In 1980 in America’s Bible Belt, a toddler named James Luke had tumours all over his body. An IV insertion caused a linear scar on his neck, while a tumour behind his left eye blinded him and another behind his right ear was biopsied.
You may have heard of the act of ‘holding space’ and thought it was only something done in a counsellor’s office or a yoga studio. Yet this compassionate gesture is something we all can do, anytime, anywhere. Doing so can lead to stronger relationships and authenticity, helping both parties feel more at ease with their vulnerabilities.
To hold space for someone involves being there for them, fully present, offering empathy, kindness and perhaps even a shoulder to cry on. It means not rushing in to fix the situation, cast judgement or offer well-meaning (but perhaps misguided) platitudes.
“Holding space means giving support which is free of judgement,” explains Natajsa Wagner, a Brisbane-based clinical psychologist. “It involves a conscious and deliberate choice to put aside our agenda, the need for our own specific outcome and the desire to give advice or ‘fix’ a person or their situation.”
Sounds pretty sensible right? But think back to when you last helped a loved one through a crisis. Perhaps your sister was in tears over relationship issues, your partner lost their job, or a friend received a worrying health diagnosis. If you’re like many of us, you hurried to comfort them with phrases such as “I’m sure it’ll get better” or “There’s something much more promising around the corner”.
While this type of soothing is of course kind and well-intentioned, it can also be misguided. It can make the person who is confiding in you feel misunderstood and perhaps even frustrated. They may just need you to sit in the trenches with them for the time being. So how can you cultivate the skill of holding space?
Act with compassion
Compassion is what helps us authentically connect and support others, which is why it’s fundamental to the concept of holding space. “People think compassion is just about being nice, but it is so much more than that,” says Natajsa. “To feel compassion for another person, we go through a process. We first become aware that something is wrong, and as we continue to feel our compassion for a person or their situation, we move into a place for connectedness and care.”
“As compassion is activated it inhibits the fear circuits in our brain, which allows us to turn towards a person’s pain and suffering, instead of away from it,” says Natajsa.
“Compassion is therefore essential to holding space, because it evokes our courage and our willingness to be present with another person’s pain. Without it, we would not have the desire or ability to hold space for another.”
Move away from our own judgements
Quietening any judgements we have about what we’re hearing is crucial to holding space. It’s also not as easy as it sounds. “It is part of our human nature to judge, so rather than trying to stop the judgement, what’s important is to make a conscious decision to ‘bracket’ or move our judgement off to one side when it does comes up,” says Natajsa.
Casting judgments also turns the focus away from the person who is confiding in us and becomes more about who we are and what we believe. Holding space for someone means focusing on them, rather than ourselves.
Also, remember that you are viewing someone else’s experience through your own unique lens or view of the world. What seems like the best course of action or the correct thing to do from your perspective isn’t necessarily going to be the way forward for them, no matter how right it feels to you.
Get comfortable with uncertainty
It’s only natural to want to soothe others with promises and vague platitudes – anything to make them feel better in times of distress. We often respond in this way to try and cheer the other person up, but it’s worth reflecting on why else we do this.
Many of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty and the unknown, and we find it upsetting to see someone we care about in pain or troubled. Pausing to simply hear our loved one out and sit with them in the discomfort can be a challenging experience for both parties, but it’s vital for us so we can reach a greater understanding and connection.
Listen and take a pause
As described in You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy (Penguin 2020), there’s more to listening than simply hearing. “Done well and with deliberation, listening can transform your understanding of the people and the world around you, which inevitably enriches and elevates your experience and existence,” writes Murphy.
Murphy also emphasises the importance of listening without formulating your reply in your head at the same time. Doing this means you’ll miss out on information and cues that the speaker is giving, as you’ll be distracted by your own thoughts. She suggests pausing, rather than rushing in, when the speaker has finished talking.
Natajsa agrees that taking a pause is a good approach when you’re holding space for someone. “Being comfortable with some level of silence or pause in between speaking is important – we do not need to respond with wisdom or ‘the right thing’,” she says.
Sometimes no words need to be shared when you’re holding space for someone. A clasped hand, a hug or even just sitting side by side can feel incredibly supportive and powerful beyond words. We can tie ourselves in knots knowing the right things to say to someone, but the most important aspect is simply being there for someone.
You don’t have to stay silent though. If you’re unsure what to say, Natajsa suggests these simple responses:
- I hear you.
- Would you like to tell me more about it?
- I really want to understand what that is like for you – would you like to tell me?
- I don’t know the answer, and I am with you in this uncertainty.
Ask others to hold space for us
It’s not always easy to ask directly for what we need, but your loved ones might not otherwise realise how they can best support you. If you’re wanting others to hold space for you, tell them.
“There are times when we struggle to do this for fear of appearing weak, wanting to handle it on our own or not wanting to burden others,” says Natajsa.
“But vulnerability is a gift; it always invites deeper connection and allows others to be vulnerable in return. This is something we all want more of and need as a society, so let’s embrace authenticity and open communication that supports this.”
Here are two suggested phrases from Natajsa on how to ask others to hold space for you:
- What I really need right now is for you to be there for me – not to give advice or fix anything, but just to listen.
- It would mean so much to me if you could just sit with me or be on the other end of the phone without the pressure for me to have to say or do anything.
Next time someone comes to you for a shoulder to cry on, practise holding space for them. Practise it often and you’ll gain the deeper connections, wisdom and empathy that comes from holding space.
First published in Being magazine, issue 2 2020.