I remember the first small group I facilitated, about 20 years ago. While I have to give myself grace and realize I’ve worked hard over the years to improve my skills, I think my approach back then can best be described as, “Ready, Fire, Aim!”
In other words, I really had no idea what I was doing, but did it anyway!
There was a woman in the group who was very outspoken, and often used scripture to make her point. However, it soon became obvious she was quoting scripture only to point out flaws in the rest of us, and to ensure we knew we needed correction! Not surprisingly, the group soon became a place where no one felt safe to share. Eventually the group disbanded.
I signed up for leadership training––knowing growth was needed––where I learned a lot about establishing a safe group environment.
None of us sets out to be an unsafe person. No best friend sets out to hurt, no healthy spouse sets out to betray, no loving parent sets out to embarrass. However, even the best among us may have never considered what it takes to carefully hold someone else’s heart.
Becoming a safe person––a person with whom others can feel safe to share their heart––doesn’t just magically happen. We have to work at it. We have to consider what we ourselves would need, and then put those qualities into action.
As Christians, we look to Jesus as our model and we strive to be Christ-like. And, yes, He speaks words of correction when we need it. However, those words always come from a position of love and grace. We can safely come to Him with our burdens, because we know He cares for us.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)
When I think of what it is that makes me feel safe with someone, I see three major themes emerge: availability, empathy, and confidentiality. The women with whom I feel safe to share my heart exemplify these three characteristics and I continually strive to do the same for them.
By available, I don’t necessarily mean someone who lives close or someone I interact with daily. Instead, I consider people who respond, people who are willing to take the time to connect, to call, to text—to truly care about me. While I’m not saying they should be at my beck and call, I am saying that they are consistent in their desire to take the time necessary to allow me to share my heart.
These are people who are available to stand with me in both joyful and difficult situations. They have seen me at my best, and they don’t shy away from seeing me at my worst.
Empathy is an often misunderstood concept. We can get it mixed up with sympathy, yet the two concepts feel worlds apart. When someone sympathizes with me, I can feel somehow “less than.” I can feel they know better than me how to live my life, and that I just don’t measure up. They might feel sorry for me or give me unrequested advice when really all I want, all I need, is for them to sit with me and feel with me, not for me.
Empathy can allow me to process through my own hurts, my own concerns, my own decisions while you walk with me through my valley. In that, I feel acceptance and grace.
An interesting thing about empathy, though, is that it can hold up a mirror to show me where my blind spots are. Just because someone might empathize with me, it doesn’t mean they will allow me to remain in bad behavior or in cycles of negative thoughts. Instead, they will help me become a better version of myself. Their empathy holds up a mirror to help me see truth even when I can’t, or don’t want to, see it myself. In this, I am corrected with grace, leaving my dignity intact.
I believe, confidentiality is the most important factor that allows for safety in relationships. I need to know that when I share from a place of vulnerability, my confidence will not be betrayed or used against me. If I can’t know this, I won’t be able to have hard conversations or share my heart fully. Unless I feel my heart is safe with you, you will never fully know me.
While this is the most important factor in relationship, it’s also the hardest to ensure. How do I know you will hold my confidence, and am I willing to take the chance? This is where experience and durability comes in. In order to build my ability to trust you, I need to trust you first in small things. I need to test you, to build that experience that says you are going to hold my heart safely in your hands. This building of trust is no small feat, and one that takes time, honesty, and courage.
In the past 20 years, I’ve learned a lot about becoming a person with whom others can feel safe. The responsibility of holding another’s heart carefully, extending grace and acceptance, is awesome. In being that safe person for someone else, being available and willing to walk with them through their valley, and being a person who can be trusted to hold their confidence, we are extending God’s love in a tangible way.
Shari is a Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional (PSAP) with Pure Desire. She also is a Special Education Teacher at David Douglas High School. She also has experience in performing arts and ministry. She has been a part of the Clinical Team at Pure Desire since 2011.