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We all hold the power to heal others. Not with the tools of medicine, but with our natural ability to be present and pay attention. When we share these gifts with someone who’s struggling, it’s a way of holding space for them to heal. Holding space is often described as bearing witness, as listening with attention and without intervention. It’s a disarmingly simple, yet incredibly powerful practice.
Writer and coach Heather Plett gets to the heart of what it means to hold space. She describes it as what we do when we are willing to walk alongside another in whatever journey they’re on, without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them or trying to impact the outcome.
Holding space means sitting quietly with someone we care about and offering them our full attention. It’s about turning off our words and listening with an open heart to the truth of someone’s pain. As someone once said, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
Don’t just do something, stand there.
Holding space also means letting go of judgment and problem-solving. You’re not trying to influence the situation. Humans have the intrinsic ability to heal themselves. When we try to fix others, we prevent them from drawing on their inner strengths.
When we hold space for others, we get out of the way so they can make their own choices. We respect that they are their own best guide and help them recognize this, too. By not filling the void with our words, we give them the chance to hear their own voices. By not surrounding them with solutions, we stand with them in solidarity and support.
Holding space is hard, at least at first. Listening to someone talk about their pain can wound you, too. If empathy comes easily to you, it’s natural to want to absorb their pain, to take it from them and make it yours. This doesn’t lighten their burden; it only adds to yours. Letting someone cry, scream or shake in silence helps them to work through it and eventually let it go.
As you can imagine, this can be uncomfortable. But remember, it’s not about you. It’s about being fully present for someone in all their messy misery. Turn toward it – literally. Face the person fully and don’t look away. Sit quietly and patiently through the silences. Offer your hand, or a hug.
Then let go of your expectations. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön tells us: “The truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen – room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”