2021.08.01   |   4 min

Holding Space: What It Means and Why It Is Important

When we share our intimate stories and details about our life experiences, thoughts, and feelings – we bring vulnerability. That exposure of our inner world to others opens the door to fostering connection and building a relationship. When we learn how to hold space for ourselves and others, we strengthen the foundation and build trust.  

What Does it Mean to Hold Space?

Holding space is about listening and being present. It isn’t about offering advice but providing gentle guidance if and when it is needed. There’s a time a place to provide our insights and opinions. When given too early or at an inappropriate time, people can get defensive, feel dismissed, shamed, overwhelmed, or even feel that the listener is trying to control the conversation. When people want advice and are ready to receive it, they’ll ask for it.  

When we hold space, we allow others to be themselves and be open and vulnerable. 

Holding Space for Others

To hold space for people is to allow someone to vent, or maybe even be silent, but adding the elements of presence, acceptance, love, and compassion. When we are holding space for others, we are completely present, tuning into everything spoken and unspoken. We disconnect our judgements and allow others to share openly or process what they are feeling in their own time and uninterrupted. We provide a supportive environment that makes them feel safe to share or be in quiet contemplation and give gentle guidance when required. Be in another person’s presence without interjecting, giving advice, fixing, or offering alternative viewpoints.

Holding Space for Ourselves

When we hold space for ourselves, we allow ourselves to feel whatever it is we feel. To sit with uncomfortable emotions, however difficult, without trying to distract ourselves with activities, food, or other people. 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

According to Pascal, we run from our fears and our emotions into the false comforts of distractions, over-busying, which can lead to inadvertently causing greater troubles.

When we can sit with our emotions and allow ourselves to feel without judgement while nurturing and loving ourselves, this provides us with the space to rest, rejuvenate and heal. It becomes easier to hold space for others during their time of struggle. 

Why is Holding Space Important?

When we bury our emotions and imprison our feelings within us, it eventually can cause us stress, leading to physical ailments. Expressing our feelings through words is a way in which we can release what is bothering us. Holding space provides a platform of neutrality and loving presence for people to express their feelings or be silent without feeling judged or rushed.

Heard, Listened to Supported

Sometimes when we express our thoughts and feelings. We want to be heard, know that someone is listening to us, understands how we feel, and we are not alone.

Gain Insight

Other times we want the opportunity to work through our feelings verbally. In listening to ourselves as we talk, we can gain insight and find our own solution. Verbalizing to another person helps clarify what is bothering us, pinpoint the emotions involved, and maybe develop a solution for ourselves. Most of us can recall a time when after we were able to express heavy emotions, without much feedback from the listener, we felt much lighter afterwards. 

When to Hold Space

Holding space is not easy.  I still have a tendency to want to relieve people’s suffering by offer suggestions, providing fixes, or more information than they are ready to handle.

Even though when we offer our advice our intent is pure, a proactive solution approach can often seem condescending, hinder the healing process, and create a rift in relationships.

Solution mode can be constructive when we have already processed most of our emotions and are ready to move to the next step.  Another event providing warnings might be helpful when we must make an urgent time-dependent decision, such as the structure we are in is about to collapse and must move out of harm’s way immediately. However, in most circumstances, we are not in any immediate harm. When in doubt, hold space.

Holding space can be complex, multi-layered, takes time and practice. To top it off, it’s also unique to every person and each situation. We all have egos; we think we know what’s best for people, and perhaps want to be right. It’s also hard to watch others suffer or make mistakes. We need to remind ourselves, the situation at hand, is not about us. When we hold space, we provide people with a safe space to make mistakes, fail, and allow them to grow and learn at their pace. We all need to hold space for one another, listen with total presence, without judgment, to allow each other to vent or be silent and provide one another with love and support.