Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy Diversity Column

Brave Space Dialogues in Multicultural Group Therapy: Emic Approaches

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

Reviewing the development and shift from “safe” space to “brave” space dialogues as an important way to frame diversity and social justice explorations was the focus of the column from the last issue of The Group Psychologist. In that issue I focused on an etic or culturally universal group intervention as an example of integrating a brave space dialogue into group processes. The specific intervention involved the process of introducing group members to their responsibilities within group by letting them know that, although it is a universal human drive to prioritize interpersonal safety, change rarely occurs when one is comfortable or “safe”. The introduction of the brave space concept (explaining that group members’ role is to become more comfortable being uncomfortable in order to learn and grow in group) is a culturally universal intervention that assists members in processing the meaning of brave space and supporting each other to approach challenging and controversial topics in a genuine manner. In this column, my goal is to shift focus from culturally universal interventions and describe two culturally specific (emic) brave space interventions.

One of the processes that is heavily influenced by culture in group work is one of the very first activities that group leaders ask group members to engage in: the development of ground rules. Although we may think of ground rules like honesty, respect, responsibility, and listening to others as universal cultural concepts, how we define these concepts actually differ (sometimes quite significantly) across cultures. In their article entitled From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces, Arao and Clemens (2013) discussed the process of developing ground rules for groups focusing on diversity and social justice conversations. The article features the formulation of ground rules as part of learning about social justice and diversity and identifies five common ground rules that may not consider differences between cultures, as well as how these ground rules might be understood from a non-dominant cultural perspective. One of the primary dangers of not considering the embeddedness of dominant cultural perspectives in ground rules is that the group leader may inadvertently support continued oppression of non-dominant cultural groups. The five common ground rules identified and discussed by the authors include: Agree to disagree, Don’t take things personally, Challenge by choice, Respect, and No attacks. Although the column doesn’t allow me the space to review the reframe of each of the ground rules, I will review the emic or culturally specific aspects of two of the five identified by the authors: Don’t take things personally and Respect.

The ground rule Don’t take things personally is commonly used in groups with the intent of encouraging group members to be open and non-defensive in response to feedback from others and with the intent of encouraging individuals in the group to speak more genuinely. Arao and Clemens indicate that this ground rule validates the inevitability of making mistakes as part of the process of intimate communication; however, the authors go on to argue that if person is affected negatively by a particular comment or discussion, this ground rule is likely to silence that person and tends to inadvertently protect members from dominant social groups. In addition, regarding issues of diversity and social justice, reprieve from emotional reaction tends to be specific to cultures valuing the masculine trait of control over emotions. Reframing the rule Don’t take things personally then becomes a culturally specific intervention in the process of forming ground rules. The particular ground rule suggested by the authors that is more aligned with a brave space dialogue, as well as more aligned with non-dominant cultural groups, is Owning your intentions and your impact. This ground rule allows for honest and open cultural exploration and increases accountability of group members by acknowledging that intentions and impact matter and that our intent is not always in line with our impact.

The ground rule of treating others with Respect is also a seemingly culturally universal rule that supports open conversation and healthy group dynamics; however, the definition of this ground rule also tends to be culturally specific. For instance, demonstrating respect differs in different cultures—both nonverbal behaviors such as maintaining eye contact while listening versus speaking and verbal behaviors such as interrupting and practicing emotional restraint are described by Arao and Clemens to be normatively masculine and patriarchal cultural practices. Therefore, the objective of exploring cultural definitions of Respect is a culturally specific intervention designed to increase mindfulness regarding cultural differences. The authors note that by unpacking comments not intended to be oppressive, but are, group members can better explore with each other ways to challenge and change social and cultural scripts related to privilege and cultural constructs such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability, and age.

By the titles, one may ascertain that the common ground rules identified by Arao and Clemens align with the concept of safety in groups and may be challenged and reframed by a brave space dialogue as a culturally universal intervention. In addition, it was my intention to call attention to the fact that many of the ground rules we take for granted as culturally universal may actually be inadvertently oppressive to those from non-dominant cultural groups, and I reviewed two culturally specific interventions related to reevaluating and redefining the ground rules, which included Don’t take things personally and Respect. Thank you to Laurie (Lali) McCubbin for her suggestion that I discuss the concepts of safe versus brave space in my columns. I think this discussion integrated well with prior columns related to etic and emic interventions in group practice and I hope added to readers’ multicultural awareness and knowledge, as well as added to ideas for increasing multicultural skill competency. In the next column, I look forward to discussing our committee’s activities at the 2015 convention of the American Psychological Association—I hope you can join us in Toronto in August!

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.

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.