I’ve been thinking a lot about holding space lately. No, it’s not a sci-fi term. Holding space means making emotional room for another person without filling up that room with your own stuff. It’s listening, but it goes beyond just listening. It’s allowing another to feel their own feelings, think their own thoughts, process their own emotions. To put all that aside for a time and be present for another person requires conscious and intentional action. When you’re truly holding space you’re giving someone else the room to be without asking them to bear the burden of addressing or even acknowledging what’s going on in your own life. You’re giving them the freedom to really explore their own mind, even, and maybe especially, those parts that are uncomfortable. You’re setting aside all your thoughts about what to say next, your judgment about their issues, your advice on ways to fix them. It’s a huge gift really because we all like to talk about our own life, our own stuff, what we’re worried about or thinking about or struggling with right now. And maybe even more than that, we like to offer ways to fix the problems and concerns of others, because we find it hard to sit with their discomfort. We’d like to “make it all better” and move on, but only when we allow someone the space to really feel their discomfort and process through it, can they really move beyond it.
Choosing to gift our attention in this focused way is helpful for anyone, but I think it’s especially valuable for a child. During all those formative years, a child is constantly facing new experiences, transitions and situations that are strange and even scary. Amidst all that change they’re trying to figure out where they fit in the context of the world around them. Having the opportunity to talk to someone who’s listening, validating their feelings and letting them process all that without judgment is a gift beyond measure. First, it’s telling the child that they matter enough for you to forgo all else at that moment, turning your complete and undivided attention to them. That, in and of itself, is a huge validation of their value. Second, because holding space is not an advice-giving mode, but rather a listening mode, there’s no judgment on your part. You’re just open to hearing them. That openness infers a trust that they can find their own answers. (If it’s hard to believe that a child actually does have their own answers, just pretend at first and see what happens.) Finally, it’s modeling a simple yet profound act of caring and connecting; something that you hope they will give to others someday.
On the one hand, holding space requires an intention and a conscious choice, which is an effort; but on the other hand, listening without judgment is actually very freeing. It means you don’t have to have any answers, just love. You don’t have to pretend to be smart or wise or experienced. You are just being there, holding their space for a time and loving them. It really comes down to a way of expressing unconditional love.
Years ago, there was a day when my daughter was venting in the car after an incident at a homeschool class. My normal approach was to scan my personal database of life experience and wait for a break to jump in with some of my wise and witty advice. However, this time I was tired and nothing was coming up in my brain scan that would be appropriately wise or witty . On top of that we were in a hurry to get to a music lesson and I just wanted her to calm down and put this (in my mind) petty annoyance behind her so that her lesson would be productive. In one of those moments of grace, because I couldn’t think of what else to say, I just listened and reflected her feelings — something along the lines of “You feel really upset about this” — and then shut up. She continued to rant for another few minutes and then, to my astonishment and relief, she wound the whole incident up on her own and calmed right down. It was one of the first times I felt I was actually taking the communication skills I learned long ago and putting them to conscious use. When I just listened, with no interruptions and no solutions, just a minor reflection statement, she found an outcome better than anything I had imagined. I had given her the space to own her annoyance, to process through it and to come out the other side. It was brilliant.
I got better at doing this more often, when I remembered. With practice it did get easier to remember. When I held space for my kids their confidence level in their own problem solving ability increased. They owned their own problems and their own solutions. I was off the hook for advice (and for any blame should my advice not work out). It was a win-win scenario. Somehow the less I said, the smarter I seemed to be in their eyes. And I’m all about looking smart, especially when it was this easy.
© Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.