What Holding Space Looks Like and 3 Tips to Practice It

My dear friend, Kristy and I met in one of the most bizarre ways. We both were walking down the streets of Reims, France – a town in the northeast region of France roughly 2 hours from Paris and recognized for its champagne producing vineyards. While walking with a friend who was in town visiting, Kristy noticed the Nationals baseball hat clipped to my friend’s backpack. She yelled out to us, “Hey, are you two from Washington, DC?” and I essentially shrieked! I screamed. People in France don’t scream. They stare at people who do, though.

“Yes, YES I am! Oh my god, are you?” In an instant, I was immediately comforted by this idea that I wasn’t alone. Someone who was like me was here in the town that I felt like a stranger in every day. Living in Reims was one of the toughest experiences I had lived through. It was isolating, unfriendly and always reminded how misunderstood I was. But to be fair, I never felt like I understood Reims. But in that moment, I knew there was someone in that town who felt like me and just got it.
We were two of the only Americans living in this town. While we had both moved there for different reasons, we were both there with our partners trying to sort out what life meant for Americans living in Reims. We met in a way that couldn’t have been more serendipitous; but in hindsight, Kristy was the breath of fresh air I didn’t even know how much I needed.

We made plans to get together for dinner that week. We often laugh about our “first (friend) date” in that little corner bistro. We talked about everything under the sun – our dreams, our families, our experience with loss and grief, and what it felt like navigating life in a country that was completely foreign to the both of us. We connected on our love of travel and curiosity of visiting new places; and how this new experience took on an entirely new level of adaptability and resilience. We laughed, we cried, and we were in awe of how connected we felt to each other.

Months grew on and we were there for each other in some of our toughest moments. Our conversations grew deeper. We would find ourselves in the throes of different conversations around what was happening in that moment. Navigating the tricky waters of marriage, wanting to start families while also juggling meaningful careers, and what the commitment to loving ourselves looked like, there was never a single ounce of judgment. Our conversations were open. We practiced compassion with one another. We were willing to listen to each other with our hearts without wanting anything back. We found ourselves in a friendship where space was being held for the both of us.

You might be reading and asking yourself, “Ummm, what does holding space actually mean?”

Simply put, holding space means to be with someone without judgment. To practice empathy. To accept someone’s truth, no matter what it is. It means putting your needs and opinions aside and allowing someone just to be themselves. And it’s a big freaking deal!
But many people are unable to do this. Many of us are wired to take, to seek from others, to high jack spaces. We have a hard time accepting someone’s perspective if it differs from ours. We can find ourselves trying to convince or manipulate the other person into seeing things our way – perhaps not in an obvious way, but subtly. We may not even be aware that we are doing it, but we are. We judge. We come in with our own agendas and our knowing of the right path. Instead of holding space, we take space. And sometimes, we disguise it as love.

At one time or another, someone in our lives will need a space held that is loving, nonjudgmental and empathetic. They will be faced with a challenge: perhaps they are going through a divorce, perhaps they are crippled with doubt about what the next move should be for their career, or maybe they find themselves in an unexplained depression. When that time comes, the relationship you have will offer the foundation in which you can hold space for the other person.

Like I said, holding space for someone is a big deal. If we do not have the ability to hold space, the relationship suffers. Unsafe spaces cause people to drift apart, to hide their authentic selves, and to not show up honestly. It blocks trust and without trust, the relationship cannot grow and thrive. You need people around you to hold space for you. If people are not holding space for you, then you are not growing. And this may be a relationship where you have become stuck.

Holding space for someone may not come up naturally; but it is certainly something you can practice. Here are three tips to help you practice holding space for someone who needs it:

  1.  Sit with what is. It is arguably one of the most difficult things that you can do when you see someone you care about in pain. Sitting with what is means simply being with the person for whom you are holding space. Try to stay focused on what they are saying and resist the urge to do anything. What you are creating is a safe space for the other person to express and feel their feelings. Sit with them through the hard stuff.
  2. Don’t hijack their pain. Holding space for someone in pain can bring up your own feelings or experiences. If you are genuinely holding space for another person, it requires that you have a clear intention that you are there for them – not stealing their hardship and making it your own. The art of presence is critical here and to keep the focus on them.
  3. Try not to fix it. Oftentimes, when we see someone we care about in pain, we try to fix it for them. While that might make us feel better, the other person may feel even more isolated in what they are going through. Be there for the other person without trying to fix them or their feelings. The only way over their pain is through it.

As Brene Brown says, “When we are looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, is able to bend, and most of all, embraces us for our strengths and struggles.”

If someone isn’t able to hold space for you, find someone who will.
That someone may just have to be you for now. And that is more than enough to start.

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