Creating a Container for Conversation

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 wants 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—tough, 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’s soul as well. We must sit and wait on it to show itself—W. Craig Gilliam]

~~Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p.151

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 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 me about my metaphor for community or conversation, “container” is the word that emerges.  Sometimes 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 on 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. In order for this to happen, one has to have a strong container.

While all metaphors limp a little, for me, “container” is a nice metaphor for congregations and communities.  Too often, when the heat is generated that is always part of the reciprocity of relationships, community and courageous conversations, we have not built a strong enough container, so instead of being strong enough to hold, it blows the container 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, which helps 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 this container; what can it bare; 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 to go beyond its capacity. Of course, there are those pleasant moments when the container and the people surprise me and go further and deeper than imagined.

Building a Container

How can we help build a container where honest, open 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 clear intention—I like to develop a open, high-level question to serve as the theme or intention for the conversation. A clear intention 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 is key, it is part of the relationship, but there is a “way to be with people” that is important to the conversation as well.
  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.
  5. JustPeace101 circleSit in a circle—Since early in our history, humans have sat around fires telling stories. The geometric design of these gatherings is often a circle. I like sitting in circle with people. When in 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. Circle is not only about a configuration of seating, but is about a way of being together.
  6. 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 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 it, I might recite poetry, scripture or whatever is appropriate for the context. My encouragement is, however you do it, be intentional about the ritual you practice and make certain it is congruent with the values you, the community and the spirit of the space you want to create.

Components for Containers

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

Physical Space:

I consider the location/physical setting and surroundings of the gathering. 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 intention of 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 a 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 relationship building as is life. We all live in relationship. As Martin Buber commented, “In the Beginning is relation.” When working with a group and considering the strength and cultivation of 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 thinking about:

  • What kind of things go into being encouraging in the context I am entering?  How do I invite forth their best thinking, behavior and way being or way of their heart and soul—their best self? 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 in an I-Thou way.  The best way a leader can do this is by regulating his/her own anxiety.
  • 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 for transparency and clarity with the group 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 open?


I try to make a space and environment where people can be honest, open and reveal about themselves–their levels of competency, certainty, questions, hopes, dreams, fears, concerns. The container helps create a space for people to relate differently. To me, authentic vulnerability is incarnational and can be key to opening up and deepening this space. It 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 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 the 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 friend and colleague David Hooker remarks regularly, “The people are not the problem, the problem is the problem.”
  • Breaking large groups into small 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 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 when he/she experienced it. I invite the group to listen for common themes.
  • When I open a space with a group, I often have a check-in as as way to open the space. We might pass the talking object and answer any one or all of the following questions. Of course, no one has to speak, but all are invited to do so. We honor any person’s choice not to speak. 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) Is there a question wrestling with you?
  • My colleague and friend, Stephanie Hixon the Executive Director of JustPeace, introduced me to the At Meal Exercise developed by Eric Law. This is an exercise where people reflect on a childhood experience around the meal table and explore what they learned about power and authority; insider/outsider; male/female roles; conflict/anxiety that they still carry with them. We find it a great exercise to invite people to reflect on their internal culture that they carry and how their culture informs them in certain contexts. Also, it gets people to talking together to build community and trust in a safe way.


Safety is an important variable for a container. At times, safety can be tricky because for some people this means different things. Of course, it is a real concern in some contexts, but I have seen those times when it can be manipulative or coercive. I think one part of safety is Can I/we/the group be vulnerable without being slammed or shamed? What is our relational covenant? How do we honor and respect the dignity of another person or group of people even if we disagree? How do I see the other as made in the image of God as am I? In this situation, what does it mean and look like to be in an I-Thou way toward other and oneself?

When someone shares and if they are slammed, as we mentioned above, if someone doesn’t help facilitate or the two parties cannot work it out because of choice and power differentials, then, safety or the feeling that there is a lack thereof diminishes the container and the group’s ability to do deep work. The conversation can be compromised or restricted.

Creative Risk:

When someone can step out and take a creative risk admitting vulnerability, weakness or a feeling, etc. and be received for it, it strengthens the container. Appropriate vulnerability is incarnational and can help open space and influence containers.

The invitational tonality and quality is important to the container:

The invitational tone is more significant than we often consider when creating a strong container. I believe far more conscious effort needs to be given to explore 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 and sabotage are increased. 

If the leader/facilitator(s) can stay calm and non- anxious:

If the leader/facilitator can stay calm and non-anxious, it will have a salutary impact on those in the circle conversation. This is an Edwin Friedman statement as well as one by my friend and colleague, John Winn. I believe I-Thou provokes I-Thou;  I-It provokes 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 is likely to be present. This is all to say that as leaders, cultivating the container involves paying attention.  Circle work, open space and cultivating strong containers are not about intellect only or even mainly, but emotional and spiritual process. Our call is to pay attention to the subtleties and the not so subtle.

To regulate the anxiety of the space means to regulate my own anxiety first and foremost. I believe, “The space around us is only as open as is the space within us.” I am watching for  parallel processes. Thus, before entering, I have to tend to my own inner life through my own spiritual practices.

Of course, this is a small description of what goes into creating a container, and we hope you find it helpful.

I invite you to let us know what you are learning about shaping the container and sustaining it.

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!

Some other resources to consider:

Arrien, Angeles. The Four-Fold Way
Baldwin, Christiana and Ann Linnea. Calling the Circle; The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair; Storycatcher
Buber, Martin. I and Thou
Gilliam, W. Craig (JustPeace), Where Angels Dare to Dance
Hicks, Donna. Dignity
Hixon, Stephanie and Thomas Porter. The Journey
JustPeace, Engaging Conflict Well
Kraybill, Ron and Evelyn Wright. The Little Book of Cool Tools for Hot Topics
Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach; A Hidden Wholeness
Porter, Thomas. The Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation
Pranis, Kay. The Little Book of Circle Processes
Ross, Rupert. Returning to the Teachings
Schirch, Lisa and David Crampt, The Little Book of Dialogue for Difficult Subjects
Wheatley, Margaret. Turning to one another


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