When my mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.
While we supported mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.
“Take your time,” she said. “You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.”
Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.
In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played in our lives. She was much more than what can fit in the title of “palliative care nurse”. She was facilitator, coach, and guide. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.
The work that Ann did can be defined by a term that’s become common in some of the circles in which I work. She was holding space for us.
What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that 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.
Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, for example, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom. Though I know nothing about her support system, I suspect that there are others holding space for Ann as she does this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, etc., need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.
In my own roles as teacher, facilitator, coach, mother, wife, and friend, etc., I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way that Ann modeled it for me and my siblings. It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are, but I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life that I trust to hold space for me.
To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.
Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Ann and others who have held space for me.
- Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. When we were supporting Mom in her final days, we had no experience to rely on, and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to carry her shrinking body to the washroom, we knew how to sit and sing hymns to her, and we knew how to love her. We even knew when it was time to inject the medication that would help ease her pain. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know that we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol – we simply needed to trust our intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
- Give people only as much information as they can handle. Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief. Too much information would have left us feeling incompetent and unworthy.
- Don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for other people (ie. when they’re dealing with an addiction and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children). Ann knew that we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, and so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
- Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their marks reflect on my ability to teach? Etc.) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone – not even me. To truly support their growth, I need to keep my ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
- Make them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.
- Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (ie. when it makes a person feel foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (ie. when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. This was a relief to us, as we had no practice at it and didn’t want to place Mom in a position that might make her feel shame (ie. having her children see her naked). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
- Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. In The Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.
- Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honour differences. This showed up, for example, in the way that Ann supported us in making decisions about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit was no longer housed there. If there had been some ritual that we felt we needed to conduct before releasing her body, we were free to do that in the privacy of Mom’s home.
Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just given. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.
It is my intention to be a life-long learning in what it means to hold space for other people, so if you have experience that’s different than mine and want to add anything to this post, please add that in the comments or send me a message.
This post continues to travel around the world and has been shared in many interesting places, including a Harvard Business Review article, Beyond Automation, and a Grist Magazine article, 48 hours that changed the future of the rainforest. I have done a number of radio interviews, developed workshops, and spoke at conferences on the subject. If you are interested in having me speak at your event, check out my speaking page. If you are interested in a retreat or workshop, check out the one coming up in Australia, or contact me about creating a workshop tailored to your organization’s or event’s needs.
This article has been translated into a number of languages (by volunteers):
Follow-up pieces about holding space:
How to hold space for yourself first
What’s the opposite of holding space?
Sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing
Sometimes you have to write on the walls: Some thoughts on holding space for other people’s personal growth
On holding space when there is an imbalance of power and privilege
Leave space for others to fill your needs
What the circle holds
An unresolved story that I don’t know how to tell
Holding liminal space (moving beyond the cliché into deeper space)
If you’re looking for a pdf version for printing and/or passing around to others, you can download it here. You’re welcome to share it, but if you want to re-publish any part of it, please contact me.
UPDATE: Here’s a recent keynote address I gave at a conference in May 2016 on the topic of holding space:
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free e-book, A Path to Connection.
This post is part of the 30-Day Bloom Your Online Relationships Challenge. If you’d like to play along, you can sign up here (don’t worry — it’s FREE). We’re working through these small, powerful actions together and sharing our questions, learnings and experiences in a Facebook group. And we’d love to have you join us!
In the group facilitation work I do (in The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Meaningful Conversations), there’s a mantra that we repeat to ourselves long before we enter the room to host a retreat, facilitate a planning session, mediate a conflict, teach a class, etc. It’s simple – just three words…
Host yourself first.
What does it mean to “host yourself first”? It means, simply, that anything I am prepared to encounter once I walk into that room, I need to be prepared to encounter and host in myself first. In order to prepare myself for conflict, frustration, ego, fear, anger, weariness, envy, injustice, etc., I need to sit with myself, look into my own heart, bear witness to what I see there, and address it in whatever way I need to before I can do it for others. I can’t hide any of that stuff in the shadows, because what is hidden there tends to come out in ways I don’t want it to when I am under stress inside the room.
AND just as I am prepared to offer compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and resolution to anything that shows up in the room, I need to offer it to myself first. Only when I am present for myself and compassionate with myself will I be prepared to host with strength and courage.
To serve the world well, I need to serve myself first.
How do I do that? I do it by being honest with myself about my emotions, by engaging in the creative/spiritual practices that sustain and enrich me, by working things through in my journal or in a walk in the woods, by engaging in self-care, by getting support from the right people, and by claiming my own power and authority before I step into the room.
A few years ago, I was frustrated over what was happening on social media and I started questioning my presence there. I was getting dragged down by pettiness, I was feeling pressured into “doing social media marketing the way the pros tell me to”, I was wasting too much time in mindless surfing, and it was all feeling rather icky. I was suddenly painfully aware that I’d let go of my authentic voice and my sense of purpose.
And then the words I’d repeated so often in my in-person work came back to me… “Host yourself first.” Oh yeah… right.
So I asked myself, “what if I apply this to my presence on social media?” What if, when I’m on Facebook or Twitter, I take myself more seriously and consider myself to be “hosting meaningful conversations” the way I’m doing in retreats and in the classroom? What if – before I post anything – I check in with myself to test the emotions around what I’m posting and to make sure it’s coming from a place of authenticity and positivity rather than ego and marketing? What if, before I walk into the “room” on Facebook, I make sure I’m clear about my own values and passions and boundaries? How will that change the way I interact?
I started experimenting with it, and it didn’t take long to realize that my online presence had shifted. I was returning to my authentic voice. I wasn’t just posting for the sake of being popular or funny or to make a sale. I didn’t do anything just because the pros told me I should do it, but instead I did what flowed organically from who I was and how I wanted to be in the world.
To solidify my commitment to hosting myself first online, I wrote my social media manifesto, naming all of my intentions in how I wanted to show up online. (Click on it to see it larger, or scroll to the bottom of the page.) I shared it and invited others to do the same.
People started responding. Beautiful conversations resulted. New and deeper relationships grew. More people bought what I was selling because it was coming from the kind of authentic heart that people were longing for. My business grew and my social media reach grew, but more importantly my relationships grew.
How do you host yourself first?
Here are a few tips:
1. Do your personal work before you go online. Start with whatever creative/spiritual practice sustains and enriches you – art, meditation, journaling, dance, walking, etc.
2. Sit with your emotions before you broadcast them. Are you angry, sad, disappointed, confused? Sit with them for awhile, without judgement, and honour what is showing up. Ask yourself: “Is this is an emotion that is worth sharing (and perhaps asking for support for) or worth holding close to my heart?”
3. Ask yourself each day how you can be of service to the world. How can you serve the people in your social media stream – with uplifting posts, with humour, with invitations to justice and compassion, with offers to support them, with meaningful conversation, with reminders of how beautiful/kind/courageous/resilient they are?
4. Remind yourself that each person in your social media stream (including yourself) wants to be loved. When you think of it that way, then the things they do that annoy you are softened somewhat because you recognize in them a quest for attention and love.
5. Choose your own mantra that you repeat to yourself before you post or respond to anything. It can simply be a question: “Is this authentic to who I am?” or “Is this serving the world in a positive way?” Or a statement “I choose beauty.” or “I am a messenger of light.”
6. Think of yourself as a facilitator or host when you appear on social media. If this were a party or retreat you were hosting, what kind of atmosphere would you like to create? How would you like to make people feel about themselves? What kind of conversations do you want to facilitate?
7. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to anyone else you’re hosting. If you were hosting a party and someone was feeling down and discouraged, you’d sit next to them and listen to them and offer encouragement. If they were celebrating something, you’d celebrate with them. Offer the same kind of compassion, encouragement, and friendship to yourself. When you do that to yourself first, you’ll feel much stronger and more able to withstand the highs and lows of social media engagement.
8. Write your own social media manifesto. Start by journaling about all of the things that are important to you about how you want to engage online. Then write a list of your commitments. Share them or keep them to yourself – whatever feels right. If you want to, share them in the BYOR Facebook group.
NOTE: When you’re done trying out today’s challenge, come visit us on Facebook and let us know how it went. What did you share? What was the response? Was it easy for you? Hard? No right or wrong answers here — we’re all just experimenting!
Image credit: Leyton Parker
Pam Slim’s book Body of Work arrived at the perfect time – just as I was on the threshold of doing some big work that marks the next stage of my own body of work.
A few months ago, Dianne McCoy and I accepted a contract to facilitate a major meeting of a national association and their stakeholders from across the country, gathering in our city this past weekend. This was one of the biggest and most complex meetings I’ve ever been called on to facilitate. There were moments leading up to it, when the complexities mounted and the potential for failure grew more evident, when both Dianne and I were sure we were in over our heads. There was even a moment or two when we considered turning down the contract.
But we worked up the courage to carry on. Not only did we carry on, but we pushed the client to allow us to use some methods that we both strongly believe in, but that we knew would create discomfort for many in the room who are used to more formal, hierarchical ways of gathering. Circle was at the foundation of how we wanted to gather, and there aren’t a lot of people in the corporate world who are accustomed to engaging with each other while they hold a talking piece in their hands and look into each others’ eyes. (Thankfully, we had an ally on the planning committee who is equally committed to circle work and she nudged the others to trust us.)
This was a monumental meeting for the organization. The ground was shifting beneath them, and they weren’t sure what shape they’d need to emerge into to continue to be relevant. They needed a brand new level of engagement with their stakeholders (that was both risky and unheard-of) if they were to continue to serve their public.
Needless to say, these two days of work required all of the skills I’ve accumulated – ability to read and respond to the energy in the room, leadership and strength in the face of conflict, intuition, good communication (speaking and writing) skills, attention to detail, ability to host meaningful conversations, creativity, adaptability… and a few skills I didn’t even know I had.
The meeting went well. There was more agreement in the room than the organization had anticipated, and even though things got tense at moments, we were able to redirect the energy and take it into a positive direction. Thanks to strong partners in the room who understand what it means to hold the rim of the circle, we worked our way through some very difficult territory to a positive conclusion. People in the room felt heard in a way they never had before, and the governing council had clarity about the new direction their organization needs to head. At the end of the meeting, several people remarked how the circle had been instrumental in changing the way they’d gathered.
In the evenings, when I returned home, exhausted and yet invigorated, I relaxed while reading Body of Work. As I’d expected, it’s a beautiful articulation of the way my own work has evolved. Pam talks about how the emerging story of our work is a compilation of all of the pieces that led us to this place – experiences we’ve had, things we’re passionate about, things that have happened to us, skills we’ve developed, etc.
Although there’s a part of me that’s long known that this was the direction my work was taking me, there was nothing in the early days of my education or career that indicated that I would one day relish the opportunity to host such a gathering. And yet… when I sit on this side of history and look back, I can see how the threads started coming together a long time ago to tie into this tapestry of my work.
In university, I studied literature and theatre. I’ve always known that writing would be part of my life in some way or another. I also thought that I’d find a place on stage. Little did I know that that place was not on a theatre stage, but at the front of the room speaking, teaching, and facilitating.
I found my way into a career in communication, first in government and then in non-profit. I worked hard to master the art of effective communication, writing more press releases and planning more press conferences than I can count. That grew old, though, and I knew that my longing to communicate was not about finding the best way to tell people about new government policies, but to tell meaningful stories that would change people’s lives.
I left government for non-profit, and finally got to tell more meaningful stories, but knew that wasn’t the final stop either – it was another stepping stone that was helping to prepare me for the next stage of my work. While there, I gained immense value from the opportunities to travel internationally and learn to communicate effectively with people of different cultures and different socio-economic status. This experience built a beautiful platform for the way I hold the container for meaningful conversation – recognizing the value of all of the stories in the room and honouring the differences we bring to the circle.
There have been lots of other things, aside from my paid work, that have helped grow this body of work – serving in leadership and church and community organizations, being a mom, getting some of my writing published, developing relationships with people all over the world, making art, developing creative practices, making mandalas, walking labyrinths, traveling, etc. All of it is meaningful, and even those moments that felt like dead-ends were learning opportunities.
All of those pieces helped prepare me for that moment, nearly at the end of the meeting, when I stood in front of the room, and somebody threw something into the mix that felt like it could derail everything that had just happened. It was the scariest moment of the weekend, and I wouldn’t say I handled it perfectly, but I adapted, trusted the others who were helping me hold the container of the room, and shifted into what was needed for that moment.
I wouldn’t have been ready for this moment ten years ago, or even five years ago, but I was now. As circle has taught me, I was especially ready for it because I had allies in the room (and outside of the room) and I knew I wasn’t standing alone. One of the most important things that the growth of this work has taught me is that I don’t do it alone.
Just before the weekend started, I bought myself a new ring. This is something I’ve done a few times in the past – buy a special piece of jewellery at significant moments of my life both as an act of kindness to myself and as a way of marking a new threshold in my growth. It’s a practice that holds a lot of meaning for me. This particular ring has a series of spirals that wrap around my finger. As many of you know, the spiral has a lot of meaning in my work (especially in Mandala Discovery). In this case, it reflects the way my work grows like a fern, reaching with tender green spirals further and further into the world, never in a linear path, but always in the direction it feels pulled. (Later this week, I launch the hard copy version of Pathfinder, so my week of big offers and spirals reaching in different directions, is not yet over.)
I would highly recommend Body of Work if you want to take a closer look at the path your own work is taking. If you want a meaningful companion for this exploration, I’d also recommend Pathfinder: A creative journal for finding your way. Pathfinder will on Wednesday, January 22nd. Come back then to order your copy!