How Can You Effectively Hold Space For Someone?

Learn what it means to hold space for someone, and how you can do it effectively

Holding space is to bear witness. It’s to create a container; a supportive and nonjudgemental environment for people to open up to you. Everyone needs to feel heard, understood and validated. Therefore, holding space for someone fulfills these needs and creates the right circumstances to facilitate healing and personal growth.

Counselors and therapists have mastered the skill of holding space, which is why patients feel like they can open up without being judged or ridiculed, but thoroughly understood.

This is a big reason why people tend to feel lighter after unloading their issues. It’s not a matter of saying the right things or eloquently navigating the person’s psyche, it’s because these professionals know how to make the person feel heard.

With that said, we all hold space for others here and there, whether we’re aware of it or not.

If your friend is going through a rough patch and you’re there to give them companionship and support, you are holding space because you are giving them your undisrupted presence. Likewise, if you’re intently listening to your partner who is venting their frustrations to you after a bad day, you are facilitating a space for healing.

Even though we all naturally hold space at times, it’s a skill that can generally use some tweaking to become more effective. By tweaking this skill with the advice in this article, you will learn how to effectively:

  • Emotionally support others who are going through difficult situations
  • Help minimize the burden of distressed people
  • Create the right conditions for people to open up to you
  • Foster trust and respect among the people you help

Knowing how to effectively hold space for someone should be on everyone’s toolbelt because it is a catalyst for healing and growth. Let’s look at the key qualities needed to cultivate a space that invites vulnerability, growth, and healing.

Why holding space is an important skill

Holding space is something I have always been quite good at, and it’s a skill that has served me and others very well over the years.

Growing up, I was not a conversationalist, in fact, I was pretty damn far from one. I didn’t know the first thing about holding a conversation, and the world of social interactions was beyond daunting. To compensate for my lack of social skills, I learned to listen.

I remember people droning on and on about whatever was on their minds. However, I noticed a trend. When many of these people recognized I was listening intently without being bored or disinterested, almost like walking down a staircase, they would step further into their personal lives, and open up.

The standard protocol was something like this:

  1. “I really enjoyed watching that movie because it had a great story…” pause
  2. “But some of the scenes were sad because they reminded me of my adventures with my ex-girlfriend…” pause
  3. “I still miss her and to be honest I’m struggling to get over her”

Like magic, from a conversation that seemed trivial, people would often segway into deeper and more personal discussions about their feelings.

I noticed this common thread, that people generally felt at ease when talking to me and open up without feeling judged. But I didn’t mind, it made me feel good that people could trust me, so I would let them talk, occasionally throwing in a question here and there or offering the small pockets of advice I had when the moment seemed ripe.

They were happy because they could speak and feel heard, I was happy because I didn’t need to say anything, and people seemed to enjoy my company even though I didn’t feel I contributed much to it. I came to realize that listening without butting in and taking the spotlight was a trait in high demand.

I noticed that many of these people would sigh relief afterward. They would say things like…

I feel so much better now, thanks for listening”, or

“I’ve never told anyone that before, but I feel like I can trust you”

Some people would almost be confused, wondering why they’re talking about such personal matters to someone they barely know. But I do know they felt comfortable, enjoyed the interaction, and usually felt better about themselves afterward – all from being a good listener.

The truth is, not many people know how to hold space. Most people are caught in their ego complexes. We unconsciously seek to be validated, rather than validate. You wouldn’t think something as simple as undivided listening was such a highly valued skill set, but you would be surprised.

As I recognized just how valuable this skill was, I began to hone it, soon gaining a reputation within friendship circles as being a comforting presence.

Over time as I matured and developed my interpersonal skills, holding space is a skill that has continued to evolve with me, especially as I’ve incorporated it into my professional life by working in healing centers, facilitating men’s circles, and coaching individuals.

I am confident that most people, as long as they give themselves the time and have a talk with me, will open up in some regards.

Suddenly, they’re comfortable with me. They trust me and know that I see the human in them, despite what they have done. With that said, they leave feeling a whole lot better, and that trust doesn’t fade away.

Many times I have sat with people as they bawled their eyes out while talking about issues that have been bottled up for years. Some people have moments of deep reflection, even people you would never expect to be on a personal growth journey.

If this skill has taught me anything, it’s that we’re all on a soul journey, even those who seem so ignorant, naive, or rude. Even the biggest assholes have shown me that they can redeem themselves and for me, it has humanized humanity.

It has shown me that we all struggle, we all have issues, and sometimes, we all just need to be heard, regardless of how different we appear to be.

I have learned that holding space is so much more than helping someone with their problems. It’s to facilitate a space of personal transformation that helps people see the bigger picture of their life experience.

Creating the space

Holding space for someone

When you’re holding space, you’re being completely present with the person and allowing them to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without interruption. Creating this supportive space grants an opportunity for the person to let go of some of the emotional junk that’s weighing them down.

Your energy plays a big role here.

If you’re in a dysregulated state of mind, the person will not want to share your energy. People inherently feel other people’s energy, even if they don’t recognize it. It’s your job to have a soothing but grounded energy that wraps the person in a warm blanket.

If you feel uneasy, the person will feel uneasy. If you feel in pain, they will feel the pain. Your energy must be the dominant force when you’re holding space because you’re bringing that person into your world.

It’s your space.

When a therapist sits with their patient and encourages them to speak, they’re facilitating a process. The patient goes through the motions, begins expressing himself, vents or cries, and lets go of their emotional baggage.

After you hold space for someone, the person generally feels much better, and you’ll feel a tangible difference in the energy. The person you were holding space for will walk away feeling a whole lot lighter because you allowed them to open up.

Besides facilitating healing, holding space for someone helps establish rapport by forming a deeper, more human connection with them. It fosters trust because you should the person that it’s okay to let their guard down and be vulnerable around you, which is something they might feel uncomfortable doing even with good friends or family.

Creating a space to hold for someone involves both physical and emotional elements.

Physically, it means finding a comfortable environment where distractions are minimized. This could be a private room, a cozy corner, or even a park bench where you can have a conversation without interruption.

Emotional safety means that you’re creating a space where there’s compassion, understanding, and trust.

When people trust that nothing they say will leave their lips, they will feel more comfortable sharing themselves authentically. If they believe you might tell others, they probably won’t open up to you.

People will respect you when you hold space for them. After the energies are cleared, usually there will be a lot of respect for one another, which will help develop a stronger relationship between the two of you.

To create the right circumstances for someone to open up to you, you should:

  1. Establish yourself as an authority: When the person sees you as some sort of authority, whether you have more knowledge, wisdom, or life experience, they are more likely to open up to you. Of course, don’t put yourself on a pedestal, connect as an equal, but remember, it’s your space that you’re letting the person into.
  2. Create a supportive environment: This is to create an atmosphere of nonjudgment and acceptance. The person should feel at ease to say whatever they want to say without criticism or rejection. Vulnerability should be welcomed, honored, and respected. The conversation should be away from the prying ears of others.

  3. Set boundaries: For you to be there for them, they should also respect your time and presence. Don’t let people take advantage of you, and make it known that they’re infringing on your goodwill if they become a little too much. If they start projecting their issues onto you or being rude, assert your position as trying to help, and leave if they don’t cut it out.

  4. Don’t take advantage of their vulnerability: You’re facilitating the space, so you need to be somewhat professional about it. As people open up and allow themselves to be vulnerable, you need to make sure you don’t take advantage of that vulnerability in any way.

How to hold space for someone

Woman holding space

Holding space is not necessarily about solving the person’s problems. Its focus is to provide a container for the person’s emotions and thoughts, and to help them process their experiences.

This means you offer support and validation. You give the person a shoulder to cry on and make sure that they feel heard. By creating a space for reflection and self-discovery, you’ll see how big of an impact this has on the person’s emotional state.

Here’s what you need to do to effectively hold space for someone:

  1. Be present: You must be completely present with the person. This means you’re not thinking about what to have for dinner or wondering what time it is. You’re giving yourself fully and putting all of your energy into bearing witness.

  2. Actively listen: You can’t just sit there pretending to listen, they will know if you’re not fully engaged. You need to actively listen by taking in everything they’re telling you. This means you need to give the person your full undivided attention, and pay attention.

  3. Don’t be reactive: You need to be centered. You are the person’s rock, a support pillar to lean on. That means you need to be grounded and hold a powerful, but calming energy. Sometimes things will get a little wild, and it’s your job to be their anchor. If you get sucked into their emotional distress, energies will spiral out of control. Therefore, don’t be reactive, observe, and hold the ground.

  4. Don’t judge: The person must be assured that you will not going to judge them, regardless of what they tell you. Don’t laugh, don’t show disgust, realize they may be talking about sensitive issues.

  5. Be patient: You cannot rush the process of healing. Some people might talk for a while, while others may take some time to open up. Therefore, don’t rush the process, just be present with the experience until it naturally comes to an end.

  6. Keep it confidential: Assure the person that whatever is said stays between the two of you and honor that agreement. It’s good to state this at the start of the interaction when you’re opening up the space for them to vent.

Developing centered listening skills

To hold space effectively, you need to develop empathetic listening skills. I don’t mean reacting to what the person is saying or getting caught in their emotions. I mean understanding them, and visibly showing your support, so the person you’re holding space for knows that you have their back.

To make sure you’re fully with the person, here are some things you should do:

  1. Regularly nod or vocalize: When you vocalize ‘uh hu’ or ‘mmm’ now and then when the person is speaking, it signals that you are following along.

  2. Maintain strong but gentle eye contact: Strong eye contact is an anchor point. Your eye contact should be the dominant force because you’re the one holding space. The person will look at you for reassurance. If you’re constantly looking away or avoiding eye contact, it’s not a good signal.

  3. Wait until they finish speaking: Never cut the person off to jump in and offer advice. Sometimes you might have something inspiring to say, but it’s important to wait until there’s a lull in the conversation.

  4. Avoid distractions: Make sure your focus remains on the person you’re holding space for. Sometimes there will be distractions, loud noises, or phone calls. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t give any attention to outside distractions. It’s their moment to shine, so make sure you provide the audience.

Providing guidance

Giving advice can be beneficial as long as it doesn’t take the main focus. When holding space is incorporated with a heart-to-heart conversation, this is what we could call counseling.

Counseling is effective because it engages both the feminine (listening, expressing, connecting) and the masculine (advising, inspiring, motivating) energies. Once the person has gotten everything out, now it’s time to engage the masculine constituent to give them something to work with.

After you successfully hold space for someone, you will feel a change in energy. During this moment, there will be quiet as the person you’re with collects their thoughts. This is the right moment to offer some advice and guidance. But there are some things to know before you do, otherwise, you could just complicate the situation.

  1. Thank the person for their trust: Once there’s a break in the conversation, you want to thank the person for being vulnerable with you and sharing what they did. Acknowledge that it can be difficult to be vulnerable and that you commend them for doing so.

  2. Give direct advice: Don’t beat around the bush. Here you want to give solid advice that hits. Your advice should be relevant to what they’ve been telling you, and it should be direct and impactful. Make sure you cut the fluff because, at this point, all of their attention will be on you, so make sure you provide some golden nuggets that can benefit their life moving forward.

  3. Talk from your personal experiences: Sharing your own stories and experiences (if relevant) can help build a sense of camaraderie. Feel free to tell the person about your particular experiences. With that said, don’t talk about something for the sake of speaking. If you have nothing to say, wrap it up.

  4. Speak from the heart: Make sure you’re speaking from the heart because this is the opportune moment to have a heart-to-heart. Don’t do it condescendingly, but aim to connect with the person by showing compassion and recognizing their difficulties.

Overcoming obstacles

When you’re holding space for someone, there are a few things you need to take into account.

Sometimes you’ll run into an unexpected hurdle, whether it’s emotions running high, people projecting their issues, or outside distractions. Here are some common obstacles when holding space for someone:

  1. Emotions running high: When someone’s going through their processes, emotions might start running high. This often manifests as crying, yelling, trembling, or ranting. As emotions run high, it becomes easier to get pulled into their energy, because their energetic outlet is stronger. Therefore, keep your cool and stay centered. As long as you hold your calming energy, they will calm down shortly and return to the calming space you created.

  2. Projection: Sometimes, people will project their issues onto you. This is usually the result of hitting triggers or as a way to defer responsibility. Either way, it’s not good for you, and you need to make sure people aren’t using you as a stepping stone, as that’s not going to benefit anyone.

  3. Remain humble: Make sure you’re always being humble, and there’s no ulterior motive to put yourself on a pedestal. Don’t boast or imply how great you are, because it’s just going to create a weird energy and make you look like a fool.

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