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Holding Room

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Someone I love very much will be having surgery in a couple of weeks. She has designated me as her person – the one who will drive her to and from the hospital, and help her once she gets home to recover. As an enneagram type 4, I am delighted by this because it means that I am officially very special to her so I’ll wait right here while you fetch my special sticker.

Her surgical team has been thoroughly preparing her for this experience through a series of pre-surgery appointments, some of which are for clinical tests, and others that are more educational like the 2-hour class we attended today. During the session, the instructor taught the patients and “coaches” (that’s me!) everything we needed to know about the before, during, and after of surgery. I was surprised by and grateful for the level of detail they covered including whether to wear deodorant to the hospital (yes) and where and when to expect bruising afterwards (it’s normal).

While the course was designed to teach us on an intellectual level, it also stirred me emotionally. Understanding that a person you care about is going to go through a painful and risky experience is enough to make you pause, even when it will be worth the healing on the other side. For me, the biggest moment came not when we saw a video of how the surgery works (icky), or learned how to change the wound dressing (clearly these people have not met me), or became aware of potential blood clot issues (keep moving!). My biggest pause came when the slide said ‘holding room’ and showed a photo like the one below. The teacher said: “This is the holding room. This is where you’ll come out of your clothes, put on the hospital attire, and wait to be taken back for your procedure.”

I held my breath. The language holding room felt like doom to me, like the kind of place where time passes audibly slowly, like a barely leaky faucet. Just seeing the image, my body tensed up like it has all the times I’ve been in the metaphorical holding rooms in my life: waiting for a call about a diagnosis. In the car on the way to see a loved one in the hospital, not knowing what I’d find. Those five minutes before the employee comes to my office for a termination conversation. It’s 99% dread and 1% hope as we wait for the unknown, for pain, for loss. Even if it also eventually brings hope or healing or renewal, we are not in a race to get there. We start questioning all that led to this moment, imagining that we could undo it. We consider taking our stuff and going home. Yeah - this holding room feels a bit constricting.

Then I thought about another way the word hold comes to life in my world:

...When my son holds my hand as we walk through an unknown place, he is not depriving me of freedom.

...When a friend holds my shoulders when I’m visibly sad and upset, she is not containing me.

...When my mom holds me in an embrace before I leave for a trip, she is not restricting me.

...When others figuratively hold space for me to sort through a complex problem, they are not limiting me.

In all of these holds, what’s happening is expression, invitation, and connection. The energy is expansive, not limiting; safe, not threatening.

My commitment to this very special woman, a woman who has held me many times before, is to help her holding room look more like the second description than the first. I can’t take away the anxiety of the moment and I can’t remove the risk of the surgery. But I can make space for her feelings, honor her desire to feel better, and meet her need to not go through it alone.

It’s fitting that the surgery team calls the patient’s supportive partner a coach – because what I just described is exactly what coaching is. Coaching conversations are really good holding rooms. They don’t stop the inevitable, they don’t take away the hard parts, and they don’t magically reverse course. They provide space to get what’s inside out, an invitation to enter the experience honestly, and another caring human to meet you in it so you aren’t alone. No leadership experience, whether you lead a family of four or a corporation of a thousand, comes without these dreadful, heart-stopping moments, and no one should have to face them without support. I’ve been in that room and I know what it’s like. That is why I do what I do.

As you approach the holding rooms in your life and work, consider inviting a coach to join you. Whether it’s your sister, friend, colleague, or a professional, including a trusted supporter can transform our most isolating experiences into ones that bring innovation and insight.

Wishing you healthy holding –


Photo by Martha Dominguez, courtesy of unsplash.

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