When we talk about holding space, what we mean is creating an environment where people can feel held, and seen, in the fullness of their experience without judgement or shame. Anne Yazar considers what holding space looks like in everyday life…
When Heather Plett’s mother was dying, her family were supported by Ann, a palliative-care nurse whose role it was to look after the patient, but also to guide the family through their mother’s last days. Plett’s experience of the grace, compassion and support that Ann provided was life-changing.
‘Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away,’ explained Plett in an article from 2015 that has since gone viral. ‘She was a facilitator, coach and guide. By offering gentle, non-judgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.’
The success of that article – in which Plett went on to demonstrate Ann’s simple presence and ability to know what kind of support to offer, as well as sharing the seven tenets of space holding – eventually lead to her seminal book The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership.
Between anecdotes from her own life, Plett raises the idea that space holding is something we can do simply for ourselves, but also for our families, our children, our peers, our employees, our friends and our communities. Crucially, she explains that where it differs from all other ways of talking or sharing is that it is an entirely judgement-free space, where pain, rage, confusion and crisis are welcomed and heard, without being ‘fixed’.
‘When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support and let go of judgement and control.’
All too often, when someone is in pain, we jump in to rescue them, to suggest ways they could solve their problem or mend their broken heart. But, in so doing, we deny people the very human experiences of loss, grief and sadness. Sometimes, we have to be broken in order to rebuild ourselves. Sometimes, we need the space to work through what we need in our own time, without the expectations, approval or influence of others.
‘This is the ‘problem’ with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener,’ says novelist Sarah Dessen. ‘They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you, allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.’
What happens when we keep going, as Dessen says, is that we begin to make sense of the messy pieces of our own lives and start being truly honest with ourselves. And it is in that place is where growth, healing and change truly happens.
In her book, Plett, a mother of three uses the analogy of a bowl holding Lego pieces together to explain her concept of space holding. ‘You know what happens when someone deconstructs a Lego structure, and the bricks are not contained. There is Lego everywhere. Sure to cause pain for the unsuspecting, barefooted person making their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The bowl that holds the Lego does not change the process or the shape of the destruction, nor does it direct the creation of what’s to come. It simply contains, offering safety, boundaries and support, so that nobody is inadvertently wounded in the process. It also ensures all the pieces remain available for rebuilding.’
It’s such a simple idea, but a profoundly powerful one. Space holding is about the almost invisible work of containing all the pieces of ourselves, without changing the story of the way they fell apart, or how they will be shaped in the future, but keeping them safe while they are sorted through and rebuilt.
What we offer isn’t things such as advice, tips, guidance or our own experiences. In fact, in many respects what we offer when we hold space is the absence of those things we all normally find in a conversation.
In a held space, there is no judgement, no interruptions, no problem-solving, no opinions and no attempts to try to impact the outcome of someone else’s struggle. We don’t offer counter-arguments and we don’t even offer reassurances or compliments when someone berates themselves or shares their fears. We are a container for all that they feel and need to articulate and share, keeping the rim of that bowl watertight so their feelings are safe and supported.
As the person holding space, in many ways we become the empty vessel for the experiences of others, welcoming silence and space without any need to fill it ourselves. We have to ensure that we are emptied out before we hold space, and that, when we are listening, it is with curiosity and a deep desire to hear what is being said and what is not being said – the truth behind the words. It is in these moments that people feel truly seen and heard.
‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,’ said author and educator Stephen R. Covey. One of the things that makes a held space unique is that it has no place for ego. We don’t listen to help and advise or try to influence someone or to compare their story to our own. We listen to witness, to hear and to acknowledge.
As Brené Brown, an expert in the areas of shame and vulnerability, reminds us: ‘If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.’ In a held space, even if we do not understand, we listen with compassion. A held space is one that welcomes depth and complexity, a place where the scary, harder, uglier things from life are welcomed. In a held space, people need to know that the container has capacity for all their story, no matter how complex or difficult.
As space holders, our job is to hold the rim of that bowl taut and immovable as grief, pain or transformation flows. This is what safe spaces are.
‘Help them feel safe enough to fail,’ writes Plett. ‘When we, as space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer [people] the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.’
And, in turn, we recognise that people often want to resolve something in a way that feels alien to us, but that we are all different, and we let go of our need to control an outcome so that it sits with our own value system or cultural norms, and simply welcome someone else’s journey to resolution or discovery. When we refrain from offering advice, we allow people to go inwards and begin to trust their own instincts again, to listen to their own intuitive wisdom.
By holding space for others, we make it possible for them to sort through those scattered Lego pieces and build something beautiful that only they know how to create. We don’t build it for them, but we are there to witness their work and love them through it. And, by holding those pieces in a safe container, we ensure that they can take as long as they need to build this new life of authenticity and self-knowledge. They know that they can return again and again to the safety of the container – if they need more pieces, if there is more sorting to be done. This is a space held for all that they have and are, and all that they can be.