What does it mean to hold the space for someone who’s trying to get somewhere different in a conflict? And how do we hold that space, whether we’re a friend trying to help, a manager trying to intervene, or a mediator trying to find a path to resolution?
Brilliant writer, teacher, and social activist Parker Palmer was in a dark period. He has many friends who care about him and, of course, they wanted to help.
Some of them tried to make him feel better by giving advice. Go outside into the sunshine, they would say. Smell the flowers.
Some of them tried to make him feel better by challenging him to re-think his depression. You’re such a good person, they would say. You’ve helped so many people. Why are you depressed?
None of these well-meaning suggestions or questions really helped. Sometimes, they even had the opposite effect, leaving Palmer feeling even more depressed. After those visitors left, he’d find himself thinking thoughts like, I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.
Then a friend who was a Quaker elder came to visit. Each afternoon at about the same hour, he sat Palmer down, removed his shoes and socks, and massaged Palmer’s bare feet. It was a very intimate gesture. He rarely spoke, but when he did, his comments were brief and intuitive. I can feel your struggle today, he might say, or, I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.
Says Palmer about this experience,
What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.
I was moved by Palmer’s recounting of this experience because it captures what I want for myself when I’m stuck someplace I don’t want to be. And it captures how I want to hold the space for someone who’s in conflict and wants help — friend, colleague, mediation or coaching client.
Holding the space means being fully present in spirit and attention, even if their suffering disturbs us and makes us want to look away. It means being present without judgment and allowing ourselves to be emotionally available.
It means not filling the space with our own words out of discomfort with uneasy silence. It means making peace with our own discomfort and recognizing when that discomfort is getting in the way of being genuinely helpful.
It means resisting the temptation to help by fixing, an act that can be more about us than about the person we’re trying to help. It means accepting that our gentle presence is as valuable — maybe more valuable — than our ability to counsel.
We don’t always have to talk to salve pain and help someone find their path through conflict. Sometimes just being there really is our greatest gift.