How To Hold Space for Others

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May 28, 2021
Podcast

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring JRNI Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. In this episode, we explore the art of holding space as a coach, including the four key components involved: mental, expression, emotional/psychological, and energetic.


“Holding space” has become a buzz term in our modern vernacular. But for coaches, knowing what it means is not about simply keeping up on the latest trends.

The art of holding space is itself the foundation upon which the entire coaching industry is built. Coaches are trained in how to professionally hold space because that’s what makes the magic happen!

So what do you think it really means?

The first thing to understand is that “holding space” is about more than just listening. Rather than viewing it as a singular act - something we “do” for someone else - recognize it’s multifaceted. Holding space is both about how we listen and respond to our clients, and also in how we show up as a human being.

When we can hold space effectively in a variety of ways, it creates the conditions that allow our clients to go deep. From this place, they can better tap into their own experiences, insights, and revelations.

Great coaching extends well beyond coaching models, questioning techniques, and goal attainment strategies. At it's core, the coaching process isn’t ABOUT the tools you use. The catalyst for lasting change comes from inside the coaching relationship itself. 

The transformative power of coaching is activated when our clients having the life altering experience of being fully seen, held, believed in, and validated by another competent and trusted adult.

The “space” that coaches hold is not a physical place. It is a moment in time that encompasses mental, expression, emotional/psychological, and energetic space. Let’s take a look at each of these components in turn.

Mental Space

Mental space is “occupied” when the client expresses, reflects, or transforms. As coaches, how we help them do this is by creating room and permission to think out loud. 

Silence is also a form of mental space. While simple in theory, holding beneficial silence is actually one of the hardest things to do as a coach! It can feel awkward. We may not be sure if anything is really “happening” in the white space. Nevertheless, make sure you’re offering enough quiet moments for reflection as the client thinks, processes, remembers, and applies new information. 

It’s the client’s own insights that actually motivate the desire and commitment to change. 

As coaches, it can be tempting (and feel easier) to ask a question, grab an idea, interject our thoughts, or project what we think may be happening onto the client. If you’re not sure where you’re at on this spectrum, apply the 80/20 rule! Aim to have your client do around 80% of the talking, limiting your voice to roughly 20% of the conversation.

Expression Space

As we open the opportunity for clients to think out loud, it’s equally important that we convey clearly that they have been heard and understood in the process. Coaching involves mirroring a client's words back to them, and not simply to show them that we were paying attention. Reflecting allows our clients to hear what they’ve said from the outside, which triggers yet another way for the brain to process information.

Hearing how the thoughts in our heads sound coming back at us from the outside can produce new insights. 

The coaching skill here is to sense when the client’s brain is working, and to pause while that’s happening. Allowing our client moments to review, evaluate, reconsider, analyze, calibrate, and re-process memories or new information is helpful.

Reflection in turn leads to the transformation zone. This is the moment when a client makes a fundamental shift in their perspective. Transformation is not just a heightened state of awareness, but the formation of a fresh mental connection that motivates the client to make a new choice, or act differently. This here is the gold we’ve been mining for! 

Emotional/ Psychological Space 

Another critical aspect of holding space lies in the coach’s ability to create a safe container. Psychological safety is what allows the client to feel emotionally connected to their coach. This in turn allows them to be vulnerable and open to change.

Holding emotional space correlates to the ICF Core Competency set of “Creating Trust and Safety.”  It also relates to ethical practice in terms of our sensitivity  to the client's lived experience.

To do this effectively as coaches, we must:

  • Consider the client’s context, identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs to enhance understanding of what the client is communicating
  • Allow for strong emotions 
  • Create space for the client to clear and vent frustrations or other big feelings
  • Notices trends in the client’s behaviors and emotions across sessions to discern themes and patterns

Energetic Space

We each inhabit our own unique energy. You can feel the truth of this any time you walk into a crowded room. Some people are in constant motion. Others are slower to move, speak, and process. Some appear stoic, others jovial, and still others wear their heart on their sleeve.

Knowing who a person really is requires more than simply listening to the words they say. It involves noticing and understanding how they move through the world.

From a coaching perspective, energetic space is also the physical container for the session: phone, in person, or online. It’s where the coach and client encounter and exchange energy. In this regard, it’s important to carry an awareness that there’s always an alchemy at work. As a coach, your energy is very much “in the room” too!

Coaching is a human-centric endeavor.

Showing up to work in the energetic space of another person requires self-awareness and self-care. According to the ICF, this comes down to Embodying a Coaching Mindset and maintaining Coaching Presence.  

The behavioral standards for coaches around this include:

  • Acknowledgement that clients are responsible for their own choices
  • Honoring boundaries - yours and theirs
  • Developing a reflective practice to consistently evaluate yourself as a coach. Continue your education, get feedback and mentoring, and advance through the levels of professional competency
  • Having an awareness of your own emotions, and being responsible for them
  • Demonstrating curiosity, and remaining aware of and open to the influence of context and culture on yourself and others
  • Using awareness of self and one’s intuition to benefit clients
  • Mentally and emotionally preparing for sessions
  • Seeking help from outside sources when necessary
  • Remaining focused, observant, empathetic, and responsive to your client

Give yourself permission as a coach to listen with your whole being, and to take in information from all of your senses. This supports maintaining your full presence with the client. If you coach by phone, remember that whether or not the client has an ability see you, they can still feel your presence.

Tying it all together

As the term suggests, holding space requires the coach to become a container. Your role is to create a benevolent emptiness that clients can fill in with their own resources. As a professional coach, you’re being asked to keep your own judgment, solutions, emotional responses, and new ideas at bay so that your clients can “walk around” and explore themselves within the space you are holding. 

Oftentimes, the value of coaching is in the time that has been set aside for clients to let the “cloudiness” within them settle so that clarity and intuition can emerge. Holding space is not about adding more things to the coaching conversation, or “performing” as a coach. It’s about allowing clients to experience their own genius so they can do what they do best – solve their own problems.

Further Resources: Coaching Presence, Coaching Core Competencies 

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