Charles Starrett

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Culture consultant & social tech teacher/facilitator at SoulCo & Northeastern University. He/Him. Dad, Harvard and NEC alum, visual thinker, dabbler in ukulele, electronic music, 한국어, and TTRPGs.

Holding space vs. holding your tongue

Growing up everyone thought I was a great listener. I really wasn’t.

As the youngest child (by a significant margin), I learned that it was easier to keep quiet than to try to break into the verbal melee to be heard. So I retreated into my own thoughts — an imaginary world in my head where I felt more free than my body did being stuck at the dinner table with a bunch of people talking.

Later, I began learning how to listen in a way that contributes to dialogue. Supporting those who are speaking to hear themselves and each other in a way that inspires new insights. Insights that didn’t come from anyone there, but came from everybody there and the environment we created together. Insights that came out of the space between all of us.

This is one way to understand “holding space.”

If I hold my tongue, I’m simply not talking. In my mind I could be drafting an email, planning my dinner, or fantasizing about the weekend. If I’m holding space, then my full attention is on the dialogue, as well as the thoughts and feelings the dialogue may be bringing up in me. The only focus of my attention is on what I am noticing right here and right now. I’m not thinking about the past or the future. I’m not even thinking about what I could say. I am simply paying attention to what is being said, and not said, in this moment.

I want to add two more points:

One, this takes practice. After years of “spacing out,” I am still learning how to keep my attention focused in this way. The only way I’ve been able to stick with it is to be kind to myself when I notice that my attention drifted and simply start paying attention again without blaming or shaming myself for the lapse of focus.

Two, holding space is an experience which is difficult to describe. To be honest, I’m not completely satisfied with my description here, but I wanted to give it a try.

Have you experienced “holding space” yourself, or felt it when you were in space that was held well? How would you describe it? I’d love to hear!

2 July 2022

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