I’m always happy to learn something new when it relates to the topics which interest me and even more so when it is something which I should have run across long ago. During an event this week, a participant shared that their secret facilitation power is holding space for the participants. I must have been living under a rock for the past three decades as I’d never heard of this term even though it is a core component of the Open Space approach which has had significant influence in the broader agile community.
When holding space was first described to me, it sounded almost identical to creating psychological safety within a team but after reading further I feel that there is an overlap between the two approaches rather than an equivalency.
While there is no single accepted definition for holding space, here are two frequently referenced ones which helped me better understand the concept:
- Heather Plett: “It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.“
- Adam Brady: “Holding space is a conscious act of being present, open, allowing, and protective of what another needs in each moment.“
What are some of the similarities between the two concepts?
- Not judging or ridiculing others
- Providing an environment where people feel safe to take risks even though they know that there is a chance that they might fail
- Enabling team members to express vulnerability or to allow their emotions to surface
- Being inclusive of others’ diversity of opinion
- Giving others the respect of our full attention when they are communicating
- Demonstrating genuine compassion with others
But there appear to be a few differences too, including:
- Holding space applies applies to oneself as much as it can be applied to a team as it is difficult to hold space for others if we haven’t done the same for ourselves. Psychological safety is normally considered as a team characteristic.
- When we are part of teams which are operating at higher levels of psychologically safety we are more likely to provide candid constructive feedback to other team members in a timely, direct but empathetic manner. This does not appear to be explicitly covered within holding space.
- In “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide“, Harrison Owen writes “As the world would see it, the ultimate facilitator will do nothing and remain invisible“. Ego is taken out of the equation. While this is important when one facilitates an event, psychological safety doesn’t require that team members bury their egos, just that they should be mindful of them when they interact with one other.
Our abilities to hold space and to create psychologically safe environments are complementary but are both equally critical to becoming effective leaders.