I remember the first time that I heard the term “holding space”. I had no idea what it meant. I also had no idea how to do it. I had spent a lifetime brainstorming solutions to problems and had no idea that there was even another way of engaging in conversations.
Holding space means being fully present with someone else. It means being fully present with their feelings and emotions about whatever is going on, as well as your own. Holding space for someone means listening without judgment. It also means trusting that the other person will be able to find their own path. It is knowing that they are not looking for us to fix their situation, but rather, simply need someone to truly listen, and connect with whatever is going on inside of them.
I only began to truly understand the profound importance of holding space after losing my mother and uncle in a car accident, followed by my father’s sudden death 2 years later. Everyone around me did the very best they could to support me through the shock, terror, angst and grief that I was living. But I found myself drawn to those who were skilled at holding space.
When I would share my feelings with well-intentioned, solution-focused people, I was often offered thoughts, ideas and solutions to my grief. Responses such as “maybe going to the gym would help you feel better”, “the arrival of your sister’s baby will bring joy to the family” or “at least you have kids who can help to keep your mind off of things” were often offered. And although none of these responses were inherently wrong, I often ended up feeling worse. I felt unheard and misunderstood. I felt like the complexity of what I was going through was being minimized. The intention was to try to help me feel better, but these types of responses were missing the mark.
In contrast, conversations with those who could hold space offered healing. A response as simple as “I can’t even imagine” was enough to acknowledge the horror of what I had gone through and had seen. Questions that probed to learn more about what had happened, how I was doing, or how the kids were responding, allowed me a safe space to explore complex feelings. In each of these situations, the depth of authenticity in these interactions was palpable, as the other person allowed themselves to connect with what I was experiencing in a genuine way.
Those who were able to hold space for me not only created a safe space that helped me to heal from the trauma I had experienced; they also taught me profound lessons about how to hold space for others, and why it is so important to do so.
Holding space does not come naturally to me. It is a skill that can be learned and one that I continue to refine. But it is a life skill that we all need to have and refine, in all arenas of our life. The more we are able to hold space for others, the more deeply we connect with those around us. It is only when we can truly hear those around us that we can begin to work towards solutions that will truly make sense.
As you go about your day today, work to identify situations where you can hold space for those around you. This is not a skill to be used only during tragic life events, such as a death. We can hold space for a child who is upset that their friend wouldn’t play with them at recess. We can hold space for a colleague who is frustrated with a boss, or who is feeling overwhelmed. We can also hold space for a colleague who is excited about a new promotion. Try listening without offering any solutions or advice and see what it feels like. I promise you… if you practice enough, it will change your life and how you relate to others.
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