“Holding Space”

There is a new buzz-phrase floating around out there, maybe you have heard it, or maybe it is just the new circles I am traveling in these days… the buzz-phrase is holding space. The phrase originates in the therapy realm, but it accurately describes what I do as a chaplain… for those of you who were wondering. Your first question might be, what does it mean to hold space, exactly?

To hold space means to meet someone where they are and be present for them, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Stop eating. Stop talking. Stop checking your watch. Be present, fully, supporting them so they can freely express, process, and feel their emotions. With no judgment.

This is way easier said than done, as are most things that involve checking yourself at the door. Yet, for me as I transition from serving the church to serving whoever God has ordained for me to meet on any given day, it is a freeing concept, one I am embracing and even relishing. As a chaplain, it is my job to support people emotionally and spiritually, whatever that looks like for them. That means I must meet people where they are – not where I would like them to be.

So, your next question might be, how, exactly does one do that?

In chaplaincy we are learning to apply four simple, but not easy, rules:

  1. Listen. Remember the lost art of listening? It is not just hearing the person; it is actively listening. To actively listen I must take the focus off me and what I am going to say and listen for what they are saying… and what they are not saying.
  2. Be listening for whatever emotion comes up. This means helping people find words for their feelings, in our CPE (clinical pastoral education) seminar we call this “reverent acknowledgement” (another new buzz-phrase). As I listen, I can “hear” emotional themes being expressed through their body language, what they are avoiding, in addition to what they are saying. This is where I call it like I hear it, “It sounds like you are feeling_____.” (name the emotion – mad, sad, glad, hurt, afraid, etc.). What this does is validate what the other person is feeling and communicates to them that they have been heard.
  3. It is not about you. My experience, while similar, is NOT THE SAME. This is about helping them process their experience. I am not helping by inserting my story here. But because I experienced something similar, I can listen with empathy… this is good.
  4. Do not try to fix it. I am learning this is hard for me – to let something uncomfortable just sit with us. I naturally want to smooth it out, make it pretty, and put it back in order – on the shelf. (I am guessing this is my interior designer self coming out in my chaplaincy).

Allow. Accept. Embrace. Hold space.

This is what I am learning in seminar and practicing as I walk into any given room on any given day. I never know who I am going to encounter – but I trust God does, because God sees, knows, and loves every one of them. They are people, like you and me, who may have made poor choices, experienced trauma, wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time, or have come face to face with their own mortality, for just a few examples. And they are often desperate. Desperate for healing, desperate for answers, desperate for an end to their suffering, desperate to get clean, desperate to be reunited with their family, desperate for forgiveness, desperate for their dignity, desperate for their faith… desperate for someone, anyone, to allow them the space to process, discern, feel, and experience… with no judgment. This is part of their healing process.

Holding space is a powerful concept, made more powerful when we put it into practice. We all need more space holders in our lives.

Who in your life needs you to hold space for them?

2 thoughts on ““Holding Space”

  1. This is beautiful, Susie. Can’t wait to have an opportunity to hold some space for someone and use your wisdom! Great teaching.


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