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The term “holding space” has become an on-trend expression.
I’ve noticed the phrase used to describe retreats, workshops, courses, one-on-one coaching work, and other environments where, though a safe space may be the desired outcome, it’s not truly being created.
When I first heard the phrase “holding space,” a mentor said to me, “You have a way of holding space not only for yourself, your friends, family, but even me as a teacher. My role is to hold space for you, the receiver. Yet you show up here time and again, holding space for me. Do you know you do that?”
I looked at her in complete confusion, while analyzing what she was saying—holding space? I think I had a quick vision of me grabbing air.
I was left wondering what the phrase meant. I didn’t ask about it that day. Instead, I did a little research and eventually found the work of Harrison Owen, author of Open Space Technology and The Power of Spirit, who is dedicated to promoting transformation and living a life with purpose.
While the term “holding space” has long been around, Harrison Owen may have been one of the first to spread an invisible yet important message.
The following are five Harrison Owen quotes that help us to understand the essence of holding space:
1. “Open some space, and Spirit will certainly show up. Allow the magic of self-organization to work for you, and the complex adaptive system that we are will find its own power.”
Holding space is about showing up, and letting something bigger than us take the reigns. It’s about telling our ego-minds we hear the chatter, then allowing the unhelpful voices to fall to the wayside, as we trust and let Spirit guide the conversation.
2. “Groups of people gathered around an issue for which they care deeply will find the way–provided they had the (safe) space in which to explore.”
I lead many groups and classes, and while it’s not my intent to come across as boastful, I share the above point to stress the importance of bringing together a good group of loving individuals—people who share an intention of safety and transformation.
3. “Holding space is an act that is at once totally present and totally invisible. It is, like the Tao, an activity that is characterized by paradox.”
Perhaps one of the most challenging things about holding space is it’s not something the naked eye can see. Visual learners can’t learn the skill. It’s a felt experience, completely invisible. It’s not a promise we can make or something we can say we will do. Instead, it’s a process we must lead others into and practice being efficient at.
4. “Forget about trusting the process; trust the people.”
Holding space requires trusting the energy between the people present instead of relying on a structured process. From my perspective, it’s about leaving guidelines and embracing guidance, saying no to structure and yes to softness, and using intuition to navigate the journey.
5. “The job of the facilitator is not to keep things on time, but rather to enable the creation of safe time.”
It’s not to say time is not essential, but because holding space involves allowing a greater power to take the reigns, it makes sense it can’t be time-dependent, as Spirit doesn’t do time. Only earthly beings do time. So there is a fine balance between honoring a timely schedule to help everyone feel safe, and allowing for time to stretch, so people don’t feel rushed.
How do we apply some of Harrison Owen’s wisdom?
We can remember the acronym S.P.A.C.E. and use these five tips:
S = Safety. Feeling safe is a vital aspect of creating and holding impeccable space. We can enhance a feeling of safety by using nonjudgment, securing confidentiality, ensuring inclusivity, being mindful of cultural needs, avoid rushing, and choosing a neutral physical location. When we don’t feel safe, space may become occupied with fight, flight, freeze responses.
P = Presence. We first have to be fully present in our body in order to be fully present for another. By grounding, bringing awareness to our being, setting distractions aside, and using breath, we stay present for another. Being present also involves noticing what’s ours and what’s not. While we can effectively listen and hold a solid intention to allow for others to process, we must commit to not taking on the energy of the other person’s situation.
A = Accept. We can create an accepting space by actively listening, refraining from judgment, using compassion, and letting things simply be. We can also remember when we respond: it’s not about what we say, it’s how we say it. If and when we’re prompted to provide feedback, it’s essential to use an accepting and loving tone—one that says, “No matter what you say, I accept you, love you, and I am here to listen.”
C = Challenges. Challenges and problems are sure to arise, and we don’t have to fix or correct them. When obstacles appear, and we practice being okay with “not being okay,” we can hold excellent space. Allowing the challenges to be sends the message we are committed to sitting through the hard stuff, which provides a safe space for others to share and process.
E = Empty. Space defined is a continuous area free, available, or unoccupied. It’s empty. We can create a safe space by allowing emptiness to be, without needing to fill it. Silence, breath, eye contact, and resisting the need to change anything are all a part of holding a safe space.
Holding impeccable space is one of the most loving things we can do for others in my experience.
My hope is to inspire more safety in spaces for more sharing, processing, and ultimately, healing to occur.
If this resonated, I would love to hear from you!
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