Holding space when others need you most
My first opportunity to learn how to hold space for someone was when my gramma got really sick. I remember it so clearly it was 1996 and I was pregnant with my daughter. The details seemed to be in pieces and then all at once. It soon became clear it wasn’t likely that she would make it to her birth, I was emotional and barely holding it together. This wasn’t the first time for me at the end of someone’s life but this time was definitely different.
In the beginning we had her in home care, we were supported by nurses. There was a lot for us to do as a family to support her. At the same time everyone wanted their own time with her. I’ve seen this so many times in stressful situations we aren’t at our best. It’s so easy to argue, to allow our own needs to shine through in our behavior. But this isn’t what happened at all! In my first experience at seeing what truly holding space for others really was. Each person did their share and worked to not only get their own time but to protect the time of others.
As her health declined, no matter how much we did, it became clear that she would need to move into a hospice care. All of a sudden it was clear that there were a lot of us! We had done a really good job of supporting each other and our gramma. But what I was about to learn is as much about how hold space for the patient as it is for the family. Of course there were her 5 children, their spouses, children and so on.
At first I remember thinking about hospital visiting rules, how would everyone be able to maximize our time with her? And then we learned just what it took to hold space for a whole family at what it truly meant. Not only did their entire team support making her as comfortable as they could but they also supported all of us. Looking back it really was quite simple and elaborate all at once. In her last moments helping us to know what we needed, allowing us to bathe her and spend all the time we needed. Such care into checking on each of us, supporting us in going through the experience in our way.
What it mean to “hold space” for someone
It means walking alongside another person without judgment, without trying to fix them or the situation. Without trying to impact the outcome all while not making them feel inadequate. To do this we must open our hearts, let go of judgement, control and most importantly offer our unconditional support. Whether we hold space for someone directly, or hold space for someone as they hold space for someone else.
What was clear to me during my gramma’s passing is that we all were holding space for ourselves, for others and holding space for each other. The nurses and doctors held space for us and every other family in the unit. I knew then that it was clear someone was holding space for them too. For the moments they stayed late or came home with the effects of carrying our emotions it was clear they were well supported.
Through this experience and many others in my life I have done my best to hold space for other people in the same way that was modeled for me during this time. As a mom, wife, coach, educator, volunteer, yoga therapist and friend I’ve brought what I learned forwarded knowing how important it is to hold space for those we love. In all my relationships I’ve found that the secret ingredient has always been someone who not only knows how to but wants to hold space for me when I need it too.
To hold space isn’t something that is only for nurses, teachers, coaches and facilitators. It is something we can ALL do for each other! For all the people in our lives, our loved ones, children, neighbors and even a stranger.
To hold space is not mastered overnight nor is it something that you can just read tips for and knows exactly what to do. The only way to prepare is to practice. Not only to practice it but to gain experience in recognizing what people need as each person and situation is unique. The following tips are from my experience a good place to begin.
8 Tips to Help You Hold Space for Others
1. Everyone will experience decisions and experiences in their own way.
Recognizing this can be one of the hardest parts, so let’s dive into it right away. Our role isn’t to give our opinion, experience or thoughts. It is holding a safe space for the other person that allows them to feel trusted to make the best decision for them. To hold space requires that we respect that our opinion isn’t needed or sometimes even wanted. For our family we saw this in recognizing that each person wanted to be part of different things. Some wanted to help with her injections, some wanted to visit, some wanted to cook for her etc and all were to be equally respected.
2. Recognize our own ego and keep it at bay.
Such an easy mistake to make so let’s jump in here next. We can so easily get caught in attaching the results to our own ego. Did we really help? Do they like me? Did I give them the right solution? We can become focused on our own success in helping someone that we become distracted on what we initially intended. To truly support another we need to keep our ego out of it and hold space where they have an opportunity to face the situation, the decision, the growth or lesson without all of that. In our case it would have been so easy to only thing we were helping my gramma or each other if she was getting better but we would have clearly lost our intention to support her in living her final days in peace.
3. Respect what people need to know and also what they can accept.
It can be really easy to provide what we feel we would need or to decide for the other person what they “need to know”. Instead of deciding for another person, we want to listen and watch for signs that allow us to see what is actually happening. Some will need every single detail, others will get overwhelmed. Take your time give small amounts notice, are they asking for more or are they closing off. For us knowing that not everyone wanted to hear every detail of every day, or every doctor’s appointment. For some it would help them feel like they knew what they needed for others it could be too much to face.
4. Keep their power intact.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of making decisions for others to “help” or “make things easier”. But when we do this we can leave people feeling helpless, useless and incompetent. Yes there may be times where what they need is for us to step in and make hard decisions with or for them. An example would be when they are facing addiction and an intervention feels like the only option.
In almost all other cases people need to make their own choices to feel like they have a say, can support themselves and to feel empowered. By robbing them of this we are removing the possibility of gaining the resilience they are meant to find in this moment and the experience of learning from their decision. For our family we had many big decisions to make, instead of telling us what to do when space was held for us to process what we needed to know and we were trusted to make those decisions in the way best suited to our loved one.
5. Give permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
Have you ever heard a friend tell you their situation where you have experienced and right away that you knew what to do? I mean they did come to us right? But here is the thing it isn’t our expertise or experience they need, it’s a safe place for them to trust their own intuition and wisdom. This is even true if they have come to you, the person with the experience and knowledge. One thing I have learned in my many years as a coach and educator… people know what they need! What they don’t know is that they can trust themselves to listen to it. It is in these moments that by giving our complete trust and faith in their ability that magic can happen.
I saw this most in how each person cared for my gramma in their own way. For some it was capturing her story, for others it was caring for her with good food and both were right. No matter how each person connected with their own intuition of what they both needed not only was every need met but everyone came out feeling more connected to her and to them.
6. Hold space for mistakes and failure.
No question this tip comes directly after the last one! Whether the person is in transition, learning, growing or in grief making mistakes is a very important part of the process. To truly hold space for them we need to provide a space free of shame, free of judgement and full of courage. Mistakes help us learn, they give us an opportunity to try again and they are part of the journey! Again we need to respect that they have the solution within them. We may share our experience but without attachment to how that information is accepted or even acted upon.
7. Be ready for emotions, fear and/or trauma.
Complex situations and decisions often bring strong emotions, fears and past traumas to the surface. Both for the person we hold space for and also ourselves. To prepare for this is to know it will likely happen and provide a safe, supportive, non-judgmental space for people and ourselves. This space allows people to feel what they need to feel fully without shame or feeling that anything they are feeling makes them something they are not. Trust in this space is essential! When we hold space it is important to recognize our own capacity and know who our supports are and when to engage them.
A very big part of holding space is to recognize that while we may be providing a safe space we are also not the expert of their situation or decision, they are. It is also to recognize that while we love and want to do what’s best for them we also understand our own capacity and scope and when to help them connect to professionals as needed.
8. Choose to provide guidance thoughtfully and with humility.
Have you ever been with someone who just knew when to be quiet and allow you the time you needed? This may very well be the hardest part because we just want to help stop their pain. To hold space this is where we need to tap into our own intuition and wisdom. To know when it is best to allow someone to work through it on their own vs providing guidance. Even further knowing how much guidance to give.
My favorite way to lean in is with the advice of one of my favorite mentors. He said “knowledge speaks, wisdom listens”, so for me instead of sharing my experience, knowledge etc I simply invite curiosity. Often by getting to understand fully myself what the other person is going through they find the answer for themselves. After all that I do still feel it is best to provide guidance, I do so without attachment and with humility.