Holding Space for Real Connection

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

May 2020 Soul Notes

I’ve written before about Mrs McDowell, my inspired infant school teacher. One of my earliest memories is of sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor of our assembly hall, with around fifty other children under the age of 7. We were rapt as she dropped the stylus onto the disc perched on the ancient record player. What emerged were the unfamiliar chords and voices from the opera Faust. Picture it. Little ones, on a grey drizzly Tuesday morning in Manchester, sitting spellbound by this epic sound adventure, from the timid opening to the raging crescendo. You could hear a pin drop in that hall as we readied ourselves to be transported.

Here was a woman who knew a thing or two about creating a climate for children to learn; to travel beyond the boundaries of their daily life and to dream of things they were yet to experience. After the music had played, she said nothing for a while. We each allowed the music to settle into our bodies, into our being. Then gently, she would begin to explore with us what that was like. What did we feel? What imaginings visited us as the music played? How was that?

Then…and this was the truly inspired piece, she invited us to dance what we had heard. Eyes closed.  Just move around the room as your body tells you. Which we did, caressed and soothed by her musical encouragement as she delighted in our pleasure.

I realise now that this was the beginning of my training in embodied practices. I would so love to sit down with Mrs McDowell now and ask her if she knew what she was doing. I’m not sure why that’s important to me but I would relish the conversation. She was a dancer as well as a teacher, so I imagine that even if she didn’t cognitively know, she “knew” it somewhere in her own being. That this was the way to unlock doors for children to know their creative, expansive selves. Once you’ve know that as a child, there’s no going back.

This feels particularly poignant at a time when so many of our children are locked out of their schools and away from their teachers, who often play such a catalytic part in their lives. After our primary caregivers, they are the people who teach us about ourselves and the world outside. They hold a daily space in which we discover who, of our many faceted selves is welcome and who is not. We learn to adapt our behaviours in order to fit into this space, and to leave our less desirable selves at the door.

So, for example, I learned that my keen, curious, hard working,  determined, intelligent parts were very welcome at school. Thanks to Mrs McDowell, I learned that my creative, fanciful, dancing, fun, dreamy parts were also welcome. However, I knew that that wasn't the case next door in Mrs Whiting’s class. If I dared to sway and speak out of turn there, a stint on the prickly mat awaited me (where we were forced to sit on a coarse mat for the whole of break time, leaving violent red marks on our bare legs). I also learned that my naughty, angry, demanding voices weren’t welcome anywhere. So I put those away nice and early for fear of something worse than the prickly mat.

In my life today, I hold space for a variety of people and am thoughtful about what that means at this particular time. My experience is that we all need “holding” a little more than usual. As we adapt to a less familiar version of our lives and try to figure out what’s needed at home, at work, in the world, we may find ourselves a little destabilised. The ground that we’re used to walking on, isn’t the same any more. Whilst we can recreate parts of our life in the image of what was, we are also absorbing the fact that it no longer is and reaching acceptance about that to varying degrees. There’s a lot of confusion, circular thinking, a searching for the “certainties”. Anger. Frustration. A wish to break out perhaps. Sadness. A sense of loss. In short the whole gamut of emotions, and perhaps some of the “selves” that don’t normally get invited to the table are putting in an appearance in the gap.

I was chatting to a friend and colleague last week who was mortified that she had said something completely inappropriate in the middle of a session she was running with a group. We laughed about it (she would often say inappropriate things, even out of lockdown) but she was also disturbed that this had “popped out”. Personally, I’m aware of a more feisty energy in me – a prodding, or a more forthright energy, that won’t stay bottled up in the way that I’m used to. It’s not just that feelings are spilling out, it’s a sign of the massive disruptions we are all experiencing, and trying to “hold” ourselves through. And we can’t do that alone.

When working with others, it’s important to be sensitive to these internal landscapes. Our own and others. I’ve been really impressed by the thoughtfulness of many of my clients and the stories you tell of others who are really holding space sensitively and firmly. I’ve also talked to people who have been party to meetings where the response has been to “drive through” and “get on with it”, and witnessed the distress and helplessness that this can create.

Life, for many of us, continues apace. We are moving from virtual meeting, to meeting to calls with little space in between. No travel or transition time. And a packed agenda or demanding family the other side of the wall, leaving little space for intention to mark a shift from a business meeting to a therapy session; from creative brainstorming to re-engaging with our children or partners.

I’ve started to notice who and what helps me to make these transitions . What is it that allows me to move into the space of a conversation; an encounter; a meeting and what keeps me at the door, never really entering fully. I’m fortunate enough to have, and to have had plenty of teachers alongside me, through whom I experience a “holding” environment. I think there are several factors that facilitate this to happen:

The first and most critical is that they are super intentional about the climate they wish to create.  They consider who is present;  what we are doing together; what feelings they wish to evoke. This informs how we enter into the space and how others are invited  to do the same.

Last week, I ran a group supervision session with a client. Our purpose was to reflect together on practice so I knew that I wanted us to enter a peaceful, thoughtful space. However, we were coming into the session from different time zones and with different energy. For some it was the beginning of the day; for others, the end. I often begin supervision sessions with a poem and invite people to listen loosely, and breathe into themselves in order to transition from whatever came before, and land here. I was noticing personally however, that words were becoming overwhelming for me and that I needed something more primal and soothing. Inspired by my own supervision earlier in the week, I played an excerpt from Jon Hopkins "Singing Bowl", a meditative track which I find allows me to land in myself and be really present. After the track, I invited each person to check in and say how they found themselves. Within minutes we were all present and together in our reflective space. And, most importantly, people had arrived in their bodies. One supervisee said he felt the resonance of the singing bowl notes in his body. This opened his awareness and allowed him to experience the whole session in an embodied way, from his zoom screen on the other side of the world.

Of course, this may not be the answer if you’re about to begin a meeting to discuss the business risk implications of Covid-19 (although I wouldn’t rule it out) but if you spend a few moments paying attention to the climate you would like to create for your meeting, you will set the scene for meaningful encounters, for people to access and bring more of themselves.

However, it's also important to recognise that it’s a shared responsibilityto create the climate. People need to be encouraged to participate and feel able to do so. This will often depend on how you lead/show up and how you invite others to do the same. Allow people to arrive and check in.Listen to people. Let them know they’ve been heard.  Respond where appropriate but don’t get distracted. Hold space for  concerns and emotion. Embrace it; find out what is needed; see whether it feels right to address the matter here or elsewhere. Contract for the what, why and how. Take your time. Be patient. Hold space for the spaces in between as well.

I think we ask a lot of leaders at this time. There are few global leaders who are able to get beyond their ego and power drive to offer what is really needed here. So we look for leadership where we can find it; in our families; in our communities real and virtual; in our organisations.

HBR has published an article this month citing "holding" as a key facet of leadership, especially in crisis, and refers to people's experience of leaders in BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The ask of leaders is that they offer containing spaces where people might find their "quiet center" (as the poem above invites); find their bodies; find their breath and from there, understand what is needed of them and uncover their own resources. This isn’t therapy but it may be therapeutic, helping people get beyond the fight, flight or freeze response to their wise adult self, who can interpret the vast amounts of data being thrown at them and decide how to act and respond.

Psychoanalyst, Philip Bromberg, who died this week and was the inspiration for the artwork above, wrote in an article, and subsequent book,  “Standing In the Spaces” that “health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them – the capacity to feel like one self while being many.” The more we can both create and access spaces that allow for the multiplicity of ourselves, the more able we will be to absorb our own unique versions of this shared experience and find our own responses to this extraordinary time.

With much love until next time

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