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Female MS patient relaxes with her partner on a beanbag discussing mental and physical health

Holding Space and the Art of Listening: 4 Habits of Good Listeners

Reading time | 3 mins
Providing a ‘holding space’ can go a long way to support someone with a mental or physical condition.


We all strive to be a good friend, partner or parent. When someone we love is in need of support, we all try our hardest to help in any way we can. My husband lives with depression and certain times of the year is especially difficult for him when he misses family members that have gone too early from his life.

It’s tough because I cannot physically help him, as much as I would like to.

Holding space’ is a new term that is used more and more by support workers – from caregivers to psychologists to yogis – and is essentially just that: creating a space to be there for someone, without judgment or ego and creating a space for them by listening to their worries and fears.

How to be a good listener  

I used to think I was a good listener, but I recently discovered, to my surprise, that I have some way to go! Here are four things I am trying to adopt in order to be a better listener. 

1. Letting go of your ego

Have you ever listened to a loved one talk about something tough they are going through and tried to help by comparing it to something you have gone through? I have! In fact, I always thought it would help them see that they are not alone. By comparing my experience to theirs, I thought it showed that I understood how they feel because I had a similar thing happen to me.

While sharing experiences can be helpful sometimes, especially when someone is feeling isolated or misunderstood, it is not the same as being a good listener. Immediately relating someone else’s experience back to your own, draws the attention back to yourself and that is really the complete opposite of what you are trying to achieve when you really listen.

2. Let them speak their truth

Try active listening. Give someone your full attention and really concentrate on what they are saying. Let them feel heard. At this point the only thing that should come from you are questions about the situation your friend is facing. Ask them to share more details about a dramatic event that happened to them or about what’s troubling them or how it is making them feel. By simply listening you acknowledge their pain, fear and worry.

3. Don’t judge

It’s good to make observations, but don’t judge how they are feeling. Don’t make them feel silly or ashamed for feeling the way they feel. Remember, those are not your feelings and everybody worries about different things. Again, try not to compare their experience to how you would deal with a situation. Just be there and hear them out.

4. Accept that you may not be able to help

It’s very tempting to try to solve a problem for your loved one and sometimes we can certainly help with constructive advice – IF asked for it. Most of the time, however, our friend, spouse or family member just needs to talk and we have to accept that we may not be able to help them. I find this quite challenging because I want to give practical advice. However, I’m learning that it’s often not appreciated.

Of course, you can always ask them if or how you can help. If there is something that you can really do or offer real advice to help them, they will let you know.

The takeaway

When talking to close family about my MS, I just want to have a good old moan which helps me immensely. I don’t need them to find a solution in that moment. Someone listening to my gripes is help enough. This is why I have started to apply the idea of ‘holding space’ and better listening more and more in daily life.

When my husband feels depressed, being present and listening to when he does open up has really helped. It has helped me understand what’s going on in his head. This in turn has helped him be much more open about his feelings lately because he feels heard by me. By listening to each other and creating that safe space in which to share, we can truly support each other.

NPS-IE-NP-00198 February 2021