"Unfortunately, this will be our last performance for Carmen," the conductor announced to our packed audience of over 1,000 people on March 10, 2020.
We didn't know how to react. Applause for the amazing opera performance we just saw? Or keep our mouths open in shock, as he shared that all large state-owned venues closed the next day due to the pandemic? Some guests coughed around me. I coughed too. Oh shit. Did we already have the coronavirus? At that point, everything was new and so much was unknown.
My friend and I somberly descended down the curved grand stairs, and walked blindly into our first lockdown. Well, if that was the last big event we went to, at least we went in style.
I haven't seen my brother in over a year. I miss my friends. I lost an uncle to Covid. I am about to give birth to my first child (yes, conceived during the pandemic) with major restrictions at the hospital. My heart breaks for the people and businesses that have lost something huge this past year. And we are still not out of this collective trauma yet.
That's why it's important to acknowledge that some people may still be struggling. Perhaps especially now with pandemic burnout. We humans need to support each other.
But how? How can we do that when we might still feel tired, anxious, or overwhelmed ourselves?
What Holding Space Means
Holding space means to empathetically be there for someone else, without judging them.
To make this important concept come to life, I invite you to imagine what it could feel like for you.
Imagine that you are having a difficult day and you want to talk to a friend about it. When you call your friend to share what you're feeling, your friend listens to you compassionately, without interrupting you in the middle of a sentence. They validate your emotions. Rather than tell you how to fix things, they ask you questions. They give you the precious time and space that you need to process what's going on in your life.
How does that make you feel? Some words that might come up are: validated, supported, seen, or loved. Powerful isn't it?
Tips for How to Powerfully Hold Space
1. Listen intently with your full presence and attention.
2. Ask open-ended questions.
Questions show someone that you are genuinely curious and engaged in the conversation. Open-ended questions (this means questions that are not simple yes/no questions) are even better, because it will offer them the space to share more. When loved ones are feeling sad, frustrated, or stressed, they might just need to process their thoughts out loud.
3. Keep the focus on them. Hold back on polluting the space with your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
Let's face it, we humans like to talk about ourselves. It's easy to fall into the habit of waiting for someone to finish talking, just so we can add our own stories and opinions. It may be tempting to tell them, "Well this reminds me of a time in my life when…" and launch into a long monologue about yourself. But when someone else needs support, it's important to give them the opportunity to let it out, without making it about you. Otherwise we bring our own judgement and egos into it.
4. Validate their emotions without minimizing their experience.
We usually have good intentions when we say things like "It will all be ok soon!" "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger!" "Think of all the people who have it worse than you." But you know what this does? This minimizes their experience and invalidates their emotions. Instead, it's better to say with compassion, "I can understand why you might feel that way."
5. Offer empathy instead of advice. Not everything needs to be fixed.
When you see that someone is having a hard time, your natural reaction might be to offer them advice, tell them what they "should" do, and how to do it. But remember, they are not you, and just because something has worked for you in the past, doesn't mean that it will work for them. Furthermore, they might not be looking for a solution. They might just want empathy. As another wise friend once shared with me many years ago, "Unsolicited advice is very disempowering." Now here's a pro tip: If you're confused about whether someone wants advice instead, you can ask, "Are you looking for empathy or advice?"
So there you have it, actionable tips to empower you to hold space.
Let's Hold Space For Each Other
As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown shared, "Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It's simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of 'You're not alone."
Whether you're at work with your colleagues, home with a loved one, or chatting with a friend, you can be empowered to better support one another.