Written by Regina Gee of Wellspring Coaching
Holding space is a posture and practice for how to be relational, allowing the best in us and others to emerge. I learned the words to talk about holding space from Heather Plett in her book The Art of Holding Space. She writes that when we hold space, we offer: witness, containment, compassion, selective non-judgement, selective guidance, space for complexity, autonomy, flexibility, connection, and allyship.
To witness is to see, and to hear, and to be a companion. When we hold space, we take off our armor and show up with vulnerability and trust, daring to see and to be seen. In order to witness, we practice listening with acceptance and openness. Having someone regard us with kindness and reverence, see our center without backing away… it makes all the difference. Connection is seeing, hearing, and valuing others. Being seen in our wholeness, in a way that invites our soul and makes it safe for our inner teacher to speak, it opens space for something mystical to exist, something beyond words. Witnessing is an act of connection that fosters becoming and meaningful change; to witness is an ultimate form of respect.
“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed – to be seen, hear, and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources that can help the sufferer make it through.” Parker Palmer
We need community to help us clarify the voice of our inner teacher – we need a space that will hold us, that can contain all that we are. We have to know that there exists space big enough to hold our complexity, our messiness, our processing, our questions, our weaknesses and our strengths. The work of achieving ourselves happens in solitude and community – it happens in spaces of connection with ourselves and others. When we hold space, we create a container of brave space for the work of transformation. A space to hold all of it, including what we don’t understand. Offering a container to help hold the openness and uncertainty of navigating liminal space allows for both protection and development. When we offer a container that can hold wholeness, it is a gift allowing people to be who and what they are.
“Wholeness is the integrity that comes from being what we are.” Parker Palmer
As we are becoming and growing and changing, we need tenderness and compassion: a place to land that doesn’t make us feel anxious or afraid. When we hold space, we offer this gentle compassion.
The most powerful tool of compassion is empathy. Brené Brown defines compassion as: “the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering.” She defines empathy as: “an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding.” When you empathize, you take stock of your perspective (what is that experience like for you?). You stay out of judgement, not putting a value on it, just listening. You recognize emotion within yourself (what have you felt that can help you connect with what this person might be feeling?). You communicate your understanding of that emotion, and you practice mindfulness by sitting with the emotion, feeling it, not pushing it away.
Empathy requires being able to feel other people’s pain. When we try to distance ourselves from this pain, we shift into sympathy. Sympathy is a form of disconnection. Sympathizing with someone can trigger shame and creates a position of condescension or superiority. To show compassion we have to practice empathy – I see you – and not sympathy – poor you.
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Pema Chodron
Holding space is not about not having opinions or insights, it is discerning when sharing our judgement is helpful or harmful. Sometimes it is helpful to share your perspective with someone – relationships can reflect inner states back to us – and it is also important to recognize that we are not here to save, change, or fix anyone. The only person who can change someone is themselves. If we are holding space for another person, we are holding space for their expansion, in their own way. We are trusting in their sovereignty and placing stock in the knowledge that people have the right to govern their own hearts, bodies, and minds, and that they can know themselves better than we ever can. Projecting our choices and experiences onto another isn’t helpful, it is harmful. Sharing our choices and experiences with another can be helpful in specific contexts where it facilitates reflection within another and respects their agency.
In Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis tells a story about finding a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. He stumbled upon a butterfly just beginning to emerge, and he sat to watch. But he quickly became inpatient, wanting the butterfly to appear faster. So, he warmed it with his breath, the warmth opening the cocoon. The butterfly crawled out, its wings folded and crumpled. He writes, “It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.”
When new life is emerging, we run the risk of killing it when we interfere with that natural process of slow unfolding. When we give guidance too soon or inappropriately, we hinder growth and rob the person of the necessary wrestling, anguish, mettle, and becoming. Tremendous struggle often precedes tremendous break throughs. Soren Kierkegaard said, “the secret to life is that everyone must sew it for themselves.” Research in intrinsic motivation shows that people have a much greater chance at long term (sustainable) success when they are able to find their own solutions and insight and listen to their own guidance than if they rely on external sources. Holding space well means not interfering with the necessary components of inner work. This includes letting people figure out what they need for themselves and not cutting the process short.
“To hold space well in these situations, we should offer only judicious guidance, waiting for the right time, and then only offering the right amount (based on our intuitive sense, or what the person actually tells us they want or need).” Heather Plett
Space for Complexity
Humans are a complex of so many layers and experiences and sensations and perceptions. We are an incredibly complex (and complicated) technology, and working towards wholeness means attending to our complexity. When we hold space, we hold every part of the other person, not shying away from anything, even the parts we don’t understand. This type of presence involves a lot of self-awareness and acceptance, allowing what is. If we as space holders shy away from complexity, it potentially encourages the person we are holding space for to bypass nuances and intricacies instead of truly engaging with the process of navigating liminal space.
Autonomy is defined as ‘the quality or state of being self-governing; self-directing freedom and especially moral independence.’ A key offering when holding space is supporting and protecting the autonomy of the person we are holding space for. There is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke where he writes “love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” Respecting and recognizing the autonomy of every person is this: protecting and bordering and saluting the solitude of ourselves and others. We are the only person who has direct access to our inner world; we cannot experience the internal worlds of another, the best thing we can do is respect that that world exists and do our best to protect and respect its sovereignty.
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born,
And did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Being a space-holder means being able to look directly at deep truth as people learn to listen to their inner voice. This personal growth is not simple or linear, and the people experiencing it will experience complex and varying emotions. Our work as a space holder is to release our expectations for what someone should be feeling or how we think it should work, and instead accept and witness what is. We can offer flexibility, being open to the reality of seeing a person who isn’t us navigate their inner work.
When we walk through liminal space, we are alone in the wilderness of our inner world. And it can feel incredibly disconnected and lonely. This is why holding space for others is so important – when we hold space, we offer connection in a place that feels heartbreakingly desolate. Connection is when people feel seen, heard, and valued and can show up as they really are. As humans, we are relational beings and as such being connected is an irreducible need. Seeing someone in the midst of their personal work, hearing what this experience is like, and valuing their commitment to themselves is a priceless gift we can offer. Connection in the middle of change is the offer of solid ground.
“Connection in the midst of liminal space can feel like dropping anchor into a solid seabed when the storm is tossing tour ship around the waves. As a space-holder, you can’t make the other person’s storm go away, but you can help their anchor find solid ground. ” Heather Plett
Offering allyship is all about walking alongside. You cannot hold space for someone else from a place of hierarchy or a pedestal. You cannot control someone else’s path for the best in them to emerge. We are peers in this thing called life, learning how to be as we really are and what it means to live well. We offer allyship when we are willing to step into our own messy and complex spaces and do our work. When we do this, we understand what it means to recognize and center the person we are holding space for. Choosing allyship means walking alongside another person in a way that witnesses them as whole and requires us to unlearn and re-evaluate what we think we know. Being an ally means confronting our own ego and shadows and getting out of the way.
For the Best to Emerge
Offering witness, containment, compassion, selective non-judgement, selective guidance, space for complexity, autonomy, flexibility, connection, and allyship is a method by which we can invite the best in us all to emerge. Practicing these stances towards life is an opening.
“Our emotions and experiences are layers of biology, biography, behavior, and backstory. Every single day, our feelings and experiences show up in our bodies, they’re shaped by where we come from and how we were raised, they drive how we show up, and each feeling has its own unique backstory. Understanding these emotions and experiences is our life’s work. The more we learn, the deeper we can continue to explore.” Brené Brown