What Does it Mean to “Hold Space” for Someone?

You’ve probably heard someone talk about the importance of “holding space” for others. As a couples counselor and a relationship coach, I know that holding space is a gift that’s increasingly precious and rare in our busy world of constant distraction. But I also know that it’s a slippery concept that might not make sense until you explore it more deeply. What does it mean to hold space for someone? And why is “holding space” such a valuable act of emotional support?

Holding space is a concept that goes beyond being physically present. It requires an emotional presence that incorporates empathy, compassion, active listening, acceptance, and more. It’s attached to the concept of “containment,” which is an emotional intelligence skill that can transform relationships when mastered. In this article, we’ll explore the rich meaning woven into the simple phrase, “holding space.”

‘Holding Space’ and Containment

In psychology, containment or holding space is one’s “relational ability to ‘hold’ whatever the other person needs held (emotionally, mentally), and to create a sense of safety in the relational space” (Braman, 2021). Containment not only creates emotional safety for others to be vulnerable, it also creates some healthy cognitive distance between the other person’s experience and emotions, and those of the listener. 

It’s helpful to think of a plastic container. It has boundaries that contain whatever is placed inside and that also keep the contents from spilling out. When we create a “container” in a conversation, I’m able to hold a defined space for my partner to fill with their emotions and experiences, while not having them spill over and entangle with my own emotions and experiences. When there is spillover or entanglement, it creates something called emotional enmeshment. We become emotionally flooded and more likely to react to our partner’s feelings and experiences like a match to a flame. Their emotions are so linked to ours that they can feel overwhelming to us and can even cause panic, leading us to get defensive, shut down, or try to “fix” how they feel so that we can feel better. 

A container is a beautiful gift to both speaker and listener as it creates a safe place for one partner to experience difficult emotions with a calm, steady, and engaged listening partner. For the listener, this container allows the distance required to stay regulated. It also requires self awareness to maintain the container’s boundaries. When I can effectively contain or hold space, I can think more clearly, be more understanding and compassionate, and take responsibility for my role in the hurt my partner is sharing. This is much more difficult when I’m feeling panicked and shameful and reacting to these emotions, rather than making space for my partner’s feelings.

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How to Hold Space for Someone

So, how exactly can you hold space for someone you care about, and create safe containers for you and your partner to navigate difficult conversations? Here are a few emotional intelligence skills that will help: 

  1. Self-Compassion

Having a self-compassionate, comforting inner voice can help you manage your emotions so that you can stay regulated enough to hold space for your partner when they’re feeling upset. If you have a tendency to beat yourself up for mistakes, that can make it more difficult for you to “stay in the ring” when your partner is telling you about something that makes you feel defensive

  1. Self-Awareness

You can’t manage your feelings until you are aware of your feelings. And this can be more difficult than it sounds. Tune into your body and notice the feelings that are rising up in you during difficult conversations. Practice naming your emotions, listening to the information they’re bringing you, and then finding ways to self-soothe. 

  1. Respond, Don’t React

Creating a space between your thoughts, feelings, and your actions allows you to respond to your partner rather than reacting out of guilt, shame, fear, or anger. If you feel yourself getting elevated, slow down, take a deep breath, and give yourself a break from the conversation if you need it. Just be sure to let your partner know that you’re taking a break and when you’ll be back. 

  1. Practice Curiosity

Rather than trying to fix or change the other person’s emotions or experience, simply listen. Ask clarifying questions with the intent to understand how they’re feeling (and not in an effort to invalidate their emotions or disagree with their experience). 

  1. Use Validating Statements

Simply using a validating statement like, “It makes sense that you feel that way,” can help your partner feel heard and cared for, and can create an emotionally safe space where they feel able to open up to you about their feelings. This deepens emotional intimacy in your relationship and turns conflict into connection. 

Support for Close, Connected Relationships

I hope this article helped you explore the meaning of “holding space” for someone and gave you some ideas about how to practice containment in your most important relationships. I know that this skill is key to creating closer connections, and I hope you are able to put it to good use. 

And if you would like support with practicing these skills in your relationship, I invite you to schedule a free consultation


Kara C., M.S., MFTC

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