The Beginning of a Listener’s Tale
In primary school, some of my closest friends confided in me about pain they were experiencing. At the time, I didn’t know of the word or the meaning of ‘holding space’. These moments and other similar situations, would ignite my passion for human emotion, self-improvement and listening when someone was in need.
It can be such a good feeling to have someone in your life you can share your goals and dreams with. Someone who can discuss lofty ideas and offer practical solutions with.
But what happens when the conversation isn’t about insights or learning new lessons? What about when a loved one doesn’t need ideas, lessons or anything to be “fixed”?
What if they just need you to listen?
In this post, you’ll learn 7 tips on how you can emotionally support your loved one using this one skill.
What Does ‘Holding Space’ Mean?
Holding space means walking alongside someone on their journey, without judgement or shame. You don’t offer to fix the situation or rush to find a solution.
In the realm of therapy and helping professions, this term may be used in counselling sessions/talk therapy where the client is experiencing grief or struggling with unresolved trauma.
Alternative words for this gesture include: advocate, a guide, helping in crisis, a companion or supporter.
Most of us, at some point in our lives may have experienced this with trusted people in our social circles or in therapy.
How can we hold space for those we care about? Especially our significant other?
- Practice kindness and patience.
If your loved one is in need, simply be kind.
Using encouraging phrases like: “Tell me what’s been happening…” or “You seem stressed. Do you want to chat?” or “Maybe when you’re feeling calm, we can solve the issue you’re working through.”
It doesn’t have to be rocket science.
Practicing patience is always a good mental and emotional exercise. After all, we are human and we can get fidgety or feel the need to move on to a new topic.
Take a deep breath.
When someone is vulnerable with us, not only are they in need in those moments, but they are also trusting us.
Patience and kindness is a great way to show them that their trust in us is okay. It is safe to share and be honest.
2. Be aware of your own emotions.
Being present for someone we care about doesn’t mean we forget about how we personally feel. Let the emotions come up. Pay attention to your inner reactions.
Sometimes we can get distracted by our own agenda and steer the conversation away.
It’s not about you.
If you struggle with awareness and often wonder why your colleague/friend/partner gets upset when you talk or mention certain things, you can try some self-awareness exercises.
Remember, be kind, practice patience and maintain self-awareness.
3. Accept that your loved one will make different decisions than you would. Suspend judgement.
In your own mind, you may think that what they’re doing or what they’ve done is absurd.
However, going back to the definition, holding space for someone means listening without judgement.
Their life is a separate path to yours, no matter how connected or close you are with the person before you.
No matter how many conversations you may have had where you agree, your loved one has their own thoughts, opinions and decisions to make.
You can guide them, inspire them or be their accountability partner but you can’t control their actions in the end.
Once you accept your loved one as a separate, independent human being, you may not feel the deep sting when they make decisions that don’t align with your own thinking.
Let go. Listen without judgement.
4. Ask questions for deeper understanding, not just to respond.
Being curious at heart, I often ask inquisitive questions when talking with my partner.
Sometimes it catches him off-guard and he frowns, thinking for a few moments. Sometimes he can respond with a confident smile.
By asking questions that encourage deeper understanding, we learn even more about our loved one. We also learn about ourselves.
So don’t ask questions just to respond or shoot a person down. Ask to understand.
5. If you are feeling overwhelmed — say so.
Throughout my own life, I’ve had the tendency to be the “yes girl”. If someone asked something of me, I’d stack it on my shoulders. Imbalance was my thing.
Nowadays, I try my best to aim for healthy balance. Of course, it’s not always that way but striving for it has made me realise who and what is most important.
If you aren’t in a good headspace or if you’re dealing with your own crisis, please speak up. It is not your fault if crises align between you and your loved one.
It can be a difficult conversation especially when it comes to emotional expectations, but change or understanding cannot happen if we’re not honest with how we’re feeling.
By noticing what’s going on within our own minds, we can be of better and efficient assistance to those we care about. And vice-versa.
6. Emotional expression is OKAY.
Often, we are conditioned to hold in our emotions. Expression doesn’t just cover the act of drawing or writing, it can mean letting our emotions flow.
Bottling up our emotions is a ticking time-bomb.
Early on in my relationship with my boyfriend, I struggled to be upfront when I felt hurt by what he said or did. This was a common defence mechanism I used growing up. As time progressed, I could no longer control what came up to the surface. I became aggressive, irritated, incredibly tired and cried often.
One day, my boyfriend said to me in a frustrated tone, “Just talk to me…” Slowly — painfully — I began talking about how I felt. Some of those conversations were difficult, some problems were easily solved. This little nudge got me out of my shell. Expressing my emotions meant I was free.
Eventually, the shame of being emotionally expressive fell away. It helped me become a better listener, friend and partner.
The person you’re holding space for may become emotional and that’s okay! Offer them a tissue. Give them a few moments to breathe and gather their thoughts.
7. If it is out of your depth, refer them to a professional.
This can be a tricky line to distinguish.
In previous conversation with a friend, they confided in me a harrowing experience. We cried together and after a lengthy discussion, I told them that it may be a good idea to talk to a professional.
Use your common sense and act if the situation is an emergency. Be honest that this is an aspect you are not equipped to deal with.
There are organisations out there to assist with traumatic or emergency crises like domestic abuse, homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, suicide, bullying and so forth.
Click Here for a list within Australia of organisations out there to help in times of need. You can also Google “emergency help lines” with the state or city you’re in around the world.
Help yourself first, then help others.
When holding space for another, we may feel sad or even moved to tears. It’s part of human connection and being there for someone. It is a sign that you care deeply for them.
Like in an emergency landing on an airplane, you must first help yourself with the oxygen mask, and then those around you.
If you start to feel down or unusually sad, take some time for yourself. Speak to a trusted person in your community or a trusted professional. Recharge when needed. If you are not well, it is difficult to help others.
Like any skill, holding space for another person is something that can be learnt over time with dedication and practice. By being present, self-aware, kind, asking inquisitive questions and being honest, we are able to hold space for others. You’ll also learn a great deal about yourself through this process!