Creating Safe Spaces for Communication

Julia Chaitin

July 2003

Additional insights into creating safe spaces for communication are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.


Interpersonal and inter-group communication can be difficult in the best of times, because of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and prejudices. When this communication takes place within the context of an intractable conflict, or when former enemies meet to work toward reconciliation and peacebuilding, it has the potential to be extremely negative, even leading to destructive outcomes. In this section, we will look at some of the aspects of interpersonal and inter-group relations that can be obstacles to communication, and then focus on factors that are conducive to the development of "safe places" and open and honest dialogue in conflict and post-conflict contexts.

"...Billy (our youth counselor) succeeded in convincing see the psychologist ...I went, not for myself, because it wasn't clear to me at all why I needed to go...I went for him...he was an amazing man... you could go to him every hour of the day or night, whoever had something on his chest, even if it was a small the beginning, I came and said 'Hello' (he said) 'Hello, sit down' and I sat down and he sat down and was quiet and I sat and was silent and I think to myself how long will we be quiet?... I sat there and got really annoyed ...and the hour was over and he told me 'Our time is up...' and nothing else. I Billy very angry...: 'You see? You made me go... for nothing. I'm not going again!' and Billy said...: 'What happened?' ... 'Nothing. He sat there like an idiot and I sat there like an idiot ...' Then he said: 'It's okay. Did you make an appointment?' 'He told me to come next week, but I've no reason to go...' 'Go'... And I went a second time for him...and he... said one more thing: 'Remember, the tears are hidden there inside'... once again I sat across from this man, and after a while...I hear Billy's voice telling me: 'the tears are hidden inside' and I...felt here (she points to her chest)...a kind of searing...and...I wanted to cry and I said to myself it's impossible that I will start to cry here in front of a stranger ...he didn't say anything...I struggled with this feeling...and I succeeded...and I went back home...and once again...he almost forced me into going...and the third time I already began crying from the moment I entered (the room) ...and I cried for the entire hour and he didn't ask me why I'm crying...and for an entire year I went to see him...every week...and I would cry was as if a faucet was opened the moment I thought about this psychologist..."

-- From an interview with Anat, an orphaned child Holocaust survivor, describing her difficulty and eventual success in opening up to others about her traumatic past

Obstacles in Interpersonal Communication

As Stewart[1] has noted, interpersonal communication is a mutual relational, co-constructed process, as opposed to something that one person does "to" someone else. Buber[2] perceived open and honest communication as a true encounter between equals, and he termed such rare meetings dialogical moments. The relational aspect of the process -- the fact that communication takes place between people and influences every aspect of their relationship -- is central to understanding why certain communications succeed while others falter. Every time people communicate, they offer definitions of themselves and respond to their perceived definitions of the other(s). However, since these perceptions are always subjective, and therefore inherently distorted, communication often leads to misunderstandings and bad feelings -- causing people to shut down.

On the interpersonal level, obstacles to communication include not only the words spoken during the interaction, but non-verbal behavior, prior experiences and preexisting attitudes, beliefs, or perceptions as well. For example, strong and extreme emotions -- such as anger, fear, sadness, and distress -- can cause people to become defensive and avoid open communication, especially when they are in the presence of others whom they perceive as being the cause of such emotions. When one is faced with aggressive behavior, be it verbal or physical, open interpersonal communication will also be impossible. Feeling that one is being judged or criticized is another obstacle to good communication, and this feeling can easily lead to defensive behavior.

Over 40 years ago, Gibb defined defensive communication as communication which is characterized by the speakers spending a good portion of their time defending themselves, thinking about how to win, dominate, and impress the other, how to escape punishment and/or how to mitigate an anticipated attack.[3] Defensive behavior, in turn, engenders defensive listening, producing postural, facial, and verbal cues that raise the defenses of the partner in communication. According to Gibb, defensive interactional climates are characterized by pervasive evaluation and control; the feeling that one is a pawn in another's strategy; that the other is neutral, having no real concern for the other's welfare; that the other feels superior in power, position, or other ways; and that the partner is dogmatic, certain that they have all of the answers.

Past experiences also affect the ways in which people enter into interpersonal communication. Individuals who have suffered at the hands of others in the past will find it difficult to communicate openly with others. For example, researchers such as Janoff-Bulman [4], Danieli [5], and Lifton [6] have noted that people who have undergone severe social trauma often develop a deep mistrust of outsiders, leading to extremely minimal or guarded communication with people outside of their family or their very close circle of friends.

Obstacles in Inter-Group Communication

The obstacles to good interpersonal communication noted above can also become obstacles in communication between groups in conflict. However, when trying to understand why dialogue between groups in conflict has failed or succeeded, we need to consider a number of additional factors connected to group dynamics and structures and to the history between the groups in conflict.

If the groups have a history of bad relations, in which the conflict has been violent, coercive, and extensive,[7] the chances for open and honest dialogue become extremely slim. Such a history leads to deep animosity toward the out-group and to entrenched positions concerning the ability/willingness of the other side to enter into true dialogue.

Asymmetry in power relations between groups in conflict can also have a negative effect on open and honest dialogue. For example, in her analysis of inter-group dialogue between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, Maoz (2002, in press) noted that the unequal power relations between the two groups, in which the Jewish Israelis held much more of the power, often caused strain in the dialogue, such as the verbalization of recriminations and defensive behavior.[8]

Rubin, Pruitt & Kim have also delineated a number of factors that can cause obstacles in inter-group communication.[9] These include negative emotions, which develop out of the conflict, such as blame, anger, and fear. In the case of extreme and long-lasting inter-group conflicts, these emotions lead to the formation of long-term psychological states, such as deindividuation and dehumanization and inflexible and extremely negative stereotypes of the "enemy," making open communication difficult, if not impossible. Intractable and long-term conflicts have been known to lead to autistic communication -- a state in which there is virtually no communication between the sides and each group becomes even more entrenched in its prejudices and preconceptions concerning the other, leading to a vicious cycle of inter-group silence and recriminations.

In sum, there are a number of factors characteristic of inter-group relations, which when added to interpersonal factors, can make open communication and dialogue very problematic.

Safe Places and Communication in Conflict and Post-Conflict Contexts

Having noted a number of obstacles to good interpersonal and inter-group communication, it is now time to look at ways in which these obstacles can be countered in order to provide an atmosphere of safe places, one that encourages open and honest dialogue.

As Gibb pointed out, interpersonal and inter-group communication does not have to take place in defensive climates, but can certainly occur in supportive climates as well. Supportive climates include situations which encourage descriptive speech in which the listener perceives requests for information as genuine; problem-oriented atmospheres which stress the importance of finding mutual solutions to conflict, rather than trying to persuade the other to change their viewpoints and beliefs; spontaneous communication, which is devoid of deception; empathy for the feelings of the other and the giving of respect and legitimacy for the other's opinion, even if the two parties are not in agreement with one another; an atmosphere of equality; and an atmosphere that encourages provisionalism, the idea that issues are open for debate, and that different and new ideas and suggestions can be considered.

The Creation of Safe Places for Open Communication -- Some Ground Rules and Useful Guidelines

How can a supportive climate for communication between present/former enemies or for individuals who have undergone severe social trauma be created and sustained? While there are no recipes for the creation of such safe places, there are some ground rules and basic guidelines that can often help interpersonal and inter-group communication overcome the obstacles noted above. The suggestions offered here are based on the ideas and work of researchers and practitioners coming from various disciplines and fields of expertise.[10]

To begin with, a safe place for communication cannot be created and sustained if the participants have been coerced into taking part in the interpersonal or group dialogue. This means that planners, facilitators/mediators of such interactions must be open and honest with potential participants about the aims of the encounter and the use of the materials that will result from such encounters, making sure that each individual is there of his/her own volition and that he/she agrees to future use of the content of the meetings. Once the encounter begins, this atmosphere of openness and honesty must continue; if the participants feel that they are being manipulated, then they will either drop out of the group or keep a very close watch on what they say or how they respond to others.

This point brings us to the issue of asymmetry. While a group or interpersonal encounter cannot do away with the asymmetric relationships that may be characteristic of the relationships "on the outside," group facilitators or mediators can assure that the relationships within the group context or between the partners in conflict are egalitarian. This means that no one partner/participant has more rights than others and that all are granted equal respect.

Safe places in communication also tend to be created and sustained when the ground rules of the encounter are clearly set forth and agreed upon at the first meeting. Rules such as no interrupting, giving every participant equal opportunities to speak yet not pressuring individuals to speak who do not yet feel comfortable doing so, ending with a round in which each participant in the interaction is asked to make some comment about the meeting, and refraining from judgmental and caustic responses are commonly used techniques. It is important not just to clearly state the ground rules and acquire group consensus to abide by them at the first meeting, but to reiterate them and reinforce them from time to time in subsequent encounters.

Helping people to become empathic listeners has been found to be an additional important skill for interpersonal and inter-group communication between former/present adversaries. This, perhaps, is the most important yet most difficult skill to teach/acquire, since individuals are often busy thinking about their response or what they want to say when it will be their turn, making them inattentive to the speaker. Furthermore, if the speaker is talking about issues and experiences that the listener(s) are uncomfortable with, either because they feel they are being blamed and/or because the content and style of communication is emotionally difficult to handle, empathic listening is all the more difficult. It should not be expected that empathic listening will be achieved overnight or that all participants will master this kind of listening; this is an ongoing dynamic process that is characterized by ups and downs.

If facilitators/mediators wish to create safe places for communication, then they should be aware that this takes time. Therefore, "one-shot" encounters are doomed to failure. If safe places for communication are truly to be created and sustained, then there is a need to plan for a series of meetings, with the option for extending the original schedule, whenever possible. In addition, it is important that each meeting be long enough to accommodate the participants, especially those who may have difficulty in opening up or need time before they can begin talking about their past experiences or speaking in a group.

As a final point (in this non-exhaustive list of ground rules and procedures that has been found to enhance safe places within communication), we will note the importance of learning how to deal with silences within the group. Just as verbal communications are part of every interpersonal and inter-group communication, so are non-verbal behaviors and silences. Silences tend to occur when people are afraid of opening up an issue for discussion or when they are thinking over what has been said or gathering their thoughts together before they begin speaking. Therefore, in order to help participants feel comfortable in the setting, facilitator or mediators should learn to respect these silences and not "jump in" with words in an attempt to put people at ease. It is only if and when extremely long silences become the norm (an extreme rarity), that the facilitator or mediator will need to figure out, with the participants, why people are unable to share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings with the others.

Safe Places in Conflict and Post-Conflict Contexts -- Two Examples

This section opened with a quote taken from the life-story interview with Anat, an orphaned child who lived through the Holocaust in Poland, who described the difficulty that she had in communicating with others about her traumatic past after she immigrated to Israel. From the quote, we saw that both Billy, the youth counselor on the kibbutz where she lived, and the psychologist who she visited once a week, provided Anat with safe places. Both men were empathic and nonjudgmental listeners who allowed her to come to them whenever she felt the need to open up or cry over her tremendous losses -- something that she had never been able to do before.

Anat's experiences were very similar to those of many other Holocaust survivors who made their homes in new countries -- such as the United States and Israel -- after the war. After the victims settled in their new societies and tried to reconnect with the "normal" world by talking to others about their traumatic experiences, they often met what Danieli has referred to as the conspiracy of silence. In many cases, they were confronted with reactions that ranged from an unwillingness on the part of others to listen to the victims' stories and in more extreme cases, the refusal on the part of the listeners to believe that what they heard was true. The atmosphere of social avoidance, repression, and denial worked well -- the survivors felt alienated and betrayed, but publicly kept their silence.

As a result, as Danieli notes, many survivors withdrew almost completely into their newly created families, since they had no one else with whom they could break their silence.[11] The conspiracy of silence had a double effect: in some families, the children of the victims became captive audiences; in others, the silence outside prevailed inside as well. It is important to note that not all survivors were unhappy with this conspiracy; many feared that by talking about their memories they would not only continue to feel the pain, but also harm the normal and healthy development of their children. In any event -- whether or not the survivors agreed with the societal norm that "encouraged" them to remain quiet -- it is clear that the pervasive atmosphere of silence provided anything but a safe place for open dialogue with others concerning the horrors that they had lived through.

Fortunately, over the last two decades, the conspiracy of silence has waned. As more and more survivors are asked to come forward and tell their personal stories, for example, at historical museums such as Yad Vashem in Israel,[12] at Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies,[13] or for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation,[14] over 100,000 victims of the Holocaust have found safe places and empathic listeners.

A second example of a safe place for interpersonal and inter-group communication comes from the work of the TRT -- To Reflect and Trust -- an international dialogue group that is comprised of descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators, Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland, blacks and whites from South Africa, and Palestinians and Israelis.[15]

The TRT, which began its work in 1992, brings individuals together in a self-supporting atmosphere to tell one another their life stories in an attempt to better work through (that is, learn to live with) their pasts and their present. However, the work does not end in their meetings; publications, documentary movies, and several year-round projects have resulted from the decade of work of the TRT.

The TRT meets annually, each time in the country of one of the conflict groups, for a week-long seminar. The TRT members are practitioners, educators, researchers, artists, and community workers. As such, they are multipliers - people who can continue the work done by the TRT in their home countries, thereby multiplying its effects. In these encounters, the members of the group, who facilitate themselves, sit together in small groups and tell one another their life stories, within the context of their conflict. While talking about one's life is a major aspect of the TRT meetings, empathically listening to the story of the "enemy" is the main, and extremely difficult, work of the members. The TRT refrains from entering into political debates, which have been shown to obstruct dialogue rather than encourage it.[16] Learning to contain the stories of the other, to hear their pain, and to legitimize their narrative while not negating one's own pain and story, is the main work and "product" of the TRT process.

The TRT process, with its supportive atmosphere of interpersonal and inter-group communication, appears to be a mode of group work that resonates with peoples from different areas of conflict. In the last few years the process has multiplied itself -- albeit with modifications relevant for each group -- in different groups, countries, and settings. Perhaps the best-known offspring of the TRT is Towards Healing and Understanding, an organization established in Northern Ireland that has run a number of residentials (overnight conferences) and seminars that have adapted the mode of storytelling and empathic listening, providing safe communication havens for former enemies.

Summary and Conclusions

In this section we looked at obstacles to interpersonal and inter-group communication, which often make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to share their feelings, thoughts, and pain with one another, especially in cases of inter-group conflicts or during peacebuilding efforts between former adversaries. In order to create safe places for true dialogue and sharing, a supportive atmosphere must be developed and encouraged in which empathic and non-judgmental listening as well as a problem-solving orientation and equal respect for all partners are the norms. Adopting such practices not only erodes defensive behavior, but opens the door for open and honest dialogue.

[1] Stewart, J. (ed.) (1982). Bridges Not Walls: A Book about Interpersonal Communication. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company and Stewart, J. & Logan, C. (1997). Together: Communicating Interpersonally. McGraw-Hill.

[2] Buber, M. (1958). I and Thou. (2nd ed.: R. G. Smith, Trans.). New York: Scribner. (Original work published 1923) and Buber, M. (1965). Between Man and Man. (R. G. Smith, Trans.). New York: Macmillan. (Original work published in 1947).

[3] Gibb, J.R. (1961). "Defensive Communication." Journal of Communication, 11 (3): 141-148.

[4] Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered Assumptions. New York: Free Press,

[5] Danieli, Y. (1981). Countertransference in the Treatment and Study of Nazi Holocaust Survivors and their Children. Victimology, 5, 45-53

[6] Lifton, R.J. (1967). Death in Life: The Survivors in Hiroshima. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[7] Kriesberg, L. (1998). Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. Lanhan, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers.

[8] Maoz, I. (2002). "Power Relations in Inter-group Encounters: A Case Study of Jewish-Arab Encounters in Israel. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 24: 259-277 and Maoz, I. (in press) Participation, Control, and Dominance in Communication Between Groups in Conflict: Analysis of Dialogues Between Jews and Palestinians in Israel. Social Justice Research.

[9] Rubin, J. Z., Pruitt, D.G. & Kim, S. H. (1994). Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw Hills.

[10] See Chaitin, J. (2002). "How Do I Ask Them About the War? Collecting and Understanding the Stories of Soldiers and Victims of War." Social Science Research Network Electronic Library, Bar-On, D. & Kassem, F. (2002). Storytelling as a Way to Work Through Intractable Conflicts: the German-Jewish Experience and its Relevance to the Palestinian-Israeli context, Van Acker, R. (1997). Skills related to effective interpersonal communication. Available at: Click here for full URL, and Winsdale, J. & Monk, G. (2000). Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution, San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

[11] Danieli, Y. (1989). "Mourning in Survivors and Children of Survivors of the Nazi Holocaust: The Role of group and Community Modalities." In D.R. Dietrich & P.C. Shabad (eds). Psychoanalytic Perspectives (pp. 427-460). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

[12] Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority (2003) available at; Internet.

[13] Fortunoff Video Archive, Yale University (2002) available at; Internet.

[14] Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (2003) available at; Internet.

[15] and Bar-On, D. (ed.) (2000). Bridging the Gap: Storytelling as a Way to Work Through Political and Collective Hostilities. Hamburg: Korber-Stiftung.

[16] Steinberg, S. & Bar-On, D. (2002). An Analysis of the group process in encounters between Jews and Palestinians using a typology for discourse classification. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 26, 199-214.

Use the following to cite this article:
Chaitin, Julia. "Creating Safe Spaces for Communication." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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