Shades of Life

SHADES of Life as Systemic Practice 3/5: Creating Safe Spaces

A series of 5 blog post written for PESI,UK a CPD and training network for counsellors, therapist and other mental health professionals.

I have been led to family constellations work with a vision of generations of people, of different colours, gently supporting each other in a community of humanity. It is an idealised view of the world, but I think a strong vision is required to enable and support safe spaces for difficult conversations around shades of skin colour.

As I began writing this post, I started to ask, “What are safe spaces and who are they for?” We often assume that therapy and counselling spaces are a safe space, but how do we know? Many clients of colour that I have spoken to describe how unsafe therapy spaces are when parts of their story are ignored, excluded, or conversations around identity are restricted.

There have been times on both training courses, during workshops and even in private psychotherapy spaces, where I too have felt excluded or my life experiences have been invalidated. “Surely it can’t be as bad as all that?” I remember a counsellor saying to me in a first therapy encounter.

At these times I have felt let down. Sometimes I was angry or chose to leave the event. But later, on reflection, I was able to acknowledge that talking about colour dynamics can be an uncomfortable conversation for many people. Some therapists do not think that they have the knowledge or skills to address the subject area openly, whilst others prefer a colour-blind approach.

It is my belief that a clear acknowledgement of difference, explicitly stated as a part of the introduction to a workshop or personal session, can be an intervention in itself. Naming colour, race, culture and gender gives space for unspoken colour dynamics to surface and a position from which to begin the conversation. It may seem obvious, yet I have rarely experienced this on most of the workshops and training programmes that I have attended. It is a simple inclusion statement that can be very powerful, and naming what is seen can then be extended into the facilitation process for the constellation.

Jenny came to a SHADES of Life workshop wanting to explore a professional issue. A teacher in a secondary school, she had a pupil from a Black Caribbean background that she was concerned about.

“Choose representatives for all the people in the system,” I suggested. Jenny chose dollies to represent the pupil, the school management team, the mother, the social work team around the child, and herself. “What can you see?” I asked. “All the professionals are white,” she replied, “and no one is looking at the pupil other than his mother. “It is as though the mother and son are voiceless and overwhelmed by the system,” she concluded.

One of the benefits of SHADES work is that it allows the dollies to do the talking for you! In many constellations there is no easy fix: the system shows itself just as it is at that particular moment. But Jenny did realise that a conversation around colour dynamics had not taken place and that it was needed. She left our session ready to raise the issue in her workplace and feeling more confident that the dynamics within the system could be altered.

In next week’s blog, I will explore how we can create safe spaces specifically within the context of examining whiteness, and how SHADES can act as a resource and support for extending the conversation from whiteness to a colour-full conversation.

Sonya Welch-Moring is running a series of SHADES of Life circles, with a focus on colour dynamics in personal and professional contexts, in association with Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility. The next event can be booked here

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