“Holding space” has become a powerful concept in counselling, particularly as illustrated by Heather Plett in her article on the care she received as she took care of her dying mother. Holding space is fundamental to effectively helping people who are looking to change a behavior, grieve a loss, or explore options for the future, but it is often overlooked.
In our fast paced world, we often turn into efficient problem-solvers, analyzing, focusing, and fixing, feeling like we are not doing enough if we are not doing something. Perhaps this is an overcompensation provoked by a fear of not being good enough. When helping people change, we need to let go of our own sense of competence and simply hold space.
Holding space simply requires you to be with the other person, creating an emotional environment that empowers the other person to persevere through their specific struggle. The key to this statement is to empower. As described in the post on The Language of Empowerment, people feel motivated and are better able to persevere when they feel a sense of autonomy and self-directness. Holding space preserves this sense of autonomy while offering emotional support through empathy.
This approach to counseling originated with Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychotherapy. Distinct from the confrontational approaches to psychotherapy that dominated the field, Rogers held that clients respond best when the therapist simply allow them the space to connect with their authentic self beneath the layers of social pressure and emotional baggage. Rogers facilitates this environment by acting as a mirror to the other persons thoughts and emotions while remaining authentic and completely present in his own experience of the therapeutic encounter. You can watch one of his famous counseling sessions here.
When watching Rogers’ counseling session, he is so simple and authentic, the untrained eye may accuse him of doing nothing at all. Although it is simple, he is a master of holding space. Throughout the session, his client directs herself through some of her major internal struggles, connects with her authentic self, and feels empowered to make her own decisions. Rogers’ presence in the encounter is a rare gift. As stated in the session, it is not even a gift her own father was ever able to give her.
When we hold space for someone else, we offer them the gift of our presence. We provide them with support without taking their power away. In essence, we are simply there.