Helena Clayton | Love as ‘holding space’



Love as ‘holding space’

05 Apr 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

To ‘hold space’. It’s a phrase that comes from the therapeutic world and it’s never felt more important than now.

It tends to mean:

• Protecting a chunk of time to pay someone full attention
• The ability to listen without judgement
• Allowing people to be vulnerable or express their weakness
• Providing a space where someone can be unedited and say what they can’t say elsewhere
• Listening without trying to fix or problems solve or give advice
• Getting your own stuff out of the way

It’s always mattered. A core human need is for close attention. To feel heard. We are hardwired for the sort of connection that says – whether in words or in atmosphere – ‘I’m here for you’. That says ‘I hear you’. That conveys a sense of ‘whatever you’re feeling it’s welcome here and it’s ok to express it and I won’t judge you for it’ The sort of deep listening that is allowing, spacious and unrushed.

That sort of listening is vital now.

Conversations not had

Many conversations at the moment are about swapping coronavirus facts. Or speculation and wondering. Other types of conversation are more along the ‘when it gets back to normal’ and we’ll get through this. Or about which supermarkets are open when. And also about practical things we’re all doing to create a life that works for us in the middle of all this upheaval.

My sense is that we talk about the ways that we’re doing fine, discussing small irritations, talking about getting back to normal, sharing soup recipes, talking about what the lasts news briefing is saying …

Essential conversations, all of them.

But there are conversations that are not being had. Or not enough, maybe.

These are the conversations that move onto …’and how are you feeling about that?’ ‘And in all of that, how are you doing, really’?’ And then leave plenty of space to let the other person respond. And we listen.

Because we also need space to drop deeper, go beneath the surface, to talk about what’s really going on for us. We need space for expressing our fears and anxieties, our confusion and anger, our sense of loss and grief and also what’s delighting or surprising us, or sustaining us. Our dislocation, despair, hopelesness…

The lack of those conversations feels to me like sitting with unexploded ordnance beneath us. In not talking about these things, what damage are we doing? And what are we storing up for later?

So intentionally holding space for those sorts of conversations is vital.

It’s also a form of love.

A form of love

In my Leadership and Love research, deep listening was a core part of how respondents defined love. They said how rare it was to have someone’s full and undivided attention and how it felt loving when it happened. They said it was loving to be given the space to talk. And that when they talked, to have what they said be fully accepted ‘warts and all’ and not be judged or made wrong in some way.

I’ve written before about how it’s an act of love to accept people’s inner worlds exactly as they are without in any way trying to make them (even the slightest bit) wrong. And that’s not always easy these days as we hear the myriad ways that people are doing what they need to do to keep themselves safe and sane. We may not agree with some of those choices. We might think some are bit crazy or wrong. I notice how often myself I see the ‘judgy’ part of me be critical of someone’s choices right now.

So there’s a lot that can get in the way of us asking how someone is feeling and then staying put for the answer.

What gets in the way

Maybe it’s that:

• our own feelings are so intense or difficult or confused right now that they’re about all we can handle
• we have so much stuff on our minds and on our plates and new and different things to get done that we just don’t have time for anything more than fly-by conversation
• our heads are fragmented and dislocated and it’s too much of a stretch to ‘listen past our tolerance level’
• we fear we might not be able to deal with what people tell us – it might be too much and we’re opening a Pandora’s box
• no one is holding space for us and so we don’t feel ‘held’ enough or safe enough ourselves to offer that for others
• it’s almost taboo to ask about feelings, to be curious about what goes on beneath the surface and we believe it’s prying in some way, that it’s nosey and will be unwelcome

But it’s important

A Samaritans listener for many years, in training we learned to ask a caller about suicide and whether someone was having suicidal thoughts. If we felt that beneath what a caller was saying was the thought of suicide, we would ask about it directly. Gently and with sensitivity. But directly.

For so many people the relief was huge – to be offered the opportunity to talk openly and without fear of being judged for what society finds so difficult to talk about, what can feel shameful and forbidden and taboo. What they can’t talk about with anyone else.

Similarly today. Many people are feeling fear and terror and feel unable to speak about it. Some people are feeling a sense of dread that threatens to overwhelm them. Others feel that they can’t cope. There’s anger, loss, grief, resentment, confusion.

There’s ‘anticipatory grief’ too. The sense that ‘there’s a storm coming, there’s something bad out there’ but we don’t know quite what it is or just how bad it will be. And the not-knowing can feel overwhelming.

We’re feeling like this while also going about our lives, looking after family, reassuring others, working in essential jobs, home-schooling … and having to present a bright face to the world. ‘Thanks, yeah, I’m doing ok’. ‘Ah, we’ll get through this’. ‘We’ll be back to normal soon’.

So could asking about feelings be like ‘the suicide question’? Could creating a space where people can name what’s really going on for them, and talk openly about these feelings be a gesture, a gift of love? Could a simple … ‘and how are you feeling in the middle of all of that?’ be a way to help ourselves through this?

In organisations

We might choose to offer this deep listening space to friends and family, or neighbours. Even to someone we just stop and chat with on a dog walk. But we can also do this really well in organisations too, with the people we work alongside.

There’s some fascinating research into the ways that organisational change programmes (the regular type) can retrigger trauma from our childhood. Trauma here includes ‘slow trauma’ – things like poverty, divorce, witnessing abuse or having alcoholism in the family. So if that’s true for regular organisational changes can we even begin to imagine what might be retrigged in this ‘irregular’ time of change?

Pretty much all my client work has fallen away. But what I am being asked for from clients is to set up and run ‘sharing circles’ or ‘empathy circles’ (we might call them Team Circles, if we wanted a more organisationally acceptable name …) where people can come together virtually and talk about what’s going on for them and how they feel – as well as what they might do or what they might find helpful.

No agenda. No content or syllabus. Not a development programme. Just space to speak and be heard, to hear and witness others.

We can often assume that people are not willing to share what’s really going on for them. But my experience, in coaching and all forms of leadership development, is that when people are asked gently and directly, and where they trust the person who’s asking, where the space feels safe, and where there is unhurried and uninterrupted space and time to respond then for many of us, it’s like taking a drink of water when we didn’t really know we were thirsty. Especially now.

Now isn’t the time to pretend we don’t feel. Instead we need to turn towards feelings and open up spaces where we can talk about what we’re experiencing, what sense we make of it and what it’s bringing up for us. Some of us have little need for that. But many of us crave that space.

And so in Team Circles, we might lightly structure conversations round 4 key areas:

• What are you thinking about / what’s on your mind?
• How are you feeling about that?
• What do you want or need?
• What might you be inclined to do about it, if anything?

Equally, I find it’s often helpful to guide the conversation around one or two carefully chosen paired questions all likely to develop a response that include feelings, without necessarily asking directly ‘and how do you feel?’. For these particular times, these could be:

• What is changing and shifting in your life at the moment? What is solid and reliable and constant?
• Where is there disappointment and loss for you right now? Where is there hope and optimism?
• Is isolation hard for you? How are you handling it?
• What does this uncertainty feel like for you? What is possible now that was not possible before?
• What feelings or emotions are familiar to you in this? What feelings are new?
• What are you finding it hard to let go of? What are you glad to let go of?
• What relationships have been interrupted? What new relationships have begun?

Could you ‘hold space’?

Is there anything in this post that might prompt you to gently ask how someone is feeling? To provide a safe enough space for someone to respond? And to stay still and listen?

In thinking about this, here are some more paired questions …

o Where do you already do a good job of holding space? Where might you do it more often?
o Who do you find it easy to hold space for? Who might really need that space, but you avoid for some reason?
o What deep listening qualities do you already have? What might you need to strengthen?
o And who holds space for you? Who might you need to reach out to so that you can share how you’re (really) feeling?

Holding space is an act of love. And needed now more than ever.
Helena x

P.S I don’t have copy of the article on trauma being retriggered by organisational change that I can link here. But if you email me, I’ll get you a copy.


I have new leadership programme launching in September. Bold – and exploratory and practical – it’s designed for a small group of leaders to explore what their leadership might look like with love at its heart, you can find details and book your place here.



  • Colleague

    I love this article Helena. It’s like a mini-supervision session reading and reflecting.

    I find myself so easily moving to ‘what can I do?’ and ‘how can I be?’ as a very close second. I recognise that both of these are outward looking (my ‘be strong’ ‘resource others’ drivers), but to be fully resourced without projection and transference / collusion I recognise I have to ask the question ‘How am I, and who am I right now?’. I want to revisit the listening and rituals I have in engaging one-to-one, and to leave more space. Thank you for this reminder, and for putting the handbrake on. Going slow is really not in my nature, so it’s a balance between breadth of contact and support (mostly pro-bono right now), and depth of the space I might hold. Thank you once again for the work you do.

    • Helena Clayton

      Thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time to say that. And it makes me think, too, about the importance of regularly checking in about ‘and how am I feeling’ so that we can hold space for ourselves in the way that we might for others. H x

  • Julian

    Thank you very much for this, I was touched by feeling held reading it, so loveingly written – we all need more of this in the world 🙂 x

    • Helena Clayton

      Thanks Julian, and we really do!


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