Mindfully Holding Space

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I’ve been “holding space” (creating environments where clients can feel safe and supported while resolving important issues) for as long as I can remember. Recently, I realized that I couldn’t adequately explain to myself, much less to anyone else, how I went about holding space. I decided to look at my own experience, as well as that of other practitioners, to more clearly understand what was important for me about this activity. I am sharing the results in this eBook.

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Mindfully Holding Space

  1. 1. 1 Mindfully Holding Space One Way to Cultivate Character and Presence Daryl Conner, Founder and Chairman, Conner Partners “However we do it, when we hold space for someone in need, we are offering a gift of the highest nature.” — Daily OM
  2. 2. 2© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Cover Photo Source: “Cracked Nails” ©Bob Jenkins, reproduced under the Creative Commons license at Wikimedia Commons.
  3. 3. 3© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Table of Contents page page page page page page page Shapingthecontainer Sustainingthecontainer Summaryofmindfully heldspace Let’sfocusonthe practitionerholdingthe space. Epilogue Introduction What is “mindfully held space?” 04 09 22 36 42 46 53
  4. 4. Introduction A small inquiry led to big discoveries. 5 Character and presence are encountered through struggle. 6 Struggle is the doorway to holding space. 7 A Few Qualifiers 8
  5. 5. 5© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Asmall inquiry led to big discoveries. “Holding space for clients”—What does this phrase mean? How do we as change practitioners go about doing it? These were the questions that sent me on what turned out to be an unexpected journey of discovery. What I originally thought would be a topic worthy of a little inquiry ultimately became an extended exploration that revealed far more about the subject and about myself than I anticipated. The results of this examination are shared in the following pages. .
  6. 6. 6© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Character and presence are encountered through struggle. Well-constructed methodologies can impress a client’s intellect, but it takes a strong character and a trusting presence to speak to someone’s heart. Your true nature is synonymous with who you are. It has an epicenter called your character, which is conveyed to clients through the presence you cast.1 It is by way of the inherent character and the presence we emit that we are able to invoke the kind of impact we strive for with those we serve. Is focusing on character and presence, however, all about our own personal and professional development? I hope not. In my view, the primary purpose of our own character/presence growth is to prepare ourselves to foster the same kind of expansion in others2. In this respect, supporting clients as they engage in character and presence work for themselves is a critical part of evolving our own development in these areas. As I have come to understand holding space, it is, at its core, about how we “show up” for each other. It is about character and presence—of the person for whom we are holding space, and our own as we prepare and hold space for another. For that reason, while this document is about mindfully holding space, it is important to begin by addressing these two terms. Character and presence are pervasive in everyone’s lives—always there whether we are attentive to them or not. There are certain times, however, when they are more visible if we care to pay attention—when people are wrestling with a decision, fretting about how to respond to something with important consequences, or on the cusp of a major breakthrough of some kind that isn’t unfolding easily. This is when the core of who we are and the way we convey that core to others can be most easily seen. Whether struggling to solve a problem or to exploit an opportunity, it is through life’s trials that we encounter our character and presence most vividly. 1 See my blog post Love the Music You Play from the Character and Presence series to learn more. 2 “Others” can be clients, colleagues, or anyone else for that matter.
  7. 7. 7© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Struggle is the doorway to holding space. Struggle is the catalyst that reveals our progress (or lack thereof) as change practitioners on the journey toward character and presence development. The struggles among our clients, as well as our own struggles as we strive to serve them, open the doorway for cultivating who we are. When we help clients deal with their struggles, we come face to face with our own. Clients struggle for many reasons. Here are a few examples: • To see their circumstances through fresh perspectives • To identify new possibilities to pursue • To investigate the implications of certain alternatives • To finalize which course of action would be best to follow Any time client indecision in matters such as these jeopardize realization of desired change, we have a responsibility as practitioners to respond in whatever ways we think will best fit the circumstances. Sometimes this means we need to focus on education; sometimes it calls for being more directive in the guidance we offer. Then there are times when the proper intervention is to help the client make an informed decision about how to proceed. This paper is about this last kind of practitioner intercession— mindfully holding space for clients. When we help clients deal with their struggles, we come face to face with our own.
  8. 8. 8© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space AFew Qualifiers This document is the result of eighteen months of scrutinizing my own experiences when holding space, drawing lessons from those I think are exceptionally good at it, interviewing various practitioners about the subject, searching for references in related literature, and observing other practitioners as they go about applying it. It is intended for seasoned change practitioners, most of whom are familiar with the concept, if not the practice, of holding space. With this in mind, my views are meant to describe one way to approach holding space; not the only way. There is no attempt here at a conclusive statement of what holding space is, or a summary of others’ thinking. This document comes from my own effort to better understand how this way of supporting clients unfolds for me. Holding space is an enigmatic phenomenon within which I am trying to identify recognizable patterns and a replicable sequence. While I have attempted to be as precise as I can about what the experience means for me, in no way have I fully captured its essence or “cracked the code.” In fact, writing this paper has led me deeper into the inquiry, rather than closer to closure. This writing reflects my thoughts on the subject, but I’m not sharing it as a model to be adopted as much as an example of what can be learned when we explore how we each engage holding space. Ultimately, my aim is to encourage you to initiate your own exploratory journey. I believe as change practitioners we owe it to ourselves and our clients to uncover what we want to keep front and center in our respective holding-space processes. This is a powerful way to support those we serve and it calls on us to utilize it with care and attention.
  9. 9. What is “mindfully held space”? It’s not about holding space from a distance. 10 Mindfully holding space is about close, active involvement. 11 A Definition of Mindfully Held Space 12 Held space is unique. 13 Held space is a non-physical reality. 13 Held space is filled with possibilities. 13 Held space is for resolving struggles. 14 Held space has a singular focus. 15 Held space resides within a container. 16 Mindfully holding space is a rare honor. 17 Influence occurs indirectly. 18 We are not holding space itself. 19 Held space is amenable to influence. 20 There are two windows of influence: shaping and maintaining the container. 21
  10. 10. 10© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space It’s not about holding space from a distance. If holding space is generally about helping people feel cared for and encouraged while they address their struggles, there are all kinds of ways to do this. Here are a few examples: • Praying on someone’s behalf • Meditating on a constructive outcome • Wishing someone well who is going through a tough time • Conveying empathy for the situation • Sending positive thoughts/intentions • Envisioning a positive result • Caring for someone without imposing, or even suggesting, a solution to the situation While these are excellent expressions of support and each can be a source of reassurance that helps people search for their missing resolution, all share a kind of distancing from the person for whom the space is being held. I’m not referring to emotional or physical separation—some of the bulleted items could be expressions of deep care conveyed through email or a phone call. What I’m pointing to is an “interactive” distancing, meaning these are all forms of space-holding that require little if any ongoing presence and dialogue. They are ways to be caring and hopeful for a positive outcome without much extended, direct involvement. This kind of support can be thought of as holding space for the client to work in, not space the practitioner and client jointly occupy as the work is done. Keeping somewhat distant from the person being cared for or the situation being faced is not inherently wrong or inappropriate. Many times that is exactly the correct thing to do. There is nothing unsuitable about this “one- step-removed” approach; it is just different from the kind of space-holding I’m about to describe. Mindful space-holding is the focus of this document, and calls for a near-at-hand, more engaged type of involvement.
  11. 11. 11© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Mindfully holding space is about close, active involvement. As my understanding began to emerge about what holding space meant for me, I realized the importance I placed on being focused and intentional about it. As a result, I’ve labeled the approach that works best for me as “mindfully holding space.” My investigation of this subject has led me to see “space” as representing a set of conditions intentionally promoted by a change practitioner in support of a client who is facing a challenging situation. The purpose of this kind of space is to provide the client with a safe learning environment in which to examine presenting circumstances and potential responses without the pressures and impediments that typically exist when these kinds of explorations take place. Not everything we do as change facilitators requires this kind of intense focus, but when it is called for, it is essential that we have the capacity to narrow our attention to the one person/thing in front of us. This allows us to work with the uniqueness of each situation rather than react out of unconscious conditioning without giving proper thought to our response, or blindly applying concepts or models that may not be appropriate or effective for the circumstances. The essential qualifier is that this is a description of “mindfully” held space.
  12. 12. 12© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space ADefinition of Mindfully Held Space Space: a unique, non-physical reality filled with possibilities for resolving struggles that reflect a singular focus and reside within a container amenable to influence. Unique: The space is a field of potential specifically formulated to help one individual address a particular struggle. Non-Physical Reality: The space in question is intangible, but its existence is verifiable and its impact demonstrable. Filled with Possibilities: What is being kept in safekeeping is a field of unrealized outcomes with varying degrees of achievability that can be explored and ultimately an informed decision made about how to proceed. Resolving Struggles: The objective is to determine the best course(s) that would be true to who the client is and to take action. Reflects a Singular Focus: The inquiry is confined to what is compatible with what the space allows for—the possibilities that naturally appear, given how the space is constituted. Resides Within a Container: We don’t actually “hold” space as much as we build and maintain a virtual vessel where space resides that is ideal for harvesting and processing possibilities. Amenable to Influence: By orchestrating certain components, it is possible to increase the likelihood the container will provide optimum conditions for the proper space to emerge.
  13. 13. 13© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Held space is… Unique Space isn’t a generic structure that can be uniformly applied to anyone or even across similar situations. It is a field of potential expressly formulated for a single individual facing a particular struggle. The space you create for a client who is facing a specific situation is unique to you, the client, and the situation. A Non-Physical Reality The space I’m describing can’t be touched or seen, yet its existence is discernable and its impact confirmable. The notion of holding space for someone is figurative in that both “space” and “holding” are aspects of genuine experiences, but not ones that are responsive to the laws of physics. The space is intangible and the holding symbolic, but the act itself can be as influential to someone’s life as any material entity encountered. FilledWith Possibilities The defining characteristic of space being mindfully held for someone is its potential. A field of unrealized outcomes with varying degrees of achievability is being kept safe. Some of these possibilities are known from the beginning of an inquiry or are quickly identified, while others only become recognizable as a byproduct of a more extended exploration process. The primary purpose of holding space is to provide an environment where clients can expand their current understanding of the struggle they find themselves in and explore what options are available. Two of the most important ways to help a person open himself or herself to these kinds of new perspectives are trust and creativity. Trust allows the client to lower his or her guard, thus opening the gates to creative considerations.
  14. 14. 14© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Held space is for resolving struggles. There are four aspects to resolving struggles. 1. Clients sometimes have to work just as hard to come to terms with positive events as they do adjusting to changes they would rather avoid. A client’s struggle can be thought of as centering on one or a combination of “core issues”: opportunities, problems, and dilemmas. • Opportunities are positively perceived circumstances that allow an advantage to emerge if the situation is dealt with appropriately. – Desired outcome: Determine ways to exploit them. • Problems are negatively perceived circumstances that are solvable if the correct remedy is applied. – Desired outcome: Identify solutions to fix them. • Dilemmas are formed when two or more apparently conflicting forces or priorities are inherent in the fundamental nature of the situation. – Desired outcome: Develop strategies to live with them. 2. Mindfully held space does more than simply lessen or remove the tension or anxiety that has built up because of a struggle; it allows the client to reach resolution—determine the best course(s) that would be true to who he or she is, and take action. 3. The kind of space I’m describing is held in order to provide a safe, exploratory environment for clients to address significant struggles— unanswered questions that have a material bearing on the outcome of change endeavors crucial to an organization’s future. 4. Finally, resolution should come from an informed decision. Regardless of what kind of determination is sought, the space I’m portraying is reserved for answers that can be discovered and studied, not for specific outcomes being advocated from the beginning. When space is properly held, neither the practitioner nor the client initially know what will materialize as a resolution, so it is important that both surrender any preferred solutions and avoid trying to coax things toward a prearranged completion. It may be difficult for clients to let go of their pre-existing bias about what to do, but it is imperative that the practitioner do so.
  15. 15. 15© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Held space has a singular focus. Space held for someone is fertile soil to surface options for resolving core issues, but not just any alternative will do. This kind of space operates like a bubble of potential that has a clearly defined outer parameter so there is focus to the alternatives that materialize. Within the limits of the bubble , there is freedom to delve into any consideration that crops up, but the inquiry is confined to what is compatible with what the space allows for—the possibilities that naturally appear, given how the space is constituted. Which brings us to the question, “How does space come into existence?” As I have come to understand it, space is organized around the interaction of certain “components” that will be discussed in more detail later. For now, I’ll just say that these components resonate with and/or recoil from each other in all kinds of ways that have a direct bearing on how successful holding space for someone can be. The ways these components relate to each other are endless, but at a certain point, a distinct pattern forms. When this happens, space becomes particularized—a one-of-a-kind energetic field takes shape that is unlike any other. Once the components become organized into a specific pattern, a unique force field is set in motion; the possibilities available for that particular configuration are locked in. Alternatives for exploring how to respond to the presenting core issue (problem, opportunity, or dilemma), may emerge all at once or surface over time, but whatever possibilities exist for that precise space are in place as soon as the force field is solidified. As the space becomes defined, more options can be revealed, but they aren’t being created. Additional options are brought to light, not conceived. Space doesn’t unfold with new possibilities; our understanding unfolds to the possibilities that exist within the space provided. A practical application of this singular focus comes to light when it is recognized that there is no guarantee the space that has been generated for a client will necessarily give rise to a suitable resolution. When held space appears unproductive, it becomes a judgment call as to how long to persevere with examining the alternatives that have surfaced or search for new ones. It may be necessary to reconfigure the components (thus creating new space) rather than continue to hunt for more options within the space as it is currently composed.
  16. 16. 16© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Held space resides within a container. I’m using “container” as a metaphor for the environment practitioners strive to create so space can emerge where clients can deal with their problems, opportunities, or dilemmas under the most advantageous conditions feasible. Clients grappling with critical struggles have few places to go that afford them a neutral but supportive setting (i.e., free from the pressure of people pushing their own agendas). What they need is a learning laboratory where they can sift through alternatives and come to a conclusion about the best path forward. They need the right space where this can happen. When containers are properly constituted, they generate space that clients can use to “learn” their way from feeling trapped and immobilized into being galvanized and activated.
  17. 17. 17© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Mindfully holding space for someone is a rare honor. As central as space is to the holding process, influencing it can only be approached indirectly. As I’m using the term here, space is considered hallowed ground—not with any religious connotation, but in that its purpose is to provide a critical ingredient to the resolution of core issues important to clients. Mindfully holding space for someone is treasured for the same reason that is true for any delving into the depths of the human experience. When the pursuit is for something both fathomable and mysterious, it is worthy of being approached reverentially. Down through the ages, whether the calling has been as an astrophysicist, neurobiologist, physician, psychologist, shaman, or holy leader, most who gain mastery in these fields display a passion for what can be discovered, understood, and acted upon, as well as what they remain in awe of—the unknowns that forever surface on the horizon. They seek to learn everything they can, while respecting that there will always be dynamics in play that are beyond their comprehension. The same applies to us as change practitioners. Mindfully holding space should be approached with respect that reflects a sense of responsibility for what can be intentionally done to foster a helpful environment, as well as a deep wonderment and humility for what is not within our control. “Not within our control,” however doesn’t mean we can’t still be instrumental. There are times when holding space is beneficial and we appear to have had nothing to do with why. Then there are times when it seems our actions somehow contributed to a positive outcome but we can’t honestly take credit for what happened. In these circumstances, it might feel like we are more of an instrument through which a force is moving than we are the executor of calculated actions.
  18. 18. 18© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Influence that takes place within the space occurs indirectly. A key acknowledgement of this lack of control comes when we face the reality that any influence that takes place with the space itself occurs indirectly: • There is a distinction between space and container that is important to recognize; if we don’t know what we are actually “holding,” it’s unlikely we’ll be very effective at it. Space is what the container provides room for. Water doesn’t go into a bottle, it goes into the space a bottle makes available by virtue of its design. In the same respect, the possibilities to be explored related to the client’s problem, opportunity, or dilemma don’t materialize inside the container—they emerge in the space the container furnishes. Like Russian Matryoshka dolls, possibilities are nestled within space that is embedded within a container crafted by the practitioner. • The space in question here represents a “non-physical reality,” which means it exists, but not in a way that can be put on a scale and weighed. Therefore, we don’t actually “hold” space as much as we formulate and maintain a virtual container where space resides. We can directly influence only what we can understand. What we can, therefore, intentionally influence is the container where space emerges, not the space itself where critical learning actually takes place. When we hold space for someone, we are essentially creating the best possible conditions (the container) where space can develop and thrive. In this sense, containers are the birthplace for space—they are the context from which space derives. • All this means that when practitioners nurture and protect space for clients, they do so a step removed from having direct access—they don’t have any real control over the situation. – As is true for many things in life that are highly prized, practitioners perform their role not by legislating what they want, but by cultivating the surroundings so that whatever clients are striving for has the best chance of manifesting. – Like gardeners tilling the soil, practitioners expend great effort and do all they can, but ultimately, whether the seeds actually bloom (productive space forms) is out of their hands.
  19. 19. 19© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space We are not holding space itself. • As change practitioners, we should be as precise as possible about the meaning we place on the terminology we use. We are not holding the space itself; we are holding (forming and guarding) the vessel space occupies. • A container is defined by the learning environment it fosters and space is defined by the container in which it resides. To impact space, practitioners must affect the surrounding container. The space that emerges is where the actual learning takes place (options found/examined and decisions made) and the surrounding environment (container) is filled with components that either promote or impede that learning. • Some containers create space favorable to this type of learning (by promoting a spirit of inquiry and examination, etc.), while others constrain such exploration (by providing all the answers or an environment that squelches exploration, etc.). At the end of the day, the practitioner’s role is to foster a container hospitable to space forming where possibilities can surface, be explored, and, eventually, an informed decision made about what course to follow.
  20. 20. 20© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Held space is amenable to influence. Creating an environment with the right mix of conditions to optimize learning is not something that can be dictated. We can increase the likelihood that space like this materializes, but thinking it is possible to regulate all the variables in a mechanistic manner would show a gross lack of appreciation for the complexities involved and the mysteries beyond our grasp. The logical side of creating space lies within what we know and can do something about; the non-linear facets exist on the margin where knowledge and skill must give way to humility and intuition. This document is an attempt to describe some of the variables we can understand and try to influence, while acknowledging what we can witness but never bridle. There will always be twists to the way space develops and operates that are beyond our cognitive comprehension. For these, our charge is to honor what astonishes and eludes us and rely on our senses and inclinations for guidance. That said, there are certain “components” that are understandable and which have a bearing on the kind of space that forms. By orchestrating them in certain ways, it is possible to increase the likelihood that containers will stimulate space that surfaces possibilities, enhances exploration, and encourages decision making. Direct force can be successfully applied under circumstances where the variables are few and control is high. Such is not the case with mindfully holding space, where there are countless variables and a distinct lack of full control. Under these conditions, rather than interceding on the space itself, indirect influence is employed by focusing on the container where space resides.
  21. 21. 21© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space The practitioner has two windows of influence. The space being held for someone must first be created and then protected. This is accomplished indirectly by influencing the environment (container) where space emerges. In this regard, practitioners have both shaping and sustaining responsibilities: • Shaping is about using certain components to establish a container that is conducive to space unfolding, where options for addressing the core issue can be identified, investigated, and ultimately conclusions can be reached about the best path forward. • Sustaining is about protecting the integrity of space (once formed) from the inevitable stresses and strains that take place as clients wrestle with their core issues. This is done by reframing and reconfiguring the container components. Common to both sets of activities is the use of four components (struggle, intent, relationship, and attributes) that, when orchestrated properly, allow indirect influence on space. How containers are shaped and sustained is described in more detail in the following two sections.
  22. 22. Shaping the Container The first window of influence is to shape the container using four components. 23 1. There must be struggle to justify holding space. 24 Whenever possible, have the client define the struggle. 25 2. What outcome does the client want? 26 Client due-diligence is important. 27 3. What is the client’s relationship to the intent? 28 4. Be careful to identify the right attributes. 29 When selecting the attributes, focus on outcomes. 30 Consider specialized, as well as universal, attributes. 31 Your character and presence are critical attributes to shaping the container. 32 A holistic view of the components is essential. 33 Review: Shaping the container. 34 Space is formed within the container. 35
  23. 23. 23© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space The first window of influence is shaping the container using four components. The initial juncture where indirect influence can have an impact on space is when the practitioner leverages certain shaping components to urge a container to develop in particular ways—like splicing in a genetic code to increase the chances specific characteristics will materialize. Selecting and embedding the right shaping components has a significant bearing on how a container matures, the kind of space that opens up within it, the sort of possibilities that come forward, and, ultimately, on the decisions made. Four components can help shape a container: struggle, intent, relationship, and attributes.
  24. 24. 24© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space There must be a struggle to justify holding space. Struggle is the reason space is necessary. The need for holding space centers on struggle in two respects: 1. Practitioners are in service to people laboring over how to address a crucial core issue (opportunity, problem, or dilemma) they are facing that has a material bearing on change. Whatever the nature of the circumstances, the stakes are high for the client, and determining what to do isn’t easy. He or she is stuck, lost, scared, baffled, frustrated, conflicted, or burdened somehow by the predicament and the accompanying indecision. Mindfully holding space for someone is a resource-consuming activity, and if the client isn’t struggling with what action to take, it is hard to justify the outlay of time and effort required. (Some of the less intense ways of holding space identified on page 10 may be more appropriate.) To engage the process, I believe the implications being faced should be seen by the client as critical in some way to key change initiatives unfolding within his or her organization. The presenting situation may be about a wonderful prospect, a devastating concern, or a perplexing quandary, but to warrant the effort required to mindfully hold space: • the path to resolution should be unclear to the client, • the resulting indecision should generate some level of stress/anxiety for him or her, and • the resulting inaction should constitute a risk to an important change initiative reaching full realization. When these things are true, struggle is an inherent part of why space needs to be held in the first place.
  25. 25. 25© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Whenever possible, have the client define the struggle. 2. Struggle is crucial to mindfully holding space because the client and practitioner must remain clear about the purpose for all the effort being expended. The holding process can become complicated by many factors and extend over long periods of time so it is vital that both stay focused on what is being resolved and why. When possible, formulating a container should begin with the client defining the struggle in which he or she is caught. It is not unusual for people to feel immobilized by something and yet not be able or willing to definitively declare what the turmoil is about. Maybe they can describe in a general way what they are encountering (“I’m in a catch-22 about how to approach the sponsor with this information”), but actually labeling it for what it is doesn’t come easily. (“When I’m around her I lose my courage if she doesn’t like what I have to say and I back down from being as straightforward with her as I need to be.”) The opening activity when forming a container is to see if clients can identify the nature of the core issue that has snared them. Sometimes, this is all a person needs to unlock himself or herself. Accurately classifying the opportunity, problem, or dilemma and then delving into what it centers on can at times break open the logjam and move the person quickly to a resolution on his or her own without any additional assistance. Other times, this first move merely lays out a “what is the struggle about?” foundation for the rest of the container shaping and space development to come. There are those situations where the client is not able, for whatever reason, to articulate what the struggle is about. This is when the container must first focus on providing space for identifying the struggle before anything else can be addressed. (I will discuss more on how to deal with this later.)
  26. 26. 26© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space What outcome does the client want? The next component used for shaping a container involves the client’s declaration of his or her preferred outcome. The person for whom the space is being held is struggling with one or more unresolved problems, unexploited opportunities, and/or inhibiting dilemmas. Forging a container to optimally benefit the client requires not only an accurate labeling of the struggle, but also a corresponding expression of the desired result that is: • clear—using explicit language, • complete—providing a full understanding of what is being sought and why, and • concise—being succinct enough that the practitioner and client can easily remember and refer to the essence of the hoped-for completion. It might appear that properly stating a desired outcome to the client’s core issue is obvious and no big deal, but it often represents a major obstacle to successfully holding space. Many clients think in terms of vague generalities when considering what they want, and are either reluctant to be forthright about their true aspirations, or their responses are not carefully thought through and/or are poorly expressed. To make matters worse, many practitioners accept this lack of specificity without question, never asking precisely what the client wants the solution to look like. If clients, for whatever reason, fail to declare their preferred results, practitioners can only speculate what they might be. This can lead to a practitioner forming a container calibrated for what he or she assumed to be true or mistakenly guessed is the intended outcome, and the space that opens up generates possibilities off-center from what the client actually desires.
  27. 27. 27© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Client due-diligence is important. The quality of a client’s intent declaration can range from comprehensive and crisp to partial and rambling (and all the variations in between). It is incumbent on the practitioner to stress the importance of the client engaging the necessary personal due-diligence to create a well-thought-out intent acknowledgement. As this takes place, the practitioner’s role is not to advocate for any particular intent, but to facilitate the process as the client works toward articulating a clear, complete, and concise assertion. As was true earlier for struggle, simply helping clients properly identify what they really want as an outcome can be a significant intervention. Sometimes, with a solid grasp of what a person genuinely hopes to accomplish, he or she can move on without any further support. In other situations, spelling out the struggle and intent are essential early steps to advancing the process of shaping a container for space to reside in.
  28. 28. 28© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space What is the client’s relationship to the intent? In order to shape a container that optimizes learning, clients need to properly label their struggle; be clear, complete, and concise about their intent; and then declare how they relate to the intended result. Three perspectives help determine how a client connects with his or her desired outcome: • Amount of shift—the magnitude of impact anticipated by realizing the intent (scale) • Degree of fulfillment—the extent to which aspects of the desired resolution need to be fully accomplished (comprehensiveness) • Level of resolve—the intensity of the implications if the hoped-for outcome is not realized (criticality) Using these perspectives, a client can declare how he or she relates to the stated intent by answering three questions: • Scale—Does accomplishing the desired result represent a modest or dramatic shift from the path you are on now? • Comprehensiveness—Is it necessary to realize the full extent of your aspiration or is it acceptable to meet only some of the goals? • Criticality—Do you consider the hoped-for outcome to be worth pursuing, but not an imperative, or do you see it as a vital, non-negotiable necessity that absolutely must be accomplished? It is important for the practitioner to remember that he or she isn’t there to sway the client’s answers in any way. Effective practitioners aren’t invested in how the client relates to the intent; they are focused on ensuring the relationship is clearly articulated so they can both work within that framework. With a reading on how a client relates to his or her intent, containers can be shaped to reflect that mindset. Some containers need to be designed to facilitate transformational moves that must be fully realized to avoid unacceptable consequences. Others are framed to support incremental shifts that can be installed if necessary and reflect the client’s preference, but not adamant requirement, for a particular outcome.
  29. 29. 29© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Be careful to identify the right attributes. In order to encourage the right kind of space to emerge later, it is important to choose carefully the characteristics that will help shape a container well- suited for a particular client’s struggle. A key variable in whether a container gives rise to productive space is how the client feels during the holding process. Attributes are the words, actions, and/or presence practitioners infuse into a container’s atmosphere (e.g., provide positive feedback, create a sense of safety). Their purpose is to help clients feel certain ways (e.g., confident he or she is capable of addressing the problem, resolved to sustain the inquiry even when obstacles surface). With attributes, the way the practitioner goes about influencing the container’s formation is different from when he or she is dealing with the other three shaping components. When focused on struggle, intent, and relationship, the agenda is primarily about extracting information and perspectives from the client and helping both the client and practitioner remain mindful of them during interactions. With attributes, the practitioner is trying to ensure the right mix of factors are in place so the container nurtures space that will facilitate the client’s learning. This fourth shaping component represents an important swing in concentration from the “content” of information (struggle, intent, and relationship) to the “context” in which that information is processed (attributes crucial to heightened learning).
  30. 30. 30© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space When selecting the attributes, focus on outcomes. Practitioners can choose among many attributes when searching for the right combination to embed in a container. The key to attribute selection is to first focus on outcomes—the way you hope a client feels as a result of the attribute’s influence. Here are some examples of how you might want a client to feel: • Dissatisfied with their status quo • Neither judged nor criticized • Accepted and cared for • Pensive and self-reflective • Curious and open to experimentation • Challenged but safe • Vulnerable but protected • Assisted but accountable • Somber but hopeful • Stretched but whole • Prudent but courageous • Unsure but tenacious • Careful but open to examining the unfamiliar • Respectful of what has worked but eager to learn what is new • Open to new possibilities These are attribute outcomes that promote the kind of interaction between client and practitioner that generally advances learning. Though all are useful, there are likely certain combinations that are ideal for a particular person and his or her struggle. Rather than trying to employ all of them, it is best to focus on the critical few that will have the most impact on properly shaping the container for a specific client’s needs.
  31. 31. 31© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Consider specialized, as well as universal, attributes. Once you determine how you hope the client feels during space-holding interactions, you can consider what attributes (words, actions, and presence) might engender those feelings. For example, what style of communication or level of explicit feedback might contribute to a client feeling challenged, but safe; or somber, but hopeful. These are referred to as “universal attributes” because they almost always contribute in positive ways to container building—it’s just a matter of selecting which ones are most beneficial to a distinct situation. Other “specialized attributes” are more tailored to a particular person and his or her circumstance. That is, certain ones may or may not be helpful, depending on the situation. For example, practitioners sometimes choose between very different attribute options to establish the optimum learning environment. Based on how they hope the client feels during their exchanges, they might decide between any of the following: • Providing information and cognitive input, or depending more on discussing experiences and lessons learned • Engaging in cutting to the chase, or demonstrating unending patience and compassion • Coming forward with gentle observations, or applying explicit “tough love” feedback • Allowing the person some time alone to think things through, or engaging him or her in challenging dialogue • Beginning conversations with blank-slate starting points, or with a POV that serves as a straw man • Approaching him or her with probing questions, or jointly developing alternative scenarios • Using metaphors and stories, or relying more on concepts and analysis
  32. 32. 32© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Your character and your presence are also critical attributes to shaping the container. Whether drawing on universal and/or specialized characteristics, practitioners can affect how a container develops by purposefully employing certain attributes that foster clients feeling in ways that aid their learning. Being attentive to how language choices and behaviors influence container shaping is certainly important, but more than anything else, the greatest impact results from the presence the practitioner conveys. More than what they say or do, it’s how practitioners show up—the way they project who they are—that facilitates or inhibits containers manifesting a learning-rich environment. Character reflects the essence of who we really are. It is what is left after all the illusions, evasions, and elaborations are stripped away. As such, it is an internal phenomenon, not fully accessible to anyone but ourselves. Our interior character needs a “voice” to be expressed to the exterior world. Think of the presence we extend to others as that voice. It’s like a “subliminal identity signature” embedded within our interactions that reveals our uniqueness. The single most influential attribute that shapes containers is the presence practitioners emanate when working with clients. It serves as an interpersonal interface between them and can foster or undermine the formation of containers suited for the desired space. Presence is both an attribute that affects the way containers evolve and a catalyst that either bolsters or hinders the impact of the other attributes being used (universal and specialized). • The degree to which the practitioner’s presence is an authentic reflection of his or her true character determines the likelihood there will be a positive impact on container formation and ultimately on client learning. • The more grounded the practitioner is in his or her character and the more boldly this is expressed through presence, the more likely the practitioner’s basic nature will strengthen what is said or done with the other attributes.
  33. 33. 33© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Aholistic view of the components is essential. When mindfully holding space, it is essential to think of all four components as aspects to an integrated whole rather than as four isolated levers that can be addressed independently. Otherwise, the degree to which holding space is an iterative process might not be so apparent. The importance of this interdependency comes to light when a key paradox is revealed—for struggle, intent, relationship, and attributes to be fully addressed, robust space needs to be in place; yet, much of the time, space is still forming as these issues are first illuminated. This creates a “chicken or egg” conundrum that can only be tackled with cycles of iteration among the interdependent elements. The initial leveraging of the proper attributes gives rise to a container that allows space to begin to take shape. With space emerging, learning commences and the client can gain some insight into his or her struggle. Even a little of this comprehension strengthens the space more, which then opens the door to exploring what the intended outcome might be. As intent moves toward solidifying, it broadens and deepens the client’s understanding of the struggle and accelerates the chance of possibilities being revealed. With struggle and intent beginning to congeal, the client’s awareness of how he or she relates to the desired result can start to crystalize. The interactive unfolding of these four components both benefits from and contributes to space development. This is why change practitioners can launch the holding process with little more than a faint idea of what the client’s struggle is about. In fact, sometimes all the practitioner knows in the beginning is that the person is in search of answers he or she currently can’t access. That may be enough, however, to begin to envision the kind of environment (container) the client might need to start the journey.
  34. 34. 34© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Review: Shaping the Container There are many moving parts to this first window of impact, so let’s review what has been covered. Space is open to indirect influence and the first opening for this is when a container is forming. As a practitioner strives to create the proper setting for interaction, four shaping components can be called on to advance client learning. The first three (struggle, intent, and relationship) are extractive in nature, while the fourth (attributes) is used to insert certain characteristics needed to optimize the context in which the learning space will hopefully emerge. The practitioner orchestrates these four components to shape the container.
  35. 35. 35© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Space is formed within the container. Once properly shaped, the container is amenable to space emerging that suits the client and his or her struggle. At this point in the process, each of the variables (struggle, intent, relationship, attributes, container, and space) is affecting, and being affected by, all the others. The interactive dynamic has become synergistic. It is now a learning- rich, self-reinforcing swirl of creativity that can surface multiple options for exploration.
  36. 36. Sustaining the Container The second window of influence is ensuring that learning continues in the space. 37 What triggers the second window of influence? 38 An Example of Sustaining the Learning Environment 39 Remain focused on helping your client make informed decisions. 41
  37. 37. 37© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space The second window of influence is ensuring that learning continues in the space. Mindfully holding space for someone isn’t a passive, wishful longing that a person’s struggles will somehow work out for the best. It calls for being highly engaged and purposeful about facilitating the client’s resolution. The second point in time when it is possible to have an active, though indirect, impact on space is after a container has been formed and has been providing a nourishing environment within which space can flourish. At this juncture, the objective is no longer to create a container from which space can emerge; it is to ensure the space already in place remains advantageous for learning. Once again, we’ll call on components to leverage an effect on space. The ones available to help prolong the desired environment are the same as those used when forming the container. Instead of referring to them as shaping components, however, here I’ll refer to them as sustaining components. Their purpose has shifted from launching the learning environment that was established when the container was first fashioned to extending it. A key principle that applies to any system, human or mechanical, is that maintaining a constant state requires continuous modifications to correct for the inevitable deviations that occur. In this light, practitioners need to keep a close vigilance on the space they are tending so they can take the appropriate action when its learning potential begins to weaken (as it undoubtedly will). Whether forming a new container or making adjustments in an existing one, the same four components are used to indirectly influence space: • Struggle—The nature of the opportunity, problem, or dilemma in which the client feels caught • Intent—A clear, complete, and concise statement of what the client wants as the desired outcome(s) • Relationship—How the client relates to the stated intent regarding its scale, comprehensiveness, and criticality • Attributes—Features in the container that help foster space, where clients can surface and explore possibilities and ultimately make informed decisions
  38. 38. 38© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space What triggers the second window of influence? This second window of influence occurs when practitioners use the components as levers to extend the learning environment’s viability. Doing so is triggered by a drop in the space’s learning potential, as evidenced by a slowing or halting of the client’s progress. When this happens, one might think that the practitioner quickly takes action (by orchestrating one or more of the components) to ensure the client re- engages the process. This actually isn’t the case. At this point in the process, the practitioner’s objective isn’t to get the client back on track. Instead, it is to help him or her make informed decisions about whether to proceed and, if so, on what to focus. If the client does choose to proceed, there are various approaches the practitioner can use to help reinvigorate the learning environment. Sometimes the practitioner may need to make slight refinements in the container and other times significant interventions may be necessary. There are circumstances when the practitioner only needs to listen attentively and respond empathetically to what the client has to say, while offering little in the way of instructive guidance. In other situations, it might be important to share observations about the client’s behavior and/or mindset. Sometimes, it is helpful to suggest alternative views on the struggle, intent, or relationship to facilitate deeper understanding. At other times, the practitioner doesn’t say anything explicitly to the client, but instead makes an adjustment to one or more of the container’s attributes.
  39. 39. 39© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space An Example of Sustaining the Learning Environment An illustration of the second window of influence might be helpful. I’ll use the relationship component as an example of sustaining the learning environment. Because initiatives are often viewed differently at various times during implementation, practitioners should remain attentive to any shifts in how clients are relating to their intent. Here are three implications to why this is true: 1. Alignment between practitioner and client around the intent relationship should always be considered tentative and open to reinterpretation. Regardless of how adamant a person may be on a given day about his or her relationship to the expected outcome, a constant vigilance should be kept for movement in one or more of the key perspectives—scale (magnitude of impact), comprehensiveness (degree of needed fulfillment), and criticality (level of resolve). Frequent discussion about the status of the intent relationship is essential to ensure the client and practitioner are in sync on the implications associated with reaching the stated goal. By keeping current with a client’s perspective, the practitioner may recognize that an adjustment is needed to coincide with what is happening. The client now sees the change initiative as needing to be realized (and not installed, as was acceptable before). This calls for modifying how the practitioner and client interact. Fully achieving a critical large-scale shift usually requires more explicit communications than less- urgent endeavors do. Without this re-calibration, misalignments can occur, resulting in the practitioner and client working toward different results and/or one of them operating with more or less intensity than the other. This is unproductive, a waste of resources, and is usually extremely frustrating for both parties.
  40. 40. 40© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space An Example of Sustaining the Learning Environment (cont.) 2. One of the more difficult aspects of holding space occurs when (not if) the client begins to falter somewhere during the process. What clients think about and feel toward their intended outcome impacts their ability to stay the course when the path becomes difficult. Space is being held to explore unfamiliar and often uncomfortable options as well as to make tough decisions. This can be cognitively and/or emotionally exhausting, which is why far more people start the process than complete it. Clients often become overwhelmed at some point by the demands of the process and “settle” for premature closure rather than continue to identify and delve into alternatives that might eventually open a viable path forward. A critical part of supporting clients when they balk, hesitate, or vacillate is to remind them of their previous declarations about what achieving the intent means for them. This doesn’t preclude clients from changing their minds, but it does provide a benchmark for discussion about the implications of pulling back when clients become uncertain about moving forward. 3. It is not the practitioner’s job to pressure clients in any way to continue with their exploration, but it is important to remind them of how they related to their intended outcome in the past. Their views may or may not have changed as far as scale, comprehensiveness and criticality, but it is up to the practitioner to calibrate with clients and ensure they are in sync.
  41. 41. 41© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Remain focused on helping your client make informed decisions. Whatever the practitioner does, overtly or covertly, to leverage the sustaining components, it should always be for the purpose of helping clients make informed decisions, and not to ensure they re-engage what was in play before they started faltering or hesitating.
  42. 42. Summary of Mindfully Held Space Purpose 43 Definition 44 Process 45
  43. 43. 43© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Purpose I began by contrasting the type of “mindful space-holding” I wanted to highlight here with other well-meaning and worthwhile approaches to space-holding that change practitioners engage in when supporting clients. At the heart of any form of space-holding is the notion of providing nurturing conditions that contribute to people feeling emotionally buttressed as they face difficult situations.The definitions and explanations I have offered reflect how I go about applying structure and discipline to the process of creating an environment where creative options can surface and be explored.
  44. 44. 44© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Definition When space is mindfully held, I view it as a unique, non-physical reality filled with possibilities for resolving struggles that reflect a singular focus and reside within a container amenable to influence. Unique: The space is a field of potential specifically formulated to help one individual address a particular struggle. Non-Physical Reality: The space in question is intangible, but its existence is verifiable and its impact demonstrable. Filled with Possibilities: What is being kept in safekeeping is a field of unrealized outcomes with varying degrees of achievability, which can be explored and ultimately an informed decision made about how to proceed. Resolving Struggles: When faced with circumstances that could jeopardize change realization, the objective is to determine the best course(s) that would be true to who the client is and to take action. Reflects a Singular Focus: The inquiry is confined to what is compatible with what the space allows for—the possibilities that naturally appear, given how the space is constituted. Resides Within a Container: We don’t actually “hold” space as much as we build and maintain a virtual vessel where space resides that is ideal for harvesting and processing possibilities. Amenable to Influence: By orchestrating certain components, it is possible to increase the likelihood containers will provide optimum conditions for the proper space to emerge. Mindfully held space serves as a learning environment for identifying alternatives, investigating implications, and determining a course of action for someone struggling with a core issue.
  45. 45. 45© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Process Shape the container. Practitioners can’t directly control whether the space that forms will help or hinder client learning, but they can influence the environment the space inhabits. In doing so, they increase the likelihood the space will achieve its hoped-for impact. This is done by building a container that encourages favorable space. The first steps are to: • name the struggle, • reveal the true intent (desired outcome), • clarify the client’s relationship to that desired outcome, and • embed certain attributes that are conducive to the emergence of space that is ripe for learning. Sustain the container. Once the container is properly configured and the desired working space has taken shape, the practitioner remains alert to any modifications needed to sustain the integrity of the learning environment. This is done by adjusting, on an as-needed basis, the same components used to build the container: • Helping the client assess and, if necessary, amend how he or she has defined the struggle • Helping the client assess and, if necessary, amend the stated intent • Helping the client assess and, if necessary, amend how he or she relates to the intent • Assessing and, if necessary, amending the attributes to ensure the container is providing optimum space for learning
  46. 46. Let’s focus on the practitioner holding the space. Traits of a Practitioner Who Is Successful at Holding Space 47 Mindful: The practitioner is intentional about when (and when not) to hold space. 48 Confident: The practitioner has multiple ways to meet the client’s needs. 49 Adjusts: The practitioner fine- tunes his or her approach to space-holding based on the client’s needs. 50 Serves: The practitioner approaches his or her role with a deep sense of responsibility to the client. 51 Present: The practitioner remains attentive. 52
  47. 47. 47© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Traits of a Practitioner Who Is Successful at Holding Space As discussed at the outset, the practitioner’s character and presence are critical to mindfully holding space. The successful practitioner: • Is mindful about when—and when not—to hold space • Is confident in his or her ability to meet the client’s unique needs • Adjusts his or her approach • Is in service to the client • Remains present
  48. 48. 48© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Mindful: The practitioner is intentional about when (and when not) tohold space. A successful practitioner knows that mindfully holding space represents a significant investment of time and effort and should be entered into judiciously. The situation at hand and the alternatives being examined should reflect a meaningful event for the client and his or her change endeavor. Otherwise, less demanding and resource-consuming support could be applied (e.g., offering advice, wishing the person well, providing emotional support, sending positive thoughts/affirmations).
  49. 49. 49© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Confident: The practitioner has multiple ways tomeet the client’s unique needs. Whether a struggle is about opportunities, problems, or dilemmas, helping the client investigate alternatives can take numerous forms. Sometimes, the practitioner is merely with the client, saying very little but providing a physical and emotional presence. Other times, practitioners may be very active when helping clients do any of these things:: • Frame a situation—Selecting the right lens through which to interpret presenting symptoms (“I know all this resistance is causing a big problem with the senior team—they want to know what is wrong. Maybe you should consider helping them see that open expression of doubt and concern is actually a key step in people becoming more committed to the change.”) • Identify the right focal point(s)—Deciding, among all the contributing variables, which one(s) to take action on (“I wonder if your people might have hit their overload threshold and they just can’t absorb any more change without some dysfunction showing up.”) • Find a solution—Determining the best course of action (“Despite the immense pressure to keep all the current change initiatives in place while the new projects are being announced, is it possible that the time has come to lessen the number or scope of the changes people are supposed to absorb?”) • Refine a solution—Honing the answer—there is a general notion of what is to be accomplished, but a clear-cut plan of action has not yet been formulated (“It is clear that you believe the sponsor needs to match the change demands being placed on people with their capacity to deal with everything and then make some tough decisions about what she will take off their plates. The challenge is how to present this as an option that she will see as viable within the current political landscape.”) • Execute a solution—Concluding the best way to implement a solution that has already been reached (“You seem resolved to give the sponsor feedback about how her indecisiveness is hindering progress, but you have mentioned before how you sometimes become intimidated when you are around her. Specifically, how do you plan to approach her about this and how will you get on her busy calendar?” )
  50. 50. 50© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Adjusts: The practitioner fine- tunes hisor her approach tospace- holding based on the client’s needs. A successful practitioner accepts that it isn’t possible to directly impact the space he or she is trying to provide but believes it’s possible to have an indirect influence by helping form a container where the desired space has a chance to emerge. This can be approached in various ways: • Determine which attributes should be included early on when shaping a container and which ones need to be added, withdrawn, or modified in some way later in order to sustain the optimum learning environment • Encourage the development of mid-course corrections when the client sees only insurmountable obstacles • Despite the client’s uneasiness, focus on helping him or her come to a resolution, rather than on relieving the discomfort • Freely offer provocative questions, perspectives, and ideas for the client to consider, without guiding him or her toward a particular result: – Practitioners believe they are there to ensure an environment that favors examining possibilities and making informed decisions. – To do this, they must either be free of any preference toward or against a given conclusion or disciplined enough to withhold any sign that such inclinations exist.
  51. 51. 51© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Serves: The practitioner approaches hisor her role witha deep sense of responsibility tothe client. A successful practitioner knows that the resolution of the client’s problem is highly dependent on executing his or her duties successfully. In this regard, the practitioner feels a heightened sense of responsibility in four ways: • Being skilled in extracting from the client clarification on the struggle, intent, and relationship components of the situation • Demonstrating confidence in the client’s capacity to accomplish his or her intent and taking every opportunity to foster that possibility, even when (particularly when) the client becomes confused, frightened, frustrated, disoriented, or discouraged, and despite the inevitable faltering and missteps that will occur • Providing a safe haven, not only from adversaries, but also bosses, peers, colleagues, or others who might misapply their well-meaning aims and inadvertently hinder the client’s exploration and decision-making • Remembering that clients often are not confident that resolution of their core issues is possible; when this is the case, the practitioner may engage in one or more of several actions: – Recognizing who or what the person is becoming before he or she can see it – Validating what might have been previously negated or diminished in the client – Seeing through any protective façade the client might project, enabling acknowledgement of who he or she truly is – Naming what the person is trying to bring forward in himself or herself in ways that help the client better identify with it as an emerging reality – Reframing the client’s view of himself or herself or relevant circumstances in ways that increase the likelihood of resolution
  52. 52. 52© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights ReservedMindfully Holding Space Present: The practitioner remains attentive. A successful practitioner: • Remains clear about, and focused on, the four components (struggle, intent, relationship, and attributes), despite any twists or turns the client may engage in • Makes himself or herself available when clients need a sounding board to talk—sometimes responding and dialoguing, sometimes “just being there”—listening without offering encouragement, rebuttal, or comment of any kind • Knows that it is how he or she shows up (character and presence) that is the most influential asset a practitioner has to work with • Demonstrates an array of interpersonal skills critical to supporting someone struggling with a core issue: – Gives complete, undivided attention to the client and his or her issue – Opens the heart and connects with empathy, compassion, respect, and genuineness – Communicates in ways that are direct, explicit, caring, and sensitive – Is confrontational at times, but never argumentative – Helps differentiate between opportunities (to be exploited), problems (to be avoided or solved), and dilemmas (to be managed, not eliminated) – Presents thought-provoking questions that encourage exploration at a deeper level than the client would normally pursue – Challenges existing assumptions and biases – Uses compelling stories, symbols, and imagery to convey instructive points – Provides frank, unvarnished feedback – Endorses the connection between the client’s head and heart – Encourages examining the emotional aspects of deep commitment
  53. 53. Epilogue There are two principles of holding space. 54 1. It is important to look at holding space through different lenses. 55 2. Even under less than ideal circumstances, there can be value. 58 Meet two masters at holding space. 59 Mindfully holding space develops character and presence. 61 How do you hold space? 62
  54. 54. | 54© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved There are two principles of holding space. What I have laid out in this document is one way—but certainly not the only way—of holding space. My perspectives may or may not be appropriate for you. You may find that they work sometimes but not others, or you may find that you prefer to approach the process from a completely different direction. However you choose to hold space, I believe there are two principles that apply to all of us. • It is important to look at holding space through different lenses. • Even under less than ideal circumstances, there can be value. The next four pages describes each principle in more detail.
  55. 55. | 55© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved Firstprinciple: It is important to look at holding space through different lenses. As I began collecting my thoughts about what holding space meant for me, I searched the literature for references and found plenty of explanations. Most were intriguing, but struck me as vague, and their meanings shifted based on the context the author was applying. Even though the notion of holding space is familiar to many change practitioners, I found very few mentions in organizational change publications. Generally speaking, the writings I came across were from personal-growth-related professions or spiritual teachers who primarily emphasized the expressive, emotionally uplifting side of holding space. For the most part, they leaned toward poetic narratives rather than the more structured perspective I’ve attempted to bring forward in this document. It’s not that there is something inherently wrong with nebulous terminology. In fact, we sometimes gain our more profound insights through emotionally-laden statements precisely because they force right- brain engagement in order to gain a left-brained appreciation of what is being said. What such language can sometimes miss, however, is the definitiveness people need in order to take action on what is being communicated. Personally, I love it when, as change professionals, we stir and motivate each other with little more than provocative thoughts and imagery. There are times, however, when that’s not enough. Some circumstances warrant enough details so those who want to can go beyond inspiration and act on what is being shared. I believe holding space presents us with one of these situations.
  56. 56. | 56© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved I’m not suggesting that the more-technical approach I’ve taken should replace the narrative viewpoint, but rather that it is another equally valid view on the phenomenon being examined. When relying primarily on a less-specific style, it’s possible that only people who already know what holding space is and how it is carried out will fully understand it. Additionally, we might miss some of the details that would show accomplished practitioners how to be more consistent in their space-holding effectiveness and be better at transferring this capability to others. On the other hand, if all we have is the more structured view like what I’ve attempted to bring forward here, we risk: • dishonoring the mystery so fundamental to what space-holding is all about, • overly mechanizing the process and missing the true essence of what actually transpires, and • teaching practitioners to be technicians who think they can control the variables, rather than artists who respect that the holding experience comes through them, not from them. Because both perspectives pose opportunities and dangers, I believe both are needed to provide a wider context for us to operate within. Narrative-centric discussions and writings about holding space are readily available, so in this document, I’ve tried to offer a more analytical view— not as a competing alternative but as a contrasting, parallel frame of reference with equal value. Firstprinciple(cont.): It is important to look at holding space through different lenses.
  57. 57. | 57© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved SecondPrinciple: Even under less than ideal circumstances, there can be value. The point of holding space is to foster environments where clients are able to reach conclusions about important struggles. An ideal resolution, however, requires that many variables come together in just the right way at just the right time: • Container attributes must be properly leveraged in order to give rise to the formation of highly creative space where a client can identify and acknowledge his or her true struggle, fundamental intent, and relationship to that intent. • The space must then allow for the exploration of numerous alternatives so the client can find one or more on which to take action consistent with his or her relationship to the intended outcome, and that is true to his or her basic character. This kind of complete closure is no fantasy—it does happen. Everything comes together and mindful space-holding produces a powerful breakthrough for the client as well as a fulfilling experience for the practitioner. However, as we all know, things don’t always turn out this way. Sometimes the outcomes appear to be far short of what was hoped for. Yet, there are times when space-holding generates value for the client, even though: • fewer attributes are embedded than is optimal; • the container is only partially developed; • conclusions about struggle, intent, and relationship aren’t entirely determined; • space never fully matures; • a smaller number of options are explored in less depth than anticipated; • there is incomplete resolution of the presenting core issue; and/or • no solutions surface at all.
  58. 58. | 58© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved SecondPrinciple(cont.): Even under less than ideal circumstances, there can be value. With all these shortcomings, clients can sometimes still profit from having a practitioner hold space for him or her. This can be true even if only one component is advanced in some way. Maybe the space being held allowed for a greater understanding of the struggle, more clarity of the intent, and/or a better sense of how the client relates to achieving that intent. Perhaps none of the alternatives turns out to be the answer, but by eliminating those options, the client is closer to finding the right path to pursue. It is possible that just knowing someone cared enough to engage the holding process made the client feel more validated, supported, and motivated to carry on. Not only can there be positive implications for less-than-desired outcomes, the benefits that do arise for clients may not be visible in the near term. It is wonderful when a practitioner’s efforts result in positive, observable, immediate payoffs, but when it comes to this kind of support for someone, it is important to accept that there are times when the advantages don’t materialize for clients until long after the space-holding is over and the practitioner is out of the picture. If a practitioner needs emotional home runs or some kind of acknowledgement every time he or she goes to bat, space- holding is probably not for him or her.
  59. 59. | 59© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved Meet two masters at holding space. At the beginning of this document, I promised to point out some practitioners I consider exceptionally gifted at supporting people as they find their way. Many people who are accomplished at holding space have influenced my views over the years, but there are two whom I consider true masters— Apollonia Fortuna (SoHa), and Mel Toomey (CLS). The common denominator between them is their ability to provide a safe but challenging environment in which people can explore options for moving their lives forward. I respect them both and I’m in awe of their capacity to bring not only penetrating skill but also deep wisdom to the art of holding space. Beyond that, I’ve been inspired by the diversity of perspectives they have offered my understanding of this subject. The opportunity to work with either of these individuals is a profound experience for most who have been fortunate enough to have had access to their gifts. How they go about creating the space they work in, however, couldn’t be more distinct—in no way contradictory, but definitely contrasting. The nature of their work and the people who are drawn to work with them are as different as the way they orchestrate their respective learning environments. Observing that two masterful practitioners hold space in such dissimilar ways was instrumental in my recognition that it wasn’t just acceptable, it was necessary for me to explore what my own path toward this mastery might be. Exposure to Apollonia’s and Mel’s space-holding allowed me to do more than draw insights and approaches from each of them (which I gratefully have)—it helped me understand the need to search for my own way. The lessons I’ve learned from their generosity to me informed the pursuit of what I realized I must discover for myself. Incorporating what I could from them has been essential, but so is finding the lenses through which my own perspectives will emerge. I’ve come to appreciate that the task isn’t to determine which is the best of the various ways to go about it; it is for each of us to draw from those who can teach us but then uncover what works for us and embrace that as our path.
  60. 60. | 60© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved Proficiency and mastery take different paths. Finding your own way is harder than adopting someone else’s, and not everyone needs to do it. It depends on what you are seeking. If your objective is to be sufficiently skilled at holding space to be helpful to clients, you can follow a road that was forged by someone else. Find the Apollonias or Mels in your life and do your best rendering of what they do. You can’t go wrong with this approach and a great deal of benefit can be generated for those you work with. If mastery is your objective, however, you must move forward in a different way. This path requires that you learn all you can from traveling roads paved by others. At some point, however, it is imperative that you veer off to find your own route. This doesn’t mean you will abandon what you have acquired from others. Instead, you will use it as a foundation that allows your own unique contributions to emerge. This is when we heed the advice Rumi offers: “There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen!” Proficiency is about replicating an existing framework. Mastery is about leveraging what we learn from others and then venturing into the unfamiliar territory that is waiting for us to claim it as our own. Both proficiency and mastery are worthy pursuits, but they don’t result in the same outcomes, so it is essential that we determine what we hope to accomplish when incorporating holding space into our repertoire. Are we about becoming polished at what is or pursuing mastery of what could be?
  61. 61. | 61© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved Mindfully holding space develops, as well as fosters, character and presence. There are ample opportunities for change practitioners to pursue professional development activities focused on what we do (how to use concepts, frameworks, tools, and techniques), but few avenues are available for exploring who we are (how we show up when engaged in what we do). This document offers one way we can advance our understanding and use of character and presence (as well as that of our clients), which I’ve labeled mindfully holding space. Under the auspices of helping clients address their change-related struggles, we sometimes have openings where we can help them see how their own character and presence may be at the heart of what they are wrestling with. Holding space for them is an important part of that assistance. Seeing how organizational change > client struggle > character/presence > mindfully holding space were linked initially prompted me to write about this topic. As my exploration took form, I found a reciprocal relationship between holding space for clients and my own character and presence development. Mindfully holding space requires that practitioners be grounded in their character and presence. Knowing and accepting who we really are and bringing that forward as part of the value we offer clients is central to supporting them. Holding space necessitates a strong practitioner character and presence “package” and also fosters further growth in this respect. The holding process offers opportunities to uncover new perspectives about character and presence that can reveal new avenues to pursue—for us and our clients. This means there are two interdependent cycles in play: • Holding space for clients requires strong practitioner character and presence, while the activities associated with holding also strengthen the practitioner’s character and presence. • Strong practitioner character and presence helps in recognizing opportunities where clients can address their own character and presence development. This, in turn, bolsters clients’ abilities to address the issues they struggle with.
  62. 62. | 62© Conner Partners, 2014. All Rights Reserved How do you hold space? This document doesn’t describe the way to hold space; it offers my view on one way. If you use holding space in your practice, I encourage you to step back and take a deep look at how you go about it, and share your own learnings with others if you are willing.The more we exchange what we’ve learned and the questions we’re pondering about this important part of our craft, the greater our collective strides will be as a profession.

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