Taking a Safety Report

December 14th, 2018
contra, safety
(This is written with the contra dance community in mind, but is reasonably general.)

Let's say you're an organizer or on a safety committee, and someone comes to you with a problem. How should you handle it?

The first thing is to figure out urgency: is someone actively causing harm right now? Like, is it "that dancer over there in the red shirt just twisted my arm" or more "can we talk about my abusive ex"? It's generally pretty clear which sort of report someone's giving, but it's worth asking if you're unclear.

I'm only going to cover the second category here, because there are a lot of subtle aspects and its easy to screw up. (I certainly have made mistakes here.)

When someone comes to you with a serious problem, listening well is the most important thing. Be there for them, let them tell you what they're comfortable telling you. Even if there's something they want, they are doing you a favor by letting you know about a problem in your community. Be receptive, and let the conversation run on their terms. If you make this at all hard for reporters people will just silently not let you know about things.

The first time you hear about an issue, you probably don't happen to be in an ideal situation for sharing something heavy. Instead they maybe sent you an email, or found you at a dance. These initial conversations typically work best as a way to get a shallow summary, and to set up for some in-person time.

One question is how many people you'd like to have hear the report. In BIDA's case we like to have 2-3 people from our safety team, because different people on the team have different perspectives. Other places might instead have one contact person and handle things one-on-one. Who should be there is something the reporter needs to have full say over, though, so don't push them to have anyone present they don't want there.

A good setting to hear a serious report is generally somewhere quiet where you can talk for as long as needed. For example, an evening meeting in a living room. If you have housemates or children and are hosting, figure out a way where they won't be around. [1] You want an environment where the reporter will feel as relaxed as they can be under the circumstances, on comfortable seating, away from noise. If you're setting up space ahead of time, put a box of tissues within reach.

Once you're settled, let them talk. They probably have a lot to tell you. You might be used to conversations where you talk a lot, but this should not be one of them. If there are bits where you're confused about details, it's generally ok to clarify at the time (though don't pry or push them to share what they're not ok sharing) but if you notice they don't respond well to the interruption then leave clarifications to the end. Be supportive: while at some point your role generally involves comparing different people's views of the same situation and thinking about what people could have done differently, this is not the time for that. Your role is to be non-judgmental, sympathetic, open, caring. Try to take their perspective as your own. If they say something where you think they were in the wrong, don't push back. If they use words you don't think fit the situation ("they gaslit me" when it sounds like it wasn't gaslighting) don't challenge them: people have a wide range of ways of processing and conceptualizing things, and what matters is what they experienced and not the label they're using.

In this, you have more or less two goals. The first is that you want them to feel respected. They need to know you take their report seriously, that you support them, and that their experience matters. The second is that you want to get their view of what happened with as much detail as they're up for sharing.

After they've shared what they want to, it's generally good to ask what they're looking for. ("What would you like to see from us?") One thing you really want to avoid is leaving the reporter any worse off for having come to talk to you than if they had just kept things to themselves. For example, if they don't want you to take an action, perhaps because they're afraid of retaliation, definitely respect that.

Find out who you can share this with. For example, if you're on a three person committee and two of you were in the conversation with the reporter, can you bring what they've told you back to the third person? If yes, are there bits you need to not share? If no, are there high level summaries you can share? Can you share information with other dance organizers?

Also find out who they're ok with you talking to. If someone harmed them, can you talk to that person? What can you share with them? Are there other people who would have context and can you talk to them?

It might be tempting to end the conversation by discussing potential outcomes, but I don't recommend this. You're still at the stage of collecting information, you probably have more people to talk to, and you need to talk among yourselves without the reporter present. Instead find out how much they want to be kept updated as you continue looking into this: people range from wanting as much progress information as possible to finding this really unpleasant to think about and wanting the process to be entirely on you. Do set expectations about how long this will take, especially if you're a group of volunteers fitting this in around other commitments.

This is only the first step in a pretty large process, but it's really important to do well: if reporters don't trust you nothing else will work.

[1] For example, when I was hosting a meeting while Julia was away on a trip I set the kids up upstairs with a video. They get this rarely enough (the general rule is "airplanes and long car trips", though also things like "your parents brought you to a boring grown-up party") that it's a super helpful option to have available at times when we need it.

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