Hold the Space (How I Learned to Listen)
Teacher training is an interesting place to be in August. Right before the school year starts, teachers are a bit more relaxed and they have a natural curiosity and sense of exploration as they begin to tackle the new school year.
At one school in which I taught, we were asked to analyze some articles as part of our pre-service (meaning the professional development we do before students arrive). We were then asked to pair up and discuss the articles using a discussion guide. The guide would walk us through a discussion where would make assertions, arguments, and agreements about different parts of the article.
The one rule in our conversations that was new to me was this: when we shared our thoughts, only one person was allowed to speak at a time. And they had a full two minutes to say their piece before the next person was allowed to speak (this was managed by a timer). If they fell short of two minutes, we were instructed to “hold the space,” which means to just stay silent.
I didn’t get it.
Surely, it makes sense to wait until another person is done speaking, and really make sure they have said everything they need to say. But sitting in silence for potentially a full minute? It sounded unnecessary.
But I was wrong. This configuration taught me two things about how I listen:
- I’m usually waiting for my chance to speak. With the rule of not being able to chime in for two whole minutes, I was way more focused on what the other person was saying than on my response. I figured I’d have a little time to think about what I’d say after the two minutes was up. It is rare to have moments like these in conversation, where we truly tune in to the other person without a counter voice in our heads.
- If a person stopped speaking after 30 seconds or so, they’d usually explain “well, that’s all I can think of to say! I guess we sit here awkwardly now.” And so we would sit there awkwardly, and 90% of the time, the person would chime in with extra thoughts about 20 seconds later. The process taught me that silence is necessary to really draw out the juice of our thoughts, and that space can give our thinking definition.
Whenever I’m having a deep conversation with someone now, or perhaps an argument over something, I pretend that I’m back in summer teacher PD, and I hold the space. The other person doesn’t know that I’m using a structure. All they know is that they feel respected and heard, and that their thoughts are free to develop and grow like vines out of the ground.