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  • Cory McGowan

Holding Space for Others

I’ve been a student of languages for over 35 years now. Well, not counting English, which has been a few years longer...

My Mom signed me up for after school French classes when I was 13. I don’t really remember what the impetus was for that, but if I had to guess, it was because she liked the idea of me being able to do something she couldn’t. It also could have been to get me out of the house a bit more, as I was bit of a momma’s boy and was more likely to be home baking cookies after school with her than out throwing a football with other boys.

Thanks to great teachers, and an innate ability to really hear and then reproduce the accent, I stuck with French through high school and into university, where it became my major. By then, in addition to just truly loving the language, I had also now gotten a taste of studying abroad and the thrill of reinventing myself around a new group of people and culture on those trips.


Spanish was next, and it came very naturally - not a big leap linguistically, and as a liberated university student I had very little hesitation to just try speaking it whenever I had the chance. Stumbling upon some extra budget in the linguistics department at my university meant I got to basically write myself a scholarship to study in Ecuador for a couple of months as well. Deal sealed.

What else do you do with a French major and Spanish minor then spend most of your 20s tripping around the world? Looking back I’m stunned at the amount of freedom I had during that time and did what I could to use every ounce of it. But the great benefit of that (other than the obvious advantage of being multilingual), was that transitioning between cultures, places, and times in my life became a very natural thing to do.

Language study is what eventually brought me to Japan as well. I had never been to Asia, and a close friend who had been here a while came back to the US and invited me to join him to check out a Japanese language school he was going to attend. I was intrigued, loved hanging out with my friend, and literally had nothing else going on, so I was in.

After being in Japan for over 20 years, Japanese is now the foreign language I have spoken the most in my life - I sadly almost never use French or Spanish any more, and the boldness of my youth in speaking those languages freely seems to have gotten lost under a sofa cushion. Thanks to the amount of of Japanese I have used in professional settings, I have gotten to experience just how much a language changes between jobs and industries. Perhaps this is obvious to some, but for me it was using a foreign language at work that really made me aware of it, especially when starting at a new role.

At American Language School in Chiba as recruiting manager, it was listening to the female president (so rare in Japan still, unfortunately) speak to customers on the phone in polite keigo, practically a different language within Japanese. At KidZania Tokyo as director of global communication, it was operations specific vocabulary that all had to fit within a very unique concept that came from Mexico. At Tokyo American Club as OD manager, it was organizationally focused - performance management, employee recognition, etc.

Photo: Joe Mather

Interestingly, things have come full circle and I have recently been experiencing this phenomena in English. Since I have been so intensely immersed in coaching practice and development over the past 18 months, I’ve come across new language, or at least words and phrases used in ways that I am unfamiliar with, which has been both thought provoking and refreshing.

Here are a few of my coaching lexicon favorites:

Liminal - I first heard this one from Joel Monk at Coaches Rising. I heard it several times before I looked it up, and loved the idea of a word that expresses the time between change and transformation. Not to mention get


ting to be alive in the liminal time that we do!

Resonate - I almost laugh at this point when I notice how often coaches use this word (myself included). But it is critical to understand how our clients are or are not resonating with how we are relating to them. And going beyond words to energetic resonance with others is a very intriguing growth edge for me.

Enrollment - I previously associated this with enrolling in a school or course, but it is now what I do with my clients. I enroll them in a commitment to themselves, to creating their bold future, to expressing their full potential in a world that deeply needs them to do so.

Holding space - this is the phrase that has really struck me the most recently. If you had asked me 18 months ago how I hold space for others, I may have asked you not to Bogart that joint. And while I’ve never actually had someone explain the concept to me, like French, through great teachers and innate ability, it is a well developed skill I have with my clients, not unlike my ability to reproduce the French accent that I discovered so long ago. And one of the very interesting parts of that is that I have discovered this ability only through online coaching - so it is not a physical space, but yet a concept that is understood and felt by both myself and my clients.


So what does it mean to hold space for others? The beauty of it is that it can mean different things for different people. But here are some examples of what it means for me:

Reflecting back to people what I have heard from them through active listening, and through asking permission to offer my own perspective if it is different.

Being ok with stillness and silence. Not unlike in music, there is power and possibility in being silent at times in conversation. Respecting someone’s silence can feel very spacious.

Using phrases like, “I see you.” Or, “I hear you.” With nothing else added.

When clients hit a rough patch in a conversation and get emotional, just offering, “I am here, and I am holding this space for you.”

I feel a growing sense of privilege in getting to work as a coach where holding space for others is something I get to do in every conversation I have with my clients. It feels like a privilege that surpasses even the amount of freedom I had when I was younger traveling around the world communicating in different languages. But like a coaching colleague of mine shared recently, if we coaches do our job really well, we will live in a world where coaches are no longer necessary, because we will all do things like holding space for each other naturally.


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