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Holding Your Own Space As A Leader

Posted by Nisha Moodley

At the airport one recent morning, I heard a flustered mother say to her child, “I’m not going to give you any breakfast unless you stop crying.”

My heart sank. As a mother myself, I can empathize with how intensely frustrating parenting can be at times. But I also imagined what it would be like to be a small child feeling big emotions, and to have your only access to food be blocked by a parent.

I am not sharing this to shame this mother for how she reacted. I don’t know the entire situation, and I have compassion for what she might be going through. As a partner and a mother, I’ve become reactive many times.

I recognize that place in all of us where we boil over and lose our sh*t at times, unable to hold space for our own emotions, and becoming harsh or controlling towards others as a result.

Like everyone else, I am often hit with shocks of heartbreak when I read or watch the news or observe the harshness in people’s interactions with one another.

I’m saddened by the aggression, the violence, the bigotry, and the lack of care that causes (and comes from) so much pain.

It’s obvious that the pain intensifies when those in positions of leadership – whether it’s the president, a school teacher, or a parent – seek to harm a group or individual. In these cases, the damage runs deep.

But at times, we cause harm without intending to…

  • World leaders cause harm when they blow a fuse and impulsively lash out on Twitter.
  • A parent causes harm when they lose their temper, then shut down emotionally to their kids.
  • The boss causes harm when they take feedback personally and deflect responsibility.
  • A coach/facilitator causes harm when they get triggered by their clients/participants and react from that place.

By the way, we can extend this to all people in positions of power, regardless of whether they’ve earned that position or even want it…

  • Men cause harm when women’s stories of abuse trigger shame in them, and they respond by asking women to stop sharing their stories, or to “fix” the way they do it.
  • Straight and white-presenting folks cause harm when they’re afraid of change, so ask LGBTQI folks and people of color to make concessions that maintain aspects of the status quo.
  • We cause harm every time we’re uncomfortable with things or people that we perceive as “different,” and ask that those things or people look more “normal” so we can be more comfortable.

When you are in a leadership role (or a position of power) – leading a meeting, parenting, running a team, initiating a difficult conversation with a loved one, or engaging with someone who has historically held less power than you – there is a responsibility to hold the space with depth.

We must do our own heavy lifting, because of the imbalanced power dynamic.

To hold a space with depth is to be devoted to a vision or outcome that elevates and includes all beings (and all parts of ourselves), to have the humility and presence to know that we do not have all the answers and are not better than anyone else, and to be willing to be met with anything (including our own emotions) and stand fully present – responding with courage, compassion, curiosity, and care – in the face of it.

This is not supposed to be easy.

We will not be perfect.

…We may lose our patience and say things we regret.

…We may get triggered and shut down emotionally.

…We may feel uncomfortable or ashamed and respond defensively.

But that doesn’t let us off the hook for doing better.

It is not my child’s responsibility to adjust for my short fuse.

It is not my client’s responsibility to only express emotions I’m comfortable with.

It is not my team member’s responsibility to tend my fragile ego.

It is not a Black woman’s responsibility to protect me from feeling shame.

In spaces of leadership or positions of power, it’s critical that we learn to hold our own space, so we can hold space for whatever comes our way.

Holding space for ourselves is not about being stoic or emotionless; it’s about being present enough to breathe through whatever happens.

As a mother, as a coach, and as a community builder, developing my ability to hold space for myself and others has been the most important skill I’ve learned (and am still learning)

  • It allows me to show up in any situation without plans or strategies and listen for what’s needed.
  • It helps me “know” what to do and say in the moment, so I’m able to effectively lead or respond (which sometimes requires taking a back seat), even in challenging or complex circumstances.
  • It helps me navigate conflict with compassion, care, and grace.
  • It allows me to receive feedback and sort through what’s mine and what’s not.
  • It gives space for others to express themselves authentically, because they’re not contorting their expression to pander to my ego.
  • It has me respond from my humanity, with tenderness and vulnerability. This supports the empowerment of others, as it dismantles the hierarchical illusion of me as The Wise, All-Knowing Leader and others as my The Lost and Confused Followers.

By no means am I perfect… I have not always been good at holding space, and I am still learning every day. I’m only in the last few years getting more comfortable with conflict, and I still have a long way to go with holding my own space when I’m triggered by my partner.

As leaders, this is our work, though.

How to hold your own space:

Before responding in any situation (especially if you feel ungrounded or reactive), take a moment to breathe and relax your body. You can simply say “Let me take a moment…” When we come out of our minds and into our bodies, we’re less reactive, and deeper wisdom and clarity come through.

If you’re triggered, take whatever space you can (even if it’s a few breaths in the heat of the moment) to move past the story to find the upset part of you, and see if you can offer comfort to that part.  This upset childlike part of us often needs a steady, adult-like presence to soothe and comfort it, so we can respond from our wholeness.

See things from the other person’s point of view, without making it about you. Imagine what it would be like to be feeling and experiencing what they are, and rather than get on a high-horse about what would be a better way to respond, focus on the compassionate understanding you feel towards them. This can be the starting point for constructive dialogue.

To share how this has resonated with you, leave a comment below! And feel free to share this post with others.

We’ve got this,

Nisha