Holding Space

I believe it is just human nature to want to fix someone’s problems.  I also believe that we are compelled to “fix” from a noble consideration of helping someone.  However, in our endeavor to help someone, we have lost a key component that is valuable to those we are helping.  The component is an art of “Holding Space.”

Heather Plett defines holding space in this way:  “…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 other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

One of the greatest and poorest examples of holding space is in the story of Job.  In Job 2, Job’s friends are compelled to go sympathize and comfort him.  They began by holding space:

“Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.  No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.”  Job 2:13

Job’s friends even listened as Job began to express his anguish.  However, they could not contain themselves any longer.  In my opinion, his friends became uncomfortable.  One by one, each friend rebuked Job and pointed out that he must have sinned in some way to be in this situation.  Why do we feel we have to say something when we become uncomfortable holding space?

Here are some pitfalls that come up for me when I should be holding space.  See if you can relate to any of these:

  • As I mentioned above, I become uncomfortable with the person’s emotion, anguish, etc. When I become uncomfortable, I want to fix that discomfort.  Therefore, in all actuality, I am not helping them as much as I am fixing my discomfort.  Many times, I feel as they do.  However, I am afraid to express myself and I keep silent.  When they are expressing themselves, I become uncomfortable because I would not express myself in that way.
  • The person I need to hold space for may be directing their emotion toward me. Instead of being good with who I am, I begin to defend myself.  Once I defend, I am no longer holding space.  Furthermore, sometimes what the person says hurts.
  • What the person is saying may be in direct conflict with what I believe and value. At this point, I feel the need to speak “the truth” (my truth).  The person may blame God.  I feel the need to defend God.
  • I begin to feel like my wisdom may serve the person in some way. Therefore, I begin to give unsolicited advice.  For example, when someone has lost a loved one, I feel the need to comfort him or her through words of wisdom.
  • When teaching, facilitating, coaching, or training, I tend to ask questions in rapid succession. Instead of asking one question and waiting, I get uncomfortable with the question I asked or with the silence or the process.  Alternatively, I answer for the person and do not let them discover.
  • Silence can become “loudly” uncomfortable. I just feel the need to say something.

For the most part, none of these is helpful for the person.  I tend toward wanting to help my wife fix an issue she may have with work or her family.  I want to help my friend who is angry, with either me or a situation in his life.  I want to solve my child’s problems instead of walking alongside her.  The shift I need to make is toward just holding space.  How do I do that?  Here are some things I have found that allow me to hold space successfully.  I hope that these ideas will be useful to you as well:

  • I stand certain that God is involved. My tendency to fix is actually a lack of Faith that God is aware and compassionate toward the person I am holding space.  He is ever-present and all knowing.  That takes a lot of pressure off me.
  • I must be good with who I am. Much of my speaking when I should be silent stems from an insecurity within me.  The person’s issue is not a reflection of any of my perceived shortcomings.
  • Internally, I begin to realize that people will have differing opinions and I must be okay with that. I am to love people where they are, even if I disagree.
  • I need to be a listener. Just listening and being present is all the person may need.
  • I should ask permission to speak. If I feel the need to speak, then I need ask some variation of only one question:  “Is there anything you need for me to do for you?”  Then, I must honor the person’s answer, including staying within the boundaries of the request the person makes.
  • When teaching, facilitating, coaching, or training, I need to ask one question and wait. This allows the person’s internal resources to come on line.  This respects the person’s God-given ability to discover.
  • Tied to being certain God is involved – I must become comfortable with silence. A lot of great mind work, discovery, and revelation happens in the midst of silence.

Like most things in life, when I begin to put into practice holding space, I trust what the process accomplishes.  Where have you been “fixing” where holding space would be more appropriate?  With which pitfalls to holding space do you relate?  In what ways will you make a shift and begin to hold space?  Give silence a try.  Those around you may begin to respond in amazing ways.  Part of James 1:19 comes to mind as I close:  “…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…”

By Byron Myers

Byron completed his initial Crucible weekend in 2009. His deepest desire is to help people believe in their God-given goodness and live lives of integrity, authenticity and feel loved and accepted.Byron is the author of the ebook, Weekly Devotional Thoughts:  Weekly Applications of God’s WordByron is the High School Principal at Midland Christian School in Midland, Texas and a successful Business and Personal Life Coach. You can follow Byron at Weekly Devotional Thoughts.

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