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I recently came across an article titled A Man's Guide To "Holding Space", which was linked in an answer to this question. I had never heard the term before, but recognised some of my own patterns of behaviour, both in the original question, and in the article (especially the tendency to try and fix a problem I am told about).


What is holding space?

According to this article,

Holding space is not:

  • Just Listening
  • Trying to fix, solve or provide alternative points of views for your partner
  • Disconnecting or diminishing your partners emotional experience
  • A one way conversation
  • Being disconnected from your own experience

It then goes on:

Think of it this way; when you hold space, you are creating a container for the other person’s emotions to come up, be seen without the interference of your own and be released.

Holding space is like creating a metaphorical bucket for someone to emotionally and verbally vomit into.

I understand the concept of holding space as being sympathetic, emotional support for someone when they have emotions which are troubling them and which they may not fully even understand themselves. I've certainly been there myself—wanting someone to "be there" for you.

Is this short summary roughly correct? The description above sounds an awful lot like "just listening" to me, which the article expressly states not to do. How can "holding space" best be described, without being self-contradictory?


How can I hold space?

When holding space for someone, the focus should (obviously) be on them. The article suggests what to do keep the focus on the other person,

  • Give them permission to share, permission to trust their instincts/intuition and trust their internal wisdom;
  • Create the space for them to make decisions or take actions that might be different than your own.

However it provides no guidance on how to do these things. I also don't necessarily agree that it is always a good idea to let someone do these things.

To give a personal example, the person might have extremely low self-esteem, and so their internal wisdom may tell them that they are to blame for a situation, or that they are fat, or stupid, or result in a number of other harmful conclusions. It is my instinct to try and nip these thoughts in the bud (e.g. "You're not stupid" or "It's not your fault"), but doing so invalidates the feeling the other person has.

Speaking of validation, the article makes it painfully obvious that validation is important,

Validation, validation, val-i-da-tion

What kinds of things can I say to someone that will achieve the multifaceted goal of keeping the focus on the person I am holding space for, and simultaneously validate their feelings, but without encouraging negative, self-deprecating thoughts?
What if they happen to have low self-esteem, does this change things?

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In my experience "holding space" is essentially a rebranding of empathetic response. It's something most people do naturally under the right circumstances, but it may require more effort for some people in some circumstances.

Have you ever sat with someone who was dying? Not the going to die someday, or eventually, but someone who was going to die in the next few days/hours? You know you can't save them, you know there's nothing you can do to make things better... All you can do is "hold space" and allow them to go through what they're going through and be there with them completely while they do it.

Effectively you're giving yourself to someone, in a whole and compassionate way. Suddenly your schedule and needs and desires and ego fall away and you're just being there for them. It's not about saying or doing the right things. It's more about having your intentions in the right place.

It's not really even about "just listening". Of course much of it is listening, and I mean really listening, not just waiting for your turn to speak. But, well, most folks seem to "just listen" in an emotionally detached sort of way. This is almost the opposite. This is listening while fully emotionally engaged. Turn the empathy up, but turn the ego and judgement off.

You're effectively telling the person who you're holding space for that you're going to walk with them through whatever it is they're going through. That they're not alone. That you're there for them, and that this moment is 100% not about you, your thoughts, or your opinions.

Admittedly it's easier to approach some situations this way. When it's someone you're close to, when there's nothing else you can really say, or do; you may find yourself doing it naturally. Or when it's someone who's going through something that you can relate to on a very personal level.

It can be harder when it's someone you don't know well, going through something that you can't directly relate to. The key seems to be that whole empathy thing. You may not know them personally, you may have never experienced what they're experiencing. But we're all human. For the most part, we all know what pain feels like, we know what sadness feels like, we know grief and anger, and so on... Even if you don't know the person or the situation, you know the feeling. You've likely experienced that feeling in some context, so you know, in some small way, what that feeling is like.

If you find this sort of thing difficult, it is a skill that can be learned with practice.

  • Go and speak with a hospice volunteer, someone who holds space on a regular basis, consider spending the day with them observing their work.

  • Sit in with group grief counseling meeting. Most places will have 12-step-like groups who meet to share and process their grief after the death of a loved one.

  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen or crisis center.

I suppose "holding space" is hard to describe in words. It's something you have to see with your own eyes. It's something that you have to do, to really understand.

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