Holding Space

As a "listening people," the Society of Friends has a tradition of "holding space" for another person. While the term is new, the practice is old and went without a name for generations. Because of the roles that I play among Friends, I often listen to hurts and frustrations of our members. This piece describes a framework that I have developed over time to make sure that I understand the situation so that I can help the person find guidance for the way forward. The framework is the result of my own mistakes, learning through prayer about it, and consulting books and Friends with experience doing this. I use it for a range of situations, reaching from a small part of a conversation to a request to talk about problems privately.

Obviously, "holding space" has shades of meaning in different places. Some see it as a mini meeting for worship, where two or three people meet together to allow someone to share burdens or hurts. This is what I would call the context of holding space but not the contents. Obviously these sessions work best in person, but it can be done over the phone. When someone asks to share something with me (rather than doing this as part of a longer conversation), I find it best to keep the number of people involved to only two or possibly three. More people than that introduces a different dynamic.

This piece does not discuss confrontations or deeper issues that require psychiatric therapy, partially because these are not strengths of mine. This article is also not about "sharing stories." I approach the role of facilitator the same way I approach my role as Clerk: focus on the issue at hand, let the other person carry the conversation, and maintain a safe environment for sharing. In this posting, I will speak to thee as the potential facilitator.

The first part of a session is finding out what the person needs to share about. What usually happens with me is that someone needs to talk about a situation that precipitated feelings of insecurity or hurt. It is important for thee to make sure that the person conveys the entirety of the situation. Try to keep the person focused on one specific event or cluster of events - this is not psychiatry with multiple sessions. Some people share more easily than others, so one person might be able to share a situation in five minutes while another person might need 30 minutes. This cannot be safely rushed (says the Wilburite) - just be sure to get the entire story. 

My next part of the process is what I describe as understanding the interpretation. I might go through the same events and possibly not be bothered or feel something entirely different, but that is not what the session is about. It is about finding out how the other person interpreted the event. Usually the person will say this during the story, but not always. Was the person frustrated? Did (s)he feel betrayed? Did the event cause feelings of isolation or anger? As people say these days, "feelings are facts."

Throughout the process, it is critical for thee to make the person feel safe. This entails several things. Ohio Friends have a remarkable reputation for receiving this kind of information and never sharing it with anyone (except possibly with a spouse). Safety includes the facilitator agreeing not to mention the details to others and especially not to use the details later to harm the person in need. Safety also includes telling the person that things are okay if the person gets emotionally stirred up. Don't use this to try to manipulate the other person or to achieve some objective for thyself.

Another important role for the facilitator is to validate the person. The person needs to hear words from thee that demonstrate thy attention to the sharing. When a person shares a very difficult experience with thee, a part of validation is to say "wow, I am so sorry to hear this happened to thee. That must have been incredibly painful" [or whatever is appropriate to say]. Don't skip this step - the person needs to hear thee express something like this. Probably the worst thing to do is to minimize what the person went through, either by saying "well it wasn't as bad as I thought" or comparing it insensitively to something that is not a suitable parallel.

At this point, the facilitator is informed about the event and the person's interpretation. The next thing that I do is to work with the person about what to do from here. Does the person need to speak with someone in particular about these things? Does the person need to take some other specific action? Can the person learn something about themselves so they can do better in the future when faced with something similar? These questions obviously can't all apply to each situation - usually the situation makes it evident what questions need to be considered. I remember one time when a Friend needed to share a frustration about a third party who I knew well also. This gave me a perspective that led to something that I don't believe that I have said in any other case like this - she was carrying out her gifts during the events under discussion and, while it was difficult for her, she needed to continue forward with her behaviors that caused the other person to respond in a way that was not best. I find it helpful for the third phase of the discussion to include some element of how to behave in the future to achieve better results, because this makes it a learning experience with the potential for lasting results.

If a session goes more than 10-15 minutes, I like to say something when we have reached the end to indicate either the conversation is over or to indicate that we can talk about another topic. If the person shared something deep, it is good to say something like "Cynthia [use the person's name here], thank thee for sharing that with me. I hope the Lord brought thee some healing [or direction or whatever word is right] and that thee will feel free to let me know what happens in the future."

One last thing that I want to share on this topic is care for the facilitator. Holding space for others is not always easy and can take a lot of energy. Most of us have a spouse or family member that we can go to afterwards and share generally about how things went. I don't know if psychiatrists do this or not. As a single person, I find it difficult that I don't have anyone to "decompress" with. Another part of "care of the facilitator" is the question of what to do when the facilitator needs to share something. I face this problem from time to time because acting as the listener is such a part of my personality that others do not naturally consider that they sometimes need to facilitate me. Also part of my problem is that I need to separate "holding space" from sharing stories, so I am not able to be the facilitator and then turn around immediately and reverse roles. Sharing stories is fine, but my mind sees this as a different interaction.

Anyway I hope this might help someone who is looking for a framework for holding space for another in a way that provides guidance for how to engage with the person in a meaningful way.



RantWoman said...

Friend Chronicler,

Thank you for this.

When you have gone to the library, what reading have you found most helpful?

Have you considered asking someone in your Meeting or yearly meeting who works in a helping profession such as social work or psychology how their profession works with questions similar to your need for care of the facilitator?
In the Light

Quaker Gardener said...


Your post on Holding Space is so helpful. As an elder in our Meeting I can see how this special way of being with a hurting person could bring healing beyond that individual to whom ministry is given, but also to the whole Meeting. Thank you for so articulately and thoroughly laying out how to "hold space" for another. I pray that you will find a person to "hold space" for you. Rantwoman's suggestion seems helpful.

Quaker Gardener

Wayne Sutton said...

Thank you. Reading this brought to mind Galatians 6:2 "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."

Bill Samuel said...

This reminds me of Theophostic Prayer Ministry, which goes beyond a specific incident and has the person go to the roots of a feeling in something from the past, and then has the person ask Jesus Christ to speak His truth to what the person has believed about themselves arising from that situation. The TPM facilitator helps the person to move back in their memory to that situation, and does not speak to it themselves, leaving that to the One True Teacher. The effect is to free people from the lies that have afflicted them.

paula said...

Dear Friend Chronicler,

Your essay is very timely and exceedingly helpful to me. Thank you for your care.

Your fFriend in Columbus,