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What does it mean to make space?

grassy amphitheater with stone steps
Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash

I recently participated in a Zoom workshop on consultation offered to an association of facilitators. The workshop was a familiar setup — a speaker gave a presentation and then we split up into breakout rooms to practice the skills of consultation by talking through a scenario. But this time I got a valuable lesson in making space for others.

We went into the breakout rooms of three or four people to discuss our scenario. You know how there’s often an awkward pause when you’re suddenly placed in a group of strangers and there’s no assigned leader? Everyone is waiting for someone else to take charge. That awkward pause is uncomfortable to me, so generally I do something about it — that’s my default.

But all the discussion around Black Lives Matter and white fragility recently has made me more conscious of my own attitudes and actions. I realized that 1) I was a guest in this gathering; I’d been invited to attend by one of the members of the association. 2) I really didn’t know the culture and norms of this group.

So I sat still and waited, even though it was uncomfortable. Then the one Black woman in the group stepped forward and got us organized so we could do the exercise. She did a beautiful job. And she did it in a very different style than I would have. If I’d taken charge, like I normally would, we would have been deprived of her wonderful leadership.

So what does it mean to make space for people? For me, it took being conscious and not doing the thing that was automatic. It meant being willing to be uncomfortable, to allow a longer period of silence. And it meant being open. Being open to new ways of doing things, being open to a different style of leadership, and being open to seeing things in a different way.

In fact, the group started thinking differently about the problem in front of us. Rather than just zeroing in on an immediate answer, we discussed the problem more broadly and started looking at implications over time. We talked about the effects of this issue on a wider circle of people. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d taken over the situation in the beginning.

Making space takes conscious effort. But the rewards are great. You end up with a much richer pool of ideas to work with, which leads to more robust solutions.

Have you had an experience of making room for others in a group? How did you do it? What did you learn?

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