One afternoon when I was a kid, I arrived home from school incensed. My mother set down her paperback as I paced the floor, ticking down the list friends who had wronged me. When I finally looked up, her weary expression said, what is wrong with you, Elizabeth.
At the time, I didn’t realize what had eluded me in that moment, but I know now. I’d longed for a judgment-free zone, the space to say what I had to say. Someone to really listen and care. To process my hard feelings out loud and for it to be okay.
In the years since, my listening style has reflected all the usual problems. I’ve nodded and waited for the other person to stop talking so I could tell my own story. I’ve offered opinions, doled out unsolicited advice, and annoying pity. I’ve supplied all the stuff people didn’t need and none of what they did. I didn’t know how to listen. Not really.
Until I practiced it myself, I’d heard the term holding space from new agey folks who couldn’t listen if you taped their mouth shut. That introduction had me thinking it wasn’t a real thing. Now I know better. All it means is that when a person comes to you with something to share, that you are present, open, and allow them to fully express their feelings without butting in. To be there for them instead of filling the conversation with your own baggage. Doing it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
On Monday, I finally understood what it means to “hold untroubled space.” After practice sessions using Martha Beck’s coaching techniques with a few moms, I began to notice some patterns. Many of us show up in particular ways with family and friends which profoundly affects our communication style. I reflected on the takeaways which are the following:
1. Check your energy and intention.
This is the key factor to real listening. As a mother, I have felt responsible to fix my kids’ problems and clear away their hard feelings. If my daughter came to me with an issue, I would bring up all the missteps I perceived that got her to that point. I thought I was being thorough and helpful—teaching her cause and effect. She hated that. I get it now. Had I let go of the thought that I held the responsibility to fix her problem, then set the intention just to be with her, whole different result.
2. Show up feeling whole and cared for already.
The trick to the untroubled bit is to take care of yourself FIRST. Meeting your own needs looks different for everyone. Your inner voice knows. Mine says I need nature, solitude, and time to write without interruption. Maybe yours says you need to have more fun. Or that you have some work to do with a good therapist. Who knows. That’s between you and you.*
If you take responsibility for yourself first, you won’t need to spend time dumping your own unprocessed garbage on someone else. You will be available and present. I know this because I finally did it with my daughter so there’s hope for everyone.
3. Know that you aren’t responsible to fix anyone else.
All we need is a compassionate witness to listen, maybe ask some open-ended questions if they feel stumped, so that they can do the work themselves. The liberating truth is that no one has a clue about what someone else should do with their lives. That’s why AA is so successful. Nobody in that circle is allowed to respond—they are just there to listen. That is how people heal. They feel SEEN. Then the answers come.
It can be hard to trust that we already know the answers because we’ve spent a lifetime conditioned by our culture to consult experts, take a poll, seek the solution anywhere else but inside ourselves. We assume that if only I had _____, all would be well. What we really need is to return to our innate wisdom.
When someone comes to you to share something, they just want you to be there with them. That’s what I wanted as a kid. I wanted to feel cared for and listened to, that’s it. I was smart enough to know how to solve my problems. If people want advice they’ll ask. Instead of assuming you know better, maybe help them out with some powerful questions that tap into their own truth instead of yours.** And PS. This is an ironic bit of advice from a serial unsolicited advice giver such as myself. We humans are hilarious, aren’t we?
And that’s what I learned to do on Monday. To finally listen. To be the untroubled space. And it felt amazing.
When you realize you already knew what you needed all along, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: Do you know how to hold untroubled space for someone else? Does listening come easily to you?
*A quick hack to finding out what you need is to pay attention to your physical body. If you have a part that hurts, ask it what it needs. If that sounds ridiculous, don’t knock it til you try it. My husband’s red left eye told him he needs to stop blowing off his afternoon meditation and get to bed on time. What do you have to lose? Maybe just the pain in your neck
**You may be wondering, powerful questions? Like what? You just told me not to ask the experts! This is just questions so no pressure. 🙂