I know you've been there, the internal panic when a friend discloses a heavy truth to you. You want to be compassionate and understanding but your mind is whirling, trying to make sense of it all and what to do now. Holding space is the key to navigating these situations in a way that gives you space to process and your friend space to feel seen.
Which is all any of us really want - the opportunity to be heard, feel seen, and not feel quite so alone in the shifts of life. My decade as a midwife gifted me the important skill of holding space for others. When a mama was in the throes of heavy labor, there wasn't anything I could do to take away her pain. It's a natural instinct, to take away the pain, to fix the problem, but rarely is that possible in reality. What's far more likely is they don't need anyone to fix the situation for them, they simply need to be witnessed in this difficult space.
To hold space for someone else is to tell them know with your energy "I see the strength inside you to navigate this. I will witness you ebb and flow in the tide. If the wave crashes over you, I will hold the boat steady while you climb back in. I am not unmoored by your powerful waves, but instead, I stand in respect and reverence."
You are letting them know that you trust their ability to navigate this in the best way possible for them. That you couldn't possibly know what is best for them - they are the expert in what they need. That you're here to walk next to them as they find the edges of this experience. They aren't alone, they haven't scared you off with their big emotions, they will find the other side.
When it comes to the practical skills of holding space, there's two skills in particular that I've cultivated over the years:
Remaining rooted means that you don't lessen their experience by taking it on as yours. It's a common fall back response to relay your experiences that may be similar to what they're going through. This is a well intentioned mistake. This experience isn't happening to you right now. It's happening to them and they've invited you in to witness it. When you relay your own experiences you are subtly asking them to hold space for you in this time when their cup is overflowing. It does not leave a person feeling seeing and understood in the long run. Remain rooted in the present, rooted in your body, holding the ground for the container that you'll be creating for them.
Asking questions is the best way to create the container for the person you're holding space for. By this I mean, creating the focus on them and their experience, the expansive space for discovery of their emotions. It reinforces the idea that you aren't here to help them fix anything, just to help them discover the knowledge they hold inside. There is an art to asking questions, no doubt. A woman in the throes of hard labor does not want to be asked about her emotions. But she does want to have someone who is grounded look her in the eye and ask "Did you ever think you could be so powerful?" You have just created a space of amazement where pain lived just moments before. Sitting with a friend who just lost a loved one is a very different space. In this grief laden path, rooting down, and asking "tell me what you loved most about them."
A great visual I use often is to imagine my arms open, forming a large circle around the other person, literally holding the space. This space is for them and I am a grateful witness to whatever big emotions they need to access. It's not my job to make this space inside my arms pretty or tidy. It can be as messy and real as they need it to be. Also, if I'm holding my arms wide open around it, then I can't get in the spiral or intensity with them. I stay a curious, loving observer on the outside. They can feel safe, seen, and loved. Which is what we all need more of in our lives.