A Game of Risk and Tea for Two: Holding Space
I’m sitting down to write about “holding space” – the act of being present for others in a non-judgemental way – and lo and behold, who shows up but my father. He’s at the kitchen table in my childhood home, in a straight-backed chair facing the sink, where he would sit alone of an evening, reading spy novels or working on a lottery-winning strategy worthy of Alan Turing. Right now I’m trying to write around him, but he just won’t go away.
To be honest, I’m surprised that he’s here. My father was not psychologically aware; I’m fairly sure he never cracked a book about parenting or talked to his buddies about how to have a meaningful relationship with his children. He was a religious man, an accordeon player, a big drinker, and a hard worker. He had four daughters and a wife and always seemed a bit bewildered by all that femaleness under one roof, though he called my sisters and me his “four jewels,” and meant it – at least in the early days, before some of us disappointed him. When that time came, disillusionment hardened his heart.
But in the early days, he was attentive. When I was 12 and 13 and 14, I would lapse occasionally into the miasma of some pre-adolescent depression – a vague, dragging mood provoked by…what? My big nose, maybe. Restless boredom. The unspoken sadness of the house where my only brother had died. I would wander from room to room like a spectre, oblivious to my father’s presence, until I’d hear him say:
“Hey babe, whatsamatta?”
I would shrug.
“Wanna play a game?”
I loved board games, even if he didn’t let me win. So out would come Monopoly or Risk, and we would become absorbed in the task at hand.
Once I felt so bad that I refused even the games. He didn’t waver. “How ‘bout a cuppa tea?” And he put the kettle on and sang a few bars of “Tea for Two” in his deep bass voice. He was not shy about looking at you when he sang. I sat down at the kitchen table with the plastic cover with the pineapple motif and drank milky Lipton’s with him and watched him swish crumbs into a pile with the back of his big hand. We did not talk about my “problem” – neither of us could name it, so what was there to say? But he felt it, and did not ask me to be otherwise. His actions spoke. “Yup,” they said, “somethin ain’t right. Okay.”
“Holding space” is a beautiful term for an incredibly important act: giving your full attention to someone and not demanding anything of them or projecting anything onto them. You’re not trying to change the state they’re in, or make it right. A kind of listening is involved, but it’s not listening to get information or find a solution. It’s listening to bear witness to what’s happening to the person in front of you. It’s listening whether there are words or not. It’s listening with your whole body, as if you are one big antenna, one big breath.
If you’ve ever had someone truly hold space for you – someone who was there, just there, but totally there, when you were distraught, sad, anxious, grieving, shocked, furious – then you know what it’s about. Think a bit more about those times in your life: what did the person do (or not do) that made their presence just right? You might notice how holding space differs from other well-intentioned and sometimes perfectly appropriate gestures: giving advice, offering solutions, analyzing, cajoling, comforting, reasoning, distracting. None of those things are bad; but sometimes they’re not what a person needs. If you tend to always want to try to help in an active way when you see someone suffering, the ability to step back and hold space can be a wonderful quality to develop.
In my experience, at least two things are necessary to hold space for someone:
The ability to bring yourself to a state of silence.
In order to really see, hear, and be with another person, you need to be able to quiet your own mind and your own noise. I don’t necessarily mean not speaking; I mean being able to turn down the volume on the maelstrom in your head and forget about yourself for a bit. Then you can listen without judging, witness without projecting.
The ability to resist doing.
This may feel very strange, like you’re being too passive. But what happens if you don’t rush to fill the void or make it right? Can you admit that you’re not in control? Can you not make assumptions, look for solutions, give opinions, or offer advice unless asked? If you don’t know what the person wants, ask. One of the most helpful things anyone said to me when my mother died was a simple question: “What do you need?”
You know folks, there are no rules for this kind of thing. Pay attention to how you usually behave around people in difficulty, and try to change the tendencies you’re not happy with, the ones that push people away or make them shut down. But in general, trust your instincts. Go towards others with a good and open heart. Be completely yourself. Holding space doesn’t mean you become a robot, an inoffensive neutral presence, a blank canvas onto which people throw their anguished paint. You’re bearing witness to something that is bigger than you. Relax and be who you are. Just don’t make it about you. Do the best you can.
I suppose that’s why my Dad made a surprise appearance for this blog. Had he been a different kind of parent, when I was hurting, he might have held my hand, or given me a hug, or asked me, “What do you need?” But he was who he was, and he did what he could. I got a game of Risk, a cup of tea, and a song. And I consider my space well held.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. Her latest series of monthly workshops combines conscious breathing and expressive writing to explore life’s juicy themes. Join her on Sunday, October 15th for Holding Space.
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