How to become a more empathetic communicator

Michael CalozBlog: Synthesizing & Simplifying Complexity, Exploring FeelingsLeave a Comment

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Summary: I kept hearing people saying that they were “holding space” for me, but it took me months to understand what that really meant. In this post, I unpack that phrase. I’ll explain how to be truly present in a conversation, and how that will help you become a far more empathetic friend and partner.

This is for you if:

  • You want to become a better conversationalist
  • You want to increase your empathy
  • You think that “holding space” sounds a bit woo-woo but you’re curious about the intent behind it

Reading Time: 11 minutes

“Could we pause for a second?” the hippie asked as he stared intently into my eyes, “I want to hold space for that.”

Was this some kind of energy thing? Was he just telling me to slow down? I wasn’t sure, but—with that fierce compassion in his face—my instincts told me to trust him.

I’d been telling this man my story hoping to get some advice. But midway through, he already knew enough to start helping me. In the end, it was less about the details of my story and more about what he’d felt from me as I was telling it.

Piecing together my understanding of the phrase

Throughout my journey into the hippie world, I kept hearing people mention this “holding space” thing. I’d even been hearing it from life coaches and therapists.

From the context, I knew it had something to do with empathy or vulnerability. Something about focusing on the present moment without getting distracted. 

I’d heard it in a variety of situations:

  • A counselor said that one of their main functions is holding space for their clients.
  • An empathetic friend said that they were feeling tired. So, they didn’t have enough energy to properly hold space and talk through my tough problem with me just then.
  • During a co-counseling session (where two or three people trade off listening and coaching each other), someone suggested that we stop and hold space for something that was just said before continuing.

So what about that hippie? I eventually realized that he didn’t have answers for me. Not exactly.

He wasn’t going to give me a solution to the problem I was describing. But, he was able to give me something that helped anyway: He made me feel truly heard by another human being. And, he shared some of my emotional burden.

He’d recognized that I’d reached an emotional part in the story I’d been telling. And by asking me to pause, we were able to sit there together in that moment so I could fully feel those feelings.

He held space for me.

Now, let’s unpack that. The caveat is that “holding space” means different things to different people, and I still have a lot more to learn here. But, after several months of exploring this thing, I’m ready to take a stab at explaining what it means to me.

Holding space comes down to two main things, and understanding them could help you become a better conversationalist and a more empathetic friend and partner.

In part 1 of this post, I’ll focus on how to be present for someone.

Holding space means being truly present

To be able to effectively hold space, you have to be fully focused on the moment.

You can’t be thinking about what’s for dinner tonight. And you can’t be stealing glances around the room to see if there’s someone else you’d prefer to talk to.

When you’re holding space for a person who’s going through something tough, it means that you’re truly showing up. You’re focusing on them with as much of your being as possible. In fact, “showing up,” “being present,” and “holding space” all refer to something pretty similar: grounding yourself in the moment without being distracted.

I know that sounds a bit woo-woo. But you can think of it as a commitment to paying attention to what the other person is saying on several levels:

The 3 Levels of Listening

There’s a concept in life coaching called the 3 levels of listening:

  1. Level 1 is where you’re focused on you. How does what they’re saying affect you? What does it make you feel? How are you judging them? Which way are you going to respond? How does it relate to your life? Does it bring to mind a story of yours that you could tell?
  2. Level 2 means focusing on them. What are they really saying and how would you guess that makes them feel? What are they not saying that might be beneath the surface? Are they biased or blinded by something that you could point out to them?
  3. Level 3 goes beyond that to focus on the greater context of the conversation. What’s the energy like between you and them right now? What are you feeling in your body, and what is their posture telling you? What’s going on in the room that might be affecting them? What do you know about their broader life that might be impacting them?

That’s one model for how to think about the different ways you can listen to someone.

Personally though, when I think about the concept of holding space, a different set of divisions comes to mind:

(1) Listen for content so you know what they’re talking about

To properly hold space for someone, it might not even be 100% necessary to hear the words they’re saying. Even if someone is speaking another language, you can probably tell if they’re talking about something that’s emotional for them.

But, it’s probably most effective to start by listening to the actual content of what they’re telling you. That means asking good questions if you don’t understand something or you’re not able to follow what they’re saying.

Then there’s the other way of taking in information from them:

(2) Listen for how the content is presented so you understand at a deeper level

Pay attention to the actual words they use to describe things.

Out of all the language they could have chosen to describe this concept, is there a reason they chose that specific phrasing (for example, “I feel disconnected” versus “I feel lonely”)? Was there anything striking about an analogy or metaphor they used?

Listening to their specific word choice is useful for two reasons: (1) to give you more insight into how they’re feeling, and (2) so you can use some of those words when you respond.

Here’s one way to do that:

Mirror back what the person said to help them feel heard

To have a great conversation, try not to keep asking question after question. Instead, pause once in a while and repeat back some of what they just told you.

This has two benefits:

  1. It shows that you’re listening, and
  2. It might be helpful for them to hear what they said coming out of someone else’s mouth.

Careful, though: If you just repeat back what they said verbatim, it can sound inauthentic. Instead, summarize it in your own words and throw in some of the specific words they used.

You want them to feel heard, like you get it.

For example:

  • THEM: I’ve felt depressed a lot lately. I have so much going on in my life that it’s all just overwhelming. I guess I just feel stuck sometimes—I have so many responsibilities coming at me from all these different directions, and it can feel like there’s no way to escape it all. Every day it feels like there’s something new, and I just keep coming back to this feeling like I’m boxed in and I can’t escape and be free.
  • YOU: That sounds really tough. What I’m hearing from you is that you feel totally overwhelmed. There’s always something new expected of you, and it just makes you feel boxed in and stuck, like you can’t escape. Is that right?

Notice how my response is a mix of my own summary plus some of their exact wording. The words like “stuck” and “boxed in” probably resonate a lot with that person since they chose those specific ways of describing that feeling.

And in this example specifically, those words describe mental states that can feel very physical. So, when you mirror those words back, it shows that you understand at least a piece of that person’s visceral experience.

Watch for emotion so you can be there for the person when they need it

The words themselves are important as the top layer. To dig even deeper, pay attention to their body language. Try to see if there might be something else going on under the words.

For example, you might notice that you said something harmless but they had a surprisingly strong reaction. What could that be? Maybe they have a negative association with one of the words you used. Or maybe what you said reminded them of an uncomfortable experience from their past.

Look out for tender areas by paying attention to their facial expressions, body language, and voice tone. If something feels off, you can pause and ask them about it, “I felt like something changed for you just now. What was that?”

They might choose to tell you or they might not. But either way, they’ll probably appreciate that you were paying close enough attention to even notice that in them. And they’ll likely respect you even more for having the courage and emotional intelligence to ask about it.

Asking them about their emotional experience is one way to hold space for them as an empathetic listener. Another is to look for opportunities to stop them.

Stop them so you both can sit with the emotion for a second

Is the person barreling through a story but you feel like they just touched on something significant? It might be helpful to ask them to pause for a minute.

Maybe you notice something that seems potentially important that they might have missed. Or maybe they’re caught up in their storytelling and it doesn’t seem like they’re taking the time to really feel their feelings along the way.

Three cases come to mind for me where you might want to stop them:

(1) They mentioned something worth taking a minute to celebrate

We often spend a lot of time focusing on the negative without pausing to celebrate the positive. Maybe they just revealed something that was hard for them to say. Or maybe they didn’t give themselves enough credit for an achievement.

Either way, you might stop them with something like, “Wow, I want to stop you for a second to recognize how cool that was just now. That was an awesome thing you did. Before you keep going, I’d like to invite you to just sit with that for a second and really take it in.”

(2) They just realized something significant

Say you’re having an open, vulnerable conversation about some barriers they’re facing in their life. After talking through something for a while, they blurt out, “Oh my God, I guess that totally ties back to how my Dad was never there for me as a kid.”

Do they then immediately start talking again? That might be a great time to say something like, “Hold on, that feels like a really big deal. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but do you want to just sit with that for a second and see how you feel after having said that?”

(3) You’re feeling some strong emotion from them

It can be hard to know what to do when your conversation partner gets really emotional. You want to be there for them, but you might not be sure what to do.

Is the person is describing something that makes them tear up or get visibly anxious? The important thing is to make them feel safe and heard. Depending on the situation, here are two things to try:

  1. “It feels like this is hitting something tender for you.” Then, depending on how much they’ve already said about it, you might try something like, “Do you want to talk about it?” Or “What does it feel like? Where are you feeling it in your body?” That will depend a lot on context and level of familiarity, but sometimes it can help to talk about the physical sensations themselves rather than just the story that might be causing them.
  2. “I can see that this is really tough for you. What can I do to help you right now?” Depending on your relationship with them, you might ask, “I’m really feeling your pain right now. Would it be alright if I hugged you? Or is there anything else I could do to help you feel better?” 

Just be careful of two things:

First, make sure it’s what they want. Don’t just push them for what seems like the right thing to do or what would make you feel better. In other words, don’t force a hug on them. Leave it open-ended when you ask, and make it ok for them to say no.

Second, be careful not to make them feel like they’re broken. You’re not just taking pity on them here. This is a complicated subject, so I’ll just say this: Try not to impose your own judgments on them. Don’t tell them how they should be feeling. And don’t think poorly of them because they’re not feeling what you think they should be feeling in that situation.

So, all three of these can tie back to the idea of holding space:

  1. Helping them notice a moment to celebrate
  2. Pointing out something significant to explore
  3. Acknowledging a powerful emotion

To whittle all that down, here’s a general response that can work in a variety of situations that call for space to be held: “That feels really important. Why don’t we stop and sit with that for a minute? If it feels right to you, you might try closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. I’ll do it with you.”

Some final thoughts on being present

Translating a few more hippie phrases

Something really cool that I keep coming across in hippie communities is framing everything in terms of invitations. Rather than saying, “Why don’t you try this?” they’ll say something like:

  • “I’d like to invite you to try this,” or
  • “If it feels right to you, you might try this,” or
  • “If you’re open, you could try this”

Two more woo-woo-sounding ones you might also hear are “If it feels true for you in this moment…” or “If that’s alive for you right now…”

To me at least, those just mean the same thing as “If it feels right for you right now.”

What they’re really checking on with any of those phrases is whether what they’re suggesting feels authentic and aligned to your experience in this moment.

They’re giving their best guess about what you might be feeling right now and what they think might help. But, ultimately you’re the only one who can say if that suggestion seems applicable to what you yourself are actually feeling just then.

That’s why they’ll often also use language like “I invite you to do X.” They’re not necessarily telling you that you should do it. They’re simply presenting something that, from the outside, they hypothesize might work for you.

But, by all means, feel free to decline if it doesn’t feel right to you just then.

To be present, you need to be aware of what’s going on in yourself

The final piece in holding space by being present is self-knowledge and self-attention.

As you listen to the other person, pay attention to your own thoughts and bodily sensations. Notice if you find yourself disconnecting and losing your focus on them.

Pay attention if you check out. Are they going on and on about a story that you’re not identifying with? It’s up to you to say something. It can be really hard, but the truth is that you’re doing them a favor.

It does neither of you any good to keep silent. They’ll keep talking and thinking that they’re reaching you when they’re not. And it won’t do them any favors if you’re bored and looking for an exit strategy to the conversation.

So what can this look like? Here are a few ideas that are a bit more diplomatic (and specific) than “I’m bored”:

  • I’m finding it hard to follow what you’re saying right now. Could you try using different words?”
  • “I really want to help you with this, but I’m having trouble understanding what you’re getting at here. Could you try telling me in another way what you’re trying to get across?
  • “I want to be really honest and stop you for a second here to let you know that I’ve just found myself really tired. I want to be here with you but I’m finding myself drifting while you tell this story and I’d like to try to bring it back to an area that I can identify with better so I can better help you.
  • “I feel like we might have gone off on a bit of a tangent here. Does this feel like an important path to keep going down? Otherwise, maybe we can move back to that last big point you were talking about.”
  • “Just to make sure I’m following what you’re saying here, do you mind if we stop for a second so I can reflect back to you some of the themes I’m hearing from this? Then I’d love for you to let me know if I’m hearing you right.

What are some ways you can practice holding space for others in your life?

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