When I talk about holding space for ourselves, I often introduce the concept of psychic membranes – the container in which we can protect, nourish, and support ourselves. The cell membrane serves as a metaphor for what it means to have healthy boundaries that allow nourishment in, keep harm out, connect us with others, and maintain homeostasis (similar pressure inside and outside the cell). In my book, I go on to imagine how our psychic membranes interact with each other and how we can stretch them into bowls in order to hold space for people. With intact and healthy membranes, we can do this without threatening anyone’s sovereignty.
A new element of this metaphor has emerged for me lately and that’s the idea of Velcro membranes.
When a healthy membrane interacts with another healthy membrane, those two “cells” can support each other without becoming enmeshed or codependent. They are autonomous beings who have a supportive social contract between them that allows them to choose when and how they wish to be in contact with each other. Healthy membranes allow us to form consent-based environments.
Unfortunately, that kind of healthy interaction doesn’t always happen, and many of us have scars (emotional and physical) from the times it didn’t work that way. Sometimes we do harm to each other and sometimes we develop unhealthy attachment systems.
Unhealthy attachments can look like membranes that have Velcro on their surfaces. Now, instead of coming into contact and maintaining the freedom to choose how and when to interact, the two cells become hooked in a way that doesn’t support the growth and sovereignty of either. The relationship is now codependent and enmeshed and the membranes can’t move independently of each other.
Let’s imagine that the trauma in our lives turns into Velcro on the surface of our membranes. Some of us develop loops and some of us develop hooks (or some combination of the two), and both are attempts to get our needs met. Those of us with loops can easily be hooked in and abused or manipulated by someone, because our traumatized brains convince us that hook-people will help us get our needs met. Those of us with hooks become abusers and manipulators and we hook other people in to try to coerce them into meeting our needs. Those of us with a combination can be both abusers and abused.
The only way to stop hooking or being hooked is to work on healing the trauma that created the Velcro. As trauma heals it’s like cutting the loops and hooks so that the membrane surface is now covered with nothing more than short threads that are difficult to attach to.
A healed membrane allows you to begin to enter relationships in a new way. It allows you to explore what a generative social contract might look like, where the best interests of each party are prioritized.
What will you do to start cutting the loops and hooks on the surface of your membrane? And what might need to be done in order to disentangle yourself from those people with whom you’re enmeshed?
I was driving home this morning (bringing home donuts, if you really must know), when a half-ton truck pulled up within inches of my rear bumper, impatient to pass me and trying to find an opening in the next lane to speed by me. I was going the speed limit, but as soon as I saw the truck in my rearview mirror, I second-guessed myself and wondered if I might be doing something wrong to cause his agitation. The light turned yellow in the intersection ahead of me, and I instinctively slowed down, but then my body went into panic mode and I considered rushing through the yellow light just to let Mr. Big Man in the truck get past. The law-following voice in my head battled with the keep-yourself-safe voice in my head, but I did the right thing and stopped. Behind me, I could see Mr. Big Man’s arm flailing in exasperation.
We were both in the right-turn lane. I could see that there was a no-right-turn-on-red sign, so I stayed stopped. But the keep-yourself-safe voice started clambering at me that perhaps Mr. Big Man couldn’t see the sign because my car blocked it from his view. What if he was still convinced I was making stupid driving decisions? Should I move so that he could see it better? Should I turn anyway, since there was no oncoming traffic and it wasn’t much risk? I could feel my nervous system kicking into high gear as my ears began to buzz, my throat tightened, and my brain became consumed with one thing – stay safe and do whatever needs to be done to minimize the threat. Make bad decisions if you have to but KEEP MR. BIG MAN HAPPY! Even after the light turned green and I pulled far enough ahead that he could race past me, I still felt myself in high anxiety over the fact that I had caused him distress. I would sooner find fault with MYSELF and MY actions, in the middle of that kind of crisis when my amygdala has been hijacked and I don’t have much capacity for rational thought, than blame him for impatient driving.
That last part is what always surprises me after my nervous system has recovered from an incident like that. That’s why it took me a long time to see myself in the trauma literature that talks primarily about a fight/flight/freeze response. Sure, I wanted to flee in that moment of distress, but this feels different from just fleeing. In order to calm myself down, my first reaction is to calm the abuser (or source of threat) down. And calming that person down often means completely shutting down my own needs, rights and opinions, to the point of assuming I must be at fault and am insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
When I found the research that identified a fourth trauma response (tend-and-befriend), I finally felt seen and could finally begin to name my reactivity as trauma-related and not just something that made me weak. (I could also learn to soothe myself, and to experience my heightened reactivity with more mindfulness and less self-judgment.) Tend-and-befriend is most often seen in women, according to the research. It’s the instinct that causes us to gather the vulnerable around us and to befriend those who will help us survive the threat. The “befriend” part can be a really healthy community-support piece (i.e. gathering other family members to help us protect our children), but the dark side of it is that we also tend to befriend the perpetrator of the threat in order to mitigate the harm. (Some also talk about a “fawn” reaction, but I like the added element of “tend-and-befriend”.)
Sometimes, when that threat continues because you are in a relationship with the person causing the harm, you find yourself in a trauma bond that is very hard to break away from. In a trauma bond, a person develops an attachment system with the person causing harm because that person is also a source of security (i.e. abusers convince victims that they are protecting them from even greater harm, and then gaslight them into believing they’re over-reacting to the harm and can’t survive on their own). Their nervous system is always on high alert because they never know where the threat is coming from or where/when they will be safe, and they lose capacity for rational thought. They cling to the abuser because the world outside of that relationship seems even more terrifying and unpredictable.
There’s another thing that is going on in the mind of someone who has an attachment bond to an abusive person and it has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that you feel when you try to hold two opposing views at the same time (especially when one of those views is tied to your identity). When, for example, you have to hold both the belief that “I am a good person and I make smart decisions” with “I’m choosing to stay in a relationship with an abuser”, the contradiction causes a great deal of stress because it might mean you have to change your view of yourself. In an effort to get rid of the discomfort, your mind begins to rationalize your choice by convincing you that the harm being done is minor and the good far outweighs the harm and maybe you’re just perceiving harm when it’s not really there and… isn’t the abuser a victim too and wouldn’t you be a horrible person if you abandoned a victim?
The longer you stay with a particular choice (even a self-destructive one), the harder your mind has to work to rationalize that choice in order to maintain the view you have of yourself and the harder it is for anyone else to convince you that it’s the wrong choice. To finally come to a conclusion that a choice you made a number of years ago may have caused harm to people (including yourself) is a massive disruption in your sense of self and many of us simply don’t have the emotional and psychological maturity and resources to handle that kind of uncomfortable identity crisis. It’s easier to dig in and heap more and more rationale (and additional bad decisions) on top of the reasons why you made that decision in the first place.
But at some point, you have to be held accountable for being complicit in harm. At some point, you have to come face-to-face with your own shadow. At some point, you have to take that difficult journey into your own psyche to see that you, too, may have become an abuser in your efforts to justify your choices and banish the cognitive dissonance. Or, if you simply can’t take that journey yourself and you escalate the harm you cause to avoid the dissonance, a moral culture may need to dole out consequences for your actions.
I wasn’t sure this was where I was going when I first started to write about Mr. Big Man at the intersection, but it seems to be what’s on my heart. Sometimes we make bad choices because bullies are breathing down our necks and we’re in distress. And sometimes those bad choices lead to even worse choices because we can’t handle thinking of ourselves as people who cause harm and who align ourselves with abusers and we have to justify what we did in the first place. And sometimes that means that we, too, become like Mr. Big Man, sufficiently disconnected from ourselves that we terrorize other people.
In the long shadows of early morning, on a recent trip to the Netherlands, I stood at the edge of a pond watching the light and breeze play with the surface of the water. Near where I stood, tall, straight reeds were reflected on the rippling water. It occurred to me, as I stood there, that if I were only able to look at the reflections of those reeds and not see the reeds directly, then I would never know for certain what the reeds looked like. The reflections kept moving and wiggling and reshaping themselves on the ripples, never quite the same from one second to the next.
This, I believe, is what my relationship with the concept of holding space is like. Though I have been staring at it intently for several years, writing many posts and a great deal of course content, and traveling the world to teach it, I am still only looking at a reflection of it and trying to describe it from the place I stand, knowing that you may be on another shore looking at it from a different perspective.
The longer I stare at it, though, the more I learn about this beautiful reed and the more I find myself dancing along with the reflection, open to the flow of what comes with each breeze.
Here are some recent reflections about how to hold space, gathered after a few intense months of teaching, traveling, and holding space.
Stay curious. When judgement creeps in, it’s difficult to hold space for someone (or ourselves) because we’re inclined to want to change them, criticize them, or impose our own expectations on them. Judgement and curiosity don’t coexist well, though, so in order to shift out of judging mind, bring in curiosity. Ask curious questions and listen with openness for the answers. When the other person recognizes that there is curiosity and openness in our questions rather than judgement, they’ll be better able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.
Release attachment to outcome. I’ve said this phrase hundreds of times, at nearly every workshop, retreat, or online course I’ve ever taught, and yet it’s still one that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. Clinging to a desired outcome – or even a believe that there WILL BE a positive outcome of some sort – is to bring in your own ego, your own desires, and your own expectations. To hold space is to open yourself up to the possibility that what comes (if anything DOES come) is outside of your control and may not be aligned with what you want. When you let go of outcome, you’ll be less inclined to label something as “failure” or “success” and simply accept it as what is. (Sure, there may be times when you’re working toward a specific outcome, but then you’re not really holding space.) As is taught in Open Space, “whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.”
Let go of “perfect” and embrace “good enough”. Holding space is not something we can ever do with precision and perfection, because we’re dealing with humans (ourselves included) who are flawed and fumbling and at some point we’re bound to trigger each other’s old wounds, annoy each other, or let each other down. Accepting that as part of the process rather than beating ourselves up over not knowing exactly what to offer the other person (or ourselves) allows us to lean into it with grace and love and a “heart at peace”. And when the fumble comes, as it inevitably will, forgiveness is the next stop on the journey.
Don’t assume you know what another person needs. When we hold space for others, we have to use discernment and our loving knowledge of the other person to try to do what’s right for them, but sometimes we miss the mark because we can’t fully know what that person needs at that moment. If the context is right, and the question is not too overwhelming for them to answer in the moment, we can ask what they need, but we can also do our best and then not take it personally when they say “that’s not what I need right now”. They might not, in fact, know exactly what they need and only realize it when they’re offered something they DON’T need. (For example, if I reach out to hug someone who’s in pain, they may suddenly know that they don’t want to be touched right now because touch re-triggers the wound they’re trying to heal.) To hold space for someone is to allow them the autonomy of discovering their needs and finding ways of having them met.
When your own reactivity is triggered, calm your nervous system first. Often, a failure to hold space for someone comes from a triggered reaction that results when the nervous system is flooded. If your fight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend reactivity has been activated by a situation, you can’t hold space well until you calm yourself down. For example, if someone lashes out at you in anger when you believe you’re doing your best to be supportive, your first reaction will likely be to defend yourself with an equal amount of anger, or leave the situation as quickly as possible. (Or – as the “tend-and-befriend” reactivity might suggest – fix the situation so that they’re not angry anymore.) When you take a few deep breaths (or find other ways of calming yourself – tapping, for example), you can re-engage the internal systems that help you respond more calmly and you might realize the anger is coming out of that person’s grief or helplessness and is not a reflection of who you are and is not yours to fix.
When the impact is different from the intent, consider your responsibility for repair and course correction. Recently, at a workshop I was facilitating, I lead the group in an activity that I thought might respond to a need that had arisen, but the impact of the activity (for at least a few in the room) was the exact opposite of what I’d intended and I had to face their frustration. My triggered response was to sink into shame over my misjudgement and/or to lash out with a defence of my intentions, but that wouldn’t have served the group well and would have centred me rather than the people I was holding space for. Since I was the teacher and therefore had the most authority/power in the situation, I had to take responsibility for the impact, make repairs, and course correct. Once I did, we were able to regain damaged trust and move forward together.
Just because one person’s needs aren’t being met doesn’t mean nobody’s needs are being met. This applies, in particular, to when you’re holding space for groups. Sometimes I make the incorrect assumption that the voice that speaks the loudest is the voice that speaks for the whole group, but that is rarely the truth. (That person may influence people by speaking loudly, but other people’s dissatisfaction may be because they’re easily influenced by powerful people.) It’s nearly impossible to know what everyone needs unless you ask each person independently, so when you’re holding space for multiple people, know that you’re likely going to let some people down while other people will be satisfied. This is where point #3 (letting go of perfection) is important. Do the best you can and trust that the people you hold space for are sovereign individuals, capable of having their needs met without you needing to contort yourself to meet them.
Walk a balancing act between “I’m responsible for the impact of my actions” and “other people need to take responsibility for their responses”. I recognize, in writing this list, that #2 and #6 might sound contradictory and that it’s confusing to know when we should take responsibility for the impact and when we should let go and trust that each individual will take responsibility for their own reactions. I think we need to hold BOTH in our hearts and use discernment to determine when we need to make repairs, and when we simply let go and allow people to have their own experiences. This is humbling (and sometimes humiliating) work and we have to have enough integrity to repair damage even if it was unintentional, and enough fortitude to not take things personally when people don’t react well to our actions.
Remember that we are all sovereign beings making our own sovereign choices. No matter how well you hold space for someone, they’re still going to act and be the way that THEY choose. If, for example, you hold space for someone who’s been wrestling with their own demons, and afterwards they choose to do something that you think is self-destructive, you can’t beat yourself up over your failure to help them course-correct. To hold space is to recognize their right to make their own choices, even when those choices make no sense to you.
Don’t try to retain this list – instead, lean into your intuition and the wisdom in your body/heart/mind. If, the next time you hold space, you try to live up to this list (or any of the other teachings I’ve offered), you’re likely trying too hard to make this an academic exercise and it will fall flat. Choose authenticity over perfection. While reading this may be helpful to you, don’t cling to it too tightly – simply let it land on your heart and then, when the moment to hold space for someone comes, trust that you have enough wisdom for that moment. If you fail, forgive yourself (and come back for a re-read of this list, if that’s helpful) and try again the next time.
Those are my reflections for now, after staring for a long time into the rippling water. Though I thought, four years ago when I wrote the blog post that went viral, that I knew what holding space was and little more needed to be said, I’ve since discovered that there is so much more that was left to discover and I’ll keep staring at the reflection for as long as I can.
Soon, these reflections (and many more) will emerge in the form of a book that is near completion and about to undergo editing and publication. It’s humbling to write a book and to commit ideas to print when you’re fairly certain that those ideas will continue to evolve and change, but I’ve committed to a belief that it’s “good enough for now”. Stay tuned for publication date, and, in the meantime, consider signing up for the upcoming offering of the Holding Space Practitioner Program (formerly “Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program) that begins in October, with registration opening in July.
Two days before the end, I sat on a stool next to the armchair where Mom lay. When she leaned toward me, I leaned in too, afraid I’d miss what she’d say with her disappearing voice.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were searching but unfocused. My own words worked their way past a lump in my throat. “I don’t know how to do this either,” I said. And then we just sat there and breathed together, our foreheads nearly touching as we imagined this great gaping space in front of us that neither of us knew how to navigate.
She was soon to cross over into the afterlife. I was soon to cross over into the land of motherless daughters. Neither of us had any idea how we would make the journey. Neither of us had any advice or platitudes or ways of fixing this. Neither of us could offer to go on that journey with the other. All we had was this empty space… this liminal space… where we could sit together and fix our gaze upon each other and find an anchor in each other’s eyes.
Looking back over our 46 years together, that moment was quite possibly the most honest and sacred moment we ever shared. We had no expectations of each other. We had no reason to pretend we were anyone other than exactly who we were. There was no point in acting like we had wisdom or answers the other didn’t have, and no point in clinging to old hurts or misunderstandings that had never been (and would never be) resolved. All of that was stripped away and all we had was this moment… this meeting at the intersection of who we were and who we were about to become.
All we had was the space of “I don’t know.” And in that moment, it was the most painfully beautiful place to be.
I’ve come to believe that is the most potent space we can meet people in our relationships… the space of “I don’t know”. It’s the place where we shed our expectations and pretences. It’s the place where we reveal ourselves to each other and admit that much of what we think we know is simply smoke and mirrors. It’s the place where we seek no heroes or answers, where we ask only to be anchored by each other’s presence.
It’s the place where the true work of holding space can happen.
It’s not often that we find ourselves in this space with other people. It’s not often that we are both strong enough and vulnerable enough to offer that kind of space to each other. It goes against every instinct to protect ourselves and to prove ourselves. It takes effort and courage and a whole lot of trust. For those of us who’ve been wounded, marginalized, and oppressed, it’s even more difficult than for those who walk in the world with privilege and more assurance of safety. Perhaps, in fact, it’s the kind of space that some of us only enter in our final days on earth, when we have nothing left to lose.
Imagine, though, if more of our relationships found us in such a place. Imagine if you could trust people in your life to hold you and offer you an anchor no matter how much you’ve failed them or betrayed them in the past. Imagine if you could enter more conversations with people without having to posture and protect yourself.
We may never find perfection in our quest for this kind of space, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it more often. I like to imagine, for example, what it would be like to intentionally seek to enter that kind of space when there are people working through conflict or reconciliation. What if, for example, those of us who are settlers in this country, could drop our baggage at the door and seek to show up with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in that kind of way, admitting that we don’t know what to do and showing our willingness to seek answers from the liminal space? And what if those who govern our country – our politicians – were willing to stop their posturing in order to sit in that space with each other, people from all sides of the political spectrum admitting that they don’t know the way forward but are willing to plant seeds for the future together? And what if we could do that with our own children? Or our parents? Or our communities?
Recently, my friend Beth and I have been practicing sitting in that space together. We have some parallel stories (ie. we’ve both recently ended a 20+ year marriage and we’re raising children around the same age). Plus we’ve both had an increasing awareness of our need, as settlers in Canada, to decolonize ourselves and we’ve had a recent experience together that heightened that awareness. In addition, we’ve been navigating some challenges in a community that is close to both of our hearts. So there is a liminal space element to both of our lives lately, as we evolve in the way in which we show up in our work, our families, and our communities.
Beth and I have long conversations over Zoom, where we just talk with little expectation of outcome or even clarity. One of us will text “can we circle up?” and we’ll find time to hold space for each other in a little virtual circle on our computer screens. Often our conversations end on a similar note as we began – still confused as to a way forward. In the middle of it, though, we each find an anchor with which to ground our wobbly selves.
We are meeting in the space of “I don’t know”. As we do so, we have to regularly renew our commitment and intention to keep laying down our pretences and instincts toward self-protection. This is not a natural space to be in with another person – it takes effort and humility. We want to impress each other, to prove our value, and we want to make sure we’re safe before we fully trust each other. We have to fight those inclinations in order to offer our vulnerability in such a space. We have too many stories of betrayed trust in the past to rush into an unguarded relationship like this.
I am lucky enough to have a few other friendships on similar journeys, and each one of them takes similar commitment and practice. The space of “I don’t know” can never be taken lightly – it is a great privilege that must be fostered and nurtured before it can grow into a plant that bears fruit. But once you taste of that fruit, you find yourself craving more and more of it, and relationships without it become less and less tolerable. And when you lose it, there is a deep grief and a hard journey back to that level of trust once again.
Sometimes I find it especially challenging to enter into this space because I am, in more and more of the spaces in which I find myself, a teacher/mentor/coach/facilitator who is expected to know things. People look to me with expectation and hope that I will help them find clarity and purpose, and I don’t want to let them down. I find myself becoming guarded sometimes, wanting to prove myself and not let people see me vulnerable. And yet… often it serves my students and clients well if I am willing to enter the space of “I don’t know” with them, to be humble enough to be in the learning with them, to show up willing to be shaped by our collective experience in the liminal space. (It’s a fine line to navigate and I don’t always get it right.)
The culture most of us live in has conditioned us to resist the space of “I don’t know.” Especially in North America (and I suspect in Europe as well, though my experience is limited), we have attempted to eradicate all chaos and insecurity from our culture. Out of our fear of uncertainty, we turn toward authoritarian leadership that, we believe, will keep us safe and always know how to make the path clear in front of us. We want assurances and safety and so we surround ourselves with people who look like us and talk like us. We resist the risk of engaging in spaces that make us feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, and so we marginalize those people who potentially bring that kind of risk into our lives.
But we can never live fully secure lives. We can never fully eradicate chaos. Every one of us will face illness, loss, death, and political instability. It’s simply a part of life. And the more we practice becoming comfortable in the space of “I don’t know” the more resilient we’ll become and the more expansive and beautiful our lives will be.
I believe (though I am far from an expert on such matters) that there are Indigenous cultures that understand how to navigate this space much more comfortably than those of us from European decent. Having sat in sweat lodges and other ceremonies and conversations with Indigenous people here and in other parts of the world, I have witnessed this invitation to sit in the liminal space, to release our baggage and false sense of our own importance. I have heard words spoken to me in Maori, Cree, and Choctaw that explain these concepts better than any English words I know.
As I learn to decolonize myself, I am learning how to receive the wisdom they have to offer without appropriating it or pretending I know something I’ve only recently begun to explore. Inherent in many of these traditions is a deep connection with the earth, which teaches us to be patient in the fallow seasons, to trust the unfurling or dying when the seasons shift, and to surrender ourselves to the mystery of it all. In New Zealand, for example, I was recently taught about the Maori concept of “a te wa” – “when the time is right” – that teaches us patience in the discomfort of waiting. I seek to trust the wisdom of “a te wa.”
In the liminal space, we need that kind of patience. We need the ceremonies and rituals that allow us to stay present for the discomfort. We need the teachers who can model how to stay present. And we need the relationships that anchor us there.
I don’t know how to fix much of the political mess in the world. I don’t know how to eradicate poverty or racism or prejudice of any kind. I don’t know how to help a friend whose life has been deeply altered by time spent in prison. I don’t know how to ensure that women can walk in the world without fearing sexual assault. I don’t know how to parent a child with the kind of anxiety I’ve never navigated in my life. I don’t know how to repair the damage when trust has been lost in a community. I don’t know how to navigate the world as a single mom when my children begin to move out of our home. I don’t know how to hold space for a friend or family member whose lives have suddenly been threatened by gang members. I don’t know how to repair the damage that has been done by settlers in my lineage who took what wasn’t theirs to take.
There are so many things I don’t know. And I don’t want you to give me the answers. I simply want you to meet me there… in the space of “I don’t know.”
Melancholy: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause
That sounds about right for my state of mind this past week. I hesitate to call it depression, because it doesn’t feel that heavy, but there is definitely “pensive sadness” going on and it has no obvious cause.
When this familiar sense of melancholy comes at this time of year, I usually chalk it up to the end of winter, when I’m a little more sluggish from not taking as many long walks in the woods and not getting as much sunshine as I need. I get a little imbalanced when I lose my connection to the natural world. I’m pretty sure that it will pass soon (Spring always revives me), but for now, my creativity is low, my resilience isn’t what it normally is, my emotions are a little tender, and I feel disconnected. I stare at blank pages when I should be writing, I crawl into bed earlier than usual, I cry unexpectedly, and I watch too much Netflix.
A couple of things happened last week that were quite minor, but because of my state of mind, I took them more personally than I normally would. Though none of the people involved meant any harm, my tenderness left me feeling a little lonely and a little rejected. There was no true rejection involved (I still feel well loved by them), but in the middle of my fragility, it’s always easier to make up stories that align with how I’m experiencing the world. Feelings of disconnection often lead to greater disconnection.
Not long ago, I was on the other side of that story, inadvertently wounding someone who was going through her own state of tenderness. Unaware of her emotional state, I said something that normally would have been received with ease, but instead carried some wounding.
“At two, you’re at abstraction.” That’s a line from a Sara Groves song (that I think she borrowed from someone else, but I can’t find the source) that points to the impossibility of fully understanding another person’s reality. Another person’s pain, joy, love, trauma, history – they’re all just abstract concepts for us because we have never lived inside of them. We can never really “walk a mile in another person’s shoes”.
Despite our best efforts to be compassionate and understanding, our well-meaning words can land the wrong way and leave a person feeling wounded, lonely, misunderstood, defensive, angry, etc. That’s one of the reasons why, in our efforts to hold space for other people, we need to avoid falling into the trap of taking responsibility for their emotional response to our words or actions. Each of us is a sovereign individual with our own stories, our own interpretations, and our own emotions and when we take too much responsibility for another person, we diminish their sovereignty.
At a workshop a few weeks ago, Dr. Gabor Maté talked about how trauma can shape a person’s world and change the way they respond to stimuli. When a person grew up with trauma (either in the form of a traumatic event, or as a result of being raised by caregivers with unresolved trauma) their fight/flight/freeze instincts are heightened and they are inclined to over-react to stimuli that brings them back to their traumatic memories. Unresolved trauma, he said, makes it impossible for us to be in the present moment. “When we’re triggered, the emotions that show up are those of the abandoned child. We don’t react to what happened – we react to our interpretation of what happened based in our traumatic memory.”
Even compassionate people can inadvertently trigger someone’s trauma. Think about the last time you said something to another person that you thought was fairly innocuous and they reacted with defensiveness or anger that seemed out of proportion for the moment. There’s a good chance that there was something in what you said that triggered an old wound that they may not even know they still have. In that instant, that person was not the mature adult you thought you were talking to – they were a scared child relying on an instinctual response for their own protection. While they may need your empathy in that moment, and you might make a mental note to adjust your behaviour in the future to avoid triggering them further, you can’t take their autonomy away by trying to fix their problem for them.
When I used to teach a university-level course in communication, I would always start with the following diagram to help my students understand that, in every communication, there are complexities and potential pitfalls that we can’t fully anticipate or mitigate.
(Note: this is my version of a popular model used in communication training, but I don’t know the original source.)
Each of us lives within a unique field of experience that may overlap with other people’s experience, but is never exactly the same. When I want to communicate with you, my intended message is shaped and encoded by my field of experience, which includes factors such as my gender, race, culture, disabilities, lived experiences, language ability, emotional state, etc.
I choose the channel of communication to best offer the message (ie. will I make a phone call, wait until I can talk to you in person, or send an email?). If I am compassionate, I will consider your field of experience when choosing the channel (ie. if you are hearing impaired, a phone call might not be the best method), but I’m limited in how much I can understand your reality so I may make mistakes. On top of that, no matter how carefully I encode the message and how intentional I am about the channel of communication, there is always unexpected noise that can disrupt or distract us at any moment in the process (ie. a child needing attention in the middle of a personal phone call, a disturbing story on the news, a misunderstanding, etc.).
The message crosses over to you and is, in turn, shaped and decoded by your own field of experience and your current circumstance. As I mentioned above, for example, you might be going through a period of tenderness that I had no way of knowing about when I initiated the communication. Even the most well-intentioned communication can go astray, and by the time you’ve decoded it, it may have a very different shape than what I intended. Much of our encoding and decoding processes happen in mere seconds during the course of a conversation, so we aren’t aware of all of what has shaped and reshaped what’s passed between us.
If you choose to engage in two-way communication, you send your own message across the reverse path, back through our fields of experience, risking similar misinterpretation, triggering, etc.
Given the potential complexity of even the simplest conversation, and given the fact that only a small portion of the process is within our control or within our conscious understanding, what can we do to improve the process? How can we be better communicators who wound others less often and receive fewer messages as wounds?
When you are the sender of the message:
• Pay attention to how your message is being shaped by your field of experience.
• Be humble, recognizing the limitation of your understanding of the other person’s field of experience.
• Especially where the differences are vast and there may be power imbalances, do your best to learn about the other person’s field of experience instead of passing judgement (especially if you are the one who holds more power).
• Be aware of the other person’s emotional response and check in when something doesn’t seem to land well, but don’t judge or try to control the emotion.
• Take responsibility for what you’ve said and allow the other person to take responsibility for their response.
• Allow for processing time in the conversation. Pauses may help to alleviate misunderstanding.
When you are the receiver of the message:
• Recognize the limitations that are at play in the sender’s lack of understanding of your field of experience.
• If you trust that the person will honour your current state of mind (ie. if there’s grief, depression, etc. going on), let them know that you may be limited in your capacity to receive.
• If you have a strong emotional response to the message, pause for a moment to check in with yourself. Recognize that the first reaction may be your instinctual desire to protect yourself and may not be fully based in the current situation.
• Hold the other person accountable for their words (especially in the case of harsh or oppressive language) and recognize when it may be in your best interest to stand up for yourself and/or walk away.
• If there is a misunderstanding and the relationship is important to you, reflect back to the person what your interpretation of the message is, based on your field of experience, and offer them an opportunity to reframe it.
• Take the time you need before sending a message back.
• Remember that you have a right to set boundaries and protect yourself.
Each situation is different, and based on how valuable the relationship with the other person is, you may or may not want to invest in the effort it takes to work through misunderstanding. If, for example, you’ve been verbally assaulted by a stranger at a bus stop, you probably won’t have any interest in figuring out how to communicate across your differing fields of experience. If, on the other hand, you love and trust the other person and believe that the relationship will be strengthened by deeper understanding, you’ll want to invest more time and energy in cutting through the noise.
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