s definition contributes to the overall group or community definition.
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When I surveyed a diverse small group of men and women between the ages of 20-40, I learned that emotional safety can have many meanings for people. Some reported the following when asked what emotional safety looks like for them:
- “Acknowledgment and affirmation”
- “Open-mindedness, people with humility and a willingness to understand”
- “A spoken and demonstrated commitment to honor my personhood and intentions”
- “Freedom to share opinions openly with no judgment but instead curiosity”
- “Not feeling the need to censor myself, knowing that if I am honest, It will be ok”
- “A shared vulnerability, open-minded individuals, accountability”
- “Boundaries, non-negotiables w/ language, literal respect, no phones unless it’s needed”
These responses tell me that people take being seen very seriously. An agreement to adhere to these things ensures the safety of openness and transparency. No one wants to feel uncomfortable when disclosing personal things- whether good or bad. It’s important that we listeners be intentional about our language, timing, and approach.
Therapists play a special role in holding space for someone’s emotions. Therapists and counselors have an opportunity to hear stories – some which were never told before. We often hear a person’s happiest or heaviest moments and hold space for individuals as they figure out how to heal. Our opportunities also might be offering a new perspective, fresh insight or validating what is being said to help our clients do the work.
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We are trained but we are also human and sometimes we have to check-in with ourselves. In fact, it is vital that we check-in before a session or appointment. It’s also true that sometimes we don’t have the time to do this effectively. If we are burnt out, exhausted or have unmet needs, we may not be fully present to hold space for others. It’s important for us to notice when this occurs and consider checking in with ourselves to see what the immediate solution might be.
It’s important for therapists working in clinical settings to foster emotional safety with clients. Here are some questions to ask yourself and reflect on to make your spaces more emotionally safe:
- Do check in with clients and find out what is working and not working in therapy?
- Do you offer space and time for feedback?
- Are you acknowledging any hang ups or mishaps that have happened? (i.e. being late, not returning a call/email, etc.)
- Are you providing space for clients to struggle without judgment or criticism?
- Have you communicated professional insight that may be helpful to the client’s growth?
- Are you practicing validating or empathy even when it is difficult to do?
- Are you present and attuned?
- Are you listening attentively or facing distractions?
- Is your language culturally sensitive?
Working with clients of color also requires putting diverse practices into place. This includes not assuming that what works for a particular client of one race or ethnicity will work for the next client you see from the same background. Being willing to be curious about their individual experiences and taking the time to explore that in therapy can make a huge difference. Everyone wants to be known and therapists play a role in helping someone develop a healthy sense of identity. Being aware of past traumas both individually and collectively give clients peace on expressing vulnerabilities that are related to their unique experiences in the world.
Lastly, it’s important for the therapist to be achieving emotional maturity on their own to better understand the people they work with. This occurs when the therapist is also getting therapy, being open to feedback and actively looking to learn and educate themselves on diverse cultures and experiences within the practice. The cool thing is once you commit to practicing growth on your own, you bring that in the therapy room. You see the value of growth and others will notice that about your work. Your commitment to your personal growth will aid others in their personal healing journeys and boom- you have created an emotionally healthy and safe culture. It’s a culture because now you are influencing the people you work with and they get to do the same in their homes.
Thank you to the healers and clients who are doing the hard work!