“Holding Space” is one of the most essential skills for a coach. For a layman, the term may come across as somewhat arcane.
How can you hold something that is not tangible? Something that, by definition is larger than you. Something that we intuitively recognize as the distance between us and other objects, or as containers within which we function – a room, a town, the universe.
Yet Holding Space is a crucial skill for any coach. Actually, it is an essential skill for any meaningful relationship. Our normal tendency is to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions. However, no new development can happen without processing through these challenges. Without the ability to stay related in this space, the coach’s ability to listen deeply will be affected by their own preconceptions, personal history, and mental noise.
To understand how the coach Holds Space, we need first to define the structure of Space.
Let’s Talk About Holding Space
Since the Freudian revolution over a century ago, one-on-one therapies assumed a clear separation between the knowledgeable therapist and the patient. This is not how modern coaching functions. There is no divide, no wall of “knowledge”, no rift of experience, but there are three fields which we will talk about below.
A Coach’s Inner State
The first of those fields is the coach’s inner state. The coach should be cognizant of their own inner state.
Before each session, the coach should first check in with themselves on their physical, emotional, mental state- is there enough sense of spaciousness? Is there coherence between these aspects? By taking a moment to ‘listen’, you create a deeper space and stillness.
One can practice many different exercises to do this. Failure to go through this process may undermine the coach’s capacity to stay present.
A Client’s State
The second field refers to the client’s state. Typically, the client is going through her or his own process, entangled in emotions, feelings, thoughts and colored by the mood of the day. If the coach senses that the client is very ‘busy’ internally or distracted, it is advised to guide them through a mindfulness or breathing exercise to bring them back to the present moment and create some ‘space’.
To capture these tacit messages, coaches need to tune their nervous system to that of the client and connect with them as witnesses with healing intention.
Then there is also the third, inter-subjective field. This is a ‘relational field’ where the coach and the client relate to each other. The coach holds the responsibility to create a safe space for the client to be able to process, experience, and explore their difficulties.
Whatever the client is feeling, be it fear, anger, sadness, or shame, the coach meets it with complete acceptance. The coach stays present in this relational space without shutting down, turning away, or ‘checking out’ even if it happens to be difficult or challenging.
The coach participates fully and tunes the nervous system to that of the client. For example, if the client’s fear can be expressed and received not with judgment, but with full acceptance, the accumulated energy behind the suppressed fear can be finally acknowledged and released.
It is the coach’s priority to make the clients feel seen, heard, and understood. It is by deep listening that the space is created, the trust and ‘intimacy’ are built.
This is the “container” that supports a higher possibility of transformation. In this space, the coach and the client can communicate with a wider transpersonal intelligence, and co-create new solutions. This insight does not originate from a separate human being. Rather, it arises from the between-ness shared by two beings, in the inter-subjective field.
Ready for some science?
There is nothing supernatural about it. The mechanism reflects our hormonal functioning, in particular the role of oxytocin, a neuropeptide, which is responsible for social bonding. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide produced in the hypothalamus in the brain, secreted into the bloodstream and to certain parts of the brain.
The release of oxytocin leads to the building of new cells in the nervous system – in particular in adults’ hippocampus, in basal ganglia, and in the orbitofrontal cortex. Hugging and physical contact increase oxytocin concentrations in blood.
Even without physical contact, the connectedness increases if we let the inter-subjective field be emptied. It is here that the process of attunement takes place. When you are “attuned” with me, I get the feeling that we are not really separate. When you enter my perspective and I enter yours, it creates a higher level of intimacy.
Let’s summarize what this is all about…
“Holding Space”, refers to the totality of these three fields – my inner field as a coach, the client’s field, and the inter-subjective field emptied and then filled by the between-ness that connects us.
It allows the coaching process to take its course. Most coaches have an in-depth knowledge of human psychology and practical experience in the field of natural tendencies inherent to human functioning.
But coaches must avoid the impulse to immediately use their knowledge and move forward and “do something” about the client’s condition. The first rule is to ignore the internal sparkle that murmurs: “aha, I know what you should do”.
In fact, the process is the opposite.
By Holding Space, the coach:
- refrains from the impulse to “solve the Client’s problem”.
- overcomes the impulse to verbally console or otherwise speed up the Client’s emotional process.
- forgoes control over the outcome and avoids any judgment indicating that the client should proceed “otherwise”.
In other words, it is critical for the coach to suspend immediate judgment and suppress the inner urge to provide premature guidance based on personal preferences, on similar cases encountered in the past, or on other notions accumulated over the years of experience and study.
The coach may have some preconceived notions which, on the surface, appear adaptable as potential “solutions” for a given situation. It is the coach’s responsibility to drop any such concepts and allow the client to come up with their own realizations.
This will be particularly challenging for novice coaches and for those who may have a strong personal preference about the particular issue under discussion. However, at this stage, it is irrelevant what the coach’s individual opinion is regarding the client’s situation. The client’s growth and perceived ownership of the process are of paramount importance.
Holding Space signifies for the coach the ability to experience the content of the present experience by striking a delicate balance: controlling any impulses to “fix” things but without falling into the role of a passive observer. A balance between affirming and challenging the Client at the same time.
Coaches can only Hold Space for other people, listen, and witness if they themselves are present and are able to connect their feelings. The three fields remain interconnected.
By Holding Space, coaches practice what they preach. But it’s a skill that all of us should learn and practice. Rather than being reactive and behaving in a way that is already predetermined by our filter, our acquired knowledge, and assumptions, we can open up to the possibility of responding to the present moment.
Only in this way, can we witness something fresh and unexpected. By being present in what is actually happening at this moment, in the intersubjective field between the two human beings, our sensitivity opens up to what may have hitherto remained unnoticed.
The Emotional Aspect of Awareness
When the coach Holds Space for the client, an opportunity arises to deepen awareness across all aspects of Being. The Emotional Aspect of awareness is deepened as the client has space to stay with the emotion and properly experience it.
The Cognitive Aspect of Being is probed by loosening the pre-existing perception filters and questioning the factual basis for the thought. The Spiritual Aspect of Being calls for acting with humility. At each Aspect, there is space for the unexpected.
Maybe you too have witnessed a moment of unexpected opening? Have you ever had an experience during an interaction with other people that, in reaction to what transpired, you said something you had never thought of before?
Things to Remember About Holding Space:
Whenever that happens, there is an unmistakable sense that something essential is taking place and we feel a natural sense of excitement when this happens. This usually requires the presence of other human beings and palpable connectedness in the inter-subjective field between us.
If I’m perceiving the other person with my mind, my emotion, my body, my spirit – true intimacy becomes possible. I’m just there, receiving and reflecting on the other person, instead of trying to change or manipulate them. It may be the single most critical relational – and at the same time neglected – skill.
By contrast, if we cannot be present at this moment, we remain constrained by the pre-existing content, the precepts from the past, layers of knowledge, thus neglecting the mystical power of perception of this moment. If the coach falls into this trap of pre-scripted interaction, the client’s potential will not be revealed. As a result, a coach will waste the opportunity to provide support along the client’s journey.
How to Learn This Often Neglected Skill?
At New York Life Coaching Institute, we teach how to develop it. We offer exercises for preparatory work that coaches conduct prior to each coaching session. Observe the basic rules below:
A short, pre-session “retreat” could involve conscious breathing, meditating for a few minutes, or saying a short prayer. The function of such exercises is to become centered and to prepare one’s inner space.
Once the session begins, coaches should first perform a brief “self-check-in” to feel if their own emotional, mental, and physical levels align with each other.
If this is not the case, it is vital to take again a few deep breaths and bring everything back to this moment. This will help dispel interfering thoughts (such as issues regarding a previous client, or other daily concerns).
Which steps to take next?
As the next step, coaches expand the focus beyond their own system. You can achieve this by expanding the awareness into the physical confines of the room, thus broadening the focus from intra-personal to inter-personal.
The third step involves tuning into the interpersonal field between the coach and the client. The coach will test whether she is ready to experience a more subtle connection within the inter-subjective field.
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