There are times when providing a supportive space (or holding space) for someone facing a challenge can be the greatest gift. The process of holding space means being compassionately present. And it may not be an easy thing to do—especially when the other is our child, aging parent, or intimate friend. Our tendency is to want to fix things or offer advice. But when we are instead able to just be there for someone, it allows them to dip into their own inner space. This allows for making sense of their circumstance and thus shift from feeling isolated, wounded, or victimized to feeling safe, supported, and connected. Ultimately, our holding supportive space fosters the other’s growth and empowerment.
Holding space can happen at ordinary and unexpected times. Have you ever had an experience of being suddenly and utterly present with a complete stranger? I remember when someone behind me in a grocery store checkout line. She mentioned she was buying nutritional shakes for her mom who couldn’t eat solid food anymore. Then there was the person sitting next to me on an airplane who shared that he was traveling to be with a dying friend. In both cases, I felt deep empathy; my heart spontaneously opened to them, and they poured out their emotions.
Holding space with compassion
We may think of ourselves as independent persons, but we are all interdependent beings. Holding space for another is a form of compassion, but it is not a one-way gesture; it’s a shared experience. The American Buddhist author and teacher Pema Chödrön has stated this eloquently: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and wounded. It is a relationship between equals.”
Often, when we show compassion for another, our own dilemmas surface. We want to say, “I know exactly how your feel.” But do we really know how another person feels? You may think that this response, and even sharing a personal story, will help them. But more often than not it will diminish the importance of their struggle. How do we know when to simply listen and when to offer advice or share our own experience?
Holding space has no agenda or expectations or the need to help someone overcome a problem. All judgment must be set aside. Sitting silently and listening—in other words, abiding—creates a safe environment that invites the other’s heart to make room for whatever wants to be present. Don’t be afraid of silence.
Abiding is not suppressing your own thoughts, feelings, or sensations, but rather inviting them to take a back seat for now. Though your relationship with the one you are holding space for is “between equals,” you may not occupy equal space. You invite the person to occupy as much space as they need. As a back seater, you may want to take up more prime space. Be mindful when this happens. Simply say, as you would to a small child, “Not now; later.” Mindfulness is noticing your attention and what arises to distract you. It also is recognizing that whatever arises in your awareness is a messenger with something to share. It could be a self-doubt, judgment, or even fear. Rather than killing the messenger, we also must hold space for the message to be revealed.
Avoiding sympathy, favoring empathy
While holding space, notice when feelings of sympathy arise, as they can lead to disconnection from the other person. According to Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, when we feel sympathy for someone, we feel sorry for them but don’t feel their pain or understand their perspective. Feeling empathy as well as expressing compassion strengthens our connection. There may be a fine line between empathy and compassion. When we are compassionate, we are conscious of another’s distress and desire to alleviate it, but we are not invested in understanding their perspective. But with empathy, we are aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. As a result, we become more connected to them. Empathy is putting yourself aside, stepping into the other’s shoes, and walking their path with them.
Brown views empathy as being at one end of a continuum of connection, with shame at the opposite end and vulnerability as the equalizer. Shame and blame close us off and cause disconnection. In stark contrast, an empathic ear offers another the opportunity to be vulnerable yet feel safe in sharing his or her weaknesses. While shame says “I can’t let you see this,” vulnerability involves courage, compassion, and openness to connection.
Journey towards feeling whole
As I reflect back on my life, I think of many times when I needed to share my struggles with someone I could trust, who would listen lovingly and even feel my pain. There have been losses—a job, intimate relationships, parents. There have been life-changing challenges to address and decisions to make. I am fortunate to have had others who supportively held space for me. Some things, I’m sure, may have seemed trivial to the listener. Yet I have learned the value of letting go and allowing my vulnerability to surface with the right person. I have been able to do the same for friends and family, as well as countless people in my coaching work. I believe this is an important skill we learn on our journey toward feeling whole.
If someone we care about has acted inappropriately or been dishonest or hurtful, how can we hold space for and support them? Is it possible to set judgment aside and offer unconditional acceptance? Many therapists have learned that they don’t have to like a client or approve of what they have done. But they accept the person and constructively encourage them to move forward in their life. We can learn that same approach.
Fundamentals of space holding
Learning to hold space for someone can be cultivated as a form of spiritual practice much like meditation. Key components of this practice are:
- Letting go of judgment
- Opening your heart
- Allowing another to have whatever experience they’re having
- Giving your complete undivided attention to the other person.
Holding space for another invites our best self into the relationship. We trust the process to unfold organically. In sharing a journey with someone with an unknown destination, we foster their healing and transformation—and often our own.