Holding A Safe Space for Others
Have you ever confided to a friend and left feeling disappointed and dismissed (as if you’re talking to a wall)? Have you ever felt uncomfortable when someone who trusts you shares their sad experience and you didn’t know how to respond?
We tend to wonder if others are showing their true selves to us. BUT are we ready to see and hold a safe space for the authentic side of a person?
In my 7 years of coaching, I have done thousands of 1-to-1 coaching sessions and group trainings. As a coach, I always encourage people to be vulnerable during these sessions and I always assure them that they are in “safe space” to be themselves. However, conducting group trainings is a tricky situation as I am not in control of the behaviour of the other participants. There have been a couple of instances where a participant or two does not understand what “holding a safe space” means and ended up having an awkward situation during the training.
So, what does it mean to “hold a safe space” for someone? For me, it means securing a boundary and being fully present without judgment, creating a space for the other person to do whatever they need to do or express whatever they need to at the (intense) moment and not need to worry about judgment. The person who is “holding the safe space” is making sure nothing will interrupt process and that it will be completed in peace.
Participants pouring out their hearts and tearing up is something I usually expect to happen during coaching sessions and trainings. Just recently, I conducted a 2-day Enneagram Training in Malaysia, where I asked the participants to share a recent photo and the significance of it. One of the participants named Claire*, shared about the last photo she took with a loved one and started tearing up then it was followed by an awkward silence. Then another participant, Tom*, stood up and started clapping which shocked Claire. There were mixed expressions with the rest of the participants. Needless to say, it was inappropriate but I knew Tom did it out of a good intention.
I brought it up as a learning point during the panel discussion and enlightened Tom that it was inappropriate. I also gathered the feedback from the rest of the participants, discussed what Tom’s response made everyone feel, and solicit for their views on what an appropriate response would be. Everyone agreed that the intention was not meant to be bad, but it showed a lack of empathy. Then, using this as an object lesson, we directed Tom to relook at his discomfort towards sadness and painful moments, and how he has been using laughter, humour and reframing to snap out of it.
Some Enneagram Personality Types have a relatively bigger struggle dealing with negative emotions. In previous trainings, there were cases where some participant/s would burst out into laughter and respond into an overly candid way (saying “I’ve never seen you like that before”, “Don’t be like that, you’re making me nervous”, “Eh, don’t cry leh”). Such response tends to shortchange people in the class and the person tearing up had to pause in expressing themselves and later apologise for not being able to hold back their tears, which was totally unnecessary. There’s nothing wrong with shedding tears, it’s simply a part of the process when we open raw parts of us to people.
Relating to such experiences, I came up with this question: If you want people to show their true selves, raw and authentic, are you able to handle it?
In relationships, whether it be romantic, friendship or professional we need to learn how to hold space. When we get good at holding space, we create a context where people could be free to articulate anything they would like to express and just be themselves authentically. There is trust that whatever is shared will not be held against them.
With that, are we ready to hold a safe space for someone to show their authentic selves?
*Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.