Let’s look at some other things we can keep in mind to support safety in communication:
Be Honest and Kind
Approaching communication in an honest way means that we are open, and we don’t stuff or hide things. We are intentional about being thoughtful and kind. When we stuff or hide our feelings, they will often come out at some other time as anger or a passive aggressive comment. Honesty involves openness, but does not mean being “brutally honest.” Your feelings are your own. They are not facts.
Beating around the bush, or leaving out crucial information can cause confusion, and it is not safe. Consider if you get an email from a supervisor that says, “I have something important I need to talk to you about that came up after your last shift. Please come see me when you are in on Friday.” Andddddd….you got this email on Tuesday. Most people will read a message like that and worry about it until Friday, imagining worst case scenarios, building it up to be worse than it might be. That doesn’t feel safe. It’s important that we consider safety when we communicate things that could cause a stress response for others.
What could that supervisor have done differently?
Along the same lines, passive aggressive communication feels unsafe to the receiver. This can show up in back-handed compliments, avoidance, or saying something like “Whatever you want. I don’t care” when you really do care. An honest and direct approach is much kinder and creates safety.
Be Aware of Tone and Avoid Curt Language
Most humans are sensitive to tone. When someone is curt with us it can trigger a stress response. It’s normal to get irritated; we must, however, do what we can to take care of ourselves so that our irritation doesn’t spread to those around us. What do you notice happens within your body when someone is curt with you? How do you react?
Don’t Be Patronizing
A patronizing tone can make someone feel unseen, or small. It can be just as problematic as a harsh tone. Some people (e.g. your aunt, or a dear friend) can call you honey, and it feels good. However, if someone you barely know calls you dear or honey, that can feel patronizing. What are some other ways tone can be patronizing?
Check Your Assumptions
We will dig into this a bit more in the next section on conflict, but a conversation filled with assumptions feels unsafe. Curiosity can diffuse those assumptions. Think of some ways you can use curiosity to challenge your assumptions.
Avoid Judgmental Phrases Like “You Always” or “You Never”
While you may be feeling strongly, as soon as you use a phrase like “you always” or “you never”, the other person will feel misunderstood and get defensive. When someone is defensive, they are not able to listen in the same way they can when they are in a calm and open state. How can you state your feelings using “I” language? How can you create space for your worldview and remember that you may be making assumptions. Remember that we filter everything through our worldview.
Remember That You Are Not a Therapist. Establish Boundaries That Keep Both of You Safe.
You may be working with someone who really trusts you. They might start sharing some big, deep issues with you. It’s important to remember the scope of your role and training. Avoid moving into territory that begins to look and feel like therapy. You can listen deeply, but you are not trained to help people process trauma and it’s important to know when you begin to feel out of your depth. In those situations, the best thing you can do is refer them to more specialized resources on your campus, such as counselling services.
This might feel like a grey area, because perhaps processing is what they feel they really need at this point. However, be aware that when you are acting in the capacity of a campus staff or volunteer it is a different dynamic than a conversation with a friend. The person might have a harder time understanding the difference between the peer role, and a counselling role, so it’s up to you to be clear on your scope and have a clear boundary.
If someone is looking for you to provide counseling for them, it’s important that you are aware of when it seems to cross the line. Speak with a supervisor if you feel like you are struggling to know where that line is. If we lead someone into a place where they are unpacking trauma, and we are not trained as a trauma therapist, we can cause harm. What will you do if you notice this happening? What boundaries will you set? What will you say, and how will you say it in a kind, respectful and humble way?What are some other things you think we can do to ensure safety in communication?