I looked and felt as vulnerable as they come.
I was preparing to lie as rigid as possible on the platform of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, donning a classic, unflattering medical robe “opened to the back.”
A very kind technician handed me ear plugs so that I could “lessen the noise” from the loud scanner.
And another tech, a super sweet gal who dutifully explained to me every detail of the appointment, put a plastic, squishy bulb in my hand, and said, “squeeze that if you’re not feeling OK and someone will come.”
Despite all the jitters and nervous thinking* I had prior to these two simple interactions, everything suddenly shifted for the better.
In a word, I felt safe.
So much so that I was able to relax as I was glided into the cavernous machine. I even smiled as I looked up and saw that four of the ceiling panels were thoughtfully covered with a beautiful, serene image—a waterfall cascading over rocks.
The extreme change from feeling anxious to totally at ease reminded me of a conversation I had just a few days prior.
An acquaintance was telling me that he didn’t understand an e-mail message he had received because it mentioned that a leader in his organization was going to “hold space” for anyone interested in discussing a recent incident that had raised many concerns within his workplace.
Of course, he could figure out from context that “hold space” basically means that there would be an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings, but he was at a loss as to why this initiative wasn’t just called a “discussion.”
Well, the answer rests in how these MRI techs made me feel. That is, when we hold space for someone, it’s as if we:
I have only anecdotal evidence to prove it, but I know that holding space delivers very powerful, positive results.
One example is when parents use the “Let’s Have a Drink” strategy as a way to hold space for their moody, isolating teenage child. I learned about it from renowned child psychologist and author, Lisa Damour and tried it out on my then fourteen year-old son.
I simply invited my son to come out of his room and have a drink (non-alcoholic, in case the phrase made you think otherwise) with me in the kitchen.
In this scenario, our drinks created a welcoming, non-threatening way to chat, so we arrived feeling relaxed and fairly open (Attribute 3).
I initiated that we say “Cheers” with our beverages, keeping the mood light, which for many teens is an important element to establishing safety (Attribute 2).
And to diminish the “noise” in my head about wanting him to reveal deep thoughts and feelings, I silently told myself to stay present and release expectations. This meant that I would promise to bite my tongue if I felt a strong reaction to anything my son said because otherwise, I would compromise it being a nonjudgmental interaction (Attribute 1).
Over the course of that drink, I learned a ton about his teenage universe. It wasn’t always easy for me not to challenge his views, but his unsolicited, “Thanks, Mom” at the end clearly indicated that he appreciated my holding space.
Whether it’s in a parenting, professional, or personal context, the next time you find yourself in a position to have an important discussion, perhaps first ask if you’re looking for powerful, positive results.
If so, holding space for that person might end with you both excited to say, “Cheers!”
*NOTE: Thankfully, the MRI (on my knee) did not reveal a severe issue/injury.