TIB #39: How to hold space (and get what you give)

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Hi People Skill Padawans!

Do you ever feel like you want to be there for someone who is going through a tough time, but you’re not sure how? Maybe you feel like you don’t have the right words to say, or you’re worried about saying the wrong thing. Learning how to hold space helps you overcome those barriers.

To hold space for someone means to create a safe and supportive environment. An environment in which they feel safe to express themselves without fear of judgment or interruption. That person can be anybody; a friend, family member, your child or partner, but also a co-worker or even a customer. And that person does not have to be in deep trouble to appreciate you holding space for them. 

Why you may be holding back on holding space

The thought of holding space for someone makes many people feel very uncomfortable. The main reasons people avoid an opportunity to hold space is because of:

  • Fear of vulnerability. Holding space requires you to be present and emotionally engaged. This can be intimidating to some.
  • Lack of time. Holding space takes time and energy. Many people feel like they don’t have enough of either to devote to someone else.
  • Difficulty with emotions. Some people struggle with emotions, either their own or those of others. Particularly negative emotions. That can make holding space a challenge.

As a result, we miss opportunities for deeper connections. We open the door to misunderstandings, false assumptions, and suppressed emotions.

Do you see yourself in these challenges? Then, I encourage you to start practicing holding space in your day-to-day life.

What’s in it for me?

First: the ability to be good for someone else, is enough reason in and of itself. But, there are great benefits to be had for yourself as well:

  • You’ll learn to say the right thing, or say nothing and be ok with the silence.
  • You’ll increase empathy and become more understanding of others
  • You’ll build trust and make the other person more comfortable sharing with you in the future.

It is surprising to me that there is a $12B self-help industry, while at the same time, most people would rather avoid developing these kind of skills for themselves.

Learning to hold space, not only provides you with valuable people skills, but it also provides new opportunities through your relationships.

The 3 main components of holding space

Maybe learning to hold space may feel like a big challenge to you. But I am convinced that anyone can learn how to hold space. 
Practicing the three main components of holding space, you can create a safe and supportive environment for someone who needs it. 

You will also be able to spread these skills to other people and help spread this skill from one person to the next.
These are the 3 main skills required to be able to hold space:

Being fully present

This means you are mentally and emotionally present. Your attention is focused on the person you’re holding space for. Prevent yourself from being distracted. No multitasking. Only engage with the other person. Be aware of your own emotions and reactions, so you can consciously respond in a way that is supportive and helpful.

Actively listening

Similar to being fully present, actively listening means the other person has your full attention. Listen to what they are saying, be curious about their thoughts and feelings. But do not judge. Also, reflect back what you hear to ensure you understand them correctly. This involves knowing what questions to ask when.

Offering support without fixing anything

Be a sounding board for the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Show understanding and compassion. But don’t offer advice, don’t try to fix anything, do not go into problem-solving-mode. If someone has a bad day at school or work for example, that is what it is. A bad day. Nothing to fix.

  • Being fully present
  • Actively listening
  • Offering support without fixing anything

Ok, now what?

In summary, holding space requires being fully present, actively listening, and offering support without trying to fix or solve problems. 

Doing so creates a safe and supportive environment for the other person. That way, they can share their thoughts and feelings, and find their own solutions.

It is very rewarding to see someone figure out a way forward when you sit with them for a little bit (sometimes literally) and create that space for them.

That’s it for this one.

See you again next week!


PS. What’s the (people) skill you struggle with most? I am looking for topics for future newsletters, so I can keep providing you with helpful tips to work better with yourself and others. Let me know on twitter (@tryingisbeing).

If you want to learn more ways to work better with yourself and others, check out these places:

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