The Art of Holding Space

By Kevin Alexander (CCSS Collective Member)

In early spring my daughter brought home a bucket of dirt from school. It was part of a school project about watching plants grow. She told me what she had planted in the dirt and that she wanted to keep it on the kitchen table to watch it grow. I was excited for her and fully committed to helping her with this project.

After a few days of staring at the damp soil, I noticed something green poking its head into this world. We would watch this little plant grow each day, measuring it and wondering what it would look like.

As time passed we realized the tiny plant had a little problem; it had failed to shed the husk of its seed. The dry shell of the seed where it came from covered one of the leaves of the green sprout. As it grew taller the shell was certainly getting in the way of its growth.

I wanted to pull it off, touching it a few times. I knew that there were two options. One, is I pull the seed off, although I would risk pulling the entire plant out of the soil, or I would risk pulling the leaf off and potentially killing the plant. I might help the plant grow but I was almost certain that I might hurt the plant in the process.

Two, I could do noting and watch and hope that it would work itself out. I could watch it and wait till the see shell was so loose that pulling it off was to pose no risk to the growing plant.

So I held space for this little plant.

turtle tree~ Stewards of the Earth by Artfire

I choose to do nothing. Not exactly nothing, I observed and waited for the right time to help this little plant out. I did not rush or force my help on the plant; I waited and let the plant figure out how to shake off the shell itself.

I knew that by removing the seed shell I would risk damaging the plant, even though the shell was stunting its growth, I knew that the risk of interfering was greater then the risk of observing and waiting.

It was challenging, I wanted to pull off that seed shell every time I saw it.

Staring at the struggling plant I realized it was still growing, it was finding a way to grow.  I realized that this is exactly what I do at work everyday.

As a front line support worker I am always challenged with wanting to step in a do something for someone I support. I see them struggle with a task and I want to make it easier for them. I want to feel needed and do a good job.

I have learned over my career that doing tasks for others is not always the best option. Sometimes doing less is helping out more.

If you did everything for another, they would never learn how to do anything for themselves. The absence of failure and struggle are great losses in a person’s life.

I have worked with people who are very capable of achieving high levels of independence but are deeply unpracticed and unskilled at doing anything on their own. They have had someone step in and do tasks for them out for most of their lives leaving them no chances to learn how to do it themselves.

I have also supported people who have been taught how to do tasks and have been given the space to learn how to do them. These people are often much more capable at many tasks, often blowing conventional expectations out of the water.

Holding space is the art of knowing when to step in and help and when to let the shell sit on the plant. It is knowing when not to pull hard or to force yourself onto a situation, when to let someone struggle and even fail.

Holding space is about taking your time and doing the least possible to effect the greatest change possible.

A healthy individual has the right to failure and the right to a healthy amount of stress. Taking those opportunities away from individuals can slow their growth and their ability to integrate and achieve their fullest life.

If a person never learns how to tend to their own needs, they will always need others to do what they are capable of with some practice.

I watched this plant grow and in time it pushed that shell out and off its leaves. All I did was water it and give it a well-lit corner of the table. I made sure it had the ingredients to succeed. It has grown into a ten-foot vine of flowering glory in our back yard.

What if I had interfered and taken that shell off early?

Holding space for another person is being at peace with watching someone struggle. Not laughing at their struggles or feeling sorry for them, but being fully present and compassionate to the struggle of life we all must learn to endure.

Holding space is supporting people by teaching tools on how to deal with failure, not on eliminating failure from a person’s life all together.

Holding space is taking a deep breath before involving yourself in a situation. Taking a moment to ask if you are helping for your benefit or for the benefit of the person you are helping.

The art of front line work is to know when to step in and help and when the best way to help is to step back.

It can be challenging at times to know when to step in and help, or when to let someone figure it out themselves. This is the art of the practice of holding space.

I am constantly observing, learning and changing how I support others. It depends on so many factors that change from moment to moment. I observe the environment, the history, the individual and my own self.

I make my decision of when to involve myself based on what is the best of the person I am supporting.

I ask myself, “Would helping them out get them closer to being the fullest person they can be or does it help me in some way?”

I take my time and move slowly. Supporting another person in their daily lives is a delicate endeavor. Taking time to allow the information to process and unfold has given me a great deal of success in learning the art of holding space.

As the plant grows tall in our yard I realize that it has no idea that I did nothing and learned so much from doing nothing. Doing nothing can be very challenging sometimes. I did not ignore the plant or forget about it. I was attentive and caring and supportive, I just chose to do nothing and let the plant shine on its own.

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Home Practice

Take some time to observe the people around you. Maybe a friend, family member, or someone crossing the street. Practice seeing them with love and openness. Notice the potential for kindness shining in everyone you see. Observe the possibility that they are at peace. What would that be like?

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