If we are fortunate, we all have that person. The one we know to call when life becomes overwhelming or really hard. When we are hurting, vulnerable, or feeling small.
The heartbreak of going in for a third check-up and learning a heartbeat is no longer there. The shame of swearing you will never go back to what broke you, but finding yourself curled up next to it for the third time. After hard work and preparation and anticipation, the deflation of “sorry, we went with someone else”.
There is a reason you turn to specific people in these moments – you feel safe. You feel seen. You feel understood. And whether you know it or not, the reason is that person knows how to hold space.
Holding space is a process where you witness and validate someone else’s feelings while being aware of – and self-managing – your own so that the experience doesn’t become about you.
At the heart of holding space is being completely present with the other person and conscious of your own emotions, opinions, judgments and expectations – and dropping them at the door. Easy in theory. Very hard in practice. It’s why we have just a handful of people, if we are lucky, that we know we can turn to in hard moments.
While holding space is an art more than it is a science, people who do it well are adept at listening on a deep level and validating people’s emotions.
There are various levels of listening. Most people find it hard to move past what can be referred to as “self-listening”, where the focus is on ourselves and what the words mean to us personally. When listening from this place, there is a push for details and data and explanations, and all of the information is filtered through a lens that asks, “what does this mean to me?”.
We have all felt the wrath of sharing something personal and the impact on the other person is so severe that you now have to worry about them and how they are feeling. Or the person doing the “listening” takes your story as an opportunity to share how they have gone through something worse.
To be truly listened to is a striking experience, partly because it is so rare. When another person is completely present, gently leaning into the conversation and genuinely interested in what you have to say with no agenda other than to understand and empathize – you feel safe. You expand. You say things that you didn’t know you were capable of saying out loud and that offers release and relief.
Validating someone’s feelings is the practice of acknowledging and accepting someone in their full emotional state without minimizing or needing to make sense of everything. There is a broad misconception that in order to validate someone’s feelings, you have to agree with them and align with where they are coming from.
You do not need to approve of a person’s actions, choices or perspectives to be a safe place for them to land. To see them and hold them as they are and make them feel sane and important.
Validation fosters connection. Replace your need to agree with a desire to comfort. Realize that a person’s feelings carry a history of untold stories that legitimize whatever it is that they are feeling.
All of this to say, if you aren’t someone that knows how to hold space – learn. Learn to be present. Learn to listen. Seek to make the other person feel understood. Hear their message and where they are coming from and not what you think about what they are saying.
Validate. Acknowledge and accept other people’s feelings without conditions. Get curious. Lean in. And if you remember nothing else about holding space, remember that the experience should be about them, not you.