Holding Space for Yourself and Others in DEI Conversations

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Organizations worldwide continue to grapple with how to address bias, discrimination, and inequity on an interpersonal and structural level. Amidst these discussions, the concept of holding space has emerged as a foundational skill that many leaders and those in formal or informal DEI positions need when discussing or witnessing a discussion related to these issues.

While the phrase holding space may resonate with therapists and counselors, its relevance extends beyond the therapy room. At our organization, we’ve understood holding space as a fundamental skill, particularly in navigating difficult DEI-related discussions. But what does it mean to hold space, and why is it essential when having meaningful and sometimes challenging conversations?

Let’s explore the nuances of holding space for yourself and others and how it intersects with DEI work in the workplace.

What is “Holding Space?”

As shared in Psychology Today, holding space “refers to the act of being fully present with someone else, without judgment or distraction, so that the person can share their experiences and perspective.” When we’re part of or leading DEI-related conversations, we want to offer people more than just a platform for dialogue. In DEI discussions, holding space becomes paramount as we navigate topics such as privilege, systems of oppression, or microaggressions and how they manifest in the workplace. These conversations can evoke strong emotions and require high sensitivity and understanding because employees face inequitable practices in their day-to-day workplace experience. It can be easy to think that DEI topics are intellectual while forgetting that it’s also personal and emotional. Having this understanding allows us to leverage the skill of holding space when addressing the parts of DEI that are indeed difficult, heartbreaking, and exhausting.

Holding Space for Others

Holding space for others involves actively creating a supportive and compassionate environment where individuals can share their thoughts, experiences, and emotions without fear of judgment or reprisal. It goes beyond mere listening—it’s about validating perspectives, demonstrating empathy or compassion, and providing a non-judgmental presence. By holding space for others, leaders and DEI practitioners facilitate open dialogue and cultivate a culture of trust and respect within the organization. From this place, we can become more curious about what someone on the other side might need instead of centering ourselves or deciding needs on behalf of someone else.

Holding Space for Yourself

Equally important is the concept of holding space for yourself. In the realm of DEI conversations, leaders and DEI practitioners need to be curious about ways to prioritize self-care, community care, and compassionate accountability. Holding space for yourself involves recognizing and managing your emotions, biases, and limitations. It requires self-awareness, self-compassion, and a willingness to engage in personal growth and development. To do this, accountability has to be part of the equation, in that we’re accountable to ourselves and others and, therefore, have to be reflective and honest about our strengths and growth areas. 

Leaders and DEI practitioners who learn to hold space for themselves are better equipped to navigate the challenges and complexities of DEI work. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leverage or ask for resources or support from others or our organizations. However, when we understand the importance of sustaining ourselves, we can sustain our energy and effectiveness in facilitating DEI initiatives by prioritizing our well-being and emotional resilience. Additionally, practicing self-compassion allows us to model healthy behavior and create a supportive culture where others feel encouraged to prioritize their overall wellness.