Holding space for a person, an individual, is something we hopefully all have experienced at some point in our lives. Lending an ear or a shoulder to cry on. But what I talk about here is more conscious and deliberate.
Because here, we are fully attentive and aware of the other person – not only what they say and the meaning behind it, but also their subtle gestures and underlying emotions. We are here for them, as their witness and co-creator, making ourselves available to them with our presence.
AND we are at the same time fully aware of how that might stir up all kinds of thoughts and feelings within OURSELVES. We notice and take responsibility for everything in ourselves, without losing focus on the other. So if they speak about something that make us sad, we acknowledge this and take responsibility for it – without allowing it to take away our full presence. If we cannot be present, we say it out loud, so that our joint field is as transparent, honest and loving as possible.
If we are really deep in our attention, we have a third and possibly fourth awareness (apart from the awareness of self and other): The awareness of our collective field, which is the field between us, the field we create together. AND possibly also awareness of the field we tap into, a field bigger than us which is always present, a field of eternal wisdom, love and abundance. Of life itself.
Characteristics of a space holder holding space for a PERSON:
- Self-awareness – knowing yourself, meaning a high level of introspective intelligence, being able to embrace “whatever” thought and feeling that arises in you when the other person is talking. So that you do not project your feelings on the other person, but keep them to yourself, taking full responsibility for them.
- An attentive and empathetic listener.
- Capable of “double awareness” as a minimum, meaning, being aware of the other and yourself at the same time. This is in fact much more than “double” awareness, as it requires you to be aware of your heart, mind and body at the same time, WHILE listening attentively to the other’s words AND observing their body language, tone of voice, etc.
- Skillful in transparent and authentic communication, being able to reflect back what you see and hear going on in the other person right now. But also to be able to offer feedback, if the other wants it – to make visible what is going on in you when listening. And above all: To be able to clearly separate the two!
- Preferably capable of sensing into what is going on in the joint field between you (such as projections you might have on each other, but also potentials for healing or helpful creation).
- Possibly capable of sensing into a bigger field surrounding all of us, a higher layer of consciousness, a field of eternal wisdom and love, which might support the person in this situation.
- Last, but not least, the space holder of course needs to be able to create a safe container for the person he is holding space for. This is particular important if you hold space for a living, but even when we hold space in a more informal manner, we also know that we need to shut the door, ignore the phone and allow ourselves to be undistracted of the surroundings. But a safe container is much deeper than the surroundings, it’s also something we create together as humans. And a “professional” space holder needs to be aware of this and consciously create the framework – so that the duo in focus, the spaceholder and the person she is holding space for, together can create a safe container to fit their purpose.
For a deeper analysis of characteristics, applying integral theory, see here.
Example: Holding space for one person but in a team setting
This video was an online meeting between five women, myself included, where I ended up being a time keeper for a Theory U case clinic process for one of the participants, as she had a leadership issue she wanted some input to. In this team, we are not exactly a project team, but we are a sort of a team because we meet monthly to discuss matters important to us (and to the world, we think), in a setting called “Women Matters”.
The Theory U Case Clinic is a process, where the group (or team) hold space for one person exploring her issue. You can read more about the Theory U case clinic process here.
The Theory U case clinic process starts around minute 18.
Suggestions as to how you might train and embody these characteristics of space holding:
- First of all, you need to be aware of yourself. You need to be able to discover and be conscious of your own thoughts, feelings and body sensations as they arise. If you’re not, you might project them onto the other, thinking it’s theirs. And that might muddle the field completely…
-> A way to practice self-awareness is to do an internal “weather report” of yourself a couple of times a day. You do this by quickly scanning a) your body for body sensations (pressure, tensions, aches, energies), b) your mind for thoughts (are they about the future or the past, are they draining me or giving me energy, are they repeating or new, etc.), c) and your mind and body for feelings (joy, sadness, anger, fear, love, etc.). You do the scan as objectively as you can – as a kind, curious witness wanting to get to know yourself. So without judgement, without cynicism, without fear – just with loving kindness.
Then over time get to know yourself and see your patterns. You also discover the link between thoughts, feelings and body sensations. They are not separate but connected!
- The next step is to be able to listen attentively and empathetically as possible. The two key words here are attentively – to be able to focus “all the time” on the other person, without loosing one word, one body gesture, one sensation… And the other key word is empathetically – not to judge anything they say, but to stay a curious and compassionate witness.
- If you’re not skilled in being focused and attentive, the best method I know of is to start a mindfulness practice.
-> A simple way to practice mindfulness (however, also rather boring, so be warned) is to find a visual timer, maybe online. And then watch it count the seconds, all the while you internally follow and count from 1 to 60, and then switch back to 1 when you reach the full minute and start over. Do this for 5 minutes a day for a week, and then for 10 minutes a day the next week – and see how you become more focused (if you haven’t rebelled and run away long time ago ♥).
-> There are many other types of mindfulness practices, typically involving the breathing. For example where you imagine breathing in of the left nostril, counting 1, then imagine breathing out of the right nostril, counting 1, then imagine breathing in of the right nostril, counting 2, and imagine breathing out of the left nostril, counting 2. And then continue, and every time you forget where you were, you start back to 1 again. And then notice how you gradually progress and can focus for longer and longer.
- If you’re not skilled in listening empathetically, without a constant commentary of judgement, cyncism and fear… I think you probably need to do two things.
-> One is to do the first exercise (the weather report) and notice when you are not being very empathetically towards yourself. Chances are that you treat others the same way! My advice would be to start a journaling practice for a while – and write down which things you judge yourself and others for. And then do shadow work on them (I’ll come back to how to do that).
-> The other thing is to find out if you generally are compassionate and have a good heart contact? Or whether your heart has frozen a little bit and needs thawing! If that is the case, you can do some exercises to learn to focus your heart energy… but chances are that you also need help from someone else. Someone very compassionate and with very good contact to their heart energy. So that you can learn from their example and maybe even feel how they treat YOU with a lot of loving kindness and compassion. You might even want to pay a therapist to get a compassionate holistic full-body massage & healing, or similar.
- Shadow work is a whole chapter of its own, but it is extremely overlooked and can very easily muddle the relations between people.
-> The best suggestion I can think of is for you to buy the download or CD by Robert Augustus Masters, Knowing Your Shadow. It’s a whole course with many tracks, guiding you through shadow work in a conscious and compassionate way.
-> Then there is the 3-2-1-practice suggested by Integral Theory, which you can read about in a book such as Integral Life Practice.
-> Of course a skillful therapist and group sessions might be very helpful as well. Etc.etc…
- Being skillful in “double awareness” – both of yourself and the other – is also a practice.
-> You can practice this by yourself, by doing a witness meditation. This means that you first do a self-guided process to discover your inner witness and your internal duality, the relationship between your small “I”‘s and your bigger witness “I”. You can for example ask yourself: How old am I, what do I do, what are my daily roles and responsibilities, etc. eg for a couple of minutes. And THEN you stop and ask yourself: Who is answering these questions? And who am I, when I can both be loving towards my child in one moment and angry towards a trespasser in the next? Who is controlling all this? Who is witnessing this process right now? And then I (hopefully) realize that I have many parts inside, each good at separate things, like being soft and mellow when appropriate and being determined and action-oriented when appropriate, etc. But there is an inner Witness inside, observing all that, always present, just watching. It’s like when you are in the movies, you watch the movie but you ARE not the movie. The same here, you watch your thoughts and feelings, but you are not your thoughts and feelings, You are something more than that. Once you discover this, it’s much easier to expand your conscious field and be present and observing towards yourself and the other without getting entangled in judgements and commentaries.
-> Once you become more skillful, it’s a very good idea also to practice double awareness in a group setting. A setting designed to make you more aware of both yourself and the other(s). I have tried many things, from Theory U, over inquiry and circling to Transparent Communication by Thomas Hübl. I think the best thing is to practice what you feel called towards.
- And this brings me to the next topic, being skillful in transparent and authentic communication. Because one thing is to be AWARE of both myself and the other when we are together. Another thing is to be able to skillfully communicate what I perceive and what I think is going on. So that I can test it out on the others and check if they see it in the same or another way.
-> I will often discover that a) it is not necessarily easy to put my perceptions into words, because words are limited and loaded, where as perceptions are not limited. And even if perceptions might also be loaded, I perceive in my way, you in yours. Neither of us can offer our experience to the other. You cannot experience through my eyes, my ears, my skin, only I can. And vice versa. Which means that b) we will often also discover that we do not experience the same situation the same way. Because apart from the different sensory organs, we also have our very different histories and beliefs. Which we put over every experience so that it is always colored by our personal perspective. The only way to discover that is to continue to explore it compassionately together with other people.
-> Here, I give Thomas Hübl and his course, Transparent Communication, my warmest recommendations. I like it for several reasons. Thomas is an embodiment of transparent communication himself so he is an excellent teacher just for that reason. He is also “integrally informed”, so he is very good at bringing in many different perspectives, such as personal, systemic, scientific, emotional, mystic, etc.. And then the course layout is designed with both his talks, with live Q&A’s, with mentor calls and with personal practice, both individually and in “triads”. I have practiced with my triad for more than two years now and I am astonished of how much we have learned about ourselves and about communication in practice. And still so much more to learn, if you are keen ♥
- This brings me into the art of sensing into the field between us.
-> Generative dialogue in Theory U is designed to do this, Inquiry (the Almaas-way) can do this, Transparent Communication can do it, and in Circling, at least “Organic circling”, can do it too. But the method “doesn’t matter” if you haven’t first done the practice work on yourself, as described above. Because if not, you suffer the risk of projections, mass-seductions, etc. Which is what we see sometimes in so called “sects” but also in business related contexts. You need to know yourself in order to be able to meet others – and then you can move to skilffuly discern: What is mine, what is yours, and what is ours. And explore together with the others – so that You all, as the bigger We, have the potential of creating a greater field of “joint sensing and experiencing”. Where we truly can find novel and sustainable solutions ♥ Which might particularly be relevant in a team settings.
-> But even when holding the space for one person, we have a joint We and can co-create a joint field. Which can both offer a lot of healing but also a lot of innovative energy that can help solve problems. And before we enter into the space with the other person, we can practice it in a safe space with others in the mentioned ways.
- Another and even more subtle characteristic to practice might be the art of tapping in to a higher field surrounding us, inside out. Some might call it “God” or “Allah”, some “Universal Love”, some “Buddha nature” or “Emptiness”, maybe “Life itself”, etc. etc. It’s quite OK if this makes your skin crawl and it’s not for you! You still have a lot to practice as described above ♥ But statistics show that about 6 billion out the about 7 billion people we are on this Earth, believe in something deeper, higher, more, or whatever you want to call it. So I think it’s relevant to mention, because a lot of people find tremendous support and nurture from this experience and belief. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to suggest a lot of practices because I think that you probably have your own practice already around this, if you feel so inclined. The only thing I can mention is that a lot of people find it helpful to contact their compassionate self and practice acting from that during the day. A bit along the lines as I already talked about when discussing empathetic listening.
- The last characteristic to practice is to be aware of what it takes to create a safe container for the job at hand. To hold space for someone whose child just died in a car accident is something completely different than holding space for someone who has a technical problem on the assembly line. And of course they do not need the same type of safe container. I define the concept of safe container widely, it’s both a physical and emotional thing, and maybe also a subtle energy thing. So in some situations, a warm enclosure with soft pillows and nature sounds in the background will be appropriate. And in other cases, we just stand where we meet in the factory, canteen or parking lot, and that is just fine because it’s our relation and the task at hand that is in focus (and we are not already emotionally chocked without connection to our cognitive minds).
-> Read more about creating a Safe Space in the wiki for Reinventing Organizations, even though this is written with organizations in mind.
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