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Culture + Complexity + Change

WRITE | Thresholding and holding

In the earlier post, I introduced an idea of ‘thresholding space’, extended from an understanding and practice of ‘holding space’. This is an idea that I hope to unpack and examine a bit more. In relation to our current liminal transition moment, as a window, an idea of ‘thresholding space’ warrants exploration of diverse strategies for being and becoming in this breach. It is a transformative moment – intentional, embodied, material, grounded, generative. Through it, we might reorient towards care, experiment and learning as reflective practitioners breathing new life into reflexive systems.

In examining ecological disequilibrium, Guattari (2000, 65) identifies a deterioration of individual and collective modes of human living. In commenting on the scale of this issue, he proposes that “there is at least a risk that there will be no more human history unless humanity undertakes a radical reconsideration of itself”.  He argues that escape from the current major crises involves articulation and transversal of a nascent subjectivity, constantly mutating socius and continuously reinvented environment through which new forms of practice can emerge.

I first started to explore this idea of ‘holding space’ in my facilitation work which can involve intercultural, intersectional, sustainability and intergenerational dialogue. Then, it was applied in the development of a participatory practice in various projects and participatory processes. It continues to be part of my work as a sessional academic and facilitator, and in reflective practice. Holding space draws on many constructs and ideas from relational practices and theory including social learning (Social Learning Group 2001; Tàbara and Pahl-Wostl 2007) which has long been associated with sustainability movements and organisation, and Milbrath (1989) proposes a need for change of societal institutions and practices. Social learning in relation to sustainability “entails a completely new way of thinking and a radical change in values” (Tàbara and Pahl-Wostl 2007). It can also result in other forms, such as the “connective aesthetics” of the social sculptures of Shelley Sacks (Sacks and Zumdick 2013; Cook 2000); not merely organisation but something else.

Drawing on Schön’s idea of the reflective professional (or practitioner) (1983), holding space enables a “reflective conversation with a situation” (1992). Self-aware ontologies of social learning, social technology and social dialogue can be the basis for experiment. This implies creative learning, action and participation in a “larger field for change”. This disposition calls for understanding systems and understanding that we are part of the systems that we seek to change. Scharmer and Kaufer (2013, 23) propose a need for holding spaces as ‘enabling infrastructures’ for different kinds of conversations (or work, or practice). For Senge et al (2004, 13–14), this is a “more dialogic conversation, a more co-created conversation where new possibilities open up that can be developed, explored, prototyped and implemented in different ways”. Holding space, as enabling infrastructure, also provides a platform or an opening where participants can embody and practice listening, dialogue, empathy, care and other modes of being and becoming.

Care is fundamental to who and what we are as human beings, to being human (Ehrenfeld 2008). Everything we do and say demonstrates something of our caring of and in the world. Care means ‘care for the world, others and ourselves’. Fry (2009, 218) summarises care as connective and systemic: “in caring for the quality of air, soil and fresh water, we are equally caring for ourselves and [for example] for the quality of food ‘naturally’ produced”. That is, care relates directly to values and implies recognising our socio-ecological connectedness and acknowledging that our own flourishing is inextricably linked to that of ecological and socio-cultural systems. There are other understandings of care – feminist, ethical, political, decolonising – and these too matter. They matter deeply.

Transforming conversation and developing practice in the face of complex sustainability issues requires holding space without necessarily imposing prescriptive behaviour change or didactic directives. Collins’ theory of interaction rituals and interaction ritual chains reflects the relationship between participation and its participants, between care and its actors. Collins explains that the theory of interaction rituals and interaction ritual chains is based on situations and is “not about individuals and their interactions, but interactions and their individuals; not persons and their passions, but passions and their persons” (2004, 5). Participation can be elaborated to enact collectivity and care rather than consensus or solutions; this is itself infrastructural and relational. These acts of participation are situational or situated practice that generate minor and experimental momenta towards creating cultural conditions and interactions that can open a field to support emergent practices and action of sustainable everyday living (Pink 2012).

In Theory U, for example, presencing involves a threshold moment where social exchange, silence, empathy and listening direct attention to “a future wanting to emerge” (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013). It requires both presence and participation. Fry also alludes to a necessary shift in design and redirection where unsustainable designing is rejected and let go and redirected practices are upheld and applied. This is not transcendence but intentional and deliberate. We cannot assume this comes as enlightenment or epiphany, but rather through situational learning as well as repeated and disruptive interventions. This letting go – as a site of emotional energy and intensity, a transformative moment – is an interstitial and creative situation of liminality. To let go is to eliminate the unnecessary, the unneeded, in order to introduce participatory modes and mindsets grounded in an ethics of care, and through which agency develops. That is, we do not merely bring our agency to care, care creates our agency and action.

There’s more to be said about the relationship between holding space and thresholding space. Initally when I wrote this term ‘thresholding space’, it was wordplay, but it now seems to have more depth. In the first instance, it is useful to assert the heterogeneity of holding and thresholding. Second, it provided an opportunity to revisit existing writing as the basis for ongoing reflection and examination. Perhaps there are other trajectories to weave, like pathways and other dimensions of transition, through which care can unfold.

[Note: This post is comprised of revised extracts from an unpublished essay, co-authored with Keith Armstrong, about the Long Time, No See? project]


Collins, Randall. 1993. “Emotional Energy as the Common Denominator of Rational Action.” Rationality and Society 5 (2): 203–30.
———. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cook, Ian. 2000. “Cultural Geographies in Practice: Social Sculpture and Connective Aesthetics: Shelley Sacks’ ‘Exchange Values.’” Ecumene 7 (3): 337–43.
Ehrenfeld, John. 2008. Sustainability by Design. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
Fry, Tony. 2009. Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and Practice. Sydney: UNSW Press.
Guattari, Félix. 2000. The Three Ecologies. London: Athlone Press.
Milbrath, L. W. 1989. Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way out. Albany, New York, USA.: State University of New York Press.
Pink, Sarah. 2012. Situating Everyday Life: Practices and Places. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Reckwitz, Andreas. 2002. “Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing.” European Journal of Social Theory 5 (2): 243–63. doi:10.1177/13684310222225432.
Sacks, Shelley, and Wolfgang Zumdick. 2013. Atlas of the Poetic Continent: Pathways in Ecological Citizenship. Forest Row: Temple Lodge Publishing.
Scharmer, Otto, and Katrin Kaufer. 2013. Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies. Oakland, USA: Berret-Koehler Publishers.
Schön, Donald A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. USA: Basic Books.
———. 1992. “Designing as Reflective Converstion with the Materials of a Deisgn Situation.” Research and Engineering Design 3 (3): 3–14. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/095070519290020G.
Senge, Peter, Otto C. Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flower. 2004. Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. New York: Doubleday.
Social Learning Group. 2001. Learning to Manage Global Environmental Risks: A Comparative History of Social Responses to Climate Change, Ozone Depletion and Acid Rain. Volumes 1 and 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press.
Tàbara, J. D., and C. Pahl-Wostl. 2007. “Sustainability Learning in Natural Resource Use and Management.” Ecology and Society 12 (3). http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss2/art3/.


  Nancy Westerman wrote @

This is brilliant Linda! Love the links you have made between holding space, threshholding and transformation within the process of care. I enact this with clients in an individual/couple/group situation as a therapist. I also see this in all power relations – to have reflexive alertness to systems of governance and organisation to create sustainable practices in care of all. Great to feel such a synchronicity in how our thinking and actions have evolved. Very affirming and uplifting.

  lcarroli wrote @

Thank you so much for responding Nancy. I really appreciate your comments and totally agree that working on the depth of connection and care is foundational for the challenges and powerplays we face collectively and individually. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what I mean by ‘thresholding’ yet, but I find it useful as an object, space or concept to explore. I am guessing that there would be much written about this in psychoanalysis and psychology. Recuperation is another idea I like too – not just from the perspective of healing or recovery, but also reclamation and renewal. I just feel strongly that these are things we can and should do together, somehow … I bet you are a fabulous therapist.

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