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the invisible work of holding space

“The work of holding space and deep listening is largely unseen and definitely uncompensated in our culture.” – leader of a storytelling workshop 

Here is the work at which I excel:  Organizing events that bring people together, often in unexpected ways; creating safe space for inner listening through movement; writing about my life in a way that listens deeply to my own experience and, I hope, allows others to hear/see themselves anew; challenging the status quo not through shouting but from the creative and quieter margins.

Try to put these things on a resume. They too often sound contrived or “soft” compared to the square-jawed, action-driven items that are supposed to line such a document. When I updated my resume a few years ago, a friend who was reviewing it insisted that I add an objective. After acquiescing to what felt like a silly game, I wrote one that included the phrase “to hold space.” My friend contended that no one would know what that meant. I kept it in, stubbornly sticking to my values.

What does it mean to hold space? According to one facilitator who I admire, Heather Plett, “It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

I do not want to belittle the patience and presence that holding space entails, nor the very real training that is offered to help people become better at this work. However, I do believe that women hold space for our culture all of the time without being celebrated or appreciated for it. Whether it is sitting with dying parents or sick children, whether it is looking out for colleagues in times of emotional distress or helping organizations through rocky segues, women do this work daily and weekly without reward or recognition.

Much like when a man pushes a stroller and people suddenly hold doors open for him, as opposed to not even seeing the woman with the stroller and letting the door close just a second too soon, men who hold space are much ballyhooed. And even those who are kind and well-intentioned, tend to revel–probably unconsciously so–in being the good guy and of having discovered a kind of work that seems exotic to them.

Once, when I had a group for dinner that included multiple women who subtly, gracefully hold space in their communities, who took up most of the energy and conversational time? It was two men who do this kind of work in a much more public way, men who get recognized via newspaper articles and awards for their work. These are men who are indeed doing good work, and work that I appreciate, but who are doing it with a sort of public panache that few women I know seem to require or build into the task.

Another example came from a public artist whose talk I just attended. He was kind and clearly brilliant, and yet so much of what he’s been rewarded for–connecting communities, creating shared meals, listening–felt like the work that women do all of the time. Gosh, I kept thinking to myself, I’ve done that; I could do that. I felt like some baffled, uncouth parent seeing a Pollack for the first time and claiming their first grader could do the same. And yet truly, I know a lot of women who do work similar to this artist at a totally unsung level.

What that workshop leader said about listening and holding space not being compensated in our culture struck me in the moment as exceedingly, annoyingly true. I wrote it in my notebook and underlined it and circled it! Weeks later as I sit with it, I wonder if the truer statement might be that this work is not compensated for women.

Which makes me wonder about the way we talk about work — how we organize a resume or CV and the principles that underly it. How we present our skills–or perhaps we could call them gifts, especially those that can’t be sliced and diced by consumer culture.

The next time you’re in a position to create a space for others that provides an open-hearted, safe opportunity for them to see themselves and/or their community afresh, wonder if it’s something that a price can be put on. Wonder what it would be like if no one did this work. Wonder what families and neighborhoods, schools and entire towns would be like without the people who do this work for little to nothing.

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