Have you ever had a partner or friend say, “I just need you to hold space for me.” and thought absolutely, I got you! without really understanding what it means to hold space or how it looks different from any other conversation?
You’re not alone.
Holding space is a powerful practice that allows us to cultivate deeper relationships and strengthen the bonds of trust with the people who matter to us. It’s what we need when we’re processing something ‘heavier’ (like grief and loss) and need to talk through it. So, in this post we’re breaking. it. down. Ya’ ready?
What Is Holding Space?
Holding space is being present with an open heart and open mind. It’s creating a kind, curious, safe, judgement-free zone where the other person can be completely open and vulnerable. It’s making room for what’s arising without trying to control it or fix it. It’s receiving, understanding, and accepting the other person’s thoughts and emotions as they are. It’s sitting with someone in loving support so they feel seen, heard, and cared for (because we’re trained to take action, sitting without fixing can feel majorly uncomfortable). And the most important part of holding space is active listening – that’s why I always talk about being a heart with ears. It’s one of the best ways you can support someone who’s grieving.
You can hold space for others AND yourself. Practicing on yourself can be a great place to start.
Holding space is NOT…
- Judging (I think you’re overreacting, don’t you?)
- Comparing (Did you hear what happened to Marie, though?)
- Fixing the other person or solving a problem for them (all you need to do is x, y, z – no big deal)
- Centering yourself (that sounds like the time I…) – ‘cause it’s not about you
- Agreeing with them – you don’t have to agree to have empathy or understand where they’re coming from
- Being emotionally ‘detached’ – instead, you need to be aware of your own emotions so you don’t react from them
What we mean by “active listening”
Because active listening is the cornerstone of holding space (and we allllll want to be able to say we’re “good listeners”) let’s take a second to explore what that actually looks like.
How we usually listen…
We’re not paying attention (probably because we have 634 things on our minds or our phone just pinged) and they have to repeat themselves.
It’s still basically ignoring but nodding and mmhmming along, maybe even a little eye contact now and then so they think we’re listening, at least until they ask a question that we can’t answer and we’re caught. 😳 Pretending removes trust from the emotional bank account of the relationship and signals we’re not a safe person to open up to.
We tune into the bits we relate to or identify with and kinda sidestep anything else that’s being said. It’s also having one ear on what’s being said and one ear on your internal dialogue, which includes planning what to say in response before they’ve finished speaking so we miss vital information. Selective hearing often leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication.
How we actively listen…
This is what we’re aiming for when we’re holding space for someone. It’s paying attention to the whole person – their energy, words, body language and the context of the situation. Listening with an open heart and open mind. And seeking to understand the other person’s point of view with kindness and care.
Practical tips for holding space (a.k.a. how to)
If you’re the one who needs someone to hold space for you, ASK if the listener has the time and mental space to truly hear you out – especially if it’s a tender conversation.
If you’re the one holding space, ASK what they need before they start. Do you want me to just listen or help you problem solve? If I know all they need is someone to listen, asking helps me tune out my “internal fixer”.
VALIDATE AND WITNESS THEIR EMOTIONS
Most people want to know their feelings are okay and they aren’t crazy. You don’t have to agree – it’s about acknowledgment. A simple way to do that is by repeating back what they said (not word for word; the gist). It’s a simple technique that shows you were listening and makes the other person feel understood. It also ensures you heard them properly because sometimes what we say and how it’s heard are two completely different things.
STEP INTO YOUR MASCULINE
The divine masculine is all about providing a safe container for the wild feminine emotions. Be present and grounded. Literally feeling firm in your legs, putting your feet flat on the ground and rooting your energy downwards or connecting from your root chakra to the earth. Keeping your posture open (no crossing your arms) and your breath deep and smooth. As Brené says, “Strong back, soft front, wild heart.”
REGULATE YOUR EMOTIONS
Don’t ignore or push down your emotions, be aware of what comes up. If you notice you’re starting to feel triggered, deepen your breath further. Breathe through it. Connect to your intentions of being a heart with ears and remind yourself it’s not about you. You can process your own emotions later.
Meditation allows us to practice holding space for ourselves. To witness our thoughts and emotions with kindness, curiosity, and without judgement. To allow our emotions to move through us without getting sucked in. The more we can do that for ourselves, the better we’re able to do it for others.
A pillar of my coaching is believing that you’re whole, capable, and resourceful and you DO NOT need to be fixed. By holding space for you, it allows your prefrontal cortex to relax so you can access the resources within and find the clarity you need.
So, I’d invite you to believe the same. Trust that the person who is opening up to you can do hard things, handle their sh*t, and find the answers they’re looking for without you (unless they explicitly ask for your advice). Give them permission to trust their instincts and make choices that feel right to them, even if it isn’t what you would do.
SHIFT YOUR LANGUAGE
We’ve all been guilty of asking, “how are you?” like ALL THE TIME. Except that question doesn’t feel like an invitation to open up – it’s pleasantry. It’s just what we say. And more often than not we respond with, “fine” or “good thanks” and move on to the weather.
Even if they DO want to open up, navigating loss is an emotional rollercoaster that can seem impossible to articulate. Instead, ask, “how are you feeling right now?”. It can be a lot less overwhelming to just deal with the present moment. “Right now” is easier to tune into and express.
We’ve all made mistakes, failed to hold space, pretended to listen, responded with our own experiences, or rushed to fill the silence with unsolicited advice. This is NOT about beating ourselves up. We didn’t learn this growing up. It takes practice, patience, and presence to learn to hold space for ourselves and those we care about. And hopefully, now that you know what it means + how to respond differently, we can use these tools to build trust and intimacy with those who need our support.
And if you need someone to hold space for you, to hear you out, validate your feelings, remind you that you’re not crazy, and believe that you’ll figure it out because you’re not broken? That is the heart of my coaching relationships. I’m here for you. You can book a discovery call today.