Holding space when others need you most
We are not born knowing how to hold space for another person. It is a skill we learn and cultivate. If I look back at when I really started to understand what this takes is when my gramma got sick. It was 1996, and I was pregnant with my daughter. I remember the first time I understood that it was very possible she wouldn’t make it to the birth of my daughter. I was emotional and barely holding it together. This wasn’t the first time at the end of someone’s life, but this time was different.
We had the same doctor, and I remember her sitting with me and talking about the next steps in my pregnancy and her noticing my sadness. As excited as I was to be mom, it seemed impossible to me that my daughter would never know my gramma. This is probably the longest doctor appointment I have ever had, not because we had lots to do, but because she sat there with me and cried together.
In the early months, we had her in-home care with nurses supported us. There was a lot we could do as a family to help and support her. At the same time, everyone wanted their own time with her. I’ve seen this so often, how in stressful and painful situations that 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! Instead it was like a deep knowing, and everyone genuinely held space for everyonen to have their time. Each person did their share and worked to get their own time and protect the time of others.
As her health declined, it became clear that she would need to move into hospice care. I remember being at the hospital and realizing just how many of us were there. There were her five children, their spouses, grandkids, and so on. 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.
As a team, the nurses and hospital staff made her as comfortable as possible—but it didn’t end there. They also supported all of us. Their experience with grief and loving-kindness held us as we navigated the final days of her life. How they were with us was way more than “their job”, somehow they knew we wern’t going home, that we needed to be there. Such care was given, checking in on each of us individually— supporting us in going through the experience in our way. I could not be more grateful for their empathy and care.
What does 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, while not making them feel inadequate. We must open our hearts, let go of judgment and control, and offer our unconditional support. Whether we hold space for someone directly or have space for someone as they hold space for someone else.
During my gramma’s passing, we all were holding space for ourselves, for others, and for each other. The nurses and doctors had room for every other family and us in the unit. I knew then that it was clear someone was holding space for them. For the moments they stayed late or came home with the effects of carrying our emotions, 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 I was during this time. As a mom, wife, coach, educator, volunteer, yoga therapist, and friend, I’ve brought what I learned, 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 knows how to and wants to hold space for me when I need it.
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 strangers.
To hold space is not mastered overnight, nor is it something you can just read tips for and know exactly what to do. The only way to prepare is to practice. Not only to practice it but to gain experience recognizing what people need as each person and situation is unique. The following tips are, from my experience, an excellent place to begin.
8 Tips to Help You Hold Space for Others
1. Everyone will experience decisions and experiences in their way.
Recognizing this can be one of the most complex parts, so let’s dive into it immediately. Our role isn’t to give our opinion, experience, or thoughts. Holding a safe space for the other person allows them to feel trusted to make the best decision for them. To save space requires respecting 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, visit, cook for her, etc. All were to be equally respected.
2. Recognize our ego and keep it at bay.
Such an easy mistake to make, so let’s jump in here next. We can easily get caught attaching the results to our egos. Did we help? Do they like me? Did I give them the right solution? We can become focused on our success in helping someone that we become distracted from 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 the lesson without all of that. It would have been so easy to do the only thing we were helping my gramma or each other if she was getting better, but we would have lost our intention to support her in living her final days in peace.
3. Respect what people need to know and what they can accept.
It can be straightforward to provide what we feel we would need or decide what they “need to know” for the other person. Instead of settling for another person, we want to listen and watch for signs that allow us to see what is happening. Some will need every single detail; others will get overwhelmed. Take your time and give small amounts of notice. Are they asking for more, or are they closing off? Not everyone wants to hear every detail of every day or doctor’s appointment. It would help some 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 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 when they need us to step in and make hard decisions with or for them. An example would be when they face 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 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. We had many big decisions; instead of telling us what to do when space was held for us to process what we needed to know, we were trusted to make those decisions best suited to our loved ones.
5. Permit them to trust their intuition and wisdom.
Have you ever heard a friend tell you about a situation you experienced and knew what to do? I mean, they did come to us. But here is the thing it isn’t our expertise or experience they need; it’s a safe place for them to trust their intuition and wisdom. This is even true if they have come to you, the person with the experience and knowledge. I have learned in my many years as a coach and educator that people know what they need! They don’t know that they can trust themselves to listen to it. In these moments, magic can happen by giving our complete trust and faith in their ability.
I saw this most in how each person cared for my gramma in their way. For some, it captured her story; others cared for her with good food, and both were right. No matter how each person connected with their intuition of what they needed, every need was met, but everyone felt more connected to her and them.
6. Hold space for mistakes and failure.
No question, this tip comes directly after the last one! Whether the person is transitioning, learning, growing, or grieving, making mistakes is essential. To hold space for them, we need to provide an area free of shame, free of judgment, and full of courage. Mistakes help us learn, allow us to try again, and are part of the journey! Again we need to respect that they have the solution within them. We may share our experience without attachment to how that information is accepted or acted upon.
7. Be ready for emotions, fear, and 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 fully without shame or feeling that anything they think makes them something they are not. Trust in this space is essential! When we hold space, it is necessary to recognize our capacity and know who our supports are and when to engage them.
A huge part of holding space is to recognize that while we may be providing a safe distance, we are also not the expert on their situation or decision; they are. It is also to realize that while we love and want to do what’s best for them, we also understand our 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 knew when to be quiet and allowed you the needed time? This may be the most challenging part because we want to help stop their pain. We need to tap into our intuition and wisdom to hold space. To know when it is best to allow someone to work through it on their own vs. providing guidance. Even further learning how much advice 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 I invite curiosity instead of sharing my experience, knowledge, etc. Often, they find the answer for themselves by fully understanding what the other person is going through. After all that, I still feel it is best to provide guidance; I do so without attachment and humility.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.