(adapted from Heather Plett, heatherplett.com)
What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. When my mom was dying, the assisted care nurses held space for me while I held space for Mom. Though I knew nothing about the nurses’ support systems, I suspect there were others holding space for them as they did this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, and healers need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.
In my own roles as energy healer, teacher, facilitator, mother, grandmother and friend, I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way. It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are. However, I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life who I trust to hold space for me.
To truly support people in their own growth, transformation or grief, we can’t do it by taking their power away (i.e. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (i.e. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (i.e. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s requested, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.
Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to teachers, healers, or palliative care providers. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we are traveling or doing our shopping.
Here are some ways to do this important job of holding space:
Give people permission to trust their OWN intuition and wisdom.
Give people only as much information as they can handle.
Give some simple instructions or a few handouts, but don’t overwhelm them with far more than they could process in their current state.
Don’t take their power away.
When we take decision-making out of other people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for others (i.e. when they’re dealing with an addiction or planned suicide and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need their own autonomy to make choices (even our children).
Keep your own ego out of it.
This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I sometimes feel myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their evaluations reflect on my ability to teach?) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone, even me. To truly support the other person’s growth, we need to keep our egos out of it and create space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
Make them feel safe enough to fail.
When people are growing, learning, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them 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 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.
Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (i.e. when a person feels foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (i.e. when the other person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
Create a container for complex emotions, fear or trauma.
When people feel they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practicing holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, nonjudgmental way. In healing circles, we talk about ‘holding the rim’ for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be ridiculed or shamed by others in the circle. Someone is always there to offer support, strength and courage. This is NOT easy work. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for.
Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.
Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we cannot understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honor differences.