What does holding space even mean? According to John Kim LMFT, it means, “To come in neutral. Open. For them. Not you. Holding space means to put your needs and opinions aside and allow someone to be. Her. Self.”
Have you been in the presence of someone who holds space for you when you’re talking? I can think of one friend who does this so well – my friend Danielle.
When we’re sitting together, and I share things about my life, she brings an energy of openness. She tunes in to everything I say. It’s noticeably different energy – being around someone who can hold space in that way.
After spending time with her, I walk away feeling that she understood me. She slowed down and listened. She doesn’t give feedback that shows her approval or disapproval of what I’m saying. Yet, there is kind energy coming from her. I feel light and happy, and sometimes I even feel like I’ve worked through something while in her presence.
I’ve experienced it during my years of practicing optometry.
Holding space isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I often find myself thinking in my head about what I’m going to say next—or reacting emotionally to what my friend or family member is saying.
Interestingly, I’ve been able to hold space more on the professional level while practicing optometry for 20 years. Aside from the standard clinical testing, I would sit and give my patients my full attention. I was always struck by how much people needed to feel heard, seen, and acknowledged. Also, by how they looked forward to coming in every year to see me.
Holding space for someone is a big deal, and it doesn’t happen often. Think about it – how many times do you have an encounter with someone and feel their presence is open, attentive, and nonreactive? I bet very few!
I’ve done some research and put together ideas that show what it means to hold space so that you can practice doing this for the people you care about most:
Holding space is a way of offering your full attention.
“One of the most precious gifts you can give another is the gift of your full attention. Yet, listening without the need to respond, interrupt, or comment is a skill that takes considerable practice to master,” says Adam Brady of Chopra.com.
Some people may have a natural talent for this, but it is a complex skill that takes a lot of practice.
I love studying and learning from spiritual masters and only recently got the memo that giving someone my attention is an act of love. Because when I’m doing this, I’m choosing to focus all of my energy on the person in front of me. I’m stepping out and away from my thinking mind in order to shine the light of attention onto them. I want them to know that they matter.
Practicing deep listening is an integral part of holding space.
According to Margeaux House at mindbodygreen.com, “Deep listening is the art of listening not just to hear what the person is saying but listening to understand. It involves not only your ears but also your heart.”
Listening is an artful tool. Active listening requires awareness. It seems that slowing down long enough to tune in and listen deeply is rare. Maybe that’s because we’re all moving at such a frantic pace. We constantly check our devices and schedule ourselves to the max.
Listening from the heart is on another level because it requires our entire presence. It’s easy to listen to a podcast while cooking. Or to listen to a friend share stories about her day while loading the dishwasher. But to tune in fully is the key to holding space.
A person holding space allows another the chance to figure out answers for themselves.
Think of times when someone you care about unloads a story about a situation causing them distress. It’s tough to hold back and allow them the space to figure out a solution independently.
When holding space, “The point is to be there for that person, without judgment. If you feel tempted to minimize, reframe, or solve the issue, remember that the urge doesn’t serve your purpose and transition back to active listening,” from GSTherapy.com.
Unconsciously we often dive into solving problems and fixing things that aren’t ours to fix. Maybe it’s because we’re uncomfortable with the uncertainty ourselves. We have trouble pausing. We struggle to give space for our loved ones to work toward solutions.
Refraining from offering unwanted advice sends a clear message. You believe your loved one can work with her own thoughts to find the answer herself. She doesn’t need you to jump in and fix it.
Holding space requires a high degree of mindfulness.
While holding space, we access a part of ourselves that observes and is aware and present. We’re able to witness our thoughts, emotions, and reactions without acting on them. Is this challenging? YES! A high degree of mindfulness is key.
When I read this, I feel it requires a heart-centered approach. Our minds are racing and overthinking all the time. But if we can move into our heart space, we can shift into another way of being—a place where we aren’t a slave to our everpresent, distracting minds.
When we’ve gone into our minds and are in thinking mode, we’ve lost the moment. We’re no longer present with our loved ones. Instead, we’re busy formulating our next response. That’s where the practice comes in. I can say, for sure, that I need more training here!
The funny thing is that holding space doesn’t require an active response. It requires showing up with self-awareness, love, and attention.
We need to be able to hold space for ourselves first.
“To hold space for others in our lives, we have to learn to hold space for ourselves first. When we neglect our own needs, we risk burnout, addiction, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms,” from the Centre for Holding Space.
When I read this, I thought right away, ‘How can we hold space for others if we don’t know how to do it for ourselves?’ Everything seems to always come back to the relationship we have with ourselves.
So, how do we hold space for ourselves? It’s so hard! It involves stopping to let ourselves feel. And permitting ourselves to experience whatever is happening inside without judgment. We can do the same thing for ourselves that we do for others.
Something happened to me during an intensive workshop I did many moons ago. During a group exercise, I felt myself reeling with emotions that felt out of control. I wanted to run away from them. I did get up from a group setting and run to the door. After walking outside for a few minutes, the instructor came to get me. She told me to come back into the room. She then instructed the group to sit with me as I experienced these terrifying thoughts and feelings.
After, she said, “You need to sit here and let yourself feel this. Everything is okay.” Now, I realize that she taught me to hold space for myself and led the group to hold space for me. It was one of the most critical healing experiences of my life.
Strengthening our vibration with loving-kindness meditation may help us access our heart space.
I was introduced to the idea of loving-kindness back about 15 years ago. It’s so simple and accesses that state of being that holding space.
In this meditation, you enter a state of total peace and well-being and say to yourself:
- May I be happy
- May I be safe
- May I be healthy, peaceful, and strong
- May I give and receive appreciation today
This loving and kind energy can then be directed to someone specific in your life. Then outward to others – even all living beings on the planet.
The peaceful, still energy of this meditation reminds me of the energy to hold space for others. By emanating feelings of loving-kindness, we’re bringing our hearts to our full attention. When people in my life have held space for me, that’s what it’s felt like—an attentive spaciousness with a grounded heart.
So, do you want to try to hold non-judgemental space for someone this week? And can you remember the first time another person held space for you? Did it feel comfortable?
Let me know if you do! I’m going to work on it this week, too. Let me know how it goes.
Have you ever studied love languages? It’s fascinating how different our love languages are.
And how do you forgive and let go? Take a look at some examples here.
(This story was originally published on July 29, 2021, and has been updated for increased thoroughness and clarity.)