Holding Space: A Foundation for Compassion and Connection

The first time I experienced the impact of someone holding space for me was in instructor training to teach Freedom to Be: An Embracing Life Experience.  Pam Dunn, owner of Your Infinite Life Training & Coaching Company, was the facilitator.  The weekend training was on empathy, and when my turn came, I bombed.  Determined to do it, I went again.  I bombed a second time.  Pam began inquiring about what I was feeling.  She had no judgement, no agenda, no need to fix what was going on with me.  She began a gentle inquiry accompanied by incredibly sensitive listening that resulted in a tremendous breakthrough around something that was not even on my radar.   It was transformative!  I remember feeling awakened by the safe space she created. 

In her article, What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone, Heather Plett wrote, “When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.”  I failed the empathy segment that day and gained so much thanks to Pam holding space for me!  (PSA - I have since passed the empathy segment!)

What is “holding space”?  Holding space is more than being empathetic.  It is founded on seeing someone’s best self even when they may not be behaving that way.  It means seeing your best self even when you feel brutally angry, full of grief, totally challenged, or like walking out on a relationship.  Because holding space is vitally important in love relationships, Pam goes through the possible thought process of holding space in The Couple’s Retreat.  One who is holding space may think, “I’m challenged with seeing who I am because you are confronting me with something I’ve done or said and it’s hard because of the way you’re reacting for me to see you.  However, I’m going to choose to do that.  I’m going to hold the space to see that, although you’re behaving in a way that indicates how magnificent you are, I still see that you are magnificent.  And I don’t feel very good about myself right now, but I know I’m far greater than this mistake that’s being called out.”

Holding space is allowing your child to fail knowing that that failure does not define him.  It is having the faith that he will rise, become resilient, and learn.  It is hearing your brother share the physical pain he is in without fixing it or rescuing him or pitying him.  It means deeply feeling what you are feeling in that moment, deeply empathizing with him, and seeing his courage, persistence, and love for life.   It means trusting that he knows his own best path.  It means honoring someone’s journey as sacred and uniquely their own without offering them a detour, a shortcut, or the scenic route.  They have their own inner GPS for guidance.

Holding space means letting go of fixing, shaming, judging, or explaining.  You step into trust, faith, and good will.  We all desire to be seen and heard.  When you hold space for someone, it is the ultimate in being seen and heard.  The same holds true for you.  Holding space for yourself allows you to see your own magnificence.  You see yourself as greater than you may be acting in the moment.  Holding space allows people to move into deeper understanding, clarity, and connection.  At times it may be clumsy.  No matter how awkward, it will make a difference, and with practice, we get more skilled.

In her article, Heather Plett talks about the palliative care nurse who held space for her and her siblings during her mother’s death.  I don’t know what we would have done without the hospice nurse who did the same for my family when my mother was dying.  The nurse was quiet, yet solid.  Her gentle presence filled the room with support.  When I presented a workshop some years later and a hospice nurse was a participant, it was amazing to thank her in front of the room from an incredibly vulnerable place that was accessible in great part because Pam held space for me during that empathy session.

Holding space is operating from your deep, vital, authentic heart.  There may be silence, and there is profound listening.  It provides the height of safety.  With that held space, we have the opportunity to fully experience our humanness as well as our divinity.   The feeling is one of intrinsic connection.  This is something I commit to practicing more frequently, and I hope that you will, too!