One of the services I provide is holding space, but explaining that to people can be difficult. It is a healing tool used frequently by mystics, healers, and death care workers, as well as others. It is a vague phrase that covers a rather broad complicated idea…yet also a rather simple idea.
Holding space is the single most important thing you can do for anyone in the midst of processing an emotional crisis such as dying, caregiving, grieving, anxiety, depression or trauma. You don’t have to be a professional to do it. It is something we knew how to do a long long time ago sitting by the fire at night with our tribe members…before that fire started to include alcohol.
Initially, I understood the concept in my body. I did it, like I do most things, by intuition. I didn’t think about it. I just did it. I could FEEL when I was holding space, but I couldn’t explain it. I couldn’t teach it with words. It was visceral. It was an energy I felt that encapsulated both myself and the person I was holding space for. This was not easy to explain to others who wished to grasp this concept.
The people I hold space for can feel it too, but they can’t describe it either. “I just feel better when I’m around you,” I often hear.
As I’ve grown into my spiritual mastery I can speak on it more clearly. Now it feels like the right time to put it in words here.
How To Hold Space For Another
- Listen Attentively
Disclaimer: There are many times that holding space does not include talking. The below pertains to times when verbal expression is what is contained in the space. However, sometimes you are called to hold space for someone who is too ill to speak or is incoherent, like at a deathbed. In those instances, holding space might just be reading poetry aloud or reading silently to yourself. It might be saying a rosary or mala quietly. It might be just being an active presence at someone’s bedside. Just remember there is a difference between ‘being in attendance’ at someone’s bedside and ‘being present’ at someone’s bedside. Intention is everything. What matters most is your intention to dedicate your time and energy to the person in front of you.
This is the most important step. In some form or fashion you need to set the intention that you are carving out space dedicated to this person and their process. You can do this literally by creating a safe soft environment where you won’t be disturbed. You can also do this with just your mindset, by seeing with your mind’s eye the space around you and the other person, much like a cone of silence space. You are energetically creating that space then.
It is your intention that this space and time are for the other person. Not for you. Not for anyone else. Unless it is a group you are facilitating and then, of course, it is for everyone involved, but the rules are still the same.
Intention creates the energy of the space. We all have those spidey senses that go off when someone is only half listening to us or not listening altogether. We know when someone is invested in what we are sharing or when someone is actually thinking about what they are going to say next. It is your intention that sets the stage, but it is also what the play is all about.
This is tricky for most people. Most people are used to talking about themselves and rarely offer a listening ear. In truth, most people are used to monopolizing conversations. Oddly enough, these people also fancy themselves as good listeners. They might think that, but as you keep reading you’ll find they do all the things that are not part of good listening. This is why developing the skill to hold space is considered a gift.
Listening attentively means you are maintaining the intense connection. You are listening to what is being said, and what isn’t being said. You are offering a healing touch of comfort upon a hand or arm. You are nodding when appropriate.
You maintain comfortable eye contact. This means you aren’t staring someone in the eyes. It means you maintain eye contact and when they break eye contact you also let your eyes drift away. But not to the television on the wall (if you are in such a place), or to your phone, or your watch, or the cute person across the aisle. You look at their hands, or their hair, or their new shoes. Then you look back into their eyes. When they look away, you look away. When they look back, you look back. You can also avoid staring by switching your focus from one eye to the other and then to the mouth, the ears or the hairline.
You manage your body language. You don’t lie back and slouch. For the most part use them as your guide. If they lean forward, you lean forward. If they lean back you can lean back also, but you can also lean forward. It depends on why you think they are leaning back. If they are relaxing, then leaning back might indicate they are winding down to a close. If they are sobbing, they might need a minute to express that without words. Maybe they are just settling in to comfort themselves before they share something very deep.
If you are unsure, just mimic their posture and look for more clues.
Allow whatever comes, to come. Do not take anything personal. Do not judge. Do not flinch at curse words if you are not a cursor, and please do not tell them that you are uncomfortable with swearing. Nothing will shut someone down faster than being told their expression of their deepest wound is offending you.
Remember this isn’t about you.
If they are loud, let them be loud. If in a public place and it seems inappropriate (TRULY inappropriate), suggest moving to a more appropriate environment, but don’t make it far. Take them to a nearby bathroom, outside or in the car. Once the loud expression has resolved then you might be able to safely offer a change of venue to one of your homes. It is so very important though that expressions be allowed to flow smoothly when and where they arise. If you try to relocate to another venue chances are that when you get there the opportunity will have passed.
While you will largely be silent in your attention there will be times when it is important to respond to either offer support, or so that the other person knows you are indeed listening. Responding is imperative to establish your engagement in the space. It isn’t enough to just sit there and nod every so often.
To respond, you are not just repeating something they said, you might actually ask for clarification about something you didn’t understand. “I don’t mean to interrupt but I think I missed something, how did/didn’t you say/wasn’t she…..” This shows the person you were listening. They may have missed some important detail in their share or they may have just been unclear. Either way they will feel valued that you cared enough to ask. However, do this too often (more than once) and it will seem like you aren’t listening or that you are judging.
Responses that affirm them are the best to offer. “This is a lot for one person.” “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” “Wow, you are so brave.”
Be careful about assuming their feelings in your response. “That must’ve made you mad” can seem like an affirming response, but maybe it didn’t make them mad, maybe it made them scared or hurt. A better alternative is “I can’t imagine how that must’ve made you feel.” Never assume.
How To Not Hold Space For Another
- Share Your Own Story
- Try To Fix It
- React With Judgement
- Allow Others To Do Any Of The Above
Share Your Own Story
As a social worker they teach you to never to share your own stories with clients. It was considered unprofessional. I broke that rule more often than not, because sometimes to gain someone’s trust they needed to know that I too had been where they were at that moment. I was always careful to therapeutically share. To share only that which was necessary to establish credibility and only at the very right time.
It is important to share your story when you are building relationships and want to develop intimacy. Holding space for someone is not the time or place for this. You ARE building the relationship and developing intimacy when you hold space for them. So don’t blow it by making it about you. It isn’t about you at this moment.
While you are holding space for someone it is never appropriate to share your story. Even if you think it makes you relatable. Even if you went through the exact same thing. While you are holding space keep it to yourself and share at a later more appropriate time.
When you are holding space for someone, that space and time are dedicated to them. This is a sacred act you are doing. It is something very few people experience. Not many have people who are able to hold space for them when they need it. Do better than the others.
Try To Fix It
Most people are so uncomfortable with the deep expressions of another that they want to fix it right away. That isn’t what this time is for. This time is just for the other person to have a safe space and safe person around when they are in the vomiting up part of the process of healing.
It can be tempting to offer platitudes, suggestions or advice…DON’T. No one can even hear well intended offerings when they are in the place of deep expression. The best way you can ‘fix’ whatever it is, is by holding that sacred space for them to find their way through it. Think of it like this, when someone is the midst of vomiting you don’t offer them ginger ale. You wait until the vomiting has subsided and then you offer them the beverage. In the midst of vomiting you offer to hold their hair back, give them a cool rag and maybe a clean shirt.
Holding space is not the same as having a conversation. There is no ‘you talk/I talk’ kind of formula. This isn’t a time to worry about what to say, or try to ‘carry your end’. Therefore, there should be no reason to interrupt someone while you are holding space, with the following exceptions.
Time. We don’t have unlimited chunks of time to hold space for people. We do have the right to manage our time and govern how we spend it. If you’ve been holding space for awhile and need to get to an appointment, it is permissible to explain that and offer the option to meet up another time. Chances are though, that your holding space will come to a natural conclusion and the person will terminate it, or you will notice the shift into a regular conversation as they might begin to ask you for feedback or your thoughts. Notice I said ‘ask you for feedback’. This is different than the above when I implored you not to try to fix it by offering suggestions etc. It is different when someone asks it of you.
Bathroom breaks. You will not be holding the right energy in the space if you are also trying to hold your bladder. Find a lull in their expression or a moment where you think they might benefit from a moment alone and excuse yourself. I always explain that I need to use the restroom because I never want anyone to think I am bored and needed to sneak away.
Reschedule. If the person seems to need more time in the sacred space but you have another commitment that you feel can be rescheduled without harm then do so. Again, inform the other person that you just want to make a call to move your next appointment. This also affords the person the option of ending the session with you if they feel they want to.
React With Judgement
It is important to offer reactions as responses at times. It would be non-therapeutic to sit stone faced while someone is pouring their heart out to you. By the same token, though, it is not beneficial for you to be overcome with emotion and then they have to comfort you. It is one thing to be moved to tears, take their hand and say, “I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you.” It is quite another to have a shocked look on your face, exclaim, “What a bastard!!” and break down sobbing in front of them.
It might be tempting to offer advice (see above) like “you should leave him.” Or even to say “I couldn’t stand for that behavior.” This is not the appropriate time and place for any of that. If you are going to hold space, then commit to it and hold that space. Your opinions or feelings don’t factor in.
When people you care about trust you enough to share some of their darkest times with you it is an honor. Reacting with judgement about the situation, how they handled it or even about the abuse they sustained is not helpful when you are holding space. You need to practice compartmentalization and keep your wits about you.
Remember this is not about you. When you get home you can find someone to hold space for you while you vent all the things you were feeling while you were holding space. (If you don’t have anyone to hold space for you then you can vent in a journal.)
Allow Others To Do Any Of The Above
This one is self-explanatory. You are the gatekeeper of the space. If someone comes along to interrupt, shush or interject, it is your job to protect your person.
The World Needs More Space Holders
Holding space doesn’t cost you anything but time and attention. You don’t need special training to become certified in it. You don’t have to go to school to do it. You do, however, need to have enough self-awareness to know when you are NOT doing it. I see too many people claiming to hold space for others when I see no evidence of the skill in action.
The world needs more space holders so developing this skill will only benefit you. As a professional it lends to better results – no matter the profession. As a person it lends to better relationship building.
There are times I will comment on someone’s social media post that I am holding space for them. This is a virtual way to hold space. It doesn’t actually involve us sharing space in any way. It is completely an energetic happening with the intention to offer love and light in their time of hurt. I don’t say it lightly, nor to everyone. It is usually directed towards someone I admire, respect or care for greatly and it is a way for them to know I am present and available to have a real session.
I am currently looking for more ways and opportunities to hold space in real time in my community, by collaborating with brick and mortar owners to offer opportunities to gather for sacred purposes. If you are local and are interested in such things, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time…
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