Because I’m so open about my story (and all the struggles that have come with it), many others in my life feel comfortable being open with me, including total strangers.
It’s a privilege of mine to receive these emails and letters and messages, as I know it means I’m offering someone the best gift I can offer: listening ear. But speaking honestly, I didn’t always see this for the gift it truly is. When I first started receiving these messages- asking for advice, opening up about past pains or traumas, or just venting- I at first struggled to find my footing. Was I supposed to have all the answers? Was I supposed to tell them what I did in that situation, or would do? What if I just didn’t know what to say?
It turns out, holding space for someone else simply isn’t easy. At least, not in a way that truly serves the other person. A lesson that was difficult for me to learn is understanding the difference between being “helpful” and being “of service.” Many have written on this topic, including Rachel Naomi Remen in the article Serving is Different From Helping and Fixing, which I highly recommend. In it, Remen writes,
“Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving…Serving is also different from fixing. When I fix a person I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act. When I fix I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them.”
What helps me to best understand the difference between helpfulness and being of service is getting to the root of who I am performing the action for. A habit I’ve had to break is telling someone who is expressing emotion, “Hey, don’t cry, you don’t need to cry.”
On the surface, this seems like a kind and caring gesture, but when I ask, “Who is this serving?” the answer is myself. When someone else cries, it can make us uncomfortable. By asking them to stop, what I’m really asking for is my own discomfort to end; because if I truly think about it, I know that crying and allowing myself to emote makes me feel a world better, even if the issue isn’t perfectly resolved by the time the last tear is shed.
Being there for someone and simply letting them cry can be extremely challenging and uncomfortable. While it may be helpful to tell them not to cry, we are serving them by creating a space where they are allowed to express themselves and not have to come up with solutions or reasons why their emotions are invalid. And ultimately, I’ve found, it’s far more empowering to the person we’re serving if we give them that space.
So how does one hold space?
It’s like learning a new language, and as with learning anything new, there can be a steep learning curve. As you exercise learning this new skill, my hope is that you offer yourself the same compassion that you’re striving to offer those around you. And (and this is something I’m continuously learning and re-learning myself), remember that many others in your life may not be aware of this distinction or see it the same way they do. Offer them compassion even if they struggle to express it in an effective way towards you.
The first step to holding space is listening.
Simple on the surface, but oftentimes difficult in practice. True, active listening requires effort, practice, and patience: much like the asana on our mats. In a world filled with distractions, giving someone our undivided attention can feel foreign or overwhelming. I don’t know about you, but when I get uncomfortable, I reach for a screen to whisk me away from whatever it is I’ve encountered that pushed me into discomfort. Scrolling mindlessly through my phone or deciding that now is a good time to catch up on emails is a way of pulling me out of active attention and presence. And in our modern times filled with screens, I think many of us have been trained the same way.
Actively listening to someone means we are offering them our undivided attention. That means putting away the phone, closing down the laptop, and putting down whatever snack we’re munching on. Just in taking these simple actions, we’re sending the message that we care about what the other person has to say or however else they’re expressing themselves at the moment (such as through tears). If you’re in a public space, practice not engaging with others walking by or waving to your friend across the street: if it’s an emergency, they’ll get in contact with you, and if they see you’re speaking to someone at the moment, they’ll likely understand that you’re unavailable at the moment.
It’s a practice in and of itself to also exercise listening without judgement, correction, or interruption. You’d be surprised by how much someone will speak if you don’t say anything at all: and oftentimes it’s this process of speaking without interruption that can allow someone to process difficult emotions or find their own personal revelations. Hold eye contact when you can, sit across from or beside them, and allow them to speak as long as they need to. If they ask you a direct question, you don’t have to ignore them, but try to keep in mind the difference between helpfulness and being of service when you reply.
Acknowledge and validate the other person’s emotions.
If you’re anything like me, your first reaction may be to jump in and try to solve whatever problems they may be facing. This comes from a space of compassion: we want them to feel better, and we don’t want to see someone we care about in pain. But in service, the first action we take should be to both acknowledge how they’re feeling and validate the emotions they’re expressing. In doing so, we’re reassuring them that they and the emotions they’re navigating matter, and we care about them…without stepping right over them to try and solve everything.
Examples of validating emotions might sound like this,
If the person is expressing anger through yelling or shouting:
“I understand that you’re angry.” This acknowledges what’s happening in the present moment, said without judgement.
“Can you share with me what has upset you?” This offers them an opportunity to reflect upon, and share if they choose, what has led to this expression.
“I understand that what Jane said was hurtful, and that it made you angry. I can see what that would be upsetting.” You’re validating that what they feel is real, and valid. You’re not making excuses for the other party, but you’re also not throwing more blame on them.
If you’re the one being pointed to as the source of the emotion this might look a little different:
“I understand that what I said was hurtful. I didn’t intend for it to be, but I can see now that it hurt you.” This isn’t the moment to apologize, but it is an opportunity to see things through their eyes for a moment. It may be comforting to them to simply hear that you understand how something you did could have hurt them, even if you don’t agree or see it the same way.
This language may sound a bit robotic, and this is partially do to the nature of it being example. But keep in mind that this is also an exercise in practicing not projecting our own emotions onto another person and staying compassionately neutral in this situation. We’re giving their emotions the time and space to be understood, and trusting that our own emotions will have their own space to be heard at a later time.
Ask the other person how you can best support them.
I used to flounder around trying to find my place when someone would reach out for support. What if I didn’t do the right thing? What if I didn’t have the right answers? Turns out, there’s a simple solution: ask.
Asking, “How can I best support you right now?” might be met with an immediate response that you can turn into action. Maybe they DO want you to problem solve, or maybe they just want you to listen or offer up a hug. Even if it’s not the choice you’d go for if you were seeking support, stand beside them and follow what they request. This is their time to be supported in the unique way they need. *
*The only exception to this is if they are in immediate danger and require professional or emergency support.
Or, they might not have an answer. If that’s the case, try offering some suggestions, and assuring them that it’s okay not to know. When someone doesn’t know what kind of support they need, I like to say things such as, “Would it be helpful for me to share a similar experience I’ve had, or would you prefer me just to listen right now?”
Silence is powerful.
Just like you don’t need to have all the answers, you also don’t need to be talking the whole time to be supportive.
Don’t interrupt or interrogate: it can put you in a position of power over the other person that doesn’t inspire authentic expression of emotion. Asking questions is alright, but keep the focus on them and creating a safe space for them to share what they feel is right. While you’re not a therapist, think about the age-old phrase you’ve heard in movies or on TV, “How does that make you feel?” While saying this verbatim would sound a little silly, the essence is there: don’t dig for details like you’re lookin’ for some good gossip, hold space for them to explore emotion safely and positively.
Pauses are okay, and it might be the thing that allows them to access deep processing or get the courage to share something personal. Sitting in supportive silence can be an incredibly powerful shared experience. It lets them know you’re there, and you aren’t trying to fix or change them in any way.
Thank them for allowing you to hold space for them. It’s an honor and it says something about the value of your presence. Remind them that you’re there for them, no matter what.
Take action if appropriate, later.
Give them this space. Use a separate time to make apologies if necessary. This gives both of you room to breathe and process, and ensures that whatever next steps you take aren’t reactionary, giving them a deeper meaning.
Another action you should take is participating in some self-care. Holding space requires emotional effort, which can tax your body and spirit like a hard workout does. Take care of yourself so that these kinds of interactions feel nourishing and not draining, and know that it’s more than okay to give yourself the time you need to recuperate after putting forward this kind of effort.