You may have heard the expression “holding space”. It is likely brought up when discussing how to offer the best kind of support for other people.
However, it’s easy to misinterpret this idea, and most of us also struggle to hold space when we’re intimately involved in the fate of someone we care about.
While we all want to be compassionate, empathetic, and helpful, our egos can get in the way and our desire to solve problems can lead us to become dismissive without any awareness of the fact.
In this guide, we’ll explore what is really involved in holding space. Plus, we'll examine why it can be such a powerful and important thing to offer. In addition, we'll work our way through nine concrete tips that will help you consistently and effectively hold space for those in your life. For example, we'll spend time thinking about how to listen effectively, how to stay in the present, and how to balance growth promotion with patience.
Holding space can be a difficult concept to describe, but a simple and life-changing phenomenon to experience. It's essentially about being fully present for someone else. You shouldn't have an agenda and the help should be without any judgment.
So, for example, when someone quietly and empathetically sits with you as you process something emotionally difficult, they're holding space for you.
However, you don't need to be in the same room as someone to hold space; you can offer this to someone over the phone or in writing. You can even offer it to yourself by tapping into your reserves of self-compassion.
The phrase has its origins in yoga, but it is also a key concept in therapy. When you have a good relationship with a therapist, they offer unconditional and authentic support as they walk alongside you; holding space is not about “fixing” things, deciding what is right, or offering up solutions.
However, in spite of this, it can be profoundly healing and can often be the first step in leading a person towards generating solutions of their own. When we hold space for someone in an effective way, they feel understood, valued, and respected at their most vulnerable moment, and that is powerfully validating.
Now that you have a clearer sense of what holding space is about, let's turn to look at how you can offer this to someone who is in need of support. After all, even if we want to be there for people you care about, it can be difficult to restrain ourselves from the instinct to problem-solve and analyze!
These nine tips will help you learn how to consistently and effectively hold space. In addition, even if you think you're already quite good at holding space, working through these concrete steps can help you to expand and refine your skills.
The most fundamental part of holding space for someone is really listening to them. This means focusing on the words they're saying, the messages they convey, and the underlying emotions they're expressing. While this may sound simple, it can be difficult to do. In particular, try to set aside your own life experiences, opinions, and baggage, instead of tuning in to the other person with you full force of your attention. You may not agree with what they're saying and may not respond in the way that they are, but try to imagine why they do have the perspective they're describing.
You can also convey this attentiveness by using “active listening” techniques.
For example, to check out that you're understanding the other person, try summarizing what you think they're saying and reflect back on what you have heard. As well as indicating that you're truly listening, this technique allows the other person to correct you if you're making any incorrect assumptions.
Most of us have busy lives, so it's natural to live with one foot in the past and one in the future as you try to learn from your mistakes and organize the coming days. However, to hold space for someone in an effective way, you need to disengage from reflections on the past and from anxieties about the future. Again, the key message here is to completely focus on the nuances of the other person's experiences, living with them in the difficulties of the present moment.
If you find it difficult to anchor yourself in the present, regularly practicing meditation or mindfulness techniques can help. As little as five minutes a day spent on these exercises can retrain your brain to pay attention to what is in front of you.
In addition, to help you hold space, these changes help to combat stress and improve your own emotional regulation.
There are two major aspects to creating a judgment-free space. One aspect is internal, and the other is external.
The internal aspect involves getting yourself into a mindset where you let go of judging other people's emotions, decisions, motivations, and desires. When you're holding space for someone, this isn't the right time for making assessments related to morality and rationality. Instead, look to empathize with what it must be like to have this other person's experiences, concentrating on this instead of on whether the person is “right or wrong” to feel and act as they do.
The external aspect of creating a judgment-free space is all about making this internal aspect explicit. So, in addition to responding compassionately and warmly, you may want to consider briefly saying that you're offering a judgment-free zone. Note that you're not here to say what this person should do, but rather to try and understand and support them.
In therapy, holding space is one of the factors that make personal growth possible. When someone knows that they aren't being judged and are free, to be honest, they feel emboldened to engage in deep self-reflection, much of which will promote growth and positive change in the long run. The same is true of holding space for a friend or family member; you make it safe for them to drop their defenses, and when defenses are dropped self-knowledge is gained. In contrast, being dismissive, pious, or overly focused on solutions often encourages the listener to be stubborn and mentally inflexible.
As with lack of judgment, it can also be worthwhile making your encouragement of self-growth explicit.
In other words, you might say to a friend that you're happy for them to share their thoughts and reflections, that nothing is too personal or off limits, and that you are genuinely interested in their journey.
When promoting growth while holding space, there's always the chance that your enthusiastic support may accidentally become intimidating.
For example, if you come on extremely strong regarding personal growth, the other person may feel under pressure to change or move forward at a fast rate. This can induce panic or paralysis, and you might find that they start placating you and withdrawing from an honest conversation.
In other words, your attempt to hold space can become all about the other person reassuring you that you are meeting their goals!
So, what does it look like to take baby steps while holding space? Part of this is about going at the other person's pace, even if that pace is slow. Don't jump from what they're saying to “What do you think you might want to do next?”, for example. And if they apologize for laboring over a particular point, reassure them that their slow pace is wise and understandable.
We often hold space for people we care about, and doing so can shift us into a protective mode. When we strongly empathize, we can become deeply immersed in another person's anguish and may want to guard them against future hurt. However, there's a fine line between offering empathy and crushing independence.
If the person you're talking to expresses a desire to do something brave or proactive, don't try to shut this down out of worry for their emotional safety. It's fine to ask exploratory questions and think the topic through with them, but the key is to do so in a way that seems curious and reflective rather than anxious and stifling.
Allowing independence in the other person also means letting them disengage with them they wish to. So, if they need time to themselves, respect and honor this rather than trying to keep them in the space you're holding.
Firstly, don't feel bad about the possibility of getting caught up in your own ego. This is completely normal, and it's hard for us to avoid!
However, note that when it comes to holding space, the ego can come into the picture when we start to think that another person needs us in order to succeed, or when we start taking their difficulties personally. For example, if your friend struggles with something, don't turn this into a reason to obsess about your own ability to provide support. Meanwhile, when it's clear you have helped, don't make the mistake of thinking that you're indispensable and should be involved in all of their decisions going forward.
In terms of positive recommendations, it's important to try and keep holding space very simple and current. So, it's not about how useful you are or what's going to happen next. Rather, it's about easing someone else's burdens in the present moment.
You can make a big difference to someone if you demonstrate that you trust them. This gives them a good reason to trust themselves, which can be especially important if they've been through something that undermines self-esteem. In particular, when holding space do your best to show that you believe they should trust their gut feelings, their wisdom, and their life experience. On an intuitive level, people usually know what they need, it's just that difficult experiences lead them to doubt that capacity. When you competently and compassionately hold space, you can imbue someone with a fresh surge of confidence.
When you provide compassion and empathy, people can start to feel like you're a trusted authority and that you should be able to tell them what to do next. Give this responsibility back to them whenever you can. Emphasize that they are the authority on their own needs and feelings, and support them in exploring what those might be.
Finally, holding space for another person turns on allowing them to just feel their authentic emotions, letting them say what they need to say (even if it's uncomfortable to hear), and allowing yourself to occupy the role that they most need you to fill right now (within reason). Ultimately, this means that holding space has nothing to do with controlling that space. Rather, it revolves around protecting and guarding this safe space, making it a kind of container that can hold the full force of the person's feelings. In sum, you need to practice acceptance.
Practicing acceptance means finding a way to make peace with how the other person is (without wanting to change them into something different), and finding a way to make peace with the truth of their situation.
While you might at first itch to be an agent of change, if you can be patient then you will be giving the other person a precious gift.