WTF does it mean to “Hold Space”?

WTF does it mean to “Hold Space”?

How to Hold Space for Your Partner: 4 Key Steps to Provide Emotional Support

“Holding Space” is a term popularized by woo-woo, spiritual, “conscious communities” but what does it actually *mean*!?

“I really just need you to hold space for me in those moments,” a female client of mine said to her partner. His response — “I thought I was holding space for you by providing some solutions for your situation.” And herein lies the conundrum that follows from vague language like “holding space.” Over the last few years the term “holding space” has become the popular spiritual jargon replacement for “provide emotional, judgement-free support” and even reached a peak search in October 2020, according to Google Trends. But what specifically does “holding space” mean and how can you show up for your partner in a way that they can feel seen and heard (validated) in challenging moments? 

“Holding Space” actually means being fully present with your partner, physically, mentally and emotionally. When we “hold space”, we let go of needing to solve the problem or have an answer — it’s an offering of an open heart and validation of the other person’s experience. This often requires empathy and compassionate understanding into the conversation.

However, while that may paint a clearer picture of what it means to “hold space for someone”, the specifics of what each person needs and expects is unique to them. It’s important, then, to ask your partner what they would like in the moment in addition to your listening ear and open-hearted understanding.

Sometimes that can be a hug, it can be sitting in silence with someone while they cry or release emotion, it can be repeating back to them what you’re hearing them say — “I can hear that you’re really hurting from this situation.” or “This is certainly challenging and I can see how this would cause such overwhelm for you, for anyone.”

In the case of my client, she wanted the latter, to feel that her partner understood her experience and could validate what she was communicating to him. Together, we supported her with expressing her specific wants and needs in the moment, rather than delivering a vague directive of “just hold space for me.” She would then say: “I need you to listen to what I’m stressed about and then give me a hug and tell me you understand what I’m experiencing. I’d also like for you to tell me that it will be ok.”

Holding space for someone can look different for each person.

If you or your partner is not able to communicate needs in real-time like this, here are a few basic steps for “holding space for someone”: 

  1. Practice Active Listening. Active Listening strikes right to the core of “holding space” because in order to actively listen you must be present and listening with an open heart. Happy Partners Project has a free 5 min lesson on how to doing your P.A.R.T when actively listening builds trust. 
  2. Repeat what you hear your partner saying back to them. If they are venting about a situation at work and using words like “stressful”, “overwhelmed”, “annoyed”, “filled with anxiety”, use those words back to them. “It makes complete sense that you’d be annoyed and filled with anxiety in such a stressful situation at work.” 
  3. Create connection through supportive (non-sexual) physical touch. This could be a hand on your partner’s knee, holding hands, rubbing their back and shoulders or a hug if that is requested. 
  4. Ask your partner what they would like to receive. Would they like for you to simply listen and do the above? Perhaps they would like for you to give words of encouragement or ask questions that can help them get clear about what to do? They may even want to hear your opinions. What’s important here is to let your partner lead on making this request rather than you assuming or automatically offering any of these options. 

Do you do some or all of these steps when holding space for someone? What have you found helps your partner feel seen and heard in times of overwhelm?If you haven’t given these steps a shot before and “holding space” is a murky area for you, try adding these into your approach or asking your partner for more specifics about what they mean when they ask you to “hold space” for them.

Jocelyn Johnson is the founder of Happy Partners Project and the creator of the Relationship Check-In (TM) Method, the acclaimed science and psych-backed process for strengthening relationships and empowering couples to create their best relationship. She coaches couples and individuals to integrate conscious relationships habits, heal relational wounds and accelerate change. She is certified in Cognitive Behavioral Coaching, Neuro-linguistic Programming and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy.  
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