When couples come in to see me, the number one complaint I hear is that they don’t communicate well. So, my first task with most couples is to teach them how to hold space for one another. The term sounds cozy, but what does it mean to “hold space”, and why is it so important? But first, we need to understand what effective communication is - and isn’t.
Communication in Relationships
All human beings want to be seen and heard - especially by their partner. Unfortunately for many people, they don’t (yet) have the tools to make this happen. They are relying on old, outdated patterns of relating (ie, men mustn’t show their feelings), or they’ve been hurt in the past when they tried to be open and vulnerable. Whatever the reason, the couple has a breakdown in communication, and it becomes survival of the fittest. A power struggle ensues as each holds onto their armor, protective mechanisms, and weapons. When stuck in this vicious cycle or dance, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees.
On the other hand, the type of communication we actually want is the kind in which we feel heard, seen, validated and empathized with. It’s about showing up with intention and creating clear boundaries around each of you, separating one partner’s issues from the other. These pieces of conscious dialogue will open the door to connection, possibility, and growth. Holding space for your partner is the first step.
Learn to Hold Space for Your Partner
When you are holding space for your partner, you are essentially creating a container for their emotional state and for them to show their feelings. At the same time, you are attentive, non-reactive, engaged, and open to their point of view. It’s also a practice worth implementing if you want your relationship to improve.
How to Hold Space: 3 Critical Pieces of a Conscious Dialogue
Holding space means putting yourself aside for the moment, so your partner can be open with their thoughts and feelings and leave the dialogue feeling heard and understood. This doesn’t mean your feelings don’t matter; you will have your own turn to be held later.
Listen Fully. Practice the technique of mirroring, where you reflect back what you hear your partner saying. This allows for clarification and eliminates the trap of interpreting what they are saying based on your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
Validate. People want to be heard and understood. Show your partner that you see them, and understand their experience through their point of view.
Empathize. After hearing and validating how your partner feels based on how they interpret your actions, connect with your heart to the feeling. Feelings are one word like scared, hurt, lonely, disrespected, loved, angry, frustrated, hopeful, etc. Open up, and connect to how your partner is feeling.
Holding space in this way gives you the opportunity to respond more openly with love - a big difference from the reaction you might typically take when discussing a sensitive issue. Yes, sometimes things will get messy when communicating with your partner. It’s a part of life, and we can’t be perfect all of the time. But if the person who needs to be heard never gets to “be held”, they will lose trust in their partner. And without trust, the relationship is destined to break down.
Read More: How to Build Trust in Your Relationship
You Can Choose
When the emotional intensity goes up in your relationship, you can choose to close down or open up. And yes, it’s always a choice on how we react. It may require practice to remain open through uncomfortable feelings, but rest assured that holding space without collapsing will only create a stronger foundation on which your relationship can grow.
So, be the change. Instead of waiting for your partner to become a better communicator, you can choose to be the one who consciously shows up. When you feel emotions rising and you feel the need to defend, attack, justify, or explain yourself, STOP. Take a breath and choose to do something different. Be the leader and offer to see things from their perspective.
Yes, pulling back and seeing things from the other person's view will feel vulnerable at first, especially when you have to let go of your defenses and trust that you are safe. Once you have indeed opened your heart, validated, and empathized with your lover, you will be more able and willing to meet their needs.
As you practice holding space more often, you will decrease the emotional intensity between the two of you while also modelling what you need. You can ask for your partner to hold space for you, but if they aren’t able to (yet), still keep doing it for them. Over time, your partner will not feel as threatened and will likely start to soften and open up.
Communication is Connection
Breaking bad communication habits will do wonders for your relationship, and will actually help rebuild your connection. Start by learning to hold space for one another, and then get your free copy of How to Create Connections in Relationships.