Holding Space

Are you Emotionally Responsive?

How comfortable are you at holding space for someone?

We lead such busy lives that we frequently jump into action and ‘fix-it’ mode when someone presents a problem or difficulty – often cutting off the emotions that are present and need to be attended to. The result? The other person may feel unheard and unacknowledged and may feel disconnected from you because you’ve focused on the content rather than on their experience.

This article is about understanding how to make space for emotional experiences instead of always jumping to solutions. I’m going to focus here on emotions in the workplace; but you can apply this to any relationship.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” (Theodore Roosevelt)

The relationship comes first. Attending to the other person, showing that you care, builds trust and safety. When we feel safe, we are more creative and better at solving problems, our performance improves. If you are a manager or leader, your people need to know you care. Although they won’t say it, when they are experiencing difficulty, they are really testing ‘ARE you there for me?

Whether as a leader, a colleague, or indeed as a parent, the acronym ARE is a useful one to work with:

Accessible – are you accessible to me? Are you open and willing to listen to me?

Responsive – are you responsive to me? Even though you might be feeling stressed or upset, can you still be responsive to my emotional needs?

Engaged – are you engaged with me? Even though you may not agree with me, can you stay in the conversation with me?

All relationship distress results in a No or Maybe answer to that question (Are you there for me?), which means that a disconnect occurs, or even conflict. As humans we are wired for connection, we are bonding animals. We rely on each other for survival, and experience distress when we feel a disconnect. Yes – even in work. Our primary need is for a felt sense of security with people we depend on, and we depend on our colleagues and manager. When we are in distress, we reach for contact, for connection, to feel that we are not alone. If our emotional needs are not met, we don’t deal with it well.

“Emotional accessibility and responsiveness is what creates trust, safety and secure bonding”

(John Bowlby, Attachment theorist)

Holding space for someone can create a bonding moment, establishing trust and safety. Simply by being quietly present, we can calm the other person’s nervous system and bring them down out of a fight or flight response. In adults, being ARE means:

  • Maintaining good eye contact
  • Keeping your face open
  • Using positive body language
  • Listening to the emotions
  • Being emotionally responsive
  • Validating the other person’s experience
  • Paying attention to their feelings
  • Being honest with your own emotions, allowing yourself to be present and vulnerable

You engage with the person instead of isolating or withdrawing. You listen instead of jumping into action or telling them what they should do. You honestly share your fears and feelings, and encourage them to do the same. You can keep your emotional balance, staying curious to your own responses ‘What is triggering me?’

We can hold space and demonstrate ARE by remaining calm, validating the other person’s experience, and reassuring them. Here are some useful phrases, known as ‘The 6 Responses’, which are powerful phrases to use to create safety and to emotionally connect:

  1. I hear you
  2. I can hear that this was really difficult for you
  3. This can be very stressful
  4. Your feelings are valid
  5. I can see how much this matters to you
  6. I feel honoured that you would share this with me

Try out one or two next time someone is telling you about a difficulty!

Being emotionally responsive and holding space is not necessarily easy, but these are skills we can all develop and practice. The result is more rewarding relationships, better engagement, earned trust. Strong leaders connect to the real human need behind the upset or anger, and help people regain their emotional balance. People start to relax and feel safer in your presence because they sense you are there for them. Using these emotional intelligence skills you can build a thriving culture in your team (and home!).

‘ARE’ and ‘The 6 Responses’ are tools from the EmC Emotional Connection strategy, helping leaders unlock human potential, build resilient teams and nurture thriving cultures. To find out more see emcleaders.com and contact [email protected]. Niamh is the distributer/trainer/facilitator for EmC in Ireland, UK & Europe.