You’ve heard me speak about safe spaces before, about creating, holding and keeping them. Your venture, enterprise or business is a kind of safe space, into which you invite others who become your customers, patrons, tribe and/or ambassadors. Your skill as a micro business owner operator is to know how to create and safe space, and learn and keep the guidelines which make it a place where the best of people can prosper.
But here’s something many small business owners and operators neglect, or even deliberately overlook.
Your space isn’t safe if it isn’t also safe for you.
For some months after we opened a year ago, a woman would come into the shop quite regularly, not to purchase anything, but mostly to download her problems. She would try on clothing, look around, ask for items to be put on hold, but I don’t remember if she actually purchased anything in all that time. After a while, whenever she entered the shop I would feel anxious and know I would need to be careful not to find myself standing for an hour listening to her unpack her terrible story to me, or to my mum, who helps out. No doubt, she was going through a hard time, however she did disclose she was seeing a qualified mental health professional to help her deal with it. Knowing she was supported certainly helped me draw a line behind which I knew I needed to stay, or I was at risk of being drained every time this person came into my space.
The last time she was in the shop was to ask me to hold an item **again** for her, with the list of terrible things that happened this week which she felt justified my removing the item from sale for another period of time. To clarify, we don’t hold items, I don’t have the room to store them, and we turn items over so quickly it’s simply not tenable. But her sad story and the long telling of it had moved my poor mum to agree simply to placate her and hasten her leaving the shop, as she was more than a handful, and it took all our patience and skill to provide a competent service to her, and any other customers who happened to be in the shop at the time. So she came in to read me her long list of sad reasons I needed to bend store policy and keep the item off the rack for her, and I gently told her that the item needed to be purchased today or would be returned to stock. After all, I run a shop, I conduct transactions. The customers inclement circumstances may at times impact the nature of these transactions, but at my discretion. That’s the skill of holding space. It’s called boundaries. And as the space holder and keeper, if you don’t set boundaries and make them clear, someone will walk right up and start making demands which make you wish you thought about boundaries approximately ten years ago.
So I told this customer, no. I’m returning the item to the rack today. You may purchase it now, or tomorrow, or next week. However, it isn’t going in my back room again.
What followed was a further litany of reasons I had to acquiesce to her request, mainly because of terrible things she was experiencing in her personal life right now. It felt uncomfortable. I was being manipulated. She was using her own misfortune, pain and unhappiness to get what she wanted from me. And she was not asking for my understanding. She was demanding I obey her. At volume. With wild arm movements. And a finger pointed in my face.
And it is at this point my focus shifts from making safe space for her, and keeping it for myself.
I did not need to ask her to leave, thank goodness, because in a split second of clarity she apparently realized she was becoming hysterical over a shirt, and so she threw one last aspersion at me and left.
I was going to ask her to leave. I felt threatened, and I was being verbally attacked. Her response to the situation was uncivil and disproportionate. Whilst I empathize with her circumstances, I’m not her counselor, nor am I obliged to provide her with additional services or favours because of them. She is not welcome to come back, because in my space, there are boundaries, and I am the one who keeps them. My customers, both the ones who come to conduct appropriate business, and those who don’t, need to know this.
If the space isn’t safe for us as well as for our customers, the space isn’t safe at all.
Comments and responses welcome.