Holding Space: The Practice of Empathy

“So … who did you vote for?”

Did he really just ask me that? I thought to myself. A total stranger just came up to me and asked me THAT? Who does that? I was sitting at the hotel bar by myself enjoying a glass of wine, about to dig into an article on my iPad that I had been looking forward to reading. It’s one of my favorite pastimes when I travel solo for business. Sit at a bar, feel the energy of people around me – but be completely by myself.

And now this stranger wanted to talk. And about politics! Sigh.

I quickly sized him up.

He was an older gentleman in his 60s. He made a comment to the bartender. Oh great – a Trump fan, I quickly concluded. And then continued to assess him. And one with no social grace – everyone knows you don’t bring up politics with strangers. He is obnoxious and rude. We have nothing in common. There is no point in engaging with him.

I smiled gently to acknowledge his question and then looked back down at my iPad – hoping he would get the hint that I was not up for talking.

“I know it’s a weird question to ask out of the gate – but I am just so curious about all types of people.”


His statement about being curious about people caught my attention. It triggered me to back to the workshop I had taught earlier that day. As a design thinking educator, I teach people in the business world how to solve problems by being more human centered and how to design solutions that serve the needs of people.

The key skill underlying design thinking is empathy.

A basic definition of empathy is: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.

Surprisingly, this is an ability that does not come naturally for most people, myself included. However – it is a skill that can be developed and practiced.

To practice empathy first requires understanding the behaviors associated with this skill. The behaviors I teach are:

  • Hold space: listen and let the other person talk 80% of the time
  • Be curious: ask questions that enable the other person to share more
  • Withhold judgement: remove personal bias and create a safe space for sharing
  • Refrain from problem solving: allow. the person to feel what they feel

These are simple behaviors – so why is it SO hard?

Because building empathy requires vulnerability. It requires a level of consciousness for us to be in touch and aware of our own feelings first.

“Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” — Brene Brown

When I dig into this concept more, I realize that empathy can be an equalizer. It helps us remember that no matter what race, ethnicity, political view, social class, etc. – we are all connected as humans. We all share and experience the same emotions. While I may not agree with a person’s point of view or decisions – I can connect deeply with what that person is feeling.

This goes beyond politics. Empathy can be applied in everyday interactions.

For example, I may be in a situation where someone is mad. I may not understand or even agree with an outlook that has caused someone to be angry or upset, but I know what it feels like to be angry and upset. I have been there before. So rather than criticize that person for the way they are acting because of that feeling, I can share in that feeling and show them understanding. Hold space for them. Be curious. Withhold judgement.

In that moment with the gentleman at the bar I realized I had failed to practice what I preach about empathy. Rather than see him as another human that I could connect with, I made a snap judgement and quickly dismissed him. Once I recognized that, I decided to behave differently and change my response.

I turned back around and said “You know what – I am curious about people too!”.

I made the conscious, vulnerable, choice to hold space for him, be curious and refrain from judgement.

And it was one of the most engaging conversations I ever had with a stranger.

Note: To learn more about empathy versus sympathy check out this greatYouTube video by Brene Brown

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