The dangers of making people feel safe
There are skills you can learn, that fairly reliably cause a large percentage of people to feel safe around you. These skills are important in a lot of roles, and they’re also dangerous.
The skills a lot have to do with affect, body language, tone of voice, and putting pauses in the right places. And a whole lot of other things.
I’m not going to describe these skills in detail in this post, except to say that they’re explicitly taught to therapists, social workers, chaplains, most clergy in non-fundamentalist seminaries, and others in counseling roles. Making people feel safe is a core professional skill. You can’t do your job without it.
The problem is, learning to make people feel safe and being trustworthy are different skills. Knowing how to make people feel safe gives you a lot of power over them; it does not in and of itself make you someone who can be trusted with that kind of people. It makes people more likely to trust you, whether or not you are trustworthy. It makes people more likely to believe you, whether or not you are right. It makes people more likely to tell you private information, whether or not you can be trusted to respond appropriately or to maintain confidentiality.
Making people feel safe makes them vulnerable. If you are going to learn how to make people vulnerable, then you have a responsibility to learn how to trustworthy.
Trustworthiness skills do not happen automatically. No one is born with them. It takes more than being a good person with good intentions, and it takes more than caring about others. Learning how to make people feel safe does not automatically teach you the skills you need to be trustworthy. If you want to develop ethical practice, you have to actively work on both skillsets.
Learning to be trustworthy is at least as hard as learning how to get people to trust you. In some ways, it’s harder. If your affective skills aren’t effective at getting people to trust you, that tends to be obvious. When you’re not good at making people feel safe with you, it’s harder to get people to cooperate, and it gets easier as you get better at it. It’s much harder to tell whether people *are* safe with you.
If people feel safe with you when they shouldn’t, they’re much more likely to be cooperative. They’re much more likely to do things that are validating and feel really good. They may listen more attentively, follow your advice, say that your insights are really helpful to them, or any number of things. It can be hard to tell from the outside whether or not someone’s trust in you is warranted. (Although it does help to remember that immediate unbounded trust is never a good thing.)
tl;dr If you learn to make people feel safe, then you also have to learn how to be trustworthy. This is particularly true if you have high-level professional skill at making people feel safe. If you can reliably make people feel safe, then you also have to work on making sure that people actually *are* safe with you. Trustworthiness is a complicated skill set, and it doesn’t happen automatically. Being trustworthy takes ongoing education, creativity, and effort.