Episode 25 - Holding Space


Peter: Hey Jen.

Jen: Heeeey Peter.

Peter: Wow, that was quite an intro.

Jen: Yeah.

Peter: So I was recently reminded of the benefits, the power, and the importance of holding space for one another, and I wanted to share this with you, and get your thoughts, and unpack this idea of holding space.

Jen: Mmm, yes! So much yes. I think of you as a space-holding expert. You are very good at holding space for other people. And right now, listeners, he's going to hold some space for you. This is The Long and The Short Of It.

Peter: So a couple of weeks ago I was having a client conversation, a coaching client conversation with one of my one-on-one clients who is a change-maker, sort of beyond belief. She's one of those clients that I feel lucky enough to call a client. So I asked her a question, something like, "What's the hard part?" which most of you know is a pretty standard question from Pete Shepherd. And she proceeded to basically thrash for almost twenty minutes, and all I needed to do, what I realized that what I needed to do was hold space for her and allow her to do that, allow her the space to thrash. And so my role in that moment was to actively listen, to be present, to ask questions, to be quiet and to seek to understand without, like, any attachment to any outcome that I think. And so what was interesting was there was this, like, little loop in the back of my head, which I think can happen in these moments, which was, "How are you going to solve this problem, Pete? How are you going to solve this problem? How can you solve this problem?" And yet that, what I needed to remember, and what I luckily did remember is that, in this moment, it wasn't about me solving the problem for her, that the benefit, the power, the requirement of this particular moment, what the situation called for was me being generous enough to hold space for her, my client. And so I asked follow-up questions like, "Have you solved problems like this before?" And then again I was silent, and I actively listened, and I sought to understand has she solved a problem like this before? Now the short of it is, she had, and she ended up coming up with a strategy on this goal for how she can move forward. So I didn't come up with a solution to the problem; I merely held space and generously provoked her into coming up with her own solution for her own problem, which was just a great reminder for me on this idea of holding space.

Jen: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is something you have taught me about, which is the lamppost effect.

Peter: I knew you were going to say that.

Jen: So explain this for the people who don't know.

Peter: Okay. I love this metaphor, or this idea of the lamppost effect. So basically - there is a school of thought - I think I read it in a book, it might've been a book called The Prosperous Coach, terrible title, great book - and what they described is that you would benefit from walking up to a lamppost every single day and talking to it about the thing that's on your mind. The hard part, the tricky part, the conversation you had with a tricky coworker at work, or the argument that you had with your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, wife, whatever, that the act of going up to an inanimate object and speaking about it out loud would actually give you great benefit. That there is something, some sort of magic in this act of, like, talking problems out loud. And so what the book calls for is remembering that when you are coaching somebody or having a conversation with somebody, that sometimes your role is literally that other lamppost, to just stand there looking all lamppost-y and give them space and permission and silence to thrash out loud.

Jen: Well, I'm giggling inside, because when I think about the lamppost effect, you make a great lamppost, not only because you're a great listener, but because you're so darn tall. So I was trying to think of, like, what would my lamppost be? I'd be like, the standing lamp in your living room.

Peter: Or the fire hydrant. I'm thinking Jen, the fire hydrant.

Jen: Oh my gosh. That is so funny. Okay. It brought to mind an episode of, I think it was an episode of This American Life, which, I don't know if you'd listen to that because you're Australian, but This American Life where they do this story about a phone booth in China, in a city in China. It's, there's no phone service, it's just like, an old-fashioned phone booth where people go and they line up to go into the phone booth and pick up the phone - there's no dial tone, there's nothing on the other end - and behave as though they are talking to someone who is deceased. And they pour out all of these feelings into this inanimate object, the phone, and they experience this sort of cleansing and catharsis. And is exactly what you're talking about with the lamppost effect, that we need a space to let out all of our thoughts, good or bad, fully formed or half-baked. And this is, I mean, I have to call you out, Peter Shepherd, as having been a lamppost for me on so many occasions, I can't even count them. But you're a really expert at holding space, for allowing someone to just bring their ideas forth without having to put your own personal spin on whatever it is they're trying to unpack. So, gold star for you.

Peter: Thank you, Jennifer. I think what's cool about this is we've had a bunch of questions and comments and emails from listeners that have sort of said, "Well, how do you write the script for your episodes, and how do you know when to speak and when to listen? And do you know what Jen is going to say? And do you know what Pete's going to say?" And the answer is, like, we don't have a script. We literally just speak extemporaneously and listen. And in each episode, even right now, we are, like, acting as fire hydrants and lampposts. This idea of active listening is baked into the podcast, which I think is why it's, I think very transferable for the work that we do outside of this podcast.

Jen: So what I'm thinking about now is, by your very nature, you're good at holding space. I mean, maybe it's emotional labor for you, but in my experience of observing you, you're so good at it that it feels almost automated, your ability to listen. What I wonder is, in a moment where you, not meaning you Peter Shepherd, but you a human being, are triggered by something and normally would put up defenses, how can you choose holding space instead? For example, the dreaded, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" question. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" So instead of starting to play the tape in your head of - or the MP3 in your head for you millennials - of "What did I do wrong? I have to find my defenses so that I can defend myself against whatever this person is going to say," what if, instead, that triggered this, the tape in your head that plays, "I'm here to hold space." I'm really interested in that.

Peter: Yeah, I think this goes to empathy, and what we've talked about before of seeking to understand, of like, when faced with something that's triggering, it's hard, but if we are to be leaders, creatives, humans with a more empathetic posture, we need to accept - back to this idea of sonder - that everyone is acting in a way that they believe is right, and that we should seek to understand how and why that might be the case. Now your, the other point that you mentioned around, like, "Do you have a minute?" the reason I recoil when I hear that is because usually that means, "Have you got sixty-five minutes? Not just one."

Jen: "Hey, listen, I'll hold space for you but I am turning on the timer."

Peter: Right, no, you laugh about that, but I think that there are, there is a time and a place to set a container for what holding space looks like. And we've talked about constraints before, around having the time constraint of twenty minutes, or the time constraint of sixty minutes, or whatever the time constraint is. There is actually power, I think, in a lamppost slash human setting a container to be like, "Listen, yes I've got seven minutes, or five minutes, or ten minutes. Shoot," and then being strict enough to say, "After that time I've held space, I need to go, because I imagine you've got things to do and places to be." So I think that's fair.

Jen: Ooh, ooh, ooh, I'm so interested in this. So the thing that - okay, I'm spit-balling here, so this may or may not be a legible idea - but the idea that you put boundaries and constraints around holding space, it puts a sense of urgency into the conversation, which I think is always useful, it creates a bit of tension, which I think is also useful. And I also think, to your point about unlimited space-holding, that if you offer someone unlimited space, you may also be offering them a space in which to hide and avoid other things that they must face. So I love the idea that you would say, "Yes, I have seven minutes," and so I have to cut to the chase in those seven minutes, and then I have to step back into the rest of my life. So I'm, is that a real idea? Am I - what is that?

Peter: I think so. I think, for sure, I mean there's this, the idea of the Law of Diminishing Returns after, I think it's like, fifteen to twenty minutes on crisis hotlines, it's like, the theory is that beyond that is almost, you can't necessarily get any more value out of continuing to talk about the same thing after twenty to twenty-five minutes. And I may have butchered the reference there, but essentially it's this idea that talking about the same thing for seven hours will probably yield the same result of talking about it for twenty-five minutes, in that you'll, otherwise you'll just keep kind of going round in circles. So I think there is weight and value and benefit for both the lamppost and the person speaking to the lamppost in generously adding a container, being like, "Listen, I'm happy to hold space for you for the next seven minutes, or ten minutes, and let's see where we get to."

Jen: Mmm, ,now I'm connecting to, this is a distant far off tangent, but I'm hoping that I can reach out and grab it and pull it in.

Peter: You can do it.

Jen: So, recently I had a conversation with someone who's in the neuroscience field, and he was sort of explaining to me how our brains can become - I'm using very non-sciency terms right now - oversaturated with new information as we're trying to train a skill in ourselves. So then I asked him, "So I'm thinking about the work that I do with my private coaching clients where we have a one hour session together, and I also think about the voice lessons that I take with my voice teacher, and those are one hour sessions. Would it be more useful, based on that information, for me not to do sixty minutes at a time, but to find someone else to book a two-hour block and for us to rotate every twenty minutes in and out of the studio?" And basically he was like, "Yes, that is one way to do this, but the other thing is to acknowledge that you can switch activities, or switch things that you're actually training, and still reap the benefits of the training." So where I'm trying to like, reach out for the tangent and pull this in is that, as coaches, what you and I are trying to do for our clients is train them to function without us, ultimately.

Peter: Yeah.

Jen: So the idea of giving more than the amount of time that's actually required, leaning into this idea of the Law of Diminishing Returns, also based on what I understand about the brain part of this, we're not actually training them anymore to express themselves or problem-solve if it goes beyond a certain period of time. Does that make any sense?

Peter: It does. It totally makes sense to me. And I think the disclaimer I would put it is, I'm not saying that we should get rid of the idea of having a one-hour conversation or a two-hour conversation, because I think there's value in it. But, to your point is, and I, I certainly do this as a coach and I know you do, is like, when you feel like you've talked about the same thing for long enough, change the topic, ask a question about, like, something else, talk about something almost completely unrelated, and then if it feels right, come back to it. That set first thing is like, just don't continue to hold space for the same specific thing over and over and over.

Jen: Ooh, I also have to call out, history lesson, Peter Shepherd, when you and I first started working together, and we had all of these crazy amazing breakthroughs in a row. How long were our calls? Twenty minutes.

Peter: Twenty minutes. Yeah. I remember you actually said that to me. It was like, I love that we can do this in twenty minutes, and not have to sit around for an hour. And I was like, that's very New York of you, Jen. But yes, it's a beautiful constraint, and it's working for us. We did, like, I remember we were saying it's amazing how far we got in twenty minutes.

Jen: It's really true. And if we had sixty, we probably, well I, it's hard to say. We might not have gotten where we got.

Peter: Yeah, totally. I think that the other thing I would say about this is, like, as humans and as coaches and as creatives and leaders for anyone out there, and it's like have permission to experiment, try the twenty-minute time constraint. Try the sixty minute one, try a five minute one, see how far you can get by holding space for people. Because I think, I think, back to this lamppost idea, back to this idea of holding space, ultimately what we're doing is helping people feel seen, helping people feel heard, and that I think is like, the crux of what it means to connect with a human being. It's like, someone who thinks that they've felt, or someone who feels seen, someone who feels heard is going to walk away from that conversation going, "Wow, I feel so much better about that now. Like, they actually listened, they asked questions, they cared enough." And yes, we do this as coaches, but I think everyone can do this as human beings. It's like, see each other, hear each other, ask each other questions, hold space for one another and be fire hydrants and lampposts for one another.

Jen: Wow. This was a Shepherd-ian mic drop. Quite good, quite useful. And I'd love to throw a challenge out to the listeners today: actively choose to hold space for someone and see what happens.

Peter: Hmm. Maybe that can be The Long and The Short Of It.