WTF Is Holding Space? (A Man’s Guide)

“I need you to hold space for me.”

These words get tossed around A LOT in modern relationships, but most people have no clue what it is or how to do it.

In a workshop I led recently, the concept of ‘holding space’ came up.

I asked how many people had heard of this concept and the entire audience raised their hand.

Then I asked how many could define it or effectively knew how to do it…

Crickets. Only 2 hands raised.

One of the men spoke up and said “my wife asks me to do this all the time, but I haven’t got a clue what it means or how to do it. I assumed it just meant shut up and listen, but that doesn’t seem to work either. She often says i don’t understand her, that I’m always trying to fix her or that I’m cold and emotionless.”

“Same here” “Me too,” said a few of the guys in the room.

Then, I asked the women in the room what the impact or result would be if their partner could hold space for them properly.

“I’d finally feel heard.”

“I’d feel like he understood me!”

“I’d feel more emotionally connected which would make me more connected at an intimate level.”

“I would feel like he was compassionate and empathetic.”

“When my partner has been able to hold space for me, I’m always more open to physical connection afterward.”

Clearly, this was an important topic men needed and wanted to understand.

First, let’s agree on what holding space is NOT.

Holding space is not:

  • Just Listening
  • Trying to fix, solve or provide alternative points of views for your partner
  • Disconnecting or diminishing your partner’s emotional experience
  • A one-way conversation
  • Being disconnected from your own experience.

I asked the men to share their past experiences of trying to hold space to really drive home the point.

One man summed it up by saying “I feel like I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried being completely silent and listening, I’ve tried fixing the problem, offering suggestions and I’ve even tried just agreeing with everything she’s said. Nothing seems to work and I’m almost ready to give up.”

So what IS holding space?

Here’s my definition:

“Holding space is the process of witnessing someone else’s emotional state while simultaneously being present to your own.”

This means the person holding space has double duty.

If you are the person holding space, you need to be tuned into your own judgments, emotions, desired outcomes and opinions all while understanding what’s happening for the other person.

Holding space goes beyond listening because it requires us to hear the other person, have empathy and not make the situation about us by trying to ‘give insight’ fix or ‘offer advice.’

Think of it this way; when you hold space, you are creating a container for the other person’s emotions to come up, be seen without the interference of your own and be released.

Holding space it’s like creating a metaphorical bucket for someone to emotionally and verbally vomit into.

Sounds classy, right?

Holding space doesn’t mean you remove or avoid your own emotions and it doesn’t mean you get sucked into their emotional state because then you’ll both need a bucket.

But how do we effectively hold space? How do we create this bucket? Knowing what something is and knowing how to do it are two very different things.

The 3 things you need to know about holding space:

1. Awareness Is Crucial. 

Your emotions, thoughts, and opinions are going to get in the way.

If you want to ‘build the bucket,’ or really hold space, you’ll need to master the art of noticing your own internal processes while observing theirs.

Being able to see what you think and feel is essential. It’s what all really exceptional listeners, leaders, and therapists do.

They hear what you say, feel what you’re feeling all while noticing (without judgment or attachment) what their own thoughts and feelings are about the situation.

Without this awareness, you will fall into the trap of trying to effect an outcome based on your own desires or opinions.

The outcome of holding space is not decided by something you’ve done, it’s determined by something you’ve created. 

Awareness is so crucial because as human beings we are easily influenced by other’s emotional states. Think about someone who is quick to anger. When you’re around them, it’s much easier to become frustrated, annoyed and angry than normal. Why? Because of transference and emotional mirroring. Put simply, if not aware, you take on the emotions of others.

The point here is that you need to be equally aware of your own thoughts and emotions as you are of the person you’re hiding space for. The goal is not to be empty or devoid of emotions, the goal is simply to be aware so you don’t react from those emotions.

Oh, and put your damn technology away. You’re not holding space properly with your phone out, email open or TV on. Be Present.

2. It’s Not About You.

As much as you will feel the need to fix, solve, be right or ‘of service,’ the best thing you can do is realize that the whole conversation and point of holding space is to make the conversation about their experience and not about yours.

Notice how when you’re trying to fix or solve a problem, it’s more about your own validation than your partners. If you want real validation, use the law of reciprocity: give that which you want to get.

Here are a few things that help create the bucket and shift the focus onto them:

  • Give them permission to share, permission to trust their instincts/intuition and trust their internal wisdom.
  • Create the space for them to make decisions or take actions that might be different than your own.

3. Validation, validation, val-i-da-tion

Let’s make one thing clear, you don’t need to agree with them to validate them.

The biggest trap people fall into when holding space is that they are looking for evidence to AGREE with before they feel like they can give validation.

When this happens, validation of any form is a challenge because the person holding space is trying to understand the situation and emotions associated with it based on their own view of reality.

In general, the masculine will struggle with this. The masculine will want to understand someone logically before validating their partner’s emotional experience. (Notice, I’m not saying MEN, but the masculine. More logical, analytical women can get caught in this trap too.)

There are two important things about validation:

The other person needs to feel understood. This means you have to take a different view point, put yourself in their reality for a minute and understand why they are thinking and feeling that way.

And…

Reflecting back their thoughts/feelings is the best way to do this. (remember, you don’t need to agree, simply understand).

Really listen for the core of the issue they are having. Mirror back what they say the issue is and take the time to validate their emotions. You’d be surprised how many people are simply looking to be understood and be told that they aren’t crazy (like they’ve been telling themselves in their head).

Finally, trust them.

Trust that they can handle their shit.

Trust them to navigate their emotional turmoil, solve their problems and trust in their ability to find what they need.

And remember – the bigger the problem, the bigger the bucket, the longer you’ll need to hold it.

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