Creating a Container for Courageous Conversations

If we want to support each other's inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: The human soul does not want to be fixed, it want simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person's soul, there is another truth we must remember: The soul is like a wild animal--touch, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself. [I believe the same is true for the community or organization's soul." W. Craig Gilliam] ~~Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 152

Developing and sustaining a strong “container” for courageous, generative conversations is the focus of this article. Some questions addressed include: What do we mean by the container; Why is forming a container important for conversations; what are some important steps in creating and sustaining a strong container; how do we do it?

When people ask about my metaphor for community and conversation, “container” is the word that emerges. I liken it to the old alchemist flask. The flask, as I imagine it, is over the fire with the chemical compound inside. On top of the flask is a tube that holds the heat generated and loops it back to the substance itself. By looping it back on itself, the flask uses the heat generated from the fire interacting with the compound to transform the chemical substance itself. For this to happen, a strong container is required. 

While all metaphors limp a little, for me, “container” is a nice metaphor for organizations, congregations, and communities.  Too often, when the heat is generated that is always part of the reciprocity of relationships and courageous conversations, we have not built a strong enough container. Instead of being strong enough to hold, the container blows apart, creating harm amongst the members who are part of it. But if a strong enough container has been built, then when the heat gets intense, the container can hold, helping transform the content in the container and the container itself as well as the participants and the DNA or soul of that collective community.

As I think about the container in a given group or context, I am listening for and trying to perceive its holding capacity; the coherence of the group that is part of the given container; what can it bear; to what capacity does it hold or leak, what are its strengths, where are the weaknesses and how do we strengthen those; etc. Our work and the work of effective leaders are in part around strengthening, deepening, broadening and widening this container and not pressing it beyond its capacity. Of course, there are those pleasant moments when the container and the people who are part of it surprise me and go further and deeper than imagined.

Building a Container

How can we help build a container where honest, open, courageous conversations can happen? How do we open space or at least invite it?

When building or cultivating a container, several elements that are my personal preferences, especially in religious communities, include:  

1.    Have a clear intention/purpose—I like to develop open, high-level questions to serve as the theme or intention for the conversation. A clear intention/purpose helps the group stay on track and focused.

2.    Create a center—Creating a center that represents the core values of the community or organization is helpful. When we engage in conversations about things that matter to us, it is easy to forget our deeper values in the passion of the conversation. A center with our core values represented in it, help remind the group that the conversation and relationship is key, and that there is a “way to be with people” that is important to the conversation, the container and the larger organization/community. A center helps remind us not to confuse content and emotional process.

3.    Create agreements—Sometimes, it is helpful to have general guidelines the group agrees to live by in this time together. I find that less is more. Too many guidelines inhibit people and space, and the purpose of agreements is to open and sustain space and safety, not to close it.

4.    Use a talking object—Often I use a talking object. The guidelines are, “The only one to speak is the one holding the talking object. The challenge for the rest of us is to listen with compassion and curiosity.” When using the talking object and inviting an attitude of compassion and curiosity, it changes the dynamics of a group. The focus becomes listening, connecting and understanding. The conversation slows down and invites discernment and the possibility for stronger, deeper connections.

Anne LeClaire comments, “... .as I listen more carefully I discover that much of the dialogue in our culture is what someone once called ‘talking and waiting to talk.’”  The container and the processes used in the container help create a space for listening to each other, the collective wisdom of the system as well as to offer our voices and stories. The desire is to understand, not just with the head, but also with the heart and body.

5.    Sit in a circle—Since early in our history, humans have sat around fires telling stories. I like sitting in a circle with people. When in a circle, people are together differently than when standing over, sitting around the table like in a boardroom meeting or in rows in a sanctuary or fellowship hall, not seeing the faces and eyes of others. I recognize that in some contexts, to sit in a circle might upset the homeostasis too much. In those cases, I sit in whatever arrangement is most helpful. I also remember that a circle comes in many geometric designs. The circle is not only about a configuration of seating but is about a way of being together.

6.    The responsibility of participants—The responsibility of each individual is to hold their place at the rim of the circle with integrity. It is not about managing the circle or other people’s place, but managing oneself and your/our own space at the rim of the circle.

7.    Ritual is important--Ritual can help open and sustain space. Ritual has a way of touching the soul in ways language does not. Often I use the lighting of a candle and the ringing of a bell to begin a gathering. Along with this, I might recite poetry, scripture or whatever is appropriate for the context. My encouragement is, however it is done, be intentional about the ritual practiced making certain it is congruent with the values of the community.

8.    Exploring, learning and growing--As I work in this field, I am always being attentive to how the difference in cultures and other dynamics influence the way containers are formed, grown, shaped, nurtured and sustained.

Components for Containers

Whatever your specific preferences for building or cultivating a strong container, some overarching components are:

Physical Space:

The location/physical setting and surroundings of the gathering are significant considerations. I can remember working with a group on some difficult issues, some of which dealt with confidential material. Yet the set-up was to meet in a public space where people were passing through. The physical space was not conducive to the intention of neither our gathering nor the material with which we were working. Before beginning, we changed the location in the building. By arriving early, I was able to make the change of location without too much disruption of the group. Also, physical setting and set-up can create opposition or togetherness; an atmosphere of stillness, calmness and listening or one of chaos and confusion. The invitation is to be attentive to the physical space.

Some questions might include:

•    Is it clean?

•    Is it clutter free?

•    Is it in a location without interruptions?

•    Is it space where people can talk honestly, openly and freely?

•    Is it quiet?

•    Is it spacious and open?

•    Is it aesthetically pleasing?

Nature of the relationships that are present or not present:

Containers are about nurturing relationship and trust. From a systems lens, the reality is understood in terms of relationship. As Martin Buber commented, “In the Beginning is relation.” When working with a group and considering the strength and best practices for cultivating the container, I am pondering the relationship of the people involved and the context of the system itself. What kind of relationship is it that we/they live within? How do they/we relate?  In preparing, I am considering:

•    What kind of things goes into being encouraging in the context I am entering?  How do I invite forth their best thinking, behavior, and way of being—their best selves? How can I encourage them to invite the best in one another?

•    Understanding and helping others understand the path/map forward helps lower the anxiety of a group and raises people’s ability to be present, open and vulnerable. Regulating systemic anxiety raises the level of people’s capacity to be present with each other in an I-Thou way.  The best way a leader can do this is by regulating his/her own anxiety. When the leader can stay calm and nonanxious, it has a salutary impact on the system with whom he or she connects.

•    As we gather, it can be helpful to invite people to state what they hope will come out of the conversations–hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns?

•    Are there relationships that need to be openly discussed with the group for transparency and clarity to make certain they do not compromise the integrity of the container in any way? Do I have strong biases around the topic that might hinder my ability to facilitate or guide the conversation fairly and hold the space openly?


It takes intentionality to create a space and environment where people can be honest, open and reveal about themselves their levels of competency, certainty, questions, hopes, dreams, fears and concerns. The container helps create a space for people to relate differently. To me, appropriate, authentic, robust vulnerability is incarnational and can be key to opening up and deepening the container and its space. A vulnerability cannot be forced, it can only be invited, but when it happens, it is grace.

One of the worst things that can happen to challenge the integrity of a container is for someone to be vulnerable and to get put down for it.

Doing work together:

•    One way to strengthen the container is to have groups connect and bond by working together. The work might appear to be unrelated to why they are together. It allows participants to work side by side. As they/we work and play together for common outcomes or intention, we connect more deeply. It reminds me of what my colleague who remarks regularly, “The people are not the problem, the problem is the problem.”

•    Breaking large groups into smaller ones to think creatively about something together can have a similar impact and can help build or cultivate a stronger container.

•    Inviting stories from participants can deepen and strengthen the container. To do so, I have used questions like: What is the unique strength of or how does this congregation or organization look when it is at its best? I ask participants to talk about this by telling a story about when he/she experienced the community at its best. I invite the group to listen for common themes.

•    When opening space with a group, I often begin with a check-in. We might pass the talking object and answer any one or all of the following questions. Of course, while we honor any person’s choice to speak, we also honor their choice not to speak as well. The questions I sometimes use are:

1) What is one celebration for you?

2) What is one challenge you face?

3) Inner weather check? /How is it with your soul?

4) Do you have a question that is wrestling with you?

•    The At Meal Exercise developed by Eric Law is another helpful tool for groups working together. This exercise invites people to consider their internal and external cultures that inform them. In this exercise, people reflect on a childhood experience around the meal table and explore how those early experiences inform the participants’ perspectives/narratives on power and authority; insider/outsider; male/female roles; conflict/anxiety, etc. In addition to creating a learning opportunity, this exercise invites people to talk together to build community and trust in a non-threatening, non-invasive way.

•    Another exercise I find helpful in some contexts is a cross-cultural tool that uses the natural elements (Earth, Water, Fire, and Air) to distinguish four main personality types and conflict styles for individuals and teams. The tool is playful and can invite insightful, meaningful conversations.

•    Many other exercises and tools are available that can be helpful. Key is to find those with which the facilitator is comfortable and is most congruent with the group, its spirit and the type of environment you are trying to create.


Safety is an important component for a container. People need to feel safe, to be honest, and to go deeper into the conversation. Also, power differentials are part of the dynamic of safety. Safety can involve a physical and emotional threat. If the facilitator and participants cannot create and sustain a space that is safe, the container will be compromised. In whatever way it manifests, if the need and feeling for safety cannot be satisfied, the facilitator will need to end the gathering.

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Safety is always important to consider, for a first rule is, “Do no harm!”

Creative Risk:

When someone can step out and take creative risks admitting vulnerability, weakness or a feeling, etc. and be received for it, the container and its integrity are strengthened. An appropriate vulnerability can help open space and influence containers.

The invitational tonality and quality are important to the container:

The invitational tone is more significant than we often consider when creating a strong container. I believe far more conscious efforts need to be given to exploring the way we extend invitations and are open to the invitations that emerge during our conversations. When the invitations are not consciously considered, often resistance, reactivity and sabotage are increased. Genuine invitations lessen reactivity and resistance.

If the leader/facilitator(s) can stay calm and nonanxious:

If the leader/facilitator can stay calm and non-anxious, it will have a salutary impact on those in the circle conversation. I believe I-Thou invites/evokes

I-Thou; I-It evokes I-It (a notion by Martin Buber). I-It rises in direct proportion to the level of anxiety in a space. The lower the anxiety, or the more manageable, the more an I-Thou way of being is likely to be present. This is all to say that as leaders, cultivating the container involves us, as the poet Mary Oliver invites repeatedly, “to pay attention”.  Circle work, open space and cultivating strong containers are not about intellect only or even mainly, but emotional and spiritual process that includes the body. Our call is to pay attention to the subtle and the not so subtle, process and content.

To regulate the anxiety of the space means to regulate my own anxiety first and foremost. The space around us is only as open as is the space within us. Parallel processes are always at work. Thus, before entering, I have to tend to my own inner life through my own spiritual practices.

In summary, this article represents a small description of what I have found goes into creating a strong, deep, broad container. I hope you find it helpful. It is not a “how to” article or about techniques only because building and sustaining the container is as much if not more of an art than a science. Giving attention to the container is essential for having constructive, generative, courageous conversations. As a friend once said, “No container, no conversation.”

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!