the practice of holding space
December 20, 2015 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Heather Plett: What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well (via)
What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control.

...It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are, but I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life that I trust to hold space for me.

To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.

Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.
Karen Casey Smith - Holding Space: What does it mean?

One Hot Mess - "Holding Space" is the New "Shut Up and Listen"

more from Heather Plett -
*How to hold space for yourself first
*On holding space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege
*Sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing

LadyClever - Holding Space: Do Gender Norms Affect How We Care?

Awake Parent - How to Hold Space for a Tantrum
I think that tantrums are some of the most frustrating, upsetting, and confusing experiences we have with our kids. It’s mind boggling to see how out of control they can become over such seemingly meaningless stuff like whether or not they got to have one more bedtime story. Kids can work themselves up into a frenzy over things that appear to us to be completely mundane and innocuous.

Holding space for big feelings is something I’m passionate about, probably because I wanted someone to do the same for me as a kid. In fact, I love it when my husband, friends, and family members hold space for my big feelings now. It’s a huge gift to be invited to fully feel without being silenced, judged, or convinced out of my anger or sorrow. So I’ve developed five steps to holding space for a tantrum that will leave you feeling more peaceful and connected to your child at the end of a meltdown than you did before it began.
posted by flex (19 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
In this particular situation with this particular family, the actions of the nurse worked wonders. But i feel like the article misses the point entirely. I have only done voluntary grunt admin work in a hospice, never making any decisions or being closer than looking over an excel spreadsheet at these kind pf real human interactions but even then but I quickly learnt there are so many difficult situations and these Nurses have a huge degree of responsibility. This situation worked out, but there are more situations than they can contemplate which any nurse had to deal with on a daily basis. With a different family the steps might have ended up as:
1. Allow the family to act out their prejudices and folk wisdom - causing pain and suffering in the final hours
2. Withhold vital information about palleative options so the family gets the satisfaction of feeling important while your patient dies in agony
3. let them make bad choices to harm a dying person.
4. Keep their own knowledge and years/decades of experience out of it and defer to highly emotional, completley untrained individuals trying to deal with a hugely unfamilar situation and making bad mistakes.
Med professionals am i horribly wide of the mark here or is this not an attitude and approach that only works in very privaleged situations?
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

Here's the Holding Space pattern in the Group Works Deck - 91 patterns for creative, inclusive group dynamics. (Most of them also apply one-on-one, and/or at larger scales.)
posted by johnabbe at 2:14 PM on December 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

This pullquote from johnabbe's link makes me think about how MeFi moderation (moderation in general) is, in a way, "holding space":
The "container" is the psychological or spiritual space within which a group works. The facilitator's role is to create (through invitation) and to help the group co-create, that psychological space, and then to hold it open, to allow knowledge, learning, understanding, energy, ideas, perspectives, tensions and dissonances, and appreciation to flow and be contained in that space, to enable the group to process all this 'content' and achieve its purpose and intention.

This requires the facilitator to be totally present, attentive to what is said and not said, happening and not happening, dancing energetically between purpose and agenda, and intervening when necessary to keep the space open (not close ideas, possibilities and understanding off prematurely), to keep it safe (so those present are not afraid to contribute), to set appropriate boundaries, to maintain its flow and energy, and ultimately to help the group narrow it (through the "groan zone") to converge on a consensus and appreciation of what makes sense to the group.

This entails stepping in when someone goes off topic, makes a hurtful or sarcastic comment, or when there are multiple, unintentional side conversations, or when people are interrupting or dominating, or when outside agenda or distractions intervene. It requires encouraging openness (honesty, openness to receive, openness to solutions and new ideas, openness to possibilities, encouraging people to share. With the facilitator holding the space, the participants are freer to participate, to immerse themselves in the doing of it.

It is a process of deep listening, enablement, active reflection, supporting all sides, stewarding forward, and supporting all sides. It requires setting clear intentions, setting expectations, establishing norms and ground rules, and providing clear instructions. It may entail ritual, and always requires trust.
posted by flex at 2:26 PM on December 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

With the emotional labor posts and now this one, these past months on Mefi have been amazing in terms of learning about meaningful relationships. Thank you for making this post, it's much appreciated.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:27 PM on December 20, 2015 [18 favorites]

Or we could just listen without judging . . . or rushing to judgment?
posted by Peach at 2:48 PM on December 20, 2015

This is a really nice thoughtful essay. Practical for anyone who cares for others (i.e. All of us) but particularly for professional care givers. I am forwarding to my colleagues/workmates.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:50 PM on December 20, 2015

This is a great post. I remember in Social Work School my first internship really emphasized creating and maintaining these spaces. It is one of the best things I learned.

Right now my challenge is I work in a super fast paced enviroment and creating and recreating these spaces on the fly with people I may know for as little as 15 minutes. It's rough and takes lots of mental purposeful work.

But it is so worth it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:54 PM on December 20, 2015

I particularly liked ‘On holding space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege’ It asks a very pertinent question for any non-indigenous Australian: “How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?”

Discussions of a treaty, recognition in the constitution, or Aboriginal sovereign government are occurring in this country but there is little 'holding space' going on in the corridors of power. Thus it illustrates that creating holding spaces is a facet of the position one chooses to hold in a social or interpersonal dynamic. Many family and personal relationships fail because there is no provision of holding space between the parties, or by one member of the relationship. The concept of holding space is inclusive of vulnerability, and active holders of privilege do not like exposing vulnerabilities. This is why pushes for equity, access, and equality must come from the broad base below because the narrow space above has no wish to participate in 'holding space'.
posted by Thella at 3:04 PM on December 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

Or we could just listen without judging . . . or rushing to judgment?
But it is more than that. It is the active offering (and follow through) of 'holding space' over a period of time until a conclusion occurs negating the need for the space. Holding space is an active process while listening without judging is a passive (albeit valuable) act.
posted by Thella at 3:08 PM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

It is sad someone's that the people I worked with have sometimes been denied spaces that even the faintest moment of holding space brings out so much.

People need this. Some people are starved of this.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:08 PM on December 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

After I read about doulas doing the same thing for labouring women, I started thinking about parenting in those terms too. Sometimes holding the space for my daughter is about saying "no, this is a school rule and these are things we abide by when necessary for these reasons" and sometimes it is pushing back against the world to give her space to find herself.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:23 PM on December 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was just thinking about doulas in this context, too, geek anachronism. A friend who is dealing with breast cancer right now was saying how she wished there were "breast cancer doulas". I think it's amazing that hospice staff and birth doulas can help us learn about holding space in that situation, but in my daily life, I'm still on my own trying to figure it out for all those other times in life.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:40 PM on December 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

My homebirth midwife had this down, like, 100%. Amazing skill to have.
posted by The Toad at 4:52 PM on December 20, 2015

I wrote a small book about this concept based on the Tao te Ching. Heather is a friend and it's amazing to see how far this post has traveled. It is a crucial practice in our shared field.

(Hello johnabbe!)
posted by salishsea at 9:24 PM on December 20, 2015

The link about tantrums discusses the importance of giving your kid space to have and express their big feelings.

I can see how that makes sense in a lot of ways but also (and I say this as a first-time parent of a toddler who hasn't yet entered the tantrum phase) I am curious about how this works out over the long term.

Like, I want my kid to feel safe and listened to, but I don't want to go so far as for her to grow up thinking she can always express her big feelings whenever the urge strikes her. In real life keeping a lid on your feelings is an important adult skill.

The advice in the tantrum link comes across as kind and reasonable, overall. I'm just wondering whether you can hold *too much* space for tantrums, and can this lead to a sense of entitlement as the kid gets older?

Or maybe the idea is that the kid still learns to regulate their feelings over time, but is better equipped to be assertive and confident, rather than passive aggressive?
posted by reshet at 1:42 AM on December 21, 2015

The problem for professionals is both holding space and fulfilling your ethical duties as a professional. Sometimes you are obligated to deliver information or opinions that make vulnerable people unhappy. For example, I personally want my medical professionals to deliver expert medical opinion and care as their first priority and communicate honestly. I have found that the ones who seem most skilled at seeming to "hold space" are the ones with their own agendas who are holding back information from me or letting their actions being guided by ideology that I am not aware of.
posted by yarly at 3:59 AM on December 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

yeah, this is a big problem here in chile, particularly because it's also class-based. i know of one case where someone (who had worked as a maid) was not told she had cancer until she was within a few days of dying.

on the other hand, just because something can be abused does not mean that it cannot also be done correctly. i think both can be framed in terms of respect - both respect for the space of the individual, and also respect that they need to be the ones in charge of their own destiny. just because that balance is difficult does not mean it should not be attempted.

also, in response to a comment higher up, i'm not sure how telling your daughter "those are the rules so suck it up" is holding space for them.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:31 AM on December 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Less "suck it up" and more "the school dictates long hair be put in a ponytail or bun for safety reasons, and learning the difference between safety/risk based rules and pointless petty ones in authority settings like school and work is important". She's already well aware - via an aunty who manages to be one of the top admins in local government in spite of an undercut + neon hair - that certain amounts of performance and adherence to rules will allow you leeway in others. I'm attempting to help her work out which rules she finds worth in adhering to, and which ones she's gonna nudge. I'm still her parent, I'm still here to help her learn about the world - holding that space for her isn't about enforcing someone else's rules on her but helping her see where they come from.

Which is why I have a six year old planning what extent of an undercut she will be able to conceal at school, and who knows she can leverage her academic and behavioural performance to skate under the radar for some of the more obnoxious petty rules.

It is a different 'space' to be held for each kid. For my daughter a lot of the space for a very long time was about pushing actively back against gender roles - for some kids it's about protecting them and their expression of those roles. For my kid a lot of how we work things out is through her seemingly natural desire to follow rules and authority, and making spaces for her to make her own decisions. Hence the hair thing - the ponytail/bun is a school rule that makes sense (we have had more than one morning marred by hair tangled in backpack straps), but the space being held isn't "obey" it is "well, what do you want and how can you get it, what risks are you willing to take?".
posted by geek anachronism at 3:42 PM on December 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think the linked article on tantrums sums it up pretty well. “I hear that you’re really upset and I understand that it’s hard to hear no. I love you and it’s OK to cry as much as you need to.”

This is consistent with the advice in most of the zillion parenting books I've read. My personal mnemonic is "We don't punish feelings." You don't get to do whatever you want, but it's totally okay to express your disappointment about that.

As for helping kids learn a more adult way of coping with those feelings, I think that's a skill that can be taught better than it can be conditioned into someone through punishment. See this thread on the green.

I haven't read the other links yet (I plan to) but I would think this could also apply to medical professionals. You don't have to spare people the bad news -- go ahead and tell them what's going to happen, what needs to be done, and be firm about it. But then let them have whatever reaction they're going to have. Remain empathetic even as you tell them what they don't want to hear. Acknowledge that it sucks.
posted by OnceUponATime at 7:49 AM on January 2, 2016

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