“I need you to hold space for me.”
These words gets tossed around A LOT in modern relationships, but most people have no clue what it is or how to do it.
Your partner wants to be heard, listened to and understood, but in heated arguments or when there is real -often reoccurring – conflict in your relationship, this can seem like an incredibly challenging thing to do.
This is so important that the number one thing women often communicate wishing their partners were better at is “holding space.”
Clearly this is an important topic.
First, let’s agree on what holding space is NOT.
I asked 50 men in a workshop I led to share their past experiences of trying to hold space to really drive home the point.
One man summed it up by saying “I feel like I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried being completely silent and letting her talk, I’ve tried fixing the problem, offering suggestions and I’ve even tried just agreeing with everything she’s said. Nothing seems to work and I’m almost ready to give up.”
So if holding space isn’f just listening, then what is it?
Here’s my definition:
“Holding space is the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s emotional state while simultaneously being present to your own.”
This means the person holding space has double duty.
If you are the person holding space, you need to be tuned in to your own judgements, emotions, desired outcomes and opinions all while understanding what’s happening for the other person.
Holding space goes beyond listening because it requires us to hear the other person, have empathy and not make make the situation about us by trying to ‘give insight’ fix or ‘offer advice.’
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 it’s like creating a metaphorical bucket for someone to emotionally and verbally vomit into.
Sounds classy, right?
Holding space doesn’t mean you remove or avoid your own emotions and it doesn’t mean you get sucked into their emotional state, because then you’ll both need a bucket.
But how do we effectively hold space? How do we create this bucket? Knowing what something is and knowing how to do it are two very different things.
Your emotions, thoughts and opinions are going to get in the way.
If you want to ‘build the bucket,’ or really hold space, you’ll need to master the art of noticing your own internal processes while observing theirs.
Being able to see what you think and feel is essential. It’s what all really exceptional listeners, leaders and therapists do.
They hear what you say, feel what you’re feeling all while noticing (without judgement or attachment) what their own thoughts and feelings are about the situation.
Without this awareness, you will fall into the trap of trying to effect an outcome based on your own desires or opinions.
The outcome of holding space is not decided by something you’ve done, it’s determined by something you’ve created.
Awareness is so crucial because as human beings we are easily influenced by other’s emotional states. Think about someone who is quick to anger. When you’re around them, it’s much easier to become frustrated, annoyed and angry than normal. Why? Because of transference and emotional mirroring. Put simply, if not aware, you take on the emotions of others.
The point here is that you need to be equally aware of your own thoughts and emotions as you are of the person you’re hiding space for. The goal is not to be empty or devoid of emotions, the goal is simply to be aware so you don’t react from those emotions.
Oh, and put your damn technology away. You’re not holding space properly with your phone out, email open or TV on. Be Present.
As much as you will feel the need to fix, solve, defend your point, be right or ‘of service,’ the best thing you can do is realize that the whole conversation and point of holding space is to make the conversation about their experience and not about yours.
Notice how when you’re trying to fix or solve a problem, it’s more about your own validation than your partners. If you want real validation, use the law of reciprocity: give that which you want to get.
Here are a few things that help create the bucket and shift the focus onto them:
If you find yourself struggling to listen without fixing or becoming defensive, try listening for their experience. An easy way to do this is to communicate back to her what you think she is feeling.
Once you’ve uncovered how she is feeling about the conflict, situation or struggle, the next step is to help her understand that her experience is not crazy!
Let’s make one thing clear, you don’t need to agree with them to validate them.
The biggest trap people fall into when holding space is that they are looking for evidence to AGREE with before they feel like they can give validation.
When this happens, validation of any form is a challenge because the person holding space is trying to understand the situation and emotions associate with it based on their own view of reality.
In general, the masculine will struggle with this. The masculine will want to understand someone logically before validating their partners emotional experience. (Notice, I’m not saying MEN, but the masculine. More logical, analytical women can get caught in this trap too.)
There are two important things about validation:
The other person needs to feel understood. This means you have to take a different view point, put yourself in their reality for a minute and understand why they are thinking and feeling that way.
Reflecting back their thoughts/feelings is the best way to do this. (remember, you don’t need to agree, simply understand).
Really listen for the core of the issue they are having. Mirror back what they say the issue is and take the time to validate their emotions. You’d be surprised how many people are simply looking to be understood and be told that they aren’t crazy (like they’ve been telling themselves in their head).
Finally, trust them.
Trust that they can handle their shit.
Trust them to navigate their emotional turmoil, solve their problems and trust in their ability to find what they need.