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Sharing and listening with compassion

Our emotions, feelings and thoughts can go in all directions. During pregnancy or the postpartum period, it can feel like our emotions are even bigger or wilder. This can be experienced as something positive or negative. It can be very challenging to be with our emotions, feelings and thoughts. If we feel triggered, our automatic response often is to resist. We don’t want to think like this! Or feel like this! Or this situation just needs to end now! This resistance can be consciously, but often also happens unconsciously.

The same happens when we are listening to someone sharing their challenging thoughts, feelings, or emotions with us. This can make us feel uncomfortable and to do something about that, we throw in an advice, or try to sooth, we tell them this will pass, or tell them that we have experienced the exact same, etcetera, etcetera. These reactions are (unconsciously) also a form of resistance. We want to help the other person to feel better and put an end to the shitty feelings or thoughts for them.

I am not writing this, because I believe it is bad to want to help your friends with advice or by comforting them. And it is definitely also not bad to turn to your partner or friend for advice or a hug! But I do want to share with you an alternative. The alternative of holding space.

In this blog post I explain an exercise that you can use when you would like to hold space for someone else’s challenging thoughts, feelings, or emotions. And for someone else to hold space for yours. A simple exercise I have been practicing myself now for many years, and over and over again I am amazed by its impact.

If you want to do this exercise, you need at least one other person to do this with. You can also do it in a small group of up to 4 or 5 people. This works with (close) friends, family members, your partner or anyone else that is willing to do the exercise together with you.

The exercise

You start with a (short) silent meditation. Three minutes can already be enough, but you can make it as long as you like and agree upon. Set a timer, so you know when your meditation is over. The purpose of this meditation is to come a bit more in the present moment. You can lightly focus on your breathing or the sensations in your body.  

When your meditation is finished, you set a new timer for the sharing/listening part of the exercise. Depending on the size of the group you chose 10-20 minutes.

In these 10-20 minutes, each one of you gets the opportunity to share something that you consider difficult/challenging/painful/negative/hard to accept/etc. This can be a ‘big’ feeling or struggle, but it doesn’t have to be. If you don’t feel ready to share your worst fear, don’t force it but be kind to yourself instead, by starting with something small!

When you share, you give a brief description of the situation that triggers you, and then you describe what it does to you. How it makes you feel. See if you can feel what happens in your body when you talk about it, and maybe you can also express that. An example could be: ‘When my sister made a joke about me breastfeeding with the whole family around, she made me feel ashamed. And actually, also angry. It makes me feel like I can not do what I want in my own house. Now that I say this, I can feel it here around my heart. It feels solid like a stone. It makes me doubt whether I am doing it all right.'

Or: ‘When I see all that laundry piling up, it makes me feel very angry. All my energy is going to taking care of the baby, and I don’t feel it is fair I have to do the laundry. I can feel it in my throat. I feel alone and not appreciated. I feel very tired.’

There is no right or wrong here! It is okay to leave silences in between. When you feel you are done, you say this explicitly, so the others know, and a next person can share. You can take the time you need; you just have to be mindful that there is time enough for everyone.

When one person is sharing, all the others are silent. You may nod in reaction to what the other tells, but you don’t give any further reaction, neither in words nor in action. While the other person is sharing their experience, try to be aware of what this does to you. Listen to the other person, and at the same time observe yourself with some curiosity. Are solutions popping up in your head? Or do you feel like putting your arm around the other, to provide support? Or does your mind wonder towards situations in the past, in which you went through something similar? Maybe you notice that you are judgmental regarding what the other person shares? Whatever comes up, everything is fine. Just try to notice it, without ‘doing’ something with it.

When someone has said they are ready, a next person can start sharing. You don’t discuss between you who’s turn it is. You are just silent until you feel like starting, or until someone else starts. This means that before the first person takes their turn and in between turns there will be silences. Try to be aware of what this silence does to you. Pleasant? Awkward? Funny? Annoying? Wondering what kind of stupid exercise this is? Again, all is fine! You only have to try to notice it.

It can be that you do not want to share anything. That is also fine. In that case you say that you don’t want to share, so the others know your turn is ‘over’.

Once everyone has had their turn, you are allowed to chat with each other until the time is up. But then still, don’t react to what the others have shared. It is very important to keep to that rule. Also later, the next day or week. If the person that shared something indicates that they would like to have a conversation about it afterwards, that’s of course okay.

Although you cannot react to what the other people have shared, you can share what you noticed within yourself. What it did to you, when you heard someone sharing something, while you were not allowed to give a reaction. So, you could for example say: 'When I was listening to that story, I felt sad, and I wanted to give a hug'. Or, 'I really feel the urge to solve this for you.' This is okay to share, but you do not have to do so. You can also share how it felt for you to talk about something that bothers you, and not get any reactions from the other person(s). You can also remain silent until the exercise is over.

When the timer goes, the exercise is over. If you want you can thank the others for sharing and listening.

What happens

This exercise can be experienced in different ways. And again there are no good or bad ways to experience it. You may feel this was a waste of time. Nothing special happened. Or maybe your emotions got stronger, and you started to cry or felt like crying. You may have felt very awkward, that this was something new and out of your comfort zone. Maybe you did the exercise because your partner asked you, and you noticed you were not really committed to it. All is fine!

What also can happen, is that you suddenly feel a bit more ‘space’ for the feeling, emotion or thought that you shared. If something we are (un)consciously trying to suppress, suddenly is allowed to be felt, said out loud and heard, it can feel as a relief. It gets permission to be there and can be observed with compassion. It’s a form of holding space for challenging emotions, feelings, or thoughts, which may even result in these (temporarily) dissolving.

To keep in mind
  • Respect the ‘rules’ of the exercise, so people can feel safe to participate.

  • Keep confidential what others share with you during the exercise.

  • If this is new or out of your comfort zone, try to keep the exercise light and do it with a little bit of humor. Do it with respect, but don’t take the exercise itself too seriously.

  • It is very normal that emotions get stronger when you talk about these. Try to focus on what happens in your body. If tears come up, see if you can just let them come and release them instead of suppressing.

  • If you feel distressed by doing this exercise, and you feel overwhelmed by triggers, try to focus on your breath and your body. If you experience regular moments of overwhelm, speak to someone you trust and reach out for support.

I want to express my gratitude to Jan Geurtz who taught me this exercise, as well as to the many different people who were willing to do this exercise with me over the past years.



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