What It Means To Hold Space for Someone
Author: Heather Plett
The Transformative Effect Of ‘Being There’ For Others
When my Mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in their transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home. So we did.
While we supported Mom, we were in turn supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for Mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days.
Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew we were being held by someone only a phone call away.
In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.
She was holding space for us.
Photo: TAPS Archives
What Does It Mean to 'Hold Space' For Someone Else?
It means 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 others we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control. We have to be prepared to step to the side so they can make their own choices, giving gentle guidance when it’s needed and making them feel safe. Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom.
In my own roles as facilitator, teacher and mother, I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way Ann did for me and my siblings. It’s not always easy because I have a human tendency to want to fix people or give them advice, but I keep trying because I know it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life I trust to hold space for me.
What I Learned About Holding Space for Others
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Ann and others who have held space for me:
Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
When we were supporting Mom, we had no experience to rely on and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to sit and sing hymns to her and we knew how to love her. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol — we simply needed to trust our intuition and wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
Give people only as much information as they can handle.
Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief.
Don’t take their power away — empower them instead.
At times, we may need to step in and make hard decisions for others when they are incapable. But in almost every other case, adults and children need the autonomy to make their own choices. Ann knew we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
Try to keep your own ego out of it.
We all get caught in the trap of our own ego now and then — when we believe someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we’re convinced whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I become more concerned about my own success than the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone — not even me. To truly support my students I need to keep my ego out of it and create a space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
A wise space holder knows to withhold guidance when it makes a person feel badly and to offer it gently when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for. Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. Gentle offers are what we all must give when we hold space for others.
Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
When people feel they are held, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a supportive and nonjudgmental way.
Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.
When we hold space we release control and honor and respect differences; recognizing those differences may lead others to make choices we might not make.
Holding space is not something we can master overnight or adequately address in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just offered. It’s complex and evolves through practice; it is unique to each person and each situation. But always, it is a practice of love, liberation and leadership.
Heather is the author of the book, "The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership." She is also a facilitator, teacher and co-founder of the Centre for Holding Space. She has used her personal experiences to create workshops on the topic of 'holding space' and has created a certified practitioner program rooted in the subject. You can learn more about Heather at heatherplett.com.