Holding space has always seemed like a made up thing — like the way you tell kids to go find the magical fairies in the garden because what you really want is some peace and quiet.
Recently, I was attending a workshop where the term ‘holding space’ came up. The presenter slowed, scanned her eyes around the room, and said — with a honeyed inflection— that now she was ‘holding space’ for everyone.
All the other participants glanced knowingly at each other, as if we could all now see an invisible bubble of ‘space’ enveloping the group.
And then there was me — wondering if I’d accidentally stumbled into the briefing for Portland’s meteor shower that night.
In my own work as a facilitator, I used to pride myself on being a rocket propelling through space. I marched my workshop participants along a content timeline while I frisbeed my powerpoint deck at them, smiling when their eyes bulged at all my ‘good’ information.
But here’s the rub: when I was pushing my participants on a set course, I was stuck in my own presenter story about how I wanted things to go, rather than listening to the stories and needs of my participants (my presenter story is: “ I want to be a rockstar facilitator, and I’m worried I won’t be, so I’m going to bazooka information at people until they can see how awesome I am”).
And what I wanted most was to take my workshop participants to a deeper place, the kind of place where amazing and life changing conversations happen — and where all the best stories are told.
So this month I decided to give holding space a crack at the World Domination Summit in Portland (I know what you’re thinking — WDS sounds like a fascist gathering run by Pinky and the Brain — but it’s actually more like My Little Pony on Safari for adults).
The summit gathers visionaries, adventurers, and folks who are mixing up their life. I decided to run a deep storytelling workshop facilitated in this mythical holding space style. However, when I arrived at Prasad cafe to meet my storytelling workshop participants, all I wanted was to disappear behind the discount yoga pants stand.
You see, part of me was convinced that running a workshop where I sat back, where I allowed things to emerge in ‘space’, was like showing up to a basketball grand final with no game plan. And I was convinced I was about to be caught holding the ball.
As participants filed in, and cafe tables were pushed together, I found myself confronted with many smiling and expectant faces. My hyper-prepared mind began melting, while also yelling at me: Aaaahhhh say something!! Be entertaining!!
So here is the first hidden gem of holding space. Being.
Now there’s being the Dalai Lama and there’s being a spotty face teenager chowing down a Quarter Pounder outside McDonalds. So being in a way that helps others, is about paying attention to the quality of your presence. A friend recently likened this to standing on the Golden Gate Bridge while holding the awareness of both sides of the bridge, the bridge itself, and the truth that you’re stand on the bridge.
So there I was watching my workshop participants, feeling nervous, listening to the yelling voice in my head, and being present to all of it at the same time. And as I stepped into being more present, time started elongating.
This is the second trick of holding space. Space is slowness. Creating more silence and pausing in a workshop’s pacing allows for all the things going on inside (feelings, thoughts, smoothie choices) to emerge from participants. And miraculously, as I sat back in the circle, the world didn’t implode into a black hole of silence — instead the participants gradually started offering up deep insights and reflections.
Part of what is so powerful about this, is that in pausing and letting go of agendas, completely new lines of discussion show up.
This is not to suggest you should let a workshop turn into a Jerry Springer show. Rather, topics can be sculpted by creating a broad container. Aside from this drawing up the mental image of my workshop participants in an ice cream bucket container (a thought that’s obviously also occurred to New York’s Museum of Ice Cream founder Maryellis Bunn), a container a way to set expectations, guidelines, and helpful boundaries for participants. It gives them a guide, so that they feel safe to open up to the group and share authentic stories.
So within that container the WDS workshop participants shared deep personal hopes, reflections, passions for where they were headed, and how they wanted those ideas represented in the world.
And that was bigger and richer than any workshop I could’ve ever dreamt up on my own.
This post originally appeared over at Medium.