How To Hold Space For Someone During A Difficult Time

As part of Pride Month 2020, Augurian team members Cassie Burke and Megan Upperman hosted two discussion topics. In the first “How to Hold Space For Someone During A Difficult Time” they cover two key concepts: 1) Holding Space and 2) Optical Allyship and how to take these and connect them to the actual conversations we’re all having in the real world. With deeper understanding and consideration for these concepts you’ll feel more aligned with the purpose of your support for the person going through a difficult time and they’ll help you be more effective and genuine.



Megan Upperman: We’re going to talk about two main things. The first one is holding space, that’s going to be the main thing here, but the second one is optical allyship. Depending on what you follow on social media and what kind of work you’ve been doing lately, you might’ve been introduced to this topic. I figure, particularly in light of the most recent events and the reason I think this is going to be so helpful to everybody, I think optical allyship as a concept that comes into this whole thing will be super helpful. Hopefully, that remains the case. Let’s dig into it.

First, generally speaking, what is holding space? What does that mean? It just means that you’re going to be with somebody without any judgment. Think of it as fully donating your ears and your heart, and not expecting to get anything back or really accomplish much with it. It’s really just about practicing empathy, practicing compassion, accepting somebody’s truth unconditionally, whether you agree with it or not, you can still validate someone in the place that they’re at.

So holding space is really just being neutral, being open, focusing on what the other person needs, and not really focusing on yourself. Albeit, there’ll be some things that we’ll talk about in relation to your own thoughts and your emotions that you can learn. That will be really helpful with this. But generally speaking, just taking all of your needs and your opinions, and putting them outside of the space that you’re trying to hold. Because this space that we’re going to make, it’s for the person that you’re trying to help. Go ahead.

Optical allyship. This is just a really– I’ve had thoughts about this before, but I think it was really cool to have a term to match up to the feeling that I have had before. But generally speaking, this is talking about allyship that really lives on the surface level of the conversation, and it’s really a performative kind of allyship. What it does is it really- it makes a statement, but it doesn’t really dig beneath the surface, and doesn’t really aim at doing anything about the systems of power that oppress people.

There’s all kinds of ways that this can manifest and that’s not to say, I hope, people don’t post things on social media, supporting other people. Please continue doing that. I think that’s really important, but taking that work and accenting it with more personal things that you can do, having a deeper understanding of what you’re retweeting, really taking this moment not to build your own brand, but to focus on; how can you bring awareness for other people that deserve to have their narrative centered? When we dig in little bit more to how to hold space for people, we’ll talk more about; who is it that should be centered? How can we hold space for them in a way that applies to in-person conversations. But honestly, this applies to the digital space, just as much as it does to your one-on-one conversations. Go ahead.

Now, what do these two things have to do with each other? Essentially, what I want to do by presenting both of these topics to you is help you take the vision you have for the world that you want to see and the kind of relationships that you want to create, and help you connect that to the actual conversations that you’re having and what you’re doing with people one-on-one. As you’re reaching out to your friends to support them during a difficult time, as you’re processing something yourself, as you’re doing all of this regular human interaction with people; how can you take that and let your worldview and your overall mission in life really align with just the regular conversations that you’re going to have?

That’s the main purpose. It’s like; let’s do this human relationship thing and keep everything that works about it because that’s so powerful and so important, but also let’s do it in a way that’s helpful, and helps you work towards the future that you want to see.

Like I said, we’re going to talk about how to hold space for someone else and how to empower other people to hold space for you. That’s the key point here. That a lot of the– You can Google it, and maybe you have since before you got to this webinar, but basically, there’s a ton of literature and a ton of stuff you can learn about how to hold space for other people. I find that in my own life, particularly the reason we wanted to present this during Pride Month, is– One thing that this has been really helpful for is helping other people hold space for me.

There’s a lot of cooperative things that you can do where not every interaction is going to be perfect. You’re not always going to get 100% of these things right, but if both people in a situation know what it is to hold space properly, what you can do is take everybody’s knowledge, and both do a little bit of a give-and-take to encourage each other to do a better job at it. So consider it from both sides.

We’ll talk best-practices, but here’s just a shortlist of applications for times when you might read through this and be like, “Aha, I’ve been in that situation before,” or maybe someday you will be in this position, either yourself or with someone else that you’re close to, and these are really good times to focus in on doing this really well.

Obviously right now, the big topical part is when someone is suffering some injustice related to their identity. That’s happening a lot, and it will continue to happen, and we all want to see the world be a better place. That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to present this right now. But really, outside of identity-related things, if somebody is grieving and are going through some trauma or disaster- like a house fire, or a loss of a family member, or something like that- if someone’s going through a serious illness- mental or physical- if someone is having relationship troubles- like going through a divorce or some kind of separation, or even just facing some kind of new, really big responsibility or really big life change, like if your parent has a stroke and you’re taking care of them, permanently or temporarily, that’s a big thing to happen. Or maybe someone has a difficult pregnancy, or just any number of things that could be going on, just really big life events- these are all really good times to focus up really hard on doing a good job at this.

Now, we’re going to go through some best-practices. Some of them have more to unpack than others. The first one we’ll talk about here is; thinking of it as donating your ears and your heart. Don’t make it about yourself. That’s not a critique on anyone’s ego. That’s just to say that no matter how much advice or experience you might feel like you have– People, when they go through crazy things like this, you’re going to be in uncharted territory. Probably, both of you are going to be going through something really new. You, in trying to support them, and them in having to try to live through it. So most of the advice you have, it’ll be a waste of time sometimes. Just probably won’t really apply as well as you want to, to the situation that you’re in.

In addition to that, somebody might ask you for advice or to get your input. If they do, focus on your humility and your thoughtfulness, in your response. Don’t speak right away and don’t let it take over the narrative. If someone asks you for advice during one of these conversations, just present it knowing that it might not be the right advice to give. But if they’ve asked for it, of course they trust you enough to want to hear what you have to say. So try to give that information, but don’t let it take the narrative and change the direction of where the conversation is going to go.

Additionally, this one is really simple; don’t overwhelm them with information. If you do end up providing some, give them what’s helpful for them right now and then just stop. Sometimes, it’s really hard to stop talking when you feel uncomfortable, but in this case, embrace the awkward pause. If you got to just sit there and wait for a minute while everybody is thinking, do it. I guarantee if you count the number of seconds that pass, it’s going to be less than you thought. So if they have information that they want from you, go ahead and give it, but don’t feel like you need to give every piece of information that’s ever been relevant. Less is more. When you’re done and you feel like it’s enough, just be done.

The next one, and this is a really important one and it’s also really easy to explain; life is not all about structure, solutions, and accountability. I know it’s really easy to treat things at work that way, and I know that most of the interpersonal connecting I do is at work, so it’s hard for me to shut it off later. I have been critiqued many times on treating my friends and family like clients. Sorry. [chuckles] That still happens when that’s how you’re just used to communicating with people. But really, a healthy opportunity to hold space for somebody probably doesn’t involve any of those things. It’s not about making solutions, it’s not about holding people accountable or making some kind of structure, it’s just about making space for things to happen.

The next one is; give people permission to trust their own intuition and their own wisdom. Again, this comes back to the idea that like; this is probably a new circumstance. When crazy shit goes down, chances are a person might not have a lot of experience with it. You might not have a lot of experience with helping someone through it. And even if you do, chances are this situation is going to be totally unique. As hard as it is to refrain from looking back at other examples that could help inform what you want to do next- because that makes a lot of sense to do- try to ignore that reaction, and just make them feel safe enough to know that they can fail and they’ll get more chances to try again.

There’s a lot of pressure on people sometimes, especially if you’re not used to having space held for you to do this stuff, and to get to speak without being interrupted, and without being judged, and just to get somebody to affirm what it is that you’re going through. There’s a lot of mentally working things that you need to do. So it’s not about helping people succeed. It’s about allowing them the space to have this conversation so that they can explore opportunities to be courageous and to take risks, right? Because in new circumstances, we can’t make progress without having the space for someone who feels their own intuition, to take a risk and see if something works.

That’s how we build our own resiliency and that self-reliance; that part is really the most important part about holding space. This one is just maybe the most important one is; let people trust their own intuition and their own wisdom, and if they make the wrong choice, it’s okay. They’re safe having this discussion with you, and going through all this stuff and being supported by you. If they make the wrong one, they’ll get to try as many times as they need to try.

Now, specifically, keeping all of that in mind. Now, when we’re talking about being better allies to people who don’t share our identities in one way or another, there’s a couple common pitfalls that you might fall into with this optical allyship piece. The first thing to make sure that you remember is; this person that you’re trying to support may not have had space held for them before and it might be really awkward. That’s okay. You can just live in it.

Specifically, as this applies to creating the world that you want to live in through your interpersonal actions, it’s important to know that we pass down spaces that have been held for us naturally. The support you’ve gotten in your life; it’s easier for you to give that to other people. But when we’re talking about creating an equitable world where everybody gets to make courageous choices and fail sometimes and not be judged for it, to get lots of second chances, to figure their own stuff out, and to be trusted, and to be in charge of their own destiny; all of this stuff, doing that in a really purposeful way and centering perspectives that you don’t have, that’s going to allow the people who are best-qualified to move forward and to make observations with their own intuition in these brand new circumstances. That’s going to allow them, who are the best-qualified people to do it, to take charge of their own situation, and it’s going to benefit everybody in the long-run.

We want the most qualified people making the choices and guiding us through this stuff. So, you want to just recognize that it might be awkward. Try not to take over, and go out of your way to do this for people that you don’t understand or whose perspectives you don’t share.

Number two; listen past your defenses. You don’t have to agree to validate somebody. Remembering too that as we’re all mentally figuring this out and having these conversations, it’s going to look different to everybody every time. I can especially speak to the process of going through creating this D&I charter and all the things that we’re doing related to that. My opinions that I espoused on day one of our meetings; they’re different now, and there’s lots of growing and lots of stuff that’s going to evolve, so don’t feel like you need to agree with somebody. If you don’t, just validate their ability to express themselves, and hold your defenses. Listen past it. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, and to sit in that for a minute and feel it, because it’s not about helping them succeed, it’s not about creating solutions. It’s about letting them be courageous and explore their own resilience. So trust them to work it out themselves.

Number three- and this one is harder than it sounds and we’ll talk about some examples with this- but try to create a container for complex emotions. Things like fear and trauma; it can trigger– I mean, like literally, your brain chemistry changes when you’re feeling all those things, so try to take a few deep breaths and slow it down a bit. Those emotions can affect you. Let them, but don’t let it affect the narrative. Sit in that discomfort and feel that, but don’t usurp the other person’s pain, or trauma, or fear, or whatever it is they’re going through.

If you’re feeling overcome with emotions, try your best- I don’t want to say hold them back, as in repress your feelings- but fit in them and keep them to yourself for a bit. Think about this as a physical space that you’re trying to create. Everything that’s inside this circle should be about the person that you’re trying to support. When you allow yourself to get overcome with emotions and getting really upset, it splits the narrative. And not only does your own stuff and your own problems creep into the space that you’re trying to hold for that person, but it can also cause that person to feel like they have to take on the burden of your emotions as much as they take on the burden of their own at that time, and it makes it harder to have really honest conversations and make the space to explore all of it.

This one, obviously– This is really important, to have this lens on the world, generally, but particularly, when you’re having some really sensitive conversations; recognize the social constructs that are affecting you and the person you’re holding space for, and be sensitive to the power dynamic that normally comes into play. When you’re sitting in a meeting with your boss, you’re probably going to speak a little differently and worry about different things than you’re when you’re sitting in a meeting with your peers. So the same way that applies, take that into the rest of the world, and think about the number of times that person has probably been shut down, or had their opinion overruled, or made to feel it wasn’t that important. Those social constructs and those power dynamics; they’ll come into this space if you’re not really careful to make sure that you account for them and make that person feel comfortable.

All right. Well, thanks for coming. Thanks for being cool and being so relaxed about it. It’s not always easy to have a difficult discussion, let alone to do it over webcam. So, I super appreciate y’all participating. Take some time. We’ll share the deck out and you can review it again later, but if you ever want to chew on it a little bit more and talk about it, let’s keep talking. I’m happy to talk more. I’m happy to share out articles. Bye.

Explore Our Latest Digital Marketing Tips