How to really listen: the art of holding space

The art of holding space
by Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on October 7, 2014.  Posted with permission. 

A friend recently told me that her father raped her when she was 15. I knew her when she was 15, but I never knew this.

Boom.

When people choose to share their deepest pains with us (I got permission to write this), we must first recognize what an honor it is. It’s also a responsibility.

Our role is to hold space.

When we hold space, we are respecting people’s abilities to navigate their own life paths. We are demonstrating that we have faith that they can process their own experiences. We remain present, grounded, as whatever happens, happens.

When someone we care about is in pain, it’s important to restrain any instincts to leap in and become an actor in another person’s life drama. We are witnesses to a remarkable process.

When we hold space, we make no assumptions that we know what another person needs. We don’t:

  1. Offer advice. This is placing ourselves in the position of fixers, establishing odd superiority in matters of which we have no knowledge.
  2. Say, “I know how you feel.” No, we don’t.
  3. Say, “Don’t feel that way.” It is never our place to tell people how to experience their emotions.
  4. Say, “Don’t cry.” Really? We say that because the crying makes us uncomfortable. Deal with it.
  5. Suggest that everything is going to be okay. How do we define “okay,” and how would we know that anyway?
  6. Ask probing or clarifying questions or push for more details. The people doing the sharing are the bosses of their stories. All will unfold in their good time.
  7. Give unsolicited hugs. Any physical contact in a painful moment is an invasion of another’s energy space. This isn’t wise when people are already feeling violated and emotionally wounded.
  8. Share our own experiences because we think it is going to be helpful. This moment isn’t about us.
  9. Shove a box of tissues at them. They’ll get their own damn tissues if they want them.

Gentle silence is best. This isn’t avoidance. When the silence becomes prolonged, perhaps we can say, “I’m here. Just tell me what you need from me.” That’s it.

In reverse, when we are going to share information that is deep and private, we might start with this: “I’m about to share something that’s intense. All I’m asking you to do is to listen. I don’t want advice or hugs or stories or help or affirmation. Just listen.”

We all have a sacred right to ask for all of our needs to be met. We’ll ask when we know what those needs are.

As my friend continues to explore the fallout of her victimization, I won’t be taking her by the hand, helping her through the labyrinth, pointing out dead ends, wolves or danger zones. I’ll be trailing behind her, following her lead in quiet meditation, dumbstruck by her beautiful strength and her unwavering power to trust and to love in spite of it all. She’ll know I have her back, and she’ll turn to me when and if she chooses.

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