Recently a friend commented on how crucial holding space is. It needs unpacking. What do we mean when we talk about holding space – both interpersonally and in groups?
A room holds space. A circle of chairs holds space. My arms around you hold space for you.
The foundation of a house holds space for the house to be built. It touches the ground. It makes the house stronger and more resilient. But you don’t go looking at the foundation unless you are buying the house or it seems to have trouble.
Holding space seems invisible. It is hard to see, but you can sense it is there. When it isn’t there or isn’t strong, the lack of it is very noticeable.
As a facilitator, holding space for a group of people to do something together involves:
- creating physical space that is conducive to the task.
- What do people need to do with their bodies?
- What relationship do their bodies need to have to each other?
- Is there light, fresh air, refreshments to keep bodies fueled?
- creating emotional space that enables action on the task at hand.
- How do people feel welcomed and invited to engage?
- Is the emotional desire to get what matters done greater than the emotional desire to rest, resist, or sabotage?
- Are there clear boundaries for good behavior? Who enforces boundaries and how?
- Does each participant feel respected and appreciated – valued for their time, skill, and experience?
- creating intellectual space that sparks wisdom and creativity.
- How do people know they can safely contribute wild ideas?
- How is the critical (refining) phase made distinct from the generating phase?
- How do people know they can move beyond impressing each other to doing something together?
- What helps contributors feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves?
In one on one dynamics, holding space for an individual to do something transformative, vulnerable, or bold mostly involves:
- creating physical and intellectual space
- Same questions as a group for both, plus
Does the individual feel safe – physically, from distractions, eavesdropping, etc?
- creating emotional space
- Can they have their experience of their emotions without having to defend, justify, or argue them? (even if that is painful to the listener)
- Can they explore a thought or feeling without being interrupted or distracted?
- Do they feel a respected? Experience engaged neutral listening?
Holding space for someone is not about responding to the emotions or words and gestures. It is about observing the emotions with the individual. Being beside them in the experience they are having, not as a respondent (even if it is about you), but as a companion in the experience.
And this can make holding space for someone really really hard for us. We have to move out of ourselves and into a space of an objective compassionate observer.
When you make a chair or a house, there is a tangible visibility to the work. You can see it happening, measure it, check against specs, and watch it function over time.
When you are holding space, there is a very intangible and invisible quality to the work. Conspicuousness in holding space shows a lack of grace. You can’t see the “magic” of it. You can’t touch it. When space is well help, people feel at ease, as if they can be themselves. At the highest level, it can be about stepping deeply into another person to experience with them what they notice and feel, which requires an incredible amount of vulnerability on their part.
And this is magnificent gift, when space is well held people can bring forth their best self.