Holding Space: The UU Spiritual Practice of Listening

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

MVUUF Member Ria Megnin – June 12, 2016


Part One: The Story of Ann

  • How many social workers or former social workers are in the room today? Turns out we have a ton of you at the Fellowship…
  • Must have worn off on me. I am going to grad school for social work and public affairs in August.
  • Not surprisingly: I love the stories on Facebook about these people, social workers and others, who help others, providing counseling and connections and services to get through life when it’s just too hard to do on our own.
  • Here’s one. It’s by Heather Plett.

What it means to “hold space” for other people and how to do it well

by Heather Plett

“When my mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.

While we supported mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.

‘Take your time,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.’

Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.

In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played in our lives. She was much more than what can fit in the title of “palliative care nurse”. She was facilitator, coach, and guide. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.

The work that Ann did can be defined by a term that’s become common in some of the circles in which I work. She was holding space for us.

What does it mean to hold space for someone else? 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.

Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, for example, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom. Though I know nothing about her support system, I suspect that there are others holding space for Ann as she does this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, etc., need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.

… Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.”

(Read more at heatherplett.com .)

Part 2: Examples of being held

  • Heather goes on to list eight important ways to hold space for each other well – things like giving people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom, allowing them to make different decisions and have different experiences than you would, and keeping our own ego out of it.
  • But I’m going to turn things around. I’d like you to think, for the next few minutes, about some of the people in your life who have held space for you.
  • It doesn’t always happen around a deep grief or trauma. Sometimes it’s about holding space for something emerging in you. And while you’re thinking, I’ll give you a few of my own, personal examples.
  • Nancy Wilson – awkward kid on literally the wrong side of the tracks. Sailing as companion/babysitter. Riding bike over and talking about books and college and life. Recruited me to first job.
  • Seibukan Jujutsu “You’re done with martial arts for now” and Red Lightning women’s ceremonial space. Nurturing of womanhood.
  • Eventually led to needing to leave California and my very non-nurturing life as a journalist, which led to the cradle of Dayton and the welcoming home and family I’ve discovered here.

Part 3: Sharing how we’ve been held

  • So have you got a few memories of people holding space for you?
  • Now, I’m going to borrow from Rev. Greg’s model at our leadership retreat last month, and invite you to find one or two people who you would like to get to know better, and come sit with them. Before you choose, though, let’s use this as a great chance to practice holding space. I’ll bet there’s a tiiiiiiny chance a couple of people here feel a little shy or anxious about finding a group to sit with. Maybe you’re a first-time visitor and don’t know anyone at all! Maybe you were like me growing up, and nobody wanted to be seen talking with or sitting with you at lunch or recess, and having to ask people to connect is more than a little scary. You might have some mobility challenges around getting up and moving. Or maybe you always do the picking, and you’d like to see if someone would actually like to come sit with you, for a change.
  • So let’s start like this. I’m going to invite anyone who’d like someone to pick them and come over to sit with you to raise your hand. Everyone else, this is your chance. This is your opportunity. Those raised hands are an invitation to finally get to know these amazing, brave people better! 
  • We’re going to take turns now for two minutes each, and share some ways that people have held space for you.

Part 4: Sharing how we hold each other

  • Thank you, please stay together in your groups for the last few minutes.
  • Coming to Dayton wasn’t easy. I had to rebuild from the ground up. MANY people held space for me back then, especially Genevieve Harvey and Denny Smith and many others who I met through MVUUF and our Non-Violent Communication classes. As the years went on, MVUUF became a powerful chalice of transformation and support – helping me find faith in my own leadership again, explore the crucial work of examining white privilege and classism, and take my first clumsy steps on the path toward social justice. Heck, you even helped me get married! Every single one of you has had an impact on my life and helped make me the person I am today, on the path of Social Work and Public Affairs, committed to becoming a better citizen and a better human. And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that. This community is truly extraordinary.
  • So I invite you to do one more round with your partner you’re getting to know, and ask each other to name a way that MVUUF has held space for you at some time of your life, whether it was 40 years ago or whether it was right here, today.


  • We’ve already called out the social workers in the room. How about some of the others who hold space for people in your daily lives? Raise your hand if you are now or ever have been among these groups of wonderful brave people:  Teachers, nurses and medical professionals, coaches, ministers, tutors, counselors, therapists, janitors and cleaners, part of our Armed Forces, journalists, compassionate attorneys, financial advisors, politicians, firefighters, naturalists, Scout leaders, caregivers for children, caregivers for older family members, entertainers, musicians, cooks, restaurant servers, safe drivers, church committee members, volunteers, anyone I’m missing? Oh yeah! The coffee makers.
  • Let’s give each other a hand for ALL the ways we hold space for each other every day!