making people feel safe

Short version of the post on safety

There’s more to safety than making people feel safe. 

If your whole approach to other people’s safety is based on causing them to *feel* safe, you run the risk of forgetting to make sure that things actually *are* safe. 

If someone’s whole approach to your safety is about managing your feelings, it’s probably a good idea to be cautious about trusting them.

Safety vs making people feel safe

There are all kinds of affective things and cognitive tricks you can learn that make it more likely that people will trust you and feel safe.

It is possible to get really, really good at that without actually learning how to be trustworthy. You can be really, really good at making people feel safe, and still be a danger to people who trust you.

Sometimes it’s not a good idea to focusing on trying to make people feel safe.

Often, it’s much better to focus on learning how to be trustworthy. Two major components of being trustworthy are paying close attention to practical safety; and listening to the people whose safety might be impacted.

For example:

If you want to know what’s dangerous, it’s important to seek out the perspectives of people you’re trying to create safety for. This isn’t something you can do completely on your own.

Part of this is seeking out writing about danger and safety by members of the affected group, or advocacy organizations run by members of the affected group. Another part of this is listening to the individual people who you are actually interacting with about their needs.

It’s important to communicate effectively about the things you are doing that might make trusting you a good idea.

It’s important to talk about safety improvements to make sure people know about them. (Eg: if you fixed a dangerous ramp, people need to know that it has been fixed). It’s also important to communicate your willingness to listen to people about their needs and fix things that are endangering them. It has to be true, and you have to do things to communicate that it’s true. It does not go without saying; willingness to listen and address safety issues in practical terms is actually fairly uncommon.

If you focus on practical safety through proactive research and listening to affected members of your community, you can get very far in building safe and welcoming community even if people do not feel safe.

Some people who do not feel safe still care very much about being there, and are willing to take risks in order to participate. It’s important to honor and accept that.

Some people aren’t ever going to feel safe. (And some of them will be right.) It’s important to accept them as they are, and not make feeling safe a prerequisite for participating.

tl;dr “Making people feel safe” is often the wrong approach. Focusing on being safe often matters a lot more. Some people don’t believe that they are safe, and are willing to take risks in order to participate. They should be allowed to have that perception. They should not be pressured into feeling safe as a prerequisite for participation.


Crucial differences

These things are different:

  • Wanting something to be true
  • Wanting to think something is true
  • Wanting someone else to feel like something is true
  • Wanting reassurance that something is true

An example:

  • Interacting with someone consensually
  • Feeling like your interactions are consensual
  • Having that person think of the interactions as consensual
  • Having that person reassure you that things are consensual.

And another:

  • Not wanting to put someone in danger
  • Wanting to feel like a safe person
  • Wanting someone to feel safe
  • Wanting someone to reassure you that they feel safe

And these:

  • Seeking to avoid abusing anyone
  • Seeking to avoid seeing yourself as an abusive person
  • Wanting others to see you as someone who doesn’t abuse others
  • Wanting others to reassure you that you’re not the kind of person who abuses people

And this too:

  • Respecting someone’s boundaries
  • Feeling like you’re a person who respects boundaries
  • Wanting someone to feel as though their boundaries are being respected
  • Wanting someone to reassure you that you’re not crossing any lines

If you don’t understand the difference, you’re dangerous to people you have power over.

Because feelings and perceptions can be manipulated without changing the underlying reality.

Making people feel safe isn’t enough; you also have to create real safety. Making people tell you that you’re not crossing a line isn’t enough; you have to actually care about their boundaries. Seeing yourself as a non-abusive person isn’t enough; you have to actively pay attention to treating people well.

If you want to do right by people, you have to care about the reality.