Hey everyone Reflecting on an interesting day spent attending free training session in Edinburgh for spoken word facilitators and group leaders.
This session on how to provide a safe space for those within the writing community who identify as LGBT or have Mental Health Issues was in the LGBT Centre for Health and Well-being and was facilitated by my good friend Katherine McMahon.
As the session started it was perhaps inevitable that we would get round to discussing language in the context of gender and sexual politics and the potential pitfalls of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and how this can present difficulties for the host or group leader. Words such as queer or using the wrong pronoun when it comes to trans people can be particularly offensive and there are also phrases which can cause contention within the LGBT community. For example the choice to identify as a lesbian or a gay woman should exactly that a choice and it should be respected as such.
Another area of contention is the use within the LGBT community of the word queer. Whilst some younger members of the community have sought to reclaim the word for use in a more positive way this has been strongly resisted by older gay men who associate it with negative stereotypes and prejudice from their past and this has led to an inter-generational spat between these two demographic groups.
Having worked as a disability equality trainer I know that language can be a potential minefield and use of the wrong word however well intentioned may be perceived as insulting by those who are hearing it. I make this point as It is often assumed particularly by audience members in the spoken word community that if you are allowing someone to read their work on a night in which you are hosting that you must at least to some extent be endorsing their views or opinions and this is not necessarily the case.
It is my experience that events such as writers groups and spoken word nights can bring together a diverse range of people with contrasting and very often conflicting opinions on the issues of the day such Governments, God, and a host of other topics, therefore it is important that we create a inclusive, welcoming, and non judgemental environment where everyone’s contribution is valued. Indeed it is our duty as facilitators compares /hosts that we remind everyone that the workshop /venue is a safe space and that anyone will be to able to read or perform their work in a climate of respect and to be valued as a group member or participant
This raised the rather complex issue of how do we challenge someone whose work or behaviour may cause offence to others in the group. Do we have a one to one chat with them or do we raise the matter in the front of others attending the workshop or event?
Personally this is something I haven’t really had to do very much either when facilitating at Tollcross or hosting Words and Music or the odd occasion when I have been stand in facilitator at Glasgow Writers Group at GoMA. When it has happened one serial offender has tended to be involved in it. However I am convinced this person has quite serious learning difficulties and mental health issues.
This means they are quite hostile to being challenged and tend to see even the most mild mannered challenge as a personal attack on them rather than what it is which is genuine attempt to improve the quality of their performance.
Indeed this individual once rebuked me by saying that if anyone had a problem with them or their poetry they would tell them to their face rather than speak to me. As I wished to avoid confrontation l said no more at that time, though I have had to have the same conversion with them on a few occasions since and fully expect to have it again. Except this time I will be better equipped to deal with it.
The most serious situation I have had to deal with occurred at the beginning of a words and music evening and the serial offender was involved though this time their involvement was indirect. You see this character assumed a greater level of importance then they have ever had in the event and are ever likely to be given. They assumed that since they attended the event on a regular basis they could give others information about it. Now whilst there is nothing wrong with encouraging others to attend the evening the mark is overstepped when information becomes misinformation and causes difficulty for others because of it.
Not realising that there is such a thing as protocol,this person told musician friends of theirs that we were struggling for musicians. Not only was this complete garbage it also led to the trickiest situation I have ever had to deal with as host of the evening as these two musicians turned up at the event and set up the stage under the misapprehension that they were the one of featured acts that evening . I asked them politely but firmly what they thought they were doing and they claimed they were our featured musicians that night.
When I told them the featured performers for that evening had already been booked they were understandably not too happy about this however they named the serial offender as the person who had told them this information. I told them that this person did not run the event, that was my job and I with a team of close friends of which they were not and would never be part decide who the featured performers would be. I offered them to get a five minute slot like all the other open slots and I offered my hand as a gesture of reconciliation and to demonstrate their were no hard feelings. However they accepted neither my offer nor my hand instead calling me Hitler in knickers before storming off in a huff.
When I consulted the serial offender they denied all knowledge of this but I know they have what I would call form and this when allied with really poor communication skills this can only lead to trouble. I tried every possible conflict avoidance strategy but to no avail and had to put this one down to experience. It is an experience I believe will serve me well should similar situations arise in the future.
As the people concerned left before the evening had officially got under way I made no reference to it, apart from the brief private chat I had with the usual suspect and the evening turned out to be one of the best of the year so far.
I do believe that this person does not mean to cause trouble and their actions can be put down to their learning difficulties and mental health issues. However I also have to say that because of their inflated sense of importance they are someone who needs very careful handling as sometimes they like to pretend they understand the bigger issue to a far greater degree than they actually do. However one can only attempt to emphasise with anyone who has issues around behaviour and indeed must respect the personal struggles they may be facing.
This training session was I believe invaluable as it highlighted many complex issues which those of us who take groups or host events may face from time to time.
It was also good to acknowledge the fact that we often have very similar strengths and fears. Common fears expressed by course members included How do I deal with potential conflict? What can I do to make participants feel valued within the group or the context of the event? How can I stop someone running over their time? How can I negate the possibility of someone saying or reading something which may be offensive to others?
Common solutions to the issues raised included watching out for potential trigger points or topics which may be used for shock value. Always welcome people as they arrive and remember to thank them for their contribution after they have participated. Also remind participants to stick to their time as to take longer eats in to the time available for others to contribute and remind participants that as we want the workshop/ event to be a safe space then is important that as part of the safe space agreement that we respect the opinions of others presents whose opinions may differ from our own. It is therefore important to be mindful not only of how much of ourselves we decide to share with others but also of how others may react.
Something else which cropped up which was of particular use to writers group facilitators was the fact that due to group dynamics there will always be one or two participants who will believe that their needs take primacy over those of others. One way of dealing with such a character is to say something like I’m that is a very interesting point you have raised but it is not on topic however I would like to hear your views on it some other time. This has the effect of bringing the group back to focus on the task in hand without making the individual concerned feeling small or belittled. Another way of doing this is to invite the contributions of others especially if one individual does have a history of attempting to dominate conversations. By using these simple but effective tactics, this keeps the atmosphere at the gathering both inclusive and welcoming.
Also it helps to have a firm but friendly tone as this creates the image of you being in charge of the situation and helps others to understand that you have established rules and boundaries which will be applied across the board to all participants. This applies in both settings be it workshop or performance space but this particular guideline is probably needed more within writers groups though it can also come in handy at performance evenings
This is especially true for newcomers to the event as lets them know what is expected of them. Creating an inclusive environment in any setting where someone is going to share their writing, so it is my opinion that a few basic ground rules will help the evening run smoothly. How do we put that in to a soundbite we can all remember? Well after much thought and deliberation on the matter I think this statement sums it up. The rules of respect are the write way forward as we all voice our own written truths. I say as what may be nonsense in the opinions of some in the group may be important or even very important to others and it is only right and proper we remember that fact during the group or event as doing so will enable us to foster the all embracing atmosphere we seek to create.
You know as someone who delivered training on equality issues for almost a decade, I always remember that my former boss referring to a Friday afternoon session as the graveyard shift. Personally I never found this to be the case I always found Monday mornings to be a much tougher time for a session. However I have to admit it was great to be at the other side of the training room and not having to worry about how well I had delivered the training or responded to participants questions. The fact that it related to creating an accessible and inclusive environment around writing and event management and facilitation was an added bonus. I was I have to say a highly enjoyable training session which enhanced and added to my good practice and I was a lovely way to spend a Friday Afternoon.
Love And Best Wishes