"Holding space" is something that’s much needed in business but, despite this catchy phrase being widely mentioned in recent weeks, the term itself seems too abstract to be helpful.
Just close your eyes for a moment and try to visualise someone ‘holding space’. See what I mean? It’s too intangible, too difficult to visualise. And therein lies the problem. When we can’t clearly see something, it makes taking steps to deliver it less likely.
That’s a real shame because, right now, driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, business professionals are acutely attuned to diversity and inclusion and asking what it is they can do to make a positive difference. And, a common response I’m hearing is that professionals should ‘hold space’. While that is absolutely what’s needed, what seems to be lacking is guidance about what ‘holding space’ involves, how you do it and why it’s important. Those are questions I hope to answer in this article.
What does ‘holding space’ involve?
For me, it involves creating the conditions for inclusive conversations – always – regardless of who is participating and what is being discussed.
And recognising that you may have a diverse team, but that diversity does not guarantee inclusion.
As Vernā Myers, Vice President, Inclusion Strategy at Netflix beautifully articulates:
‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.’
Inclusion is what lies at the heart of ‘holding space’. It’s about creating an environment in which everyone can speak up and be heard. By doing this you are telling others: ‘You have a voice and your voice has value to me, to this team, to this business’.
”Holding space’ is all about communicating inclusively - in ways that encourage people to speak up, share their unique perspectives and, in the process, create better solutions and a strong sense of wellbeing and belonging.”
Three practical steps you can take to ‘hold space’ for others
If you are convening or chairing a meeting, lay down some ground rules at the outset. For example, agree how you will handle who speaks when and how you will share the air time. Just talking about this upfront is powerful because it gets people thinking about their habits not least how much air time they tend to take up. It also gives those less inclined to speak an invitation to speak more, enabling people to work together so everyone has a chance to say what they want to.
This next thing is perhaps easier in theory than it is in practice: avoid the habit of finishing other people’s sentences. It’s a common speech habit and happens for a variety of reasons – sometimes because we feel excited; sometimes because we feel impatient; sometimes because we think we know better… Whatever the reason, if you want to encourage others to speak up, hearing them out is a very effective way of showing respect. You are ‘holding space’ for them to finish their own sentences.
Of course, when you finish someone’s sentence what you are actually doing is interrupting them. But interruption goes beyond finishing sentences. It extends to cutting in, changing the subject, or reactively voicing your concerns to something (you may think) you are hearing. Interrupting is often about loud voices and authority trumping good ideas and collaboration.
There is a wealth of evidence that shows women are interrupted far more often than men. There is even the #WomanInterruptedApp that will listen into conversations and identify how often a woman is interrupted. Which reminds me, I will write a future post about how to manage interruptions.
There may be times when there’s a genuine need politely and firmly to interrupt someone. An example (as outlined in point 1) is if they are hogging the air time. But, if you want to encourage others to speak up, being mindful of who and how often you interrupt is another way of showing deep respect for people, which makes them feel valued.
The benefits of ‘holding space’ for others
In the same way that we all have a unique thumb print, we all have a unique voice - literally and metaphorically. ‘Holding space’ is about enabling inclusive communications to flourish, encouraging everyone to speak up and offering the opportunity to hear another’s unique world view.
When we assume everyone sees things from the same perspective, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to deepen our understanding, forge stronger relationships and create better outcomes and solutions.
As this research shows, the more perspectives we have, the more informed we are and the better our decision-making. And, in the same way Patrick Lencioni speaks about trust, the more perspectives we have, the more we understand where disagreement lies and the better we can deal with it constructively. Doing so leads to better accountability, which in turn leads to better results.
Other research shows that inviting and appreciating other’s contributions creates a sense of psychological safety and improves productivity, profitability, innovation, work satisfaction and employee engagement and retention. When we make every effort to see, hear and acknowledge people, perhaps unsurprisingly, they feel valued and that makes them far more likely to stick around.
Everybody has the right to speak up. Everybody has the right to be heard. And that speaks directly to equality. #BlackLivesMatter for me feels like a seminal moment. It illustrates the power of using your voice and having it heard. But the movement has also served to spark welcome new conversations about diversity and inclusion beyond the corporate arena.
Every professional, every day, has the opportunity to create a working environment that celebrates diversity, invites inclusion and allows everyone to contribute and make a meaningful difference.
As Daniel Danso, Global Diversity Manager at Linklaters rightly reminds us:
“The most powerful message of inclusion comes from those not part of the group they champion.”
Giving people the confidence to speak up, listening to them and valuing their unique perspectives and contributions by ‘holding space’ might just be one of the most powerful ways we have to break down the barriers to a more inclusive workplace – a workplace in which people flourish.
Read more about my Vocal and Executive Presence workshop for teams.