Diversity Column: A Paradigm Shift from Safe Space to Brave Space Dialogues in Multicultural Group Therapy

A Paradigm Shift from Safe Space to Brave Space Dialogues in Multicultural Group Therapy

Jeanne Steffen, Ph.D.
Jeanne Steffen, Ph.D.

The focus of the last column was balancing etic (culturally universal) and emic (culturally specific) approaches in group psychotherapy and I suggested group interventions that highlighted both approaches, as well as included theoretical support for both approaches. Hopefully, the practitioner found the review and suggested interventions helpful in some way, if even to validate current practices. To continue the plan to focus my columns on building multicultural competency in group therapy practices, with an emphasis on providing something useful to the practitioner, I’d like to highlight some emergent theory regarding facilitating multicultural and social justice dialogues in group work. Specifically, I’d like to review the development of moving from “safe” space dialogues to “brave” space dialogues and then suggest a culturally universal example of integrating a brave space intervention into your current group process.

If you are a counseling psychologist of my generation and you were interested in social justice and diversity, you probably first heard of the term “safe space/place” sometime in the 1990s when you signed up to receive training in sexual orientation and gender identity, probably from your community or university LGBT center. During the training, you learned a whole lot more about sexual orientation, heterosexual privilege and power, and gender identity (regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity) and became a proud ally, as well as the proud owner of a sticker with an upside down pink triangle surrounded by a green circle. The intent of the triangle symbolism was to communicate that your office/room was a safe space for others to express themselves without fear of rejection or discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, displaying your triangle communicated to those with invisible and non-dominant identities that “you are not alone!” (Sexual orientation and transgender identity can be successfully hidden in a way that race, ability, age, and other aspects of identity cannot, which can add to the isolation one feels if they identify into one of these non-dominant groups).

It’s not a large jump to then suppose that the pink inverted triangle enclosed by the green circle symbol began to generalize and become a symbol of safety and educational awareness related to diversity and social justice in general. From there, it is again not a large jump for us to imagine diversity educators working with groups and describing their group space as a “safe space” for exploring social justice issues. And from there, we can imagine a group practitioner somewhere receiving diversity education and then adopting the safe space concept as multicultural group therapy intervention that was intended to facilitate discussions about diversity. This is at least what I imagine happened when I try to connect the dots, since I was there experiencing the concept of safe space twenty years ago and last year suddenly found myself being introduced to the concept in a new way–of creating safe space dialogues versus brave space dialogues in group. When I tried to do a literature search last year to prepare for this column, I came up with a lot of “safe space” references, and it wasn’t until recently that I found explicit references to the concept of “brave space”. Thank you Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens for publishing a chapter on the topic!

Arao and Clemens (2013) began to notice that when they used the framework of safe space in group, it didn’t really do much to facilitate discussions about diversity, in fact quite the opposite. After much reflection, they surmised that group members’ expectations interfered with any sort of spirited exploration of social justice because conversations regarding privilege, power, and other aspects of group dynamics related to diversity and social justice are not without some discomfort. This was then definitely counter to group participants’ expectations about safety, defined as “…security from danger, risk or difficulty…”, and it was no wonder that group members were observed to withdraw rather than engage from difficult discussions based on their expectations (Arao & Clemens, 2013). Through their exploration, Arao and Clemens were introduced to Robert Boost Rom’s 1998 paper which discussed the unintentional consequences of the safe space concept in undermining critical thinking (he had suggested that learners “have to be brave”). They were also influenced by the concept of “courageous conversations about race” (Singleton & Hays, 2008; Singleton & Linton, 2006; Sparks, 2002). Consequently, Arao and Clemens are credited with introducing the concept of “brave space” and the presentation of the brave space framework in groups.

I can’t help but reflect upon the agreement between ACT theory and research and the use of the brave space framework as an intervention. ACT really began to take off in the late 1990s and it emphasizes the problems that occur when human beings focus on avoiding discomfort and how this avoidance relates to the learning process (Harris, 2007, 2008). For example, what I tell my patients and students: when avoiding that which is scary or uncomfortable, one accidently teaches the midbrain that the thing being avoided is dangerous, and this results in fight or flight. It takes exposure, or becoming more comfortable being uncomfortable, to reteach the midbrain. Despite my mini-lectures on anxiety and avoidance, I admit that I am guilty of referring to the group as a “safe space” to explore vulnerability. I would like to say this is a habit from my past training; however, I am newly aware that the use of a safe space frame may set up an expectation that keeps group members from exploring difficult dialogues. Needless to say, this topic really got me thinking of both etic and emic implications of safe versus brave space interventions and how I’m framing group work. For instance, I want to be more intentional regarding how I introduce members to their responsibilities in group. Specifically, this means letting group members know that it is a universal human drive and inherent in our DNA that safety comes first; however, also introduce group members to the dialectical that change rarely occurs when one is comfortable and that’s where the brave space concept comes in—an adjective that assists members in approaching uncomfortable explorations. This then becomes the culturally universal “brave space” intervention: to use the brave space framework to explain that the group members’ role is to become more comfortable being uncomfortable in order to learn and grow in group.

In this column, I described how the concept of safe space may have developed over the past 20 years so that it was eventually used in group therapy interventions. I also reviewed the concept of brave space as a more accurate and helpful framework for a universal (etic) group intervention because the term brave, and associated cognitive brave space frame, helps group members approach uncomfortable discussions. This approach behavior is essential to growth and change, as well as to critical thinking in general. In my next column, my goal is to focus on reviewing culturally specific (emic) brave space interventions. Many emic interventions are suggested by Arao and Clemens (2013) related to the process of developing ground rules for groups focusing on diversity and social justice issues. You are more than welcome to read ahead and look up the reference article!

As always, I welcome questions, concerns and ideas for future columns. Please email me at:


Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (1st ed., pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Fischer, A.R., Jome, L.M., & Atkinson, D.R. (1998). Reconceptualizing Multicultural Counseling: Universal Healing Conditions in a Culturally Specific Context. The Counseling Psychologist, 26, 525-588.

Harris, R. (2007, 2008). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books.

Rom R.B. (1998). ‘Safe spaces’: Reflections on an educational metaphor. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 30(4), 397-408.

Singleton, G., & Hays, C. (2008). Beginning courageous conversations about race. In M. Pollock (Ed.), Everyday antiracism: Getting real bout race in school (pp. 18-23). New York, NY: The New Press.

Singleton, G., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Sparks, D. (2002). Conversations about race need to be fearless. Journal of Staff Development, 23(4), 60-64.