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What Does It Mean to Hold Space?

Learn the art of "holding space" for people in your life.

Key points

  • Holding space is a practice of making space for somebody else's experience and centering them.
  • To hold space, one must be fully present and create a safe environment.
  • Once the circumstances are created, holding space fosters listening and empathizing.
Pexels: fauxels
Source: Pexels: fauxels

Before becoming a therapist, I had no idea what it meant to “hold space” for somebody. I’d never heard the term. But now, the term proliferates social media and serves as the foundation of mine (and most other therapists') work. Holding space is the backbone of supportive relationships and bridges the gap between two people when one person is in distress.

What is holding space?

The term "holding space" was first popularized by Heather Plett, a writer and facilitator based in Canada. In a then-viral 2015 blog post, Plett described holding space as "being 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." Holding space refers to the act of being fully present with someone else, without judgment or distraction, so that the person can share their experiences and perspective. This looks like creating a safe, accepting environment, engaging in attentive listening, and offering non-judgmental support. Research shows that holding space can reduce stress and anxiety, enhance relationships, and improve mental health and well-being.

There are 3 main components of holding space:

  1. Be fully present without distractions. This means setting aside other tasks and distracting devices during the interaction and providing verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate listening. Being fully present does not have to mean staring at the other person, however. Two people can connect just as effectively on a walk, sitting on a bench facing the same direction, doing a task like knitting, or throwing a ball back and forth. For some, these joint or parallel tasks reduce the pressure of being vulnerable.
  2. Create a safe, accepting environment. Creating a safe, accepting environment means offering room for the person to speak freely without fear of judgment. Nobody wants to offer up their frustrations with motherhood, sexual struggles, dissatisfaction with work, or family drama if they might receive judgmental feedback, minimizing commentary, or dismissiveness in response.
  3. Listening effectively. In addition to the safe environment and full presence, holding space involves listening attentively. The listener is present for the speaker's experience, does not make the conversation about them, does not shut down difficult conversations, and does not shy away from strong feelings.
  4. Empathizing. Finally, holding space includes empathy. This means not just hearing what the other person says, but also understanding their perspective and feelings. It means noticing their tone, body language, and emotions. With empathy, you can imagine how the other person may be feeling the way they feel and can express that understanding. Empathic listening itself can have a range of benefits including improved relationships and lessened conflict (Gerdes & Segal, 2011).

At the heart of holding space is being with a person and their emotional experience without trying to fix them or their problems. The solving is in the listening. The solving is in the presence. The solving is in letting the other person know that you are there, you understand, and you aren’t going anywhere.


Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological bulletin, 98(2), 310-357.

Gerdes, K. E., & Segal, E. A. (2011). Importance of empathy for social work practice: integrating new science. Social work, 56(2), 141-148.

Plett, H. (2015, March). Hold Space: How to be there for yourself and someone else. Retrieved from

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