Getting Serious about Community Development (Part 5)

Change leadership is an empty thing. This is not cynic remark, but a crucial observation of where our added value as a practitioner is located: in context, rather than content.

I came to this conclusion by digging deeper into the subject of holding space. Holding space is one of those things where one can have a vague feeling about, without necessarily having the language to express or pinpoint what it means to us.

A theory of holding space

In essence holding space is exactly what the words say: physically holding a room with the intent of making something possible. It’s like holding onto the walls, the floor and the ceiling and making sure that the room is safe for people to convene and develop community around the possibility that is in front of them. It is different from filling the room with the things that are necessary for the future state to occur.

It gets a little trickier whenever the space you are supposed to be holding is larger than a birdcage. What if you need to hold the space for a large audience when you are giving a presentation? In that case it helps to mentally anchor the 8 physical points that define the room you are in. You do this by simply looking at them one by one. Apart from being a pleasant trick from the how-to-give-a-presentation-101 tool-book, this is a good way to ground yourself as a presenter; and that is an important aspect of holding space: it links your physical presence to what is possible in that moment.

An application of holding space

In change projects holding space is a critical skill to master. It requires you to be aware of your presence and at the same time to be aware of your contribution.

  1. Awareness of your presence right here and right now. When I look at my craft as holding the space for possibilities to occur, I am directly sucked into the present and I realize instantly that possibility can only occur in this moment and in this physical space. I have no clue of how the biochemistry in our brains works, but I suspect that fixing the eight points of the physical room brings about the same results as speaking out loud to yourself about who you are and where you are. Previously I have referred to this as ‘un-numbing‘ this moment.
  2. Awareness of your contribution as a change leader… the emptiness of leadership. It also makes us aware of the fact that leadership is empty. In fact, leadership as holding space is a two-step process.
    • The first step is the difficult work of distilling principles and shaping context. This is the awkward (and often undervalued) work of starting conversations to break through the imaginary wall of the unthinkable. Most of the times, what is possible right now is unthinkable, because of our own mindsets (a few weeks ago I gave the example of what this means for social learning).
    • The second step is the difficult work of pulling your ego out of that space and at the same time being present to navigate the room. When we get hooked into being right or defending a position we automatically reduce the possible to what is thinkable from our perspective. Don’t scratch that itch. You cannot be a problem solver and a space holder at the same time. The net result of pulling your ego out is that we can build the capacity of community members to be accountable and to become creators of community.

An experiment of holding space

Although all of the above is true for presence and physical spaces in the here and now, the current rise and popularity of digital communities and social media is pushing us to stretch the concept of holding a space. Here is an experiment I have recently started together with a team of dedicated community managers: holding space for the Organizational Change Practitioners group on LinkedIn.

The challenge that is in front of us is to develop a community out of a pool of more than 35.000 members. Have a look at the below video to see how we made the announcement.

Needless to say, this experiment is ongoing, and like many change projects the insights come in hindsight and the work gets messy from time to time. And that’s OK, because we are currently operating with a different awareness about our intent in the long run. Seeing ourselves as the space holders for ‘the possible’ to occur, guides our daily action differently. Most of all, it prevents us from getting hooked into the being right or defending a position. And: it’s a great learning journey (that’s a real bonus).