Creating intimate spaces
Why and how to create spaces where people feel more comfortable to open up vulnerably.
Why did I choose this tool?
While I normally talk about ways in which we can speak or behave to change the energy of a room, I chose this tool because it highlights how the physical environment can impact the dynamics of a group. By designing the physical space in which we’ll conduct the training, we can influence the types of emotions and conversations that will be had.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
As a trainer, we can control the environment to an extent to make people more comfortable to express different parts of themselves. This can help us in almost any training we do, as we often want our participants to feel certain emotions or have certain reflections throughout the exercises. Being a trainer is not just about leading the workshop, but also about setting up the space, and this tool talks about how to set up the space to coincide with how we’ll run the workshop. For example, if we want to have lots of people laughing, turning the lights low and putting on slow music may be counterproductive, as those tend to create more reflective, quiet moments.
As trainers, we design experiences through which our participants will learn, and one part of those experiences is the space. The spaces in which we exist can largely influence how we feel and therefore behave. For example, our surroundings can make us more likely to feel relaxed, nervous, confused, safe, reflective, excited, playful, or other emotions. With these emotions, we are likely to behave in certain ways: e.g., relaxed->lie down, nervous->look around the room, reflective->be more quiet, or playful->laugh and joke with people.
The tactics of changing the atmosphere to influence mood have been widely explored by the marketing industry. The field of sensory marketing has been growing strongly in the past few years. Many of the variables you can tweak can be categorized below by the different sensory cues we receive as humans:
Some of the sensory cue research may be too in-depth and not very easily translatable to creating spaces for workshops, so I’ll put some examples of the variables I believe we can tweak in our setting within the defined categories.
- Natural vs artificial
- Electric vs fire/candle
- Single-source vs multi-source
- Location of colors
- Combination of colors
- Natural vs artificial
- Written vs printed
- Temporary vs permanent
- Ambient sounds
- Outside the space vs inside
- Constant vs abrupt
- e.g., white noise or someone clanging something to interrupt
- Words vs no words
- How space impacts voices
- Echo vs no echo
- How far sound travels
- Amplification equipment
- Ambient sounds
- Background scents
- From other places
- Air fresheners
- Body odors
- Background scents
- Soft vs hard
- Sticky vs slippery
- Rough vs smooth
- Amount of space
- Shape of the space
- Round edges vs sharp edges
- Equal width/height vs long/skinny
- Bounded vs unbounded
- Space per person
- Packed vs loose
- Furniture arrangement
- Sitting vs standing
- Facing which direction
- Shape of layout
- Shape of layout
- Tables or no tables
- Seating arrangement around the table
- Height of seating next to table
- Open or closed
- Easy or hard to leave the space
- Ambient conditions
These are just a small subset of variables that can be tweaked to achieve our desired impact with the space. However, since this article is about creating intimate spaces, let’s discuss a little more what is likely to lead to an intimate space, where people are more likely to be vulnerable and share.
Intimacy evokes a sense of closeness, a sense of sharing of our innermost feelings. When I speak of creating intimate spaces, I speak of creating spaces where participants feel safe to open up to be intimate with each other. Not in the terms of physical intimacy, or sexual intimacy, but in terms of saying how they honestly feel and what they honestly believe.
So how to achieve this sense of intimacy? Overall, participants seem to be likely to go into more vulnerability when they feel safe. The Emotional Intimacy Scale highlights five statements that lead to more intimacy:
- This person completely accepts me as I am
- I can openly share my deepest thoughts and feelings with this person
- This person cares deeply for me
- This person would willingly help me in any way
- My thoughts and feelings are understood and affirmed by this person
We can start to ask ourselves questions on how we can change the environment to encourage that these five statements are more likely to be true for the participants.
- How can we set up the space so that participants believe that the other participants completely accept them as they are?
- Or how can we setup the space so the participants perceive themselves on an equal level?
- We can make everyone be at the same sitting/standing level. We can make the sitting arrangement symmetrical. We can have balanced lighting. We can integrate more with outdoor nature to remind that we’re all humans. We can give ample space.
2. How can we setup the space so that participants feel safe to share their deepest thoughts/feelings with the other participants?
- Or how can we setup the space so the participants give each other undivided attention, but not TOO much attention?
- We can make low, soft lighting. We can reduce external noise distractions, while playing soft, slow, probably instrumental music in the background. We can have people sit in an informal circle shape on the floor on comfortable beanbags. We can be in a space where it’s easy to hear all participants, without the need for a microphone. We can make sure the space is relatively cozy, but has enough room to breathe, and has access to exits if someone needs to leave. We can make sure the room is not too cold but not too hot.
3. How can we setup the space so that participants believe that the other participants care deeply for them?
- Or how can we setup the space so that participants are in a state of feeling deeply?
- We can make an enclosed space, with enough room to move around, and yet closed so people can’t easily leave. We can put on a slow, powerful, and reflective song at a decent volume so it’s not easy to hear the other participants. We can turn the lights off, leaving only candles spread throughout the space, so people can’t see other people well or think other people can see them well.
4. How can we setup the space so that participants believe that the other participants would be willing to to help them in any way?
- Or how can we setup the space so that participants feel more comfortable requesting and receiving help?
- We can arrange it so that there are small nooks where if someone asks for help, the whole group won’t see it. We can hang quotes around the room from famous people who talk about the importance of asking for help. We can hang a flipchart where participants can request help and another where people can offer help, giving some anonymity and generality to the process. We can play songs in the background that have lyrics related to helping each other, i.e., “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers.
5. How can we setup the space so that participants believe that the other participants understand their thoughts and feelings and give them affirmation?
- Or how can we setup the space so that participants can hear each other express their thoughts and feelings in an open way?
- We can have people sit in a circle. We can play a certain sound and tell people that when we play that sound they should give applause. We can reduce external noises. We can create smaller spaces and give more privacy by closing doors. We can turn the lights down low or off so participants don’t feel others’ eyes on them so much.
There are many things we can try to create spaces that will likely lead to more intimacy. As a trainer, we have a lot of control over the physical environment in nudging participants towards sharing more openly with each other, and open sharing is likely to create deeper bonds and give them more confidence in asking each other for support. What I’ve listed above are just examples of things one can try. There is no one right way to organize the space to create intimacy; I believe as trainers, we experiment with one setup, reflect on how it went, and then adjust as we go.
- In which type of sound environments do you feel most comfortable opening up?
- In which type of lighting do you feel most comfortable opening up?
- In which type seating/standing arrangement do you feel most comfortable opening up?
- What are some types of physical arrangements that make you feel uncomfortable opening up?
- What are some smells that make you close off?
- Which are some spaces where you didn’t feel comfortable expressing yourself?
- Which are some spaces where you did feel comfortable expressing yourself?
- Of the different variables/elements listed above, which do you enjoy organizing? E.g., do you like setting up the sound environment or the lighting or the furniture or something else?
- Which elements of the space design do you not enjoy doing?
How to apply it in everyday life
- Try this with a friend: if you’ve been meaning to have a heart-to-heart with this person, try to set up the environment so that a heart-to-heart will work well. Plan the sound/music, the lighting, the space, the amount of privacy, the seating arrangements, etc.
- Try the above with a family member or romantic partner.
- Watch a film and find a scene where people have very open conversations with each other and study the background of the scene.
- Visit different spaces in your city and try to identify which ones have atmospheres where people seem to be more open with each other and try to identify the elements in the space that these places have in common.