The Feminine Art of Holding Space in Business

First published on Medium, for International Women’s Day, 2016

This International Women’s Day I’m here to celebrate one of the most important feminine skills in life and business today; the art of holding space.

In this moving article, Heather Plett defines holding space as this:

“It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person, whatever journey they’re on, without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

Holding space is what I do when I help clients bottle their brilliance in words. By giving them my undivided attention and acting as a mirror that reflects their brilliance back to themselves, I help them to articulate why they matter. But this isn’t a skill I learned in business. It’s an inherently feminine art that I first learnt from my own mother when I was growing up, but mostly it’s something I’ve learnt by being a mother myself.

Just the other day my 9 year old wanted to cook his own lunch. I was all for it;  anything to relieve the tedium of relentless snack making. So how did I help him? I didn’t step in, I stepped back.

I didn’t comment, jump in or judge — even when he made a mess. I’ve learnt from bitter experience that the second you intervene, criticise or try to take over becomes the very last second you’ll ever see your child attempt that new thing they’re trying. This is not easy work. It requires a lot of self-control not to intervene, to hold back your own hard won wisdom and let others learn for themselves … but the rewards are so worth it. My son now makes a mean pancake.

We hear everywhere these days just how important it is to learn through failure. Well it’s true. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress. But in order for others to fail, they have to have an environment in which to safely fail.

In an economy which is dependent upon constant innovation and change, holding the space is an essential leadership skill. To be inspired to create new things, you need an environment in which it’s safe to experiment, to risk looking stupid and safe to fail. A leader who is able and willing to hold space offers all these things.

But for me holding space is also a selfish act. As Bernadette Jiwa puts it in the introduction to her new “Meaningful: The story of ideas that fly”:

“The two most important things we can do are to allow ourselves to be seen AND to really see others. The greatest gift you can give a person is to see who she is and to reflect that back to her. When we help people to be who they want to be, to take back some of the permission they deny themselves, we are doing our best, most meaningful work.”

Holding the space is something everyone  can do for each other. In our screen-addicted, distracted world, it’s also one of the most rare and priceless gifts you can give to anyone ; not just to your clients, colleagues or employees but also to your children, partner, friends.

There are few things more rewarding than witnessing others in their full, creative flow or watching them blossom under the warmth of your undivided, unconditional attention. Except, of course, the feeling of someone holding the space for you.

About the Author: Anna McLoughlin

Anna McLoughlin, Copywriter

Anna is Director of Inkspiller. An incurably curious writer and brand strategist, she has made it her life's mission to truly see others, then reflect their brilliance back out to the world.

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