Holding Space in Leadership: Cultivating a Supportive and Inclusive Environment

Holding Space in Leadership

Holding space for someone means creating a safe and welcoming place for them to share their authentic thoughts, feelings, and experiences during a difficult time without fear of judgment or ridicule.

By doing so, you can help your team members feel heard, valued, and respected. But what does this really mean for you as a leader, and how can you use it to create an inclusive workplace environment?

In this blog, our DEI consultants explore how holding space as a leader can help cultivate a supportive environment while providing practical tips on how to do so.

What Does it Mean to Hold Space for Someone?

Holding space is about being fully present and attentive in the moment, listening with empathy and compassion to someone without judgment or interruption. It means creating a safe space for another person to feel validated. Holding space isn’t trying to fix or solve their problems. Rather,  it’s about supporting them as they respond to difficulties they are experiencing.

Holding space requires active listening skills like reflecting back on what they say or gently asking clarifying questions to ensure understanding. When people feel held in this way, they’re more likely to trust themselves and others, which leads to stronger relationships and greater collaboration.

The Importance of Creating a Supportive Work Environment

Creating a welcoming atmosphere where everyone feels valued and respected is essential for fostering a lasting sense of belonging. This kind of work environment attracts top talent by signaling that employees are valued, growth is supported, and people can show up to work as their authentic selves. Prioritizing a supportive environment cultivates a thriving workplace where employees can contribute their best, benefiting themselves and the organization’s overall success.

Trauma-Informed Components of Holding Space in the Workplace

To create a truly supportive environment when holding space in the workplace, it is crucial to embrace a trauma-informed approach. A trauma-informed approach acknowledges the pervasiveness of trauma and seeks to create environments where people are unlikely to be re-traumatized.

Rather than waiting until someone discloses past traumas to address potential triggers, trauma-informed practices are proactive, recognizing that everyone benefits from a trauma-informed space. To enact a trauma-informed approach, one must recognize and understand the potential effects of trauma on individuals and incorporate strategies that prioritize healing.

Here are a few things to consider as you hold space:

1. Safety & Trust

While it’s impossible to know what will and will not make someone feel safe – after all, we can’t know another person’s trauma and triggers – we can put in the work to create trust.

Creating a trusted space in the workplace involves considering both physical and emotional safety. On the physical safety front, guidelines that promote safety should be strong, and there should be constant evaluations to ensure that workers understand and are able to follow them.

The emotional side of safety is a little more nuanced. It involves setting clear boundaries and promoting a culture in which interactions are respectful and compassionate.

Employees who feel emotionally safe can share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of retaliation or judgment. Every voice should consistently be sought out and valued, regardless of hierarchy or background. Trust is also fostered when leadership demonstrates that they will act in the best interest of their employees time and time again.

When employees trust their colleagues and superiors, they feel empowered to be vulnerable, seek support, and share their ideas. This is a necessary part of a productive and positive work environment.

2. Creating the Space

Employees will likely be uncomfortable sharing their feelings if they aren’t being explicitly invited to do so. That means it is critical to tell employees that you are available and open.

It is also important, however, to be mindful that you may not be the right participant in an emotionally-charged conversation. You must assess power dynamics – both within the workplace and on a broader social level – and be mindful of how they may impact the efficacy and authenticity of a conversation in which you are trying to hold space. It may be beneficial instead to establish support networks where peers can connect and share experiences or to bring in an expert to hold space. Expert facilitators have the necessary distance and training to create a space where everyone is likely to feel comfortable.

3. Awareness

Holding space also means being aware of the cultural, historical, and external factors that may influence one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Organizations should encourage a culture of awareness where employees are mindful of their biases and assumptions. By recognizing and respecting these influences, one can more successfully hold space for perspectives that are different from one’s own.

4. Empathetic Listening

The key to holding space successfully is to listen with empathy. Listening empathetically involves assuring people that they will not be judged, allowing them to have the stage, and being gentle and brief with your questions and responses. When you’re holding space, it is not the time to challenge someone’s perspective. Instead, it is the moment to practice curiosity, to validate, and to ask about another’s needs.

Tips for Creating an Effective Environment to Hold Space  in Your Organization

It is necessary to cultivate a supportive and inclusive context in addition to holding space. If one neglects the wider practices of the organization, any attempt to hold space may be unsuccessful.

Consider the following tips for fostering a supportive environment within an organization:

  1. Hold Space for All Team Members: Create opportunities for everyone to share their perspectives, ideas, and concerns without fear of judgment or retribution. Encourage open and respectful communication to foster a culture of inclusivity.
  2. Lead by Example: Set the tone for how team members treat one another by modeling respectful behavior. Acknowledge and celebrate diverse backgrounds.
  3. Regular Check-Ins: Consistently communicate with your team members and promptly address any issues. Addressing concerns early on can prevent tensions from escalating into more serious problems.
  4. Address Discrimination: Create effective mechanisms to report and punish discrimination or harassment. Communicate these policies and procedures well so that people know where to turn if it becomes necessary.
  5. Seek Expert Guidance: Involving an expert facilitator or consultant can provide valuable insights. Their expertise can help you navigate complex diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges and prevent unintended harm.

Remember, holding space as a leader requires not only speaking about inclusivity but also taking meaningful actions to promote and foster an inclusive culture within your organization on a systemic level.

For guidance and support in implementing effective DEI strategies, reach out to The Norfus Firm, a DEI consulting firm committed to creating inclusive workplaces for organizations. Together, we can create a more diverse and equitable future. Contact us today.

Author Bio


Natalie E. Norfus is the Founder and Managing Owner of The Norfus Firm. With nearly 20 years of experience as a labor and employment attorney and HR/DEI practitioner, Natalie is known for her creative problem-solving skills. She specializes in partnering with employers to develop effective DEI and HR strategies, conducting thorough internal investigations, and providing coaching and training to senior leaders and Boards of Directors.

Throughout her career, Natalie has held various significant roles in HR and DEI. She has served as the Chief Diversity Officer for multi-billion-dollar brands, where she was responsible for shaping the vision of each brand’s DEI initiatives. She has also worked as outside counsel in large law firms and in-house before establishing her own firm.

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