How to handle that awkward space between empathy and advice.
What do you do with that uncomfortable space between you and someone you care about when they are going through a tough time?
It’s awkward and uncomfortable, especially when paired with a deafening silence. Most people’s default reaction is to offer advice or a feeble comment that begins with the words ‘At least’. ‘At least you still get to say goodbye, or at least you are OK’.
You and I have both been on the receiving end of an ‘At least’ comment, and it doesn’t make you feel any better.
I have learned that in those difficult situations where someone close to you is in emotional pain, all you can do is hold space for them.
What does it mean to hold space?
Recently, a close friend of mine, David, faced a situation where his father was hospitalized with an illness and decided he did not want to fight. His father refused treatment and was incredibly hostile towards his son as if taking out his circumstances on him.
My golden rule is never to offer advice unless it is requested. Fortunately, David permitted me to propose a few ideas on how to approach his father.
I suggested he offers his dad a compelling future vision and request him to be around for his grandchildren’s milestone birthdays and life events. We discussed the idea of creating a memory book to capture his father’s wisdom, life experiences and lessons. David explained that he had done all of this already. He had even bought the journal for him, which was refused.
At this point, there was only one thing I could do as a friend. Hold space for him. Holding space meant allowing him the opportunity to sit in his discomfort without judgement or trying to make him feel better.
Holding space means supporting someone through a difficult time without trying to sugar-coat the experience. The best thing you can do is have compassion, let them know you care and support them unconditionally.
Silence is often more powerful than any words could offer.
Expand the space.
Although I couldn’t do anything to help the situation with his father, I did have a way to expand his space. As a strategic intervention coach, my mind is constantly processing a situation on many levels.
I pointed out to David that this is also about his personal growth and a lesson on letting go of control. David is the quintessential A-type personality where he enjoys dominion over his world. He is the fixer and always has a solution for everything. He always makes things happen to the highest standards in a seemingly effortless way.
The universe delivers its lessons to us in unexpected and, in this case, cruel ways.
David’s father’s illness and absence of a fighting spirit were conditions he had no control over. This was his lesson on acceptance and relinquishing control. He had to stop blaming himself for his father’s choices.
When I shared this, you could see something shift inside him. I had expanded his space and perspective by creating significance out of suffering.
David now had a new focus point; instead of focusing on what he couldn’t control, he could focus on something he had influence over. That being his thoughts and perspective.
Nothing could ever soften a situation of a dying parent, but he stopped fighting his resistance to the circumstances. His mindset had shifted from forcing to acceptance, and he understood all he could do from this point was hold space for his father and make the most of the precious time left with him.
What about the relationship to self?
How can you apply these concepts to yourself? Holding and expanding space is not only about facing tough times but something you can do in any situation.
The way to develop these muscles is through stillness.
Holding space for yourself means allowing yourself to sit in the discomfort of a situation without trying to numb it, manipulate it or sugar-coat it. If you feel overwhelmed, anxiety or fearful, sit in the discomfort of these feelings and get curious.
Welcome the fear and invite it to join you and ask it what it is trying to tell you. Instead of avoiding the fear or diluting it through substances like alcohol, get to know the fear a little better.
Perhaps by holding space for the fear, you discover it is a compass and something to follow rather than avoid. Maybe it’s telling you this is a great opportunity, and the fear is really discomfort of the unknown rather than danger.
Anxiety reveals one of two things; you are either too future-focused or trying too hard to control your external circumstances. Again, hold the space and shine a flashlight on your anxiety, and you may realize you are projecting a worst-case scenario in the future and bringing it back to the present moment as if it is reality.
How can you expand your space?
Entrepreneur, Tim Ferriss says that all that stands between you and what you want is a better set of questions.
Instead of focusing on questions like ‘Why is this happening to me? or Why do I self-sabotage?’, ask yourself more empowering questions like ‘what is this here to teach me or how can I grow from this?
Like Google, your subconscious goes into overdrive to search for the answers you need.
When you can be the student of challenge rather than the victim of it and find meaning, that becomes your fuel to develop a resilient mindset.
Expansion is not about addition.
Expanding space is not always about adding but rather removing obsolete clutter that takes up unnecessary space.
Instead of looking at what you need to do or gain, how about starting with removing any outdated thoughts, beliefs and stories that no longer serve you?
Your thoughts and beliefs run your internal operating system; if you have irrelevant and outdated thoughts, it slows down the whole system, and you can’t operate at full capacity.
Your phone is one step ahead because it does automatic updates to ensure a smooth operating system. Your system is still a manual process. To expand your space and possibilities, you need to begin with removing mental clutter and deleting the thoughts and stories that keep you playing small.
Whether you are holding space for yourself or others, and you don’t know what to say or do, remember this:
Sometimes silence is the kindest gift you can give someone.
Reframe silence from being a place of helplessness but a comfortable place to offer genuine love, support and connection.
To expand space, keep it simple. Start by focusing on what you need to remove before you overcomplicate things.
“The most complicated skill is to be simple.” Anonymous
Here’s to the space of silence and stillness,