Holding Space: The Art of Supportive Leadership

When asked by the founder of the Archangel Summit, Giovanni Marsico, what my superpower is, I realized that one of my gifts is holding the space for challenging conversations and when others are faced with difficult times. I also know, that it does not come easy for many, especially when we are in a leadership role and need to be strong for, and in front of, others.

As a business owner and someone who has run company operations for a very long time (over 22 years, in fact!), I’ve learned that at the core of every business is the emotional experience that we all face in our day to day lives. It’s less about the bottom or top lines, and more about how much we care for our people. As business owners, as COOs or as second-in-commands, as those running operations, or working for the companies we love, we all go through challenging and difficult times, in our personal lives and through our work as well.

One thing I have learned in running multiple businesses at multiple times is that so many of us are going through things that we feel we can’t share publicly. Although we want others to know what we are experiencing, not for pity or a free pass, but because we want them to understand that what we are going through is affecting how we are feeling. Despite that desire, we often keep our challenges and our hardships to ourselves. We feel it is the safest way to move through and navigate what we are going through without being a burden to others.

I have learned how to hold the space for really tough and challenging conversations with family and friends, as well as with my teams, my employees, and my clients. I have learned how to give people the room to breathe, to feel what they are feeling without judgment or feeling criticized. I can guide them to know that they are okay in feeling what they are feeling. From experience, my gift is holding that space. Holding that space for challenging conversations and also having open discussions about what could make a difference, what could make an impact, and what could change things for everybody.

If you are at a pivotal place in your business, or you are faced with others who are going through challenging experiences, or you are going through a time of transition yourself, you can step into the role of being supportive, and being supported too. You can be there for others. You can create that safe place for them to share, grow and move forward.
As a leader, you may not want to show your vulnerability and your truth, but often that is what will bring you closer to your teams and those that really matter most to you. So let’s dive in.

1. Use Effective Support

It is not always easy to hold space when we want to help others to feel better and help them move through a challenging time. We want to fix their problems or give them solutions so that they can move through what they are experiencing. We want to give them every resource, everything that we feel may help them even though we may not know for certain it is what they want.
Often though, we share our desire to help in a problematic way for others to receive it. In my bereavement and death and dying studies where I spent four years understanding and unpacking grief, loss and transition, and then working with hundreds and hundreds of families over the course of eight years, I realized that our desire to help and encourage people to feel better can actually hinder how they feel and impede how they move through their times of hardship, loss and transition.

We often mean well, but in fact, we hurt others in a way that affects them profoundly. Instead of wanting to fix things and solve things, be there to support and listen, especially in your role as leader. You do not have to fix their problems. If it’s not your problem to fix, do not offer solutions, unless asked.
Instead what will be best received is when you share in their pain and ask how you can help.

“I hear you. I am sorry you are going through this. My heart aches for you. I feel for you.”

“What can I do to help? How can I be here to support you? What do you need?”

Give the person the opportunity to feel heard and understood. That is how we can help them move through a tough time or a tough transitional phase in their lives. Instead of offering suggestions on what will make them feel better, share in their pain and ask what you can do to help.

2. Share Through Authenticity

It’s not easy to hold space for others because we don’t want to seem weak. Going to a place of vulnerability is hard. It’s difficult to show others that we, too, are human and that we hurt and struggle, especially when we are in a leadership role. Whether you’re a parent, a manager, a COO or someone who’s running a multimillion dollar company, you don’t want others to perceive you as weak. You want others to know that you have the capability and the experience to move through it. But often, that lack of vulnerability and honesty with ourselves leads to critical mistakes because we try to do it all on our own and don’t ask for help and support. Instead of being honest, we hide what we are truly experiencing and we keep things to ourselves. In doing so, we feel that we are showing strength rather than weakness. Instead, what we are doing is cheating others of knowing the real truth.

Show your authenticity. Express what you are going through, or how you are feeling, with those whom you can trust. Let them know what you are experiencing. Show the vulnerable side of you in a way that encourages others to be honest with you too. As a leader, sharing what you have grown through, through your authentic and true self, will give others the space to be honest with you. It will build trust and ensure that others feel supported and not alone.

3. Show Empathy

Have you ever worried that by sharing a challenge or a tough situation that you will bring others down? We often feel that we have to park our honesty, especially as a leader, because we have the perception that by sharing, we will negatively impact others. But if you look back at a time when someone showed you their true vulnerability and their honest experience in going through a challenging time, you did not see them as weak nor did you see them as bringing you down. Instead, you aligned with them, you bonded with them, and you built a link to them based on the experiences that you were going through. You heard them, you supported them, and you met them where they were. Through that experience, you were able to join them on their journey. That is so important to do as a leader.

You cannot be afraid of bringing other people down by sharing the hardships you are going through. Instead, by being honest and vulnerable, you will bring them to meet you where you are. Together, you will move through it. Bring others together through the journey and share what you are going through so that you will be holding that sacred space for each other.

Empathy and giving people the room to breathe is a gift you can give to your team, to your staff, and to everyone in your life. Give others the opportunity to share what they are going through in a way that allows them to feel heard and supported. Together, you will move through each of the challenges knowing that you are not alone.

Find comfort in knowing that you can hold the space for challenging conversations and situations. Just relax into it. Don’t try to fix things. Instead, listen. Let others know that they are not weak, nor will they bring the team down, when they share and experience challenging times together. By working through challenging times together, you are demonstrating supportive leadership.

How do you demonstrate supportive leadership? Share in the comments an experience that you had that showed your vulnerability or encouraged others to share theirs. What was the end result? What did you discover? Share your experience in the comments.


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