Holding Space: 10 Tips on Wholehearted Support
What is Holding Space?
Use of the term “holding space” has come to be a bit misunderstood in our society. For some, it has completely lost its meaning.
It began as an intentional phrase to describe how one person or a group of people create a safe, non-judgmental container for another to freely process, feel, and express the contents of their mind, body, and emotions. Over time, it has been tossed around so frequently that it seems to have lost touch with the essence from which it was created.
As a coach, holding space is a fundamental skill that is practiced, refined, and put forth for those served. Throughout my career, I’ve learned how to sit with adults undergoing intense psycho-spiritual crises, children throwing temper tantrums, and friends who just need a compassionate ear. I’ve taken 10 of my key findings and put them here for those who want to show up more fully for those around them. Whether you are a coach, a partner, a parent, or a stranger, these skills can assist in supporting any connection.
To create a true safe space for someone means to hold a delicate balance between showing up fully for someone, and regulating your own thoughts, opinions, and words so that theirs can shine more fully. It’s like being a garden bed; you take the action of creating a container by choosing a sunny spot, building the walls, and laying the soil. Once the seeds are planted, the process of growth naturally occurs without much more than a little watering.
Things To Do When Holding Space:
1. Deep Listening
It is a human need to feel seen and heard. When this need is unmet, it can create activation and heightened emotions. To interrupt this escalation, let the person you’re working with feel they are truly seen and heard. Deep listening alone may be enough to create a sense of ease and calm.
Don’t listen for the sake of responding. Remember, we have two ears and one mouth. In a calm and grounded state, you are able to take in another’s words, body language, emotions, intention, and even what is not said. From here comes compassion, understanding, clarity, and next best steps.
2. Mirroring Body Language, Emotions, and Content
When holding space for someone in a particularly escalated state, understand that their world may be spiralling beyond comprehension; we may not ever truly understand what another is going through. To establish a sense of trust and reciprocity, we need to meet them where they are at. Even if we cannot fully grasp the experience of another, we can see them, hear them, and mirror them.
- Body language: Approach persons served in a non-threatening way, especially if you are meeting them for the first time and do not yet have a connection. Stand at a 45 degree angle from them, shoulder to shoulder. Standing face to face can come across as intimidating. Furthermore, mirroring their body language quickly bridges the gap for communication and encourages a sense of safety and connection. Wherever they are, be at eye level. If they are sitting, sit like them. If they are laying down on the ground, lie with them. If they are crossing their legs or leaning to one side, do that. Follow the lead of their body.
- Emotions and content: Mirroring exactly what an individual is communicating can be a useful tool to engage those served, help them feel understood, and provide clarity for both you and them. When someone hears what they have said reflected back to them, it can provide new insights and solutions. Once that piece feels heard, more content usually follows, but it may not. Remember to not be attached to any outcomes and release any expectations.
Friend: “I’m so overwhelmed, there’s so many people around, my thoughts keep spinning and I feel like I’m going to die”
Space Holder: “I hear you’re really feeling a sense of overwhelm”.
3. Be Curious
Ask questions! Show genuine interest in what someone is saying. Choose a piece of their story that feels significant and ask about it. One great question to ask is “how is that for you?”. This question allows space for one to dive deeper into their topic in the present moment, without asking about how it was in the past. Try to promote open-ended discussion rather than imposing your own words, thoughts, or ideas such as, “was that difficult for you?”. Treat the other as if they are an old friend, hanging onto and taking genuine interest in every word they say. Really explore with them and trust that their process will take them where they need to be.
4. Modeling Breath and Body Language
Utilize the connection you have with someone to model healthy non-verbal communication. Intentionally taking deep breaths and having a relaxed posture can have a calming effect on those you are serving. There are many things that cannot be controlled in this world, but we do have autonomy over our breath. The one you are holding space for will, on some level, be able to pick up on your energy and know they are in a safe, supportive space. Furthermore, mirror neurons in the brain constantly receive signals from those around us. Their body may automatically follow your lead.
5. Validate and Normalize
When someone believes they are the only one in the world who is experiencing their issue, it can feel isolating, and escalate negative emotions. Guilt and shame may often be present after or during heightened emotional states. It can be comforting to explain that challenges are a part of the human experience, there are others who have faced something similar, and you are here to support them in all they are doing and have done. If embarrassment is especially present, make allowances for their behavior. Let them know, “it’s average to feel uncomfortable in an uncomfortable situation”.
If someone you are holding space for has done something that is harmful to themselves or someone else, and it doesn’t feel appropriate to make allowances for their behavior, don’t shame them. Be gentle and ask, “is there another way you could have gone about doing that?”. And if you don’t know how to respond and are feeling stuck, just be real! They will appreciate authenticity more than a response you think you should give or following some kind of script. If they ask if they have been loud after shouting for a while, gently give them the reality check they are seeking from a calm, neutral, and grounded presence.
Have positivity and optimism be rooted in reality. You can be optimistic while still acknowledging that there are real challenges. Thinking everything will be ok, and there is always a happy ending, discounts the reality of struggle. Difficulties can be our greatest teachers; we don’t want to wish them away with unrealistic optimism. Instead, maintain hope for a better future, but not expectation; find strength within the struggle; and look for opportunities for growth.
Things To AVOID Doing when Holding Space:
Below are some common responses when holding space for someone experiencing deep emotions. If you feel yourself doing any of these, it’s a good reminder to take a breath, connect to the words and experience of the present moment, and use any of the previous tools.
8. Saying “You’re OK”
Oftentimes, an automatic response when someone is upset is to say “you’re ok”. The message behind this phrase is to calm down, eluding that everything is fine and providing unrealistic optimism. This is an example of talking someone’s experience down, we want to walk them through it. Plus, when is the last time saying “calm down” has ever worked on anyone?
9. Giving Advice
To think we know what’s best for someone is unwise. They have a whole life of emotions and memories that they carry around inside of them, and even if they are our friends and family, we only see the tip of the iceberg. An alternative to giving advice is to recognize that each person has the innate wisdom within themselves to process, make decisions, and come to their own conclusions, even if it’s not what we would do. It is our role to allow their process, not guide it. If they explicitly ask you for advice, try reflecting the question back to them:
- “What would you tell yourself right now?”
- “What do you need in this moment?”
If they are still wanting advice after trying these methods, that is their choice to outsource assistance, and it would be appropriate to share what is coming up for you within the context of the question.
10. Fixing People
Space holders are not credentialed therapists, psychologists, counsellors, guides, or healers. Even if you have a background in these modalities, the act of holding space does not attempt to fix people that aren’t broken. If they aren’t broken, there is nothing to fix. Remember, difficult is not the same as bad; what many people consider “bad experiences” are actually opportunities for learning, growth, and healing when held with care. Uncomfortable is not the same as dangerous; it’s ok to sit with discomfort. We are all whole and complete, it is simply our job to listen, be compassionate, and make sure others are not harmful to themselves or anyone else.
The information and tools within are not an extensive list, this is just a small piece of a topic that runs deep within the human psyche.
Space holding is not simply listening. It is a skill set to assist others in processing experiences, emotions, and information in a safe, compassionate, and understanding container created by someone who cares. See which tools you already use, and which you could improve on. And the next time someone asks you to “hold space”, you can be ready.
Last modified: January 6, 2022
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