The art of holding space for others & why your opinion isn't always helpful or relevant.
It’s part of being human to want to be a hero and help others. It’s wildly uncomfortable to witness someone struggling and we tend to jump in as fast as we can to offer a solution.
This is perfectly acceptable to do when thinking about alleviating someone of a task, for example helping someone carry their shopping home, opening a door. Or in the case of immediate danger.
Jumping in to “help” becomes questionable when emotions or feelings get involved. Let me explain.
Recall the following situations.
Your partner is explaining to you why she got angry at the neighbour today.
A friend is recounting his recent break up to you with a lot of emotion.
A team member is sharing his uncertainties and worries about the future of his role.
Your business partner is showing lack of motivation at the moment.
So I’m talking here about instances where someone is verbally sharing their feelings about an experience that has occurred or will occur.
More so for feelings of pain, despair, anger, stuckness, it can be really uncomfortable to witness someone in that state. Our natural instinct is usually to jump in and help (like with wanting to help someone struggling with their shopping). It’s human after all. There may also be a sense that it feeds our ego to think we are offering a solution. Most often that not though, we’re not helping at all.
The most valuable thing I’ve learned through coaching is the art of holding space and to refrain from giving unsolicited advice.
What do I mean by holding space?
It’s the ability to give the space needed for the other person to fully express what they have on their heart or mind. It’s not having to jump in to say the next thing to add to the conversation. It’s to be okay with silence. It’s to truly listen. Deeply. It’s to make them feel safe to express themselves freely, without judgment.
To me, the “Need to be Heard” should be added to the infamous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. It’s so important and grandly overlooked as a basic human need. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give someone. To listen - make them feel heard, seen. To need to say NOTHING about yourself in return.
Let me be clear here, I am not talking about conversations we share about the weather, or what I would describe as surface level chat. I’m talking about the deeper conversations that lead you into the other person’s world a little. Conversations where someone is expressing some form of emotion, be it frustration, sadness, anger or worry.
I value honesty, I think it’s one of the most honourable traits to have. However, I do think there’s a time and place for honesty.
I personally want the most honest, brutal answer from the person opposite me when I prompt for it by saying “what do you think?”/ “do you think this suits me?”/ “what would you do?”. If you don’t hear a variation of these words, it’s likely the other person does not want your opinion. They simply want to be heard.
They don’t want to be told they shouldn’t be feeling this way. (Why are you making a big deal out of it?)
They don’t want to be told the feeling will pass, they know this. (Don’t worry, tomorrow you’ll feel better about it)
They don’t want a ready made solution of how to stop feeling this way. (Maybe you could try this? Or that?)
They don’t want to hear about your own experience with a similar situation (I did this and it worked for me)
More often than not, I think it does more damage to give an unsolicited opinion, because the opinion will be loaded with biases, beliefs and baggage which may not be appropriate to the situation. This could ultimately lead the person to feel worse.
Also, this removes the pressure completely to “have to” offer a solution. This may be the reason deep conversations can be uncomfortable for some of us. You don’t need to do anything other than listen.
I hold this belief in my work that every single person on this planet, is whole, complete and resourceful, meaning NO ONE needs “fixing”. No one. So offering ready made solutions is not helpful in any way. Especially not my own ready made solution that doesn’t take into account all the complexities and uniqueness of the other person’s experience.
I’m sure we can all recall times in our life where we felt unheard, like we were talking to a wall rather than to a trusted person or friend. Times where someone said something really unhelpful to us at the time that lead us to feel worse…
I like to make my work practical.
So, how do you apply the art of holding space?
Resist the urge to jump in to say what you think. It’s likely completely irrelevant. Stick your tongue to the root of your mouth and listen.
Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. “It’s completely understandable you feel this way”. Try not to acknowledge the situation that caused the feelings, as it’s likely a simple shift in perspective could change how they feel. (I emphasize the word “likely” here, as it’s not always the case).
Be okay with silence. Silence is not awkward, it gives the other person space.
Be curious and caring. Seek to clarify what exactly is leading the other person to feel the way they do.
Repeat back what you heard, like a mirror - “what I’m hearing is you feel x because of z”
Resist the urge to bring it back to you !!! Don’t say “when I feel like this, I do x”.
If and only if prompted, give your opinion or your take on the situation. Be aware though that you will be bringing your biases in to the conversation which may not be helpful.
Actually ask what the person needs from the conversation. If you were about to help someone with their heavy bags, you would first check in, not snatch the items from their hands. They might not even want your help, which is their choice.
Try it next time someone opens up to you about an emotion they are feeling or situation they are going through. Then observe what happens.