Physical, Mental & Emotional, Online Space and Space in Time, and How to create the Container that best Holds it.
I'm often asked what it is I do, or what it is we do during the Cooking Up Dialogue sessions. There are many answers to these questions, it is a multilayered thing and in these times of complexity it is not prudent to seek overly simple answers. Life on planet Earth has always been deeply, utterly magically complex, but what we haven’t done is hold space for all that it is, and for all that we are. So that is the simplest complexity embracing answer to what we at Cooking Up Dialogue do; we ‘Hold Space’. What does it mean to Hold Space? First let’s define ‘space’. In simple terms there are 3 kinds of space that we can easily perceive and create.
1. Physical Space. Seems like an obvious one, but it comes in different shapes and sizes and sometimes it is more conducive to our health and happiness than others. I’ll give some examples. Let’s us consider space that is appropriate for a group of people to gather and have conversation.
* “Safe” in this instance refers to physical safety, the group will not feel threatened by possible distraction or by uninvited guests. The building will be sound and secure.
In these days we are hosting Online Gatherings, and these require space held too.
As with Physical Space, creating Online Space is often a case of logistics. An advantage of meeting online is that we dodge the problems of transport, access and proximity that being physically present requires. Instead we have to create a literal space online that we can utilise. Many of us are using the various apps available, I’m presently using Zoom however other platforms are also effective. So instead of being together in a room, a field or wherever, we gather face to face on the screen.
Holding effective online space in terms of sensed physicality also has some aspects which divide the healthier and less healthy online experiences.
* Safe online space is created by ensuring that your group is safe from interruption from uninvited guests and safe from being hacked. We ensure a sense of safety by asking permission to record and being sure that all the participants are happy with the way information from the gathering will be shared. The hindrance of not being physically together can be overcome if the mental and emotional connection is there. For some the physical distance is an advantage in feeling safer, especially as participants can connect from the comfort zone of their own home in comfortable clothes. Online space and the success of gatherings hosted online is very dependent on the way the space in conceived and ‘held’ by the facilitators and consequently how the space is perceived mentally and emotionally by the participants. 2. Mental and Emotional Space. We all know what it means to be in the right head space for conversation, we know what it feels like to be in the mood. We also know how conversation can be ruined if the people with us are unreceptive or distracted. We’ve also probably experienced when a strong hierarchy or an air of judgement is in the room and it oppresses those who are nervous about voicing their opinion. We’ve looked at creating physical Space, but wherever we are, the effective dynamic in relational experience is provided by the human interaction. The human is the Space Holder. We can’t blame an ambience created by the 4 walls around us if a discussion goes badly, we must look to the Space as we create it though our approach. Here are some examples of healthy / unhealthy feelings and thoughts participants might have in terms of mental and emotional space:
* Feeling safe in an emotional and mental way is core for healthy conversation. Knowing how to communicate in a non-violent way and being able to recognise the accidentally ‘violent’ parts of conversation helps ensure mutual comfort. (see more on Non Violent Communication NVC). Before each Circle, and depending on the nature of the gathering, we remind each other that everything that is shared is to remain within the Circle. The confidentiality of the group and the discussion content is decided and agreed in advance. All the above points on this list contribute to feeling safe. It is especially important to not be judgemental and to not interrupt each other; interruption disrupts the safe sense of Time Space. 3. Time Space Ineffective space in time works both ways, you may be the one in a situation who needs more time, or you may be the one who wishes everyone else would catch up with you. Either way, to better understand ourselves regarding this we must acknowledge the natural rhythms and cycles that flow throughout our lives and throughout each day. Connecting with our rhythms and cycles allows us to be patient with ourselves and others and to understand the underlying needs. Understanding these cycles helps us see why we struggle when squeezing ourselves into a time frame that is often unsympathetic to us as individuals and does not assist us to fulfil our best potential. There are many cycles, the female hormonal one is paramount in many of our lives but mostly ignored, here though I’ll mention the seasonal cycle frame: Let’s imagine our moods and productivity as seasons. Spring and summer are when we are bursting with enthusiasm, new ideas and growth occurs, we can expect a great harvest from this, and it is a time of true productivity. In this part of our seasonal cycle we may feel impatient with those who do not seem to keep up. These are often pioneering times in which we forge ahead. Inevitably though we will need to rest and observe, to sit back and analyse what we have achieved. We can call these our Autumn or Winter stage; times when we feed from our saved produce, and we let our soil rest with a nutrient providing cover crop. Though we may feel impatient with ourselves or others when in these seemingly slower stages it is important to have all the parts of this cycle in balance in our lives to keep in good health. These are potentially times of great insight and deep inner work. This is when the magic happens below the surface just as the autumn and winter soil holds the seeds and nutrients safe and in the ideal nurturing conditions before they are ready to again erupt into new life. The natural cycles that flow through us can turn full cycle as often as within a single day or as long paced as over the years and decades of our lives. An understanding and respect for this and knowing that we may have different needs and perceptions at any given moment gives us an opportunity to see each other and the concept of Time though a more nuanced lens. This simple explanation seems obvious once stated, but just as we have separated our lives far from nature in Physical Space, we have also separated ourselves from such as these seasonal flows within natural Time Space. Healthy relationships and conversations at any level, whether with your partner, your child, your friends or with share and stake holders in a board room, whoever the participants, we must always account for our own and others cycles and sense of Time Space The below is a list of things you might sense if you are in healthy or comparatively unhealthy Time Space:
In the case of Time Space, I haven’t made an added point around feeling ‘safe’ in Time. Every part of this list contributes to whether a participant feels safe or not.
The above describes what healthy space might look like in 3 dimensions, (physical, emotional and time), so what does it mean to hold that space in practical terms for someone?
Holding Space in practical terms?
Let’s start with Ourselves:
If you don’t have a healthy habit of listening to yourself, leaving yourself the space you need to rest, think, feel and to be truly you, then the chances are that you won’t be great at Holding Space for anyone else either. There is no shame in not knowing how to do this, we have been shaped and brain washed by a social structure that celebrates individuality, competition and a very material-centric and thought based culture. We often talk about what we ‘think’ about things, but we are less adept in expressing how we ‘feel’ about things. We are asked to contemplate, appraise, consider and to decide, but rarely are we prompted to sense into, feel, use our instincts, or ask our gut and our heart.
This subject leans towards delving deeper into individual and collective trauma and how we have such blockages and triggers to contend with, but these are subjects for another post.
I find that it is easier to gain these new skills by exercising on myself and others, in a way I am expanding my capability and compassion both outwards and inwards.
These are some ways we can exercise our ability to be a great container, a perfect space as a human in terms of providing a healthy experience for ourselves and other:
Holding Space for an individual:
We all have experience of listening to a friend who has difficulties, but most of us take on a very masculine role. This might mean we try to manage the situation by trying to problem solve, we may approach rationally by telling our friend that their problem isn’t so big, that it will pass or that others have it harder. Maybe, the more sensitive among us, will try to empower our friend by reminding her of how she overcame previous difficulties in the past and by telling her that we know she can get over it. During this ‘telling’ we have often done more talking than listening which may have jeopardised many of the healthy aspects of the Space as defined above. So, for example, we may have not listened without judging (simply saying that her problem ‘isn’t so big’ is a form of judging), our inability to deeply listen will not have encouraged her to speak freely about her feelings, we may have rushed her, we may give the impression that we won’t keep this discussion private. In trying to prompt our friend to get over it we may have indicated that we don’t find her problem to be so important; we will have insinuated that we don’t see from her angle or find her and her feelings to be that important to us.
When in difficulty, though practical help may be needed and appreciated the first thing we require is simply some space to be able to live the present emotion, expose our vulnerability and be validated by the non-judgemental presence and witnessing of our friend. Whatever our emotion is, it is it is real to us at the time and having someone trying to negate or quieten it into some tidy and happy behaviour does not take our difficulty away, in fact it doubles the difficulty by making us feel alone with it.
In dialogue with a partner our personal expectations and position regarding the subject can sway our ability to Hold Space effectively. If we are not on opposing sides from our partner (meaning we are not personally triggered or emotionally involved in the situation) we still have the difficulties stated above as with a friend. But if we are triggered and involved then the Space can become polarised and volatile making it is very difficult for two people to communicate healthily. Experience in Holding Space for ourselves in such times, among friends and in life generally has exponential positive effects on an ability to maintain a healthy relationship, especially if both parties are able to use or are responsive to learning about these simple techniques.
The same can be said in our relationships with children. When a child has a tantrum for instance, parents often feel hopeless and helpless. Not knowing how to deal with a child who seems inconsolable can often result in the parent becoming angry, frustrated and impatient for the child to calm down. Parents are often dumbfounded when children can’t respond in what they consider to be an acceptable manner. These parental responses break the safety of the Emotional and Time Space for children. The triggered child will often calm down when simply held and made to feel safe and loved, the real trick though is to have avoided the meltdown in the first place by ensuring plenty of Healthy Space in all the forms mentioned above.
Holding Space for a Group
Every part of the above stated system for effective space holding scales up to work for groups. The energy between diverse people creates the potential for a much less stable and more fluid dynamic. There are many skills and techniques that a facilitator will use to ensure the integrity of Safe Space is maintained especially if contentious issues or actively opposing individuals or groups are within the Space. These kinds of skills are a subject for those who wish to delve deeper into the area of Holding Space for conflict transformation.
Fluidity in Space
Something we can learn from children is that they are able to swap to different moods very quickly. It is not that they aren’t touched deeply by something sad, but their natural response to find joy in life keeps their mood fluid and variable. They remain alert to new information coming in and are receptive. Even if they are sad or upset, they can be laughing just a few moments later. The collective mood in a space will affect us all, but just like children, we can show our flexi-selves more willingly if we know we can be authentic about our changing feelings and that our unique responses will not be judged or negated. This degree of honesty within a group allows for deeper connection and a better chance to bring about a more genuinely sensed collective experience.
Space as a Container for ...Everything
Holding Space is not just for dealing with Challenges and not just about hard times, it is for everything including hilarity and gratitude. It is for hard work and brain storming, it is about every single potential capability that we carry, from major strategy appraisal to creating a container for conversation and laughter.
Some Questions to explore further:
1. What does healthy space look and feel like for you?
2. What are the people like who hold that space for you?
3. What conditions help you to feel you can be yourself?
4. Can you remember a time when you felt bad about something or had a difficulty and a friend or group of friends supported you?
5. What happened, what was that like?
6. Can you think of a time, a relationship, a dialogue or an event that might have turned out differently if you had been able to assist in Holding the Space in a healthier way?
1. Think of a few words to answer this: How does it feel to be in a safe space where you are not judged, and you can be honest with yourself and others? (Feel free to take words from the lists above.)
2. When you are next in a conversation, a meeting or even just hanging out with yourself, ask yourself are those few words you selected above being respected in this space?
3. If not, what can you do to activate the properties of these words?
All the above are merely words. They might not resonate with you unless you activate them into an experience or if your mind can connect them with an already lived experience.
In our Cooking Up Dialogue sessions we often use a brief guided meditation or somatic/embodiment exercise to bring the experience in to ourselves at a deeper level.
Don’t bother skim reading the below.
But if you have 3 minutes sit down comfortably.
Stretch out and wriggle around a bit and bring your attention to your body. Settle and centre yourself back comfortably into your chair. Close your eyes while you take some deep breaths to the natural rhythm that suits you. Maybe breathe in your nose for a count of 4 and breathe out of your mouth for a count of 6. After 6 such breaths open your eyes and read on, maybe read aloud.
I imagine a space;
It is a clearing in a forest.
I am sitting in the gentle sunlight upon a soft blanket on the grass, around me are many tall beautiful trees.
I open my arms up wide and breath in the fresh air deeply, I feel safe here, the trees are watching over me and the space is wide enough for me to run around in.
I imagine myself stretching up as tall as I like.
I rise up and with strength and grace I become a horse…. running, galloping, my mane flowing. I am running inside the space and kicking my legs high in the air.
Then I am human again and I am dancing and singing and yelling as loud as I can. I spin and leap and throw my head back to let out every sound that is inside of me.
The trees are swaying in the breeze watching me, their branches and leaves are so connected I know I am safe.
As I feel the release of all my energy I sit again in the soft blanket and with each breath in and out I feel calm and perfect.
I look at the trees all around me and I see that their branches are connected like arms linked together, I see the ripples in their leaves like hair flowing and I see their solid trunks connected to the ground and I feel their roots in the earth below me… and then I see that they are many brothers and sisters sitting in Circle with me.
As I take this breath, I feel the power of solidarity around me, and as I breathe out, I send my power to all the people around the world.
Slowly I journey back to myself and my body here on my chair…. breathing in again through my nose… out through my mouth.
My body knows the strength of the horse, I am empowered by my dance, my voice knows it will be heard, I know the solidarity of the trees... my brothers and sisters.
Good luck Holding great, wonderful, inspiring, liberating and safe Space wherever you go.
Photo by Baurzhan Kadylzhanov from Pexels