“Withholds” are an extremely powerful communication practice, which is unfortunately not well known, and even when known is it is often misunderstood and used incorrectly, sometimes in a bad way. Withholds are not a part of the “official” Circling curriculum, but they are taught in Boulder. The Boulder Integral style of withholds is given below. The style I learned is from Victor Baranco. I am including it here because I think it is so powerful.
The goal of a withhold is to share a thought or an emotion, positive or negative, in a way that expressly and by agreement of both sides is not taking ownership of the feeling or experience, and hence carries an explicit request to not take it too seriously. In other words, when I say something to another person as a Withhold, for instance “I think you are lazy”, I am explicitly declaring that what I am about to say may have no bearing on the truth, and may not even be my own full experience, just a part of it. In essence I am sharing a thought, feeling or judgment towards another person with the explicit purpose of clearing the judgment or negative feeling and returning to a place of openness and acceptance towards them. Sharing the withhold is an attempt for me to let go of a distressing experience I am having with someone by voicing it. The other person might, if they are wise, consider the truth of my withhold and act on it (i.e. become less lazy), or not. Expressing a withhold is in no way making a demand on another person or making them wrong.
The power of withholds is that they can be a very rapid and (relatively) painless way of surfacing and then clearing tension, judgments and negative feelings in a relationship. If we don’t voice the withhold, it will likely sit at the back of our mind, taking up too much of our attention and preventing us from getting into full contact or presence with the other person. Alternatively to giving the withhold, I could try and discern my true feelings and make a responsible communication, one that would own the judgment, as already discussed (i.e. rather than “you are lazy”, I would use correct NVC and say “when you don’t follow-up on what you agreed to do I feel angry and let down by you”). However it sometimes takes a long time to get the degree of emotional clarity that it takes to make a responsible communication, and so (especially) with a person we love and trust, and who knows our feelings toward them, it can be more expedient to just give the withhold.
Giving a withhold is not usually a request to have a conversation or begin a negotiation with another person on an issue I am having with them. Rather, when used as originally designed, a withhold is a complete expression whose purpose is for me let go of a distressing emotion without requiring any response or input from the other person. However, a withhold may be used to begin a negotiation, i.e. as a request for collaboration around a distressing experience I am having in relationship with someone. Withholds when used in this way are a deeply integral (collaborative) practice, because the two of us together might work it out much faster and more pleasurably than me trying to do it alone. When used in this way, you will probably want to announce your intention in your withhold, as described below. Alternatively, you can agree with your partner to begin a negotiation by first clearing withholds. It is likely that the negotiation will go a lot faster and smoother if you do this. It is even possible that the process of mutually giving withholds will entirely clear the tension and there will be no need for anything more.
Practically speaking, there is a very precise structure for delivering withholds:
First, you can only do it with a person who understands the structure (since otherwise they would think that you actually believe that what you are saying about them is “true”, and get defensive or reactive), and secondly, it must be done with permission. Asking for permission is tantamount to the difference between performing an act of love (communicating my distress with someone with an intention to clear it) and abusing them.
As such it is very important to use the following structure. You can improvise on this a little bit, by mutual agreement, but not much, if you want to be successful.
- First, say “I have a withhold, will you hear it”? If they don’t know your meaning for “withhold”, you will have to explain the structure to them another time, and deliver this particular communication differently. Also if they don’t want to hear your withhold in the moment, you need to honor that.
- If they agree, you would deliver your withhold, “You are lazy”, or whatever. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, and it can also be an appreciation or a joke, a way to clear or make light of what you perceive as their internal make-wrong, or to own and make fun of a make-wrong that you have toward them. This last use of withholds resembles what is called a “Hex”. A “hex” is something like a joke with a little “punch” to it, a grain of truth.
- The other person should respond with a simple “Thank you”. This completes the cycle and you move on to other topics.
- Withholds should not be directly responded to. This is important and reflects the shared context that delivering a withhold does not represent any kind of “truth” (except, perhaps, a transient emotional truth in the person giving the withhold), and that the act of giving the withhold is a complete expression, not a demand the other person change
- However, the other person may, if they wish, either respond to a withhold with another withhold, or else ask if it’s okay to have a conversation about your withhold. For instance: my response to the “you are lazy” withhold could be either to ask if you would be willing to talk about it (in case I absolutely needed to work it out with you), or else (better) to counter-withhold with an apology or even a joke (“Thank you. I have a counter-withhold, will you hear it? Yes I know I am lazy. You should fire me”)
- An alternative structure is called “pulling withholds”. Each person goes on until they are done delivering all their withholds, and then you switch roles. As mentioned above, this can be a very powerful way to begin a negotiation on a sensitive topic, and also can be a lot of fun – provided you trust and enjoy the other person.
This is the essence of Withholds. There is a more detailed description and examples of both Withholds and Hexes in my book, As Lovers Do.
(Post copied from a Facebook comment by Josh Levin).
- Check your intention in wanting to share your withhold. Can you find a sincere desire to benefit the other person (in addition to yourself) and/or your connection with them? If so, proceed to step 2. If what’s more true for you is that you’re full of judgment/criticism/vengeance, etc, then it’s not yet time to bring your withhold. Instead, it’s time for a venting session–with a trusted 3rd person, with your journal, or thru any other way you move energy/emotion.
- Tell the person you have a withhold and tell them your “Why” for sharing it. A typical default “Why” is to get back into connection with them.
- Ask if they are interested and available to hear it.
- Once you get the green light, begin with this simple template:
When you/we [name specific objective moment or experience], I felt/thought/experienced […], and what I would’ve liked/would like in the future is […].
- Ask them to reflect back what they heard.
- Ask them for impact from what you revealed.
- Make any agreements that are relevant to moving forward in connection.
- Share appreciation for doing this together.