I’ve noticed the expression “holding space” to be gaining popularity in the last few years. I’ve heard it so many times, and the practice comes so naturally to me, that I was surprised this term has caused confusion for a lot of people when it is mentioned in passing.
Let’s start with some examples of what holding space looks like:
1. I’m meeting with an elderly woman who has recently lost a substantial amount of vision. My purpose here is to help her regain independence by learning new ways to complete tasks in her everyday life. She says that is her intention for the meeting as well. Her real purpose is to “be heard.” Until I have shown that I can honor her as a human being as a whole, she doesn’t trust me enough to get to the business of learning new skills within a scary, disheartening situation. My agency may be paying me to teach, but my first job is to listen. I hold space as my client tells me not only the story of her vision loss, but the story of her life. I don’t zone out. I stay fully with her. I ask occasional questions to help me understand her underlying needs about the situation, but I don’t try to dominate the conversation. By the time we end the session, she feels respected, and trust has been established. We are ready to move forward as a team.
2. I have recently called off my engagement. I am bouncing back and forth between anger and despair. My sister has come to visit with the main purpose of holding space for me during this difficult transition period. When our conversation leads to tears once more, she gently asks if I want to find solutions or if I just want her to hold space. Through the tears I gasp, “hold space.” I go into my room and throw myself on my bed and wail. She comes in and sits beside me. When I am ready, I take her hand. She silently comforts me for a long time until I am done. Instead of talking about moving on and that I’m better off, she asks what will help me feel better: hugs, watching a funny movie, singing, dancing…? She is honoring where I am and what my needs are.
3. My 10 year-old son is sent home from school after trying to chase another kid down with a baseball bat. (This one was hard, but also really important. I would say in general, holding space for someone we’re really close to is hard because our emotions tend to get in the way of their emotions.) When I get to the school I give him a hug. Once we get in the car, I ask him if he wants to talk about it. He shakes his head, and we drive home in silence. At home, he immediately goes to his room and slams the door. I hear him crying inside. Once (and only once), I ask him if I can come in, but he says no. I respect that. I honor his wishes, and I wait, holding space by giving him space. When he is ready, we do have a long talk. Had I pushed, had I not held space for him, and made it clear that I was honoring where he was and his emotions, that talk would have been much more frustrating and much less productive for both of us.
4. A small group is doing a ceremony for the healing of childhood trauma. Close friends have been invited to witness the the ceremony and support those taking part in it. Some people may be uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or do or where to look. They do not need to say or do anything. Being there for their friends, fully present, and not turning away is exactly what is needed for those who are conducting the ceremony to feel safe and heard.
So what is holding space exactly? By examining the common threads in the above examples, I bet you can piece it together now.
Holding space involves:
– Being fully present: Don’t let your mind wander onto what you are going to say next or what you could be doing instead. People can sense when you are with them and when you are just keeping up appearances.
– Honoring where the individual is and their emotions: If they are sad, acknowledge they are sad. If they are angry, acknowledge they are angry. If they are hopeless, acknowledge they feel hopeless, without trying to change it.
– Listening: Again, really listening, being present with the intention to understand, not only what they are telling you, but why.
– Cultivating an environment of safety: Eliminate distractions. Go to a quiet room. Let them know you are turning off your cell phone. Assure them that you will keep what they are sharing between you (and keep that promise). Make it clear that you honor them for sharing what they choose to share, and that you’re not judging. If you have had a similar experience, briefly share it.
– Allowing and encouraging the expression of strong emotions: Rather than trying to cheer up the person you are holding space for, reassure them by saying things like, “it’s okay to cry.” “I can see that you’re angry.” “You have every right to feel that way.” Notice that, “I understand” is nowhere in there. Although you may have a good idea what this person is going through, you have not walked in their shoes. Implying that you have, may be taken as the opposite of supportive.
– Limiting verbal interjections: Holding space does not need to be entirely silent (although if the other person is not speaking, that may be a good idea). Affirmations that you are listening can be helpful – “uh-huh,” “okay,” “I hear you,” can be a way of communicating your listening and full presence. Questions to clarify can be helpful up to a point. Keep any sharing of similar experiences short and to the point.
Holding space does not involve:
– Giving Advice: After they have had an opportunity to express themselves, you may ask if the person would like your perspective or help in finding a solution. Ask only once, and abide by their response.
– Judgement: There is absolutely no point in suggesting how things could have been done differently or comparing the situation to anyone else’s. This will only make things worse. Make it clear that you accept them and care for them for who they are.
– Trying to fix things: Again, you may offer to speak to someone or do some action on the person’s behalf, but it could very well be that all they need you to do is hold that space.
– Your ego or how you would handle the situation in their shoes: Just because the person does not approach the situation the way you would, that is no reason to invalidate their approach. Just because they do not want your advice, your touch, or even your presence, has less to do with you than it does with them. Honor and respect where they are in that moment.
As I mentioned in the 4th example, sometimes we are asked to hold space within a group. This sometimes seems to be the unimportant, extraneous position when others seem to be doing more “important” things. Holding space in these situations can be just as powerful as in one-on-one situations. Most of the same guidelines apply: being fully present and honoring the process is a valuable contribution.
Holding space for someone is a gift. It is a powerful act. More than that, it is a sacred act. The next time you are called upon to hold space for someone, instead of squirming uncomfortably or wishing you could get on with your day, thank them for allowing you to give them this gift.
Being a Container: Holding Space for Others
Understanding How to Hold Space
What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well
by Heather Plett