by Shahad Alzaidan
As mindfulness practices become more integrated into everyday discourse, the phrase “holding space” has found its place in the spotlight. By taking a glimpse into what it means to hold space, we can begin to demystify this profound practice and discover practical ways to become a more effective space holder.
What Does “Holding Space” Even Mean?
The abstractness of this term makes it difficult to define clearly, but in essence, it is a practice that goes beyond simply listening to another person, to witnessing and validating their emotional state, while being mindful of our own. It is relinquishing judgement and control to walk alongside them openheartedly and compassionately, providing support without attempting to fix their problems or influence the outcome of their situation. When space is held effectively, it creates room for comfort, peace, growth, self-exploration, and ultimately, collective healing.
Effectively holding space requires us to go against many of our natural human tendencies. Heather Plett, an international speaker, writer, coach, and facilitator, and an expert on all things related to “holding space,” defines the opposite of holding space as “emotional colonization.” Emotional colonization can be obvious and extreme, as in instances of emotional abuse and violence, but it can also manifest in subtle and often subconscious ways. Those subtle behaviors are common to all humans, and it is in exploring these natural tendencies that we can grow to become more effective space holders. Some of these behaviors include placing expectations on the other person to view situations with our own perspectives, dismissing their stories with stories of our own, interrupting them, or invalidating their experience. The list of emotional colonizing behaviors is long but the common thread is that they place us at the center of the conversation, rather than the other person. Can you notice where these behaviors show up in your life? By becoming aware of emotionally colonizing responses, we can shift our behavior and strengthen our abilities to hold space.
Holding Space Safely
When facing situations in which we desire to hold space for another person, that person is typically in an intense emotional state. Allowing that person to feel comfortable enough to share their story necessitates them feeling safe with us. Feeling safe allows them to set their defenses down and to show up fully, knowing that they are free to express their true emotions in a setting that is free from conflict and judgement. Therein lies one of the most difficult aspects of holding space — we often believe that in order to validate another person’s experience, we must agree with them. However, by paying attention to why the person is feeling the way they do, we can offer empathy and understanding, and ultimately, validation, regardless of our opinion. By reminding ourselves that the person simply needs to be seen, we can witness them without imposing our own perspectives.
Setting Ego Aside
Our own perspectives are often fueled by our egos. Despite the negative reputation the term “ego” has, it is important to note that the ego itself is not inherently bad — it is simply a part of being human; however, emotionally colonizing behaviors are heavily rooted in the ego. The reality is, we never know how another person feels. Our ego might want us to believe that we do, but even if we went through the exact same situation at the exact same time, we are not the exact same person and thus will not feel exactly the same way. As well intentioned as, “I know exactly how you feel” may be, it exchanges the focus to you and your experience, rather than holding that space for the other person.
Being a space holder for another person can often also bring up our own pain. If this happens, recognize that you are walking alongside them as they express their pain, rather than making it your own. Humbly witness what they are telling you, and hold that space for them without expectation or any desire of influencing the outcome. If given the opportunity by the recipient to offer guidance, do so gently, with humility and compassion. Fixing their problems ourselves, shaming them, or overwhelming them with our own thoughts of what they should do and when they should do it will not serve their healing or growth. Rather, we empower others by holding that sacred space for them.
Respecting the Silence
The magic of holding space occurs in the quiet moments. If we can become intentional, active listeners, rather than responders, we can place ourselves in some of the most deeply intimate human experiences. Holding space is greatly complex and cannot be encompassed within the confines of a page, but being held can provide tremendous growth and healing well worth the effort of delving into this practice.