Creating a Container for Robust Conversations
After 25+ years of working with businesses, community organizations, and congregations in
robust and sometimes difficult conversations and teaching in the field, the importance of creating and sustaining a container for conversations is essential. This article offers some components to consider when preparing for those robust conversations. Along with Gilliam and Associates, LLC (www.gilliamandassociates.com), Dr. Gilliam recently became a collaborative partner with the Wi2Co-Lab Team.
Having a strong container is essential to have robust, generative conversations, whether in businesses, communities, congregations, or other social contexts. I liken the container to an old alchemist’s flask. The flask uses the heat generated from the fire and loops it back on itself to
transform both the flask and the content. For the alchemical process, the container has to be robust and durable to hold the heat and transform the content. This image of the substantial container equates to people, conversation, and change, both individually and systemically.
Whether in a business or other social context, imagine yourself creating a container as part of the preparation for difficult conversations. The size of the group can be two or 102 people. When people talk honestly and have diverse perspectives, heat is going to be generated out of passion. As such, the container has to be strong enough to hold the heat. Otherwise, it cracks or blows apart, potentially causing harm. Moreover, the negative emotions carry over to the rest of the workplace or community, damaging morale, trust, feelings of fairness, and engagement.
In contrast, if time and energy are utilized to create a stable container, instead of fracturing, the container holds the heat, which potentially transforms the participants, the content, the
relationships, the system, and the space between them. Thus, this article suggests some best
practices and strategies for creating robust containers for difficult conversations.
BUILDING A CONTAINER
How can you help build or cultivate a container so that honest, open, respectful conversations can occur in your business, community organization, or congregation? The following are some components to consider.
The physical setting of the conversation is significant. The physical environment and setup
can create opposition or togetherness; an atmosphere of stillness, calmness, and listening; or one of chaos, resistance, and confusion. Be aware of the physical space, for it influences the integrity of the container. Some questions to ask when considering physical space include:
• Is it space where people can talk honestly, openly, and freely? Is it neutral?
• Is it a quiet location without interruptions?
• Is it clean and clutter-free? Is it spacious and open or aesthetically pleasing?
Sit in a circle when possible. Since early in our history, humans have sat around fires telling
stories and making decisions about their future. When people sit in a circle, all on the same level, we are together differently than when standing over or sitting around the boardroom table and not seeing the faces and eyes of others. In some contexts, sitting in a circle might upset the homeostasis too much. In those cases, sit in whatever arrangement is most helpful.
The process is not just about a geometric configuration; it is more about a way of being together.
Create a center. Creating a center that represents the core values of the organization or
community is helpful. When we engage in conversations about things that matter to people, it is easy to forget our deeper values in the passion of the conversation. A center representing the core values, mission, and vision of the team or organization can remind participants who they are at their best and what they are in their position to accomplish. A center helps remind us not to confuse the content with the emotional process. Examples might be a statement of the organization’s vision, mission, or values; an object that represents the team or organization at its best; or asking group members to bring an individual object that represents them at their best or holds meaning for them and place it in the center.
Set a clear intention/purpose for the conversation/meeting. A clear intention/purpose serves
as a compass and helps people stay focused and on topic. When possible, frame the
purpose/intention as an open, honest, high-level question that invites conversation. Only ask the question if you are willing to listen and consider what emerges from the group.
Begin the conversation with what is right, going well, or aspirational. When starting
meetings with what is right, what they celebrate or affirm, what is going well, or other positive questions, groups find more energy, resilience, and creativity to address challenges.
Invite each individual to hold his or her space with dignity and integrity. Give attention to
the way the invitation and expectations are extended to participants. It is about managing oneself and one’s own anxiety and reactivity. If the leader is willing, have the group develop agreements on how they will be together, conduct the conversation, and conduct themselves afterward. The purpose of these agreements is to open and sustain space and safety. Some samples might include making “I” statements in a way that does not belittle those who stand at a different place; treat people with respect and honor their dignity; do not speak for a “lot of people”; if you get anxious, take three deep breaths before speaking.
If appropriate, use a talking object for the conversations. The guideline for using a talking
object is that the only one to speak is the person holding the talking object. The challenge for everyone else is to listen with compassion and curiosity. The focus becomes listening, learning, and understanding self and other(s). Using a talking object slows the conversation down and lessens interruption amongst people. It invites and makes space for introverts to contribute along with the extroverts.
Close the meeting and container. Harvest what was learned and action steps that surfaced. If
needed, discuss confidentiality and its meaning for the group. Discuss next steps, if required.
Be aware of the relationships in the group. Be mindful of friends and allies, adversaries,
relatives, and those who are in opposition. Try to observe the relationship between the people and the context of the system itself. Pay attention to how the differences in culture and other dynamics influence how the container forms, grows, takes shape, and is sustained.
Moreover, the organization's history is essential, and the way power differentials, previous
conflicts, decision-making, issues of fairness, inclusion, diversity, and equity have been dealt
with in the past. All these impacts the container.
Appropriate vulnerability can help open space and influence containers. When the leader
can be authentic and appropriately vulnerable, it opens the way for others to be vulnerable and create deep connections. Appropriate vulnerability is not manipulative or coercive but honest and invitational. Timing, spirit, and context are to be considered.
Safety is an essential component of a container. If the leader, facilitator and/or participants
cannot create and sustain a safe space, the container will be compromised. People need to feel safe, to be honest, and to go deeper into the conversation. Power differentials are part of the dynamic of safety. Safety can involve physical and emotional threats.
Stay calm and non-anxious. During a conversation, if an anxious or tense moment emerges,
stay responsive, calm, and non-anxious. If the leader can remain calm and non-anxious, it has a salutary effect on the people he or she leads. Calmness and responsiveness are contagious, as are anxiety and reactivity. Conversations and cultivating substantial containers are about self-awareness, emotional processes, and emotional intelligence. To regulate the tension of the space means to monitor one's own anxiety and reactivity first and foremost. Thus, before entering a conversation on complex topics, do your own inner work.
Moreover, listen for the invitations that honestly emerge from the group conversations. These invitations can serve as the breadcrumbs leading you and your team to
the next steps. Befriend complexity. When the invitations that emerge are not consciously
considered, resistance, reactivity, and sabotage increase. Acknowledging, acting on, and
honoring the genuine invitations that arise from a group lessens reactivity and resistance and
increases the possibility for broader ownership, higher morale, greater wisdom, and deeper
Another question is how to create genuine meetings between and among people and teams? The philosopher of dialogue, Martin Buber, comments that all real meetings are encounter (Kaufmann, 1970). He contrasts meeting with mis-meeting (Friedman, 1967). Meeting is when people genuinely connect, and as a result, both or all parties leave differently than how they entered. Mis-meeting or mis-encounter (Friedman, 1967) is the description for when people come together, but no connection happens. The genuine meeting is relational. The relationship is not necessarily about feeling, but how we behave, function, or perform together and how we are towards another. A positive feeling is a bonus. As humans, we live in the flow and universal currents of the reciprocity of relationships, as Buber comments (Kaufmann, 1970).
In summary, giving attention to the container is essential to constructive conversations that
yield positive outcomes in our organizations, workplaces, and personal lives.
This article offers some best practices for creating robust, deep, broad containers for difficult
conversations that I have learned as a facilitator in various contexts over the last twenty-five
years. Creating a container is not merely a science or “how to" checklist. At its best, cultivating a container is a necessary art and focuses on the space between us and around us. People do not have to have their way. They want to feel heard, respected, and appreciated. They want to encounter others and themselves as real human beings together solving challenges and making a difference.
In their book, Switch, (2011), Chip and Dan Heath commented, “What looks like a people
problem often is a situational problem” (2011, p. 18). Our most pressing challenges and
opportunities for conversation, change, and evolution is interpersonal nested in the complexity of the intrapersonal, i.e., the organizational systems, culture, and structure. Chaos and disruption create clarity. The container and conversations are partners on the path.
During these challenging conversations, John Paul Lederach offers wise words to remember.
"Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time" (2005, p. 177). To summarize, no container, no conversation.
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!
Friedman. M. (1967). Meetings: Autobiographical fragments. New York, NY:
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2011). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New
York, NY: Random House.
Kaufmann, W. (1970). I and Thou, Martin Buber. New York, NY: A Touchstone Book.
Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace.
New York, NY; Oxford University Press.
Published June 17, 2020; Revised March 2021
Wi 2 Co-Lab Team Member and Founder/Owner of Gilliam & Associates, LLC