Heather Plett: On Holding Space and Mutual Liberation (S.3, Ep.5)

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About this episode

In this episode, we talked to Heather Plett  about what it means to practice “holding space” for ourselves and others, what it looks like when we hijack space, how holding space is an act of mutual liberation, and the practice of honoring shared needs and shared responsibility in community.

Heather is an author, facilitator, teacher, and co-founder of the Centre for Holding Space, where you can find courses and other offerings that support the “liberation and sovereignty of all people.”

Her book, “The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadershipempowers you with constructive, actionable practices for transforming conflict, building boundaries, and increasing sovereignty in your own life – and the lives of those closest to you.

Resources

Heather’s book: The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership

The Centre for Holding Space

Jessica references this course she took that was led by Heather

Transcript

[music]

Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together, to improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly-changing world. Here to start the conversation, are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.

Bob Bertsch: Hi, and welcome to the Practicing Connection in a Complex World Podcast. I’m Bob Bertsch.

Jessica Beckendorf: I’m Jessica Beckendorf. I’m really excited about today’s guest. I’m an admirer of Heather’s work, having read her book, and taking a four-week workshop led by her earlier this year. I was so thrilled when Heather agreed to be a guest on this show. Before we get started, though, Bob, can we share a little bit about the resource we created.

Bob: We just want to remind you again that we’ve created a resource based on our 2021 asset-based community recovery workshops. It’s a booklet that’s full of practical ideas that you can use to boost your community building and deepen your relationships. You can sign up for our monthly email newsletter and you’ll get a copy of that resource automatically. It’s developed exclusively for our subscribers. If you’re already signed up as a member of the practicing connection community, and you’d like to receive the booklet, hey, just email us, it’s oneopnetworkliteracy@gmail.com.

Jessica: As I hinted to you before, our guest on this episode is Heather Plett. Heather is an author, facilitator, teacher and co-founder of the Center for Holding Space, where you can find courses and other offerings that support the liberation and sovereignty of all people. Her book, The Art of Holding Space, A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership, and a book that I very much recommend, empowers you with constructive actionable practices for transforming conflict, building boundaries, and increasing sovereignty in your own life and the lives of those closest to you. Getting into the conversation, welcome, Heather.

Heather Plett: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Jessica: Think it’s so wonderful to have you here. I still am just excited that you said yes when we put out the request. Let’s get started with just the idea of holding space, could you tell me a little bit about what it means to hold space for each other?

Heather: Holding space is really– and to be honest with you, every time I define it, I add something different to the definition. It’s a bit of an evolving definition, but the way I’ve defined it in my book and continue to teach it is that holding space is really what we do when we walk alongside each other, and when we do that, we choose to do that in a way that honors each other’s sovereignty, as you said in the introduction.

When I hold space for you, I honor your right to your autonomy, I honor your right to making your own decisions, I don’t try to impose my own beliefs on you, I don’t try to change you, or direct you or judge you or belittle you. I show up in a way that’s full of love and liberation, and that allows you to be liberated in your life. It’s really an evolving practice that allows us to be in relationships where we are each individually held and supported in a connected way, so it’s not separating us from each other, but it’s allowing us to be in that place of mutual support and compassion, and love and liberation.

Bob: When I hear you describe that, Heather, it sounds like, “Oh, yes. Awesome. I do that all the time.” [chuckles] I feel like maybe that it’s not that easy. What are the ways that we might be failing to do this, even when we think we’re being supportive of other people?

Heather: Right. One of the things that often comes as a surprise for people when they take my courses, I have an eight-month program on holding space, our foundation program. One of the things that surprises people is to hold space for other people, I have to do a lot of work on myself first. I have to be willing to hold space for myself first, and what so often trips us up is that when we try to hold space for each other, it’s going to surface a lot of our own shame and insecurity and vulnerability. When I’m faced with your struggles or your grief, it might bring up my own, or it’s bringing up my need to fix the situation so that I feel safe.

It might be some of my trauma that’s being triggered. There are so many things that we can do wrong, and there’s so many things we can do that really the opposite of holding space. I use the term hijacking space when we’re now trying to, because of our own baggage, because of our own pain and history and trauma, we might want to try to control each other, or we might try to direct the outcome and make sure things work out the way we want them to.

Like if you’re in a place of deep sadness, and I sit alongside you, I don’t want you to be sad, I want to fix you. I might start offering you solutions for your sadness, I might start telling you, “Hey, you should do this and then do that.” Now you’re starting to feel, not held, but hijacked. You’re starting to feel like, oh, so I’m not good enough in this moment, or you can’t just sit with me and be sad with me. Those are the things, it’s really human tendency to want each other to be happy and to want to fix this situation, but sometimes that’s a violation. That’s what I talk about when I talk about hijacking space instead of holding space.

Jessica: As you’re talking, it’s occurring to me that the idea of holding space really scales or it can really scale. I remember from the class I took that you were leaving, there was, talk about interconnectedness and– But when I work with community groups, I see hijacking all the time, I also see holding space all the time, I see all of the different concepts you’re talking about. I would say I probably see hijacking probably more than any of the others. That’s not to say that I’m criticizing the groups I’m working with it, it’s just more as I deepen my facilitation practice and my group practices, I’m noticing things more. I think that’s more what’s happening.

I’m now in a space where I’m trying to struggle to figure out how I can help these groups better. How can we stop these patterns that we’re constantly getting into? Just leading into that, when you think about mutual liberation, because that’s how I also think about these groups of people working together, but even in one-on-one conversations, how does holding space support the mutual liberation? Does it work when one party is not aware of their ability or inability to hold space for the other or do both people need to be in it?

Heather: I think it really depends on this situation. It’s hard to say a complete blanket statement about what the question you’re asking because I can hold space for somebody who’s in a lot of pain and they don’t necessarily need to understand what holding space is or what I’m doing. If one of my kids comes in, and my kids are now grown, but when they were little, if they come in just really upset because somebody bullied them in the playground or something like that, they come to me, I can hold space for them without it being mutual liberation. It’s really just more me showing up in a compassionate way to hold them tenderly.

Then it increases in complexity as our relationships can increase in complexity, as our community is increasing complexity, the way we hold space and show up for each other has to increase in complexity too. Maybe you can rephrase your question. I just suddenly, I’m trying to remember wanted to make sure that I’m actually answering your question.

Jessica: No, it’s my fault because I was thinking out loud at the same time. Actually, and as you’re saying the increasing in complexity, that’s actually getting closer to what I think I really wanted to ask, which was as that complexity increases, how can we support that level of liberation for each other when maybe not everyone is doing it for each other, not everyone is reciprocating and–

Heather: One of the things, and this is hard to control or there really is no control at this stage of this process, but one of the things that you really have to work with with groups that grow increasingly complex is how do we create an environment where each person takes responsibility for their own stuff and does not project it, does not deflect it onto other people, does not assume other people are responsible for looking after this.

Because that’s where the complexity comes in, where you have some people that become easily wounded by other people, or some people are very defended in their position or that, and they don’t necessarily recognize that as their own stuff so they need somebody else to fix it. The more you work with complexity, the more you need people to be willing to show up with some emotional maturity and owning their own stuff that’s in the room.

I had this really quite profound moment when I was teaching a workshop in the Netherlands one time where there was just some discord in the room. It wasn’t quite working. I couldn’t quite name it. I invited the participants to help me understand it. Somebody had this brilliant thought. He brought a new talking piece into the room and I won’t go into all the details, but it was a piece of dried-up camel shit.

He suddenly said, “I picked this up this morning.” He had it at home from a vision quest he’d been on, because he said, “I suddenly realized that what’s going in the room is that we’re all throwing our own shit at each other instead of taking responsibility for ourselves.” Some of it was being projected onto me as the leader.

It was such a profound moment where everybody in this humorous way could just recognize the needs I have the pain, I have the trauma I have. It’s all showing up in the room and I’m not taking responsibility for how I hold it. That’s why really in some ways the most critical piece of this work is how do I hold space for myself so that I can show up in a way where I can also support people in doing that and that’s where you can’t do the complexity work without naming and starting to work through that thing.

Bob: How does that look, and feel I guess? As a facilitator or as a participant, is it a tamping down? Is it like I need to set this stuff aside or I guess you’re saying you’ve already worked through? You have a comfort level with your own trauma and pain that allows you to not project it? How do we stop projecting it? [laughs] Maybe I’m projecting it right now, who knows?

Heather: Often it’s mostly a case of starting with naming it. If I can speak it out loud, it doesn’t mean I have to have it all fixed. If you and I are in a position of conflict and I’m projecting things onto you and I’m like, it’s all your fault, et cetera. If you can get people in the room in this situation like that to take a pause moment, go out for a walk, do something that shifts that energy and say, “Please let’s each of us look at what we’re bringing into the room.”

One of the practices that’s the foundation of the holding space work that I rely on heavily is the circle way practice and in that practice, we talk about there being a leader in every chair. A leader in every chair is just inviting people to take ownership and take leadership for what you are responsible for. Sometimes it’s just like I say if we can take a pause, hit the pause button. People can do their own self-reflection work and understand. I need to own the fact that I may be projecting stuff onto you or I own the fact. It doesn’t mean I have to fix it all in that moment. It just means I’m going to own the fact.

Another story in Netherland actually I came to the room in really a heightened trauma state. I had been in a car accident the week before, had number of things that were going on. I didn’t realize until part way into the workshop that my body was in a hypervigilant mode as the facilitator and that was being projected into the room. Part way through when I realized what was going on, I spoke that out loud.

I said, “Look, I realized that I brought that into the room because my experiences last week and you guys are being impacted by that. I want to just name it. I can’t necessarily fix it right now but I want to say it out loud that this is going on for me.” That allowed them to hold space for me differently. That allowed them to say, so what Heather’s going through, that’s not my problem anymore. I can support her, but I don’t have to try to resolve what she’s dealing with.

Jessica: Some of the offerings that I have in my work and some of the things I’ve done in the past, we always say start with knowing yourself really. You need to know yourself as well as possible and I’m curious you mentioned that you have this longer course and I know that’s part of it. Just using your course as an example but we could go another way with this, but how much time is spent on that? I know that there’s never an endpoint, but at the same time when you’re digging into this idea of being able to hold space for others, knowing yourself well enough so that you can do that, how much time [chuckles] is spent on that? I know that’s a complex question, sorry. [chuckles]

Heather: Well, it’s interesting because it’s actually an evolving thing, because when I first created this program, it’s now called the Holding Space Foundation Program, because I’ve launched with a business partner, the Centre for Holding Space. Before that, it’s been around for about six or seven years. When I first created it, it was the Holding Space Coach Facilitator Program. When I first created it, we had the first module was on holding space for other people, and that was a bit of a longer module. Then we had a fairly short, like four week module on holding space for yourself. Then we went into complexity and holding space in groups like circle stuff, and then holding space in coaching relationships.

That second module was only four weeks long, and it was a six-month program. We realized fairly quickly like, within the first time offering it that was far too short, because people soon as they got to that module, it’s like we’d hit them with a two-ton truck. It was like, “Oh my gosh, like this is the work. This is what I have to go deep in, and this is complex, and this is going to-” We since have expanded on the program, is now eight months long, because we expanded that particular unit especially. We gave extra spaciousness in between modules because people needed that time to do that internal processing.

Since then, we’ve created more programs. I’ve just created and we’re just wrapping up the first offering of it of a program called Know Yourself, Free Yourself, which is about deepening that self-understanding, self-reflection, so you can be in more liberated relationships with each other and more loving and liberated relationships. My answer to that question is that I’m just the really over the course of the last seven years, understanding the depth of how much we have to put into that, that personal reflection piece that I underestimated at the beginning.

Bob: Do you think, I think Jessica alluded to earlier about this scaling, is it more like fractals in that you have to build this practice, maybe in the way that you introduced it in your blog posts, like in a very small, small group, not small moment, but small, personal opportunity and like, figure out how do I hold space for my partner or my child or something before we’re getting to community or, maybe it’s not like that, maybe it’s, you can start where you want to start.

Heather: The interesting thing is that it didn’t come to me that way. When you use that word scaling up, I think it actually sometimes has to scale down so that it can scale up. I think that fractal nature, but also the kind I often refer to the spiraling, like you got to spiral inward to spiral outward. I use labyrinths a lot in my work, it’s really going inward so that you can come outward with the gifts of what was there at the center. Partly because when I think of my own history with this language, I learned the term holding space from studying facilitation.

I think it was the first person who started using it, Harrison Owen, who does open space technology. That was the lineage of the concept of holding space. He was talking about it as a facilitation methodology. I understood it on a certain level, but then it wasn’t until I really personalized it, took it really close to home and then expressed it in the language. The blog post that went viral was about my mum dying, and being at her bedside and writing that blog post about holding space on the small scale.

Then the follow-up blog post, because I wrote that one and suddenly realized, “Oh, wait a second, we hope that a hold space for ourselves because these people [unintelligible 00:19:08].” I went even smaller, it’s not even just holding space for my mom. “Okay, wait a second, I got to go even more intimate with this, how do I hold space for myself?” Then that was what allowed me then to come outward and grow the work to hold space for now global communities.

I think there’s actually a rhythm to that too because I’ve had that happen in my life a few times where it’s like, “Okay, now you’re expanding outward to hold bigger circles and now it’s time to return to a more intimate space and go intimate with this work again and then–” It’s a bit of a pulsing, a bit of a– I mean fractal in a sense, but also this rhythm to go bigger, come closer, go bigger, contracting and expanding.

Jessica: That’s been a theme this week. It keeps coming up for me the zooming in and zooming out. As I think about what you’re saying, it’s almost like a rhythm and it might be one of those rhythms that doesn’t end that we need to just keep. We need to accept that we are always learning and growing. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes and to this day, I’m not sure if this quote is from Lois Holtzman or Lev Vygotsky because Holtzman studies Vygotsky. It could be a mix of both but it’s, “We are who we are and we are who we are becoming.”

That to me also speaks to this rhythm and this pulsing that you’re talking about. I feel it all the time and I think when I’m not engaging in any personal reflective practices, I start to feel very overwhelmed and lost. Then I can reground myself by picking up my practices again. Why I ever lose my practices, I don’t know, because without them I end up feeling overwhelmed and lost [chuckles] and unable to hold space for anyone.

Thinking about the scaling up, one of the things that was really intriguing to me was when in that class that you were, when you started talking about shared needs and responsibility and then when the demands come from systems rather than individual community members which I think we see all the time. When you talk about, I guess I have a two-parter, what does it look like to honor a shared needs and responsibility? Then what does it feel like when demands come from systems rather than individual community members?

Heather: Yes, those are two complex questions and I’ll start with, the subtitle of my book is The Art of Holding Space, A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership. I have been really focusing a lot of energy and just zeroing and talking about scaling down those words, love, and liberation. I’m really committed to the intersection of love and liberation. In the course I’m teaching right now, Know Yourself For Yourself, we’re talking about, if I know myself, if I love myself, I have to also be in loving and liberated relationships with other people because I can’t liberate myself without also understanding that there are people extended out for me, there are systems extended out for me, that also need to be liberated.

I have to be in that collective space of recognizing both the individual role and the systemic role. How am I part of a larger pattern? How am I contributing to oppressive systems? How have I benefited from oppressive systems? It is both a personal and a political. We can’t separate one from the other. When you ask the question around how do I talk about those things in terms of systems or individual impact on me, I don’t know that we can ever entirely separate them because if I witnessed you as another person who– Small scale, for example, you and I are in different countries with different really understandings of the world based on our worldview of where we live, how we’re impacted by political systems.

I want to bring some of that awareness and some of that just willingness to understand into our relationship. You are impacted by an American system, you’re impacted by a political system that is somewhat different. Certainly, we have familiarities. I’m in a Canadian system that has different issues, different traumas, different pain points, different baggage, different oppressions, and some similarities. I want to be able to witness other people as part of systems and myself as part of systems. When I can bear that understanding, bring that understanding and some awareness to it, then I can support your liberation more because it doesn’t have to look like my liberation.

It’s going to be slightly different and we are all white presenting on this call. I don’t know your full history or anything, but if we then add a person who is a person of color, a person with a disability, we add all of these complexities into the picture, if we only ever talk about our individual liberation, we’re missing all of this. narrative all of the stories of what brought us to this place, what has formed us, shaped us, traumatized us, and what do we need to change so that everybody in the circle has access to love and liberation collectively. It’s so important to me.

When I talk about the scaling up scaling down, that has to happen on multiple levels. I have to see you, I sit here on Zoom, look at you and see you as an individual and you’re allowed your own complexity. I also see the invisible screen behind you that represents all of what you are connected to, all of the systems you’re part of. Those two things can’t be taken apart.

Bob: Yes. There’s some things, sorry I hope this is not too much of a non sequitur. There’s some things that when I read your blog, the original blog post, that we’ve referenced a couple of times, there’s a couple of things in there and we started talking about them earlier about fixing I’m a fixer, so apologies. It’s my first reaction. That’s something I’m trying to work on.

There are some things like when you outline what holding space looked like in that situation at that time that you wrote the blog post to you, some of the things about like not taking power away or giving people only as much information as they can handle. I don’t know, it starts to imply a power relationship that preexists and maybe that’s systemic, maybe that’s where that power relationship is or maybe that’s internal just like my thing of fixing things. “I can fix your problem, Jessica. No problem.” My first reaction. “Why have you tried this instead of actually holding space?”

Anyway, what I’m trying to tease apart is that there seems like maybe there’s some tension between being a loving, liberating person who’s holding space and being a facilitator coach, trying to think how I’m going to hold space. Does that make sense?

Heather: Yes, I think I hear what you’re saying. That’s why there are chapters in the book that specifically talked about holding space in complexity where there’s imbalance of power and privilege. One of the things that we do have to recognize when we are the facilitator, if we’re getting paid to be in the room or getting paid for a certain outcome or something, there is some power involved.

When, for example, in the blog post, I wrote about the medical field that was supporting my mom dying there is a certain power in having that kind of status in a community of being a medical professional of some sort. Power is always at play in our relationships and it’s at play in our systems and that’s not a bad thing. It is a real thing. Sometimes you need it. Sometimes you need an authority figure to make decisions to be the one that pays the bills, whatever reason.

Part of my task as a person who holds space is to understand and parse out. When do I need to name that power? When is that power becoming a barrier? When is that power not supporting us in our relationship? Doesn’t mean I need to destroy the power that’s going on. It simply means I need to examine it and be willing to deconstruct it so that I can hold space for you.

When some of it that’s the complexity of it is that we have been trained into certain expectations of who has power too. Even if you say that you’re a fixer, for example, when you start to do your self-reflection work, you might discover that there was an expectation in male presenting people in your culture or something that you were supposed to be the ones in the culture who fix things who resolve things.

There’s layers of reasons why you show up in the world in that way. You can’t, again like I say, you can’t examine that just as an individual thing, you have to start looking into the systems of how have the systems constructed certain people to have more power, certain people to have more expectation around whether things get fixed or not and who does that mean is now being empowered in this system? All of that needs to be present when I’m trying to hold space for someone understanding that I’m trying to do my best and recognizing that my best is always going to be somewhat flawed because I can’t deconstruct all of that in this moment.

That’s where I also talk a lot about bringing grace into this situation. It’s “Yes, we’re going to mess up sometimes. We’re going to trip on our own systemic baggage that we bring in our trauma.” If we’re willing to be honest and say, “Oh, hey, wait a second. I just realize I’m speaking in the voice of the patriarchy right now and how can we hold that in this circle that allows us to begin to work through and rearrange some of those systemic challenges we’ve faced?”

Jessica: If I can add to that, it feels like that would also allow people to speak and to move forward without fear that they’re going to do something wrong if they can accept. They can accept that they’re probably going to make a mistake and that everyone in the room is probably going to make a mistake and that we’re all trying to do better and we’re all trying to do better together. I feel like that would make some conversations like in some of the groups that I work with, a lot more fruitful.

One of the things that’s going through my mind too, is that it seems like being in this kind of work together in whatever group you might be working with, or even in on an individual basis takes time. A common tension that I’ve noticed is that people don’t want to take time [laughs] for relationships, for thinking through how we might interrupt the status quo beyond the status quo ideas that we get when we actually do have conversations about it because everyone wants to get right to solutions and talking about tasks and breaking the task.

Like I’m going to do this one, Heather, you do that task, and then next month we’ll come back and we’ll update each other on what our progress has been. There’s nothing wrong with going in and digging in and doing work right away. I have noticed that’s another observation. Is that something you’ve experienced? How has that, have you addressed that?

Heather: There’s a few things I’ll say about that. First of all, I think that we need to examine our attachment to perfectionism first of all because I think perfectionism is in many ways, the enemy of liberation. When we start getting caught up in the traps of needing to do things perfect and evaluating ourselves by some arbitrary measurement system, then we’re not liberating ourselves. Then we’re staying trapped in old systems that measure our worth, and we’re not honoring our own worthiness. I think we need to examine that.

We also need to examine, like I said, what are the systems that are at play? If we are in a group that is rushing really quickly to solutions to answers, and they’re not willing to take the time to examine so what is the pressure of that? I talk about big systems, but there’s also smaller systems like what’s at play here. Why is there a boss who keeps putting pressure on people to have to make money because we’re living in a capitalist culture and you got to make money out of what we’re doing or what are the pressures? Can we dismantle those pressures so that we can give ourselves the grace of time, give ourselves that spaciousness?

I agree most of this work, this is not quick work. It’s complicated, it’s fuzzy, there’s going to be road bumps along the way, and especially when it comes to self-reflection and that deep-diving that we need to do, it’s not the kind of work we can make a lot of money off quite frankly in a capitalist system. We have to find ways of disrupting what’s going on so that we can grant ourselves that spaciousness.

I would love to see a culture where we figure that out, where we figure out how to just set it, how to value that kind of work because it’s so much easier to value the productive work. You get a project done. You’re obviously contributing to a meaningful development of whatever the business is you’re in. If you spend two weeks at a retreat, people will just call you a navel gazer and tell you you’re wasting a lot of time. We just simply don’t value that kind of commitment to time. What do we need to do as leaders, as facilitators to encourage people to value things differently in that regard?

Bob: I love where that is going because I think, and I definitely do this myself as I am afraid to name what our work is about. No, I say our work, the work Jessica and I do together. Sometimes we do. It’s like we pull back the curtain is like, this is about a different world. [laughs] Then they go, “But you could also use it to whatever, get more work done with your team or something.” You’re trying to find the practicality of it, how people can use these things in their daily lives to be happier more successful or whatever that means. It’s always in a lot of this work collective action work networks and things and the work that you’re doing is like, what we’re really talking about here is a whole different way of doing humanity, I guess.

Heather: Deconstructing our belief systems around what has value and you’re right, it often feels like we’re pushing a boulder up the hill because there’s so much in our zeitgeist, in our collective consciousness about what has value and what doesn’t and what we can name. It took me a long time even really understanding what I was doing for a living and let alone figuring out how to tell other people what I was doing for a living. We don’t even have the language for it because it’s countercultural. It doesn’t fit in our frame of the world. Yet, if we don’t do it, then we continue to keep the patterns in place that have always been there. You do things the same way again and again.

I really encourage people to spend time and retreat to pull back, to take the wider view to spend time, take your people, take your leadership teams into quiet spaces in nature and just be present for what’s going on. And it’s not going to feel like productive time but it’s going to change us and change the way that we show up for our work.

Bob: Heather, thank you so much for this conversation, for the work that you do and all of the positive energy that you’re putting out in the world. We appreciate you joining us.

Heather: Thank you very much for having me.

Jessica: That’s it for this episode. Thanks again to our guest Heather Plett, for joining us for this conversation. We’d also like to thank our announcer Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing and Nathan Grimm, who composed and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. Finally, thank you for joining us. We hope you’ll join us again soon. In the meantime, keep practicing.

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Kalin: Practicing Connection in a Complex World is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense, under award number 2019-48770-30366.

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