There’s always a fight and search for a safe place wherever we go. We all want to call it home rather than a house. Early history has proved that nomads kept on traveling in search of a safe place; there is a reason why men lived in caves and not in the open space. And in all human existence, the quest for safety is always present. This is quite intimate, sensitive, and pertinent for survival, making this even more special to get. What’s special if it’s easy to get?
Human DNA doesn’t just have adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. It constitutes other things like love, a sense of belonging, relationships, and a sense of safety (peace) which adds value and purpose to life for humans to survive.
The psychology behind the need to feel safe
Have you noticed a frog jumping away from you when you walk towards it, even when you have no intent to hurt? A dog barking at you if you are a stranger? All this happens because of the ‘flight and fight response’ created by the SNS (sympathetic nervous system).
This is the exact mechanism that also occurs in humans when we meet strangers. Humans try to retreat from strangers. At the same time, we are socially inclined beings. That is why our human brain has gone through an evolutionary process called “ventral vagal complex” that creates indicators with which we conclude that the other person is safe. These indications can be a smile, calm gesture, soothing music, and so on. When our brain gets these indications, we tend to feel safe.
What can the indicators be in a community?
Diversity: Imagine you walk into a new country. People there wouldn't look like you do. You suddenly feel odd and left out. But imagine you walking into a seminar where people from all over the world are present, and each one is different, but you don’t feel left out or odd. Why is that? You now belong to a group of people who are different from each other, just like you do. You very well know how each other feels. And, this will interest you to make the first move or the others towards you. You feel the need to contribute, as you are being respected to be present among a diverse group of people.
PS: Diversity can also mean people from different professions or locales or age groups, but what unites us is the purpose of the community. That’s the beauty of community, you folks.
No judgment: You may share your feelings with someone you have known for years together. It takes time for you to trust others the same way. You know your go-to person has never judged you so far and has encouraged you. When you know you would not be judged, you are prone to open up more and show the real side of yours. No judgment leads to no fear, improved trust, and that eventually sets an environment for you to speak up more for yourself and others.
A community should foster an environment that does not allow members to judge others for their lifestyle, language, religion, opinions, or anything. If your community advocates a "no judgment" policy, it is deemed a safe space. Safe space is a reflection of what you make your members feel.
Respect for privacy: Trust and privacy go hand in hand. We trust when others respect our privacy. For instance, imagine you sharing a very sensitive incident that happened to you with a friend of yours. You would expect that friend to keep this secret to themself. Similarly, if you want to share something with someone or a group of people, you should be comfortable and sure that these people would not share this information in any format with anyone else.
When you know someone respects your privacy, you tend to trust them and start opening up and possibly try to provide the same environment to other community members. Replicating the community behavior to fellow community members makes an exceptional contribution to the community. Giving back what your community gave you makes a safe space impactful for members to not just open up but create a multiplier effect.
Note: Safe space starts with how people make you feel.
No bias: By nature, human beings are biased. We all have our favorites, favorite people, and we would take their side no matter what they say or do. This is simply because they have been with us, known us, loved us. When it comes to community, taking someone's side or having favorites may diminish the chance of creating a safer space and looking for potential community leaders.
And that is why a community host or admin stays unbiased, so that community members feel free to express their opinions. A bias-free community has always shown impressive growth in terms of members and engagement.
Understanding boundaries: We all have our boundaries. That is like a safety net for us. This, in fact, acts as a fence that keeps us away from others’ tricks and keeps our feelings hurt. We also expect people to act accordingly. And this is primarily because we value our self-respect.
We all have different limits and boundaries. We become closer to those who understand and respect our boundaries. While the community hosts umpteen people who can be like us or totally different from us, making sure people respect each person's boundaries always strengthens the connection among community members. And, in fact, it is a strong indicator of a safe place.
Encouragement: Motivation is an internal factor. But, it does need a small trigger, and that is encouragement. When someone encourages you for the right things at the right time, you feel confident and give your best. Sometimes, we even go the extra mile to do something we are uncomfortable with if encouraged. And this push is what provides us with a sense of safety. Why? It is because you have people who believe in you. You are no more alone figuring out things all by yourself. Some folks value your contribution, understand why you do, and enjoy it.
Safe space in a community doesn't fail to appreciate, encourage or motivate fellow community members. This makes you feel comfortable, safe, and together and not alone.
Multiple indicators make a safer space. On the whole, a safe space is a place where a person feels comfortable, safe, respected, understood, together, and belonged. And fostering safe space does magic. Like, making community members come out of their comfort zones, help others, go the extra mile for the community that cared for the members when they needed it the most. This feeling can not be replaced with anything.
Safe Space leads to…?
When community members begin to identify these indicators, the journey will lead to a safe, valuable, and highly engageable community.
Opening up: We are always hesitant to open up in the beginning. Especially when we have to open up to a group of strangers without the fear of judgment. And when a few indicators like no judgment, no bias are understood, we would open up. This is the first and foremost step that happens when the environment you foster in the community is safe.
Valuable content: Safe space breeds quality content. Once members feel safe to share their opinions, conversations start building up. More insights, experiences, and perspectives of members come into the light. It turns out to be helpful for fellow community members constituting meaningful user-generated content for the community, making the whole community a valuable resource of content.
Triggers networking effect: Safe space in the community has made members open up, share perspectives, and do you think it will stay only with them? It multiplies. This sets an example and cultivates the right culture, and turns out helpful and exciting. This can also go to an extent where they start referring other members to your community. Multiplier effect spreads across people in the community.
Rise of contributors and content creators: When many people start to reciprocate or motivate your efforts for all your contributions in the community, you feel encouraged to contribute. At the end of the day, this will give rise to many contributors and content creators, which will, in turn, fuel community engagement.
Display of emotions: When the engagement is high, there is an exchange of emotions in the conversations; these emotions are valuable and crucial for a thriving community. We are connected to something we are emotionally attached to. This, in fact, increases the connection to the community members and the community itself.
Bonding and belonging: Emotions lay the foundation for a relationship. The presence of emotion indicates the presence of relationships, and the absence of emotions is the presence of a stranger; if this happens, then a community goes back to the first step. This is the goal that any community strives to gain. People come to a community to feel a sense of belonging, and when that is met, a community becomes successful.
A sense of belonging is in itself a journey because that is the string that ultimately connects a person to their community. And Jono Bacon, in his book ‘people powered’ traces a path which people in the community might fall into; the trail goes as below.
( Journey featured in Jona Bacon’s book, people powered)
This takes time and the indicators mentioned above to be potent in your community to reach the end of this journey, and it is not an end. It is a continuous process for each new member to get added to your community.
Safe space = Feeling belonged
I was also influenced again to understand the idea of belonging. A book named ‘Belong,’ I once read in which the author Radha Agrawal rightly defines belonging as“ a feeling of deep relatedness and acceptance; a feeling of “I would rather be here than anywhere else.” This struck me hard, and that’s when I realized, yes, we all want places to feel like our home. And this happens only when we feel we belong in that place. And if a community can give me a sense of belonging, then yes, that is when a community is safe and successful. That is when a community serves its purpose.
Looking at all these, I could conclude that a safe place in a community means triggering engagement and that over time creates a sense of belonging.
Safe space encourages people to open up without any external factors to push them to engage. Initially, the push is there to get triggered to open up - if that trigger has to happen to nurture a community that advocates safe space, then it is perfectly all right.
So, dear brands planning to build communities or want to know more about communities, you should keep in mind. Once members start feeling belonged, the community becomes impactful, peers start supporting peers, and everything happens as you expected. So, if you want to impact on a larger scale, start small and be true to your members, to the purpose of your community; the process will take you to the intended destination.