The art of the container

Kareen Wong

Kareen Wong

Silence. 

Everyone appears to be staring at me, or the floor. The air feels thick with everything that is not being said, and yet, silence. 

“I’m curious what’s happening for everyone right now?” I venture. “What’s creating this moment of quiet?”

More silence. I let it hang in the air, waiting (hoping) for someone to lean in. No one does. What now?

When I recall this particular session from a few years ago, I remember the feeling of almost desperation that I had (‘please, someone say something!’). No one in the session knew each other, the topic was big, nebulous and personally impacted the lives of those in attendance. I also remember how little time we had to come together and find some ground beneath us before we launched into the conversation we had been gathered to have. 

Looking back at that moment, I recognize that what was missing for people to engage was the time and intentional space to develop a sense of connection to each other and be able to land and find their bearings in a new group configuration. It’s moments like these that have reinforced for me how much intentionally creating a container can impact a group’s ability to engage with each other and the topic at hand. 

Having recently completed the Next Stage Facilitation Intensive I had the opportunity to experience a supportive container as a participant and practice creating and holding it as a facilitator. This experience supported bringing the following reflections into clearer focus for me as I round out a decade of doing facilitation work.

So what even is a ‘container’ and why does it matter so much?

You’ll often hear facilitators refer to the ‘container’. When I first heard the term, I visualized a giant metaphorical tupperware that the whole group was sitting in together. Admittedly a touch claustrophobic and overly literal, it did provide me with a sense of ‘thing that holds us together’. 

The ‘container’ refers to the energetic atmosphere and articulated engagement guidelines a group commits to and co-creates. It’s a temporary micro-culture (read: vibe) that is subtly felt consciously or unconsciously by everyone in the (virtual or in-person) room and is hugely impactful on the quality of participation and engagement a given session might produce. 

Part natural phenomenon and part human engineering, the container is a collective creation. As a facilitator I consciously orchestrate its inception, but it’s never a solo act – it can’t be. Every person in the room plays an important part in creating and maintaining its integrity. (More on leaky containers later).

What does a solid container allow for?

We’ve all felt the benefits of being in a strong and structurally sound container in our lives, though we may all uniquely describe its impacts on ourselves and the group as a whole. I experience a strong container as a personal invitation that I feel inclined to accept to be a bit vulnerable, a tentative trust that I will be held by the group, and a willingness to do the same for others. A solid container entices me to bring a certain quality and level of participation that supports new creative thinking, openness to different perspectives, and opportunity to connect genuinely with those around me at a human-level in the process. 

When I’m facilitating, I experience a solid container as resulting in a level of depth and nuance being present in the room that can feel almost magical. 

How can facilitators bring these containers to life?

As facilitators, we are each our own unique blend of skill, energy and intuition. We draw upon and hone ourselves as instruments. What is it that we can be doing that can support us to lead the creation and maintenance of a container in the spaces we work in? 

  • Warm up the space. As human beings, we are very subtly perceptive to the spaces we enter. Consciously or not, we are constantly sussing out how safe
    we feel and gauging a sense of belonging in this new constellation of people we find ourselves in. Anything we can do as facilitators to create a sense of comfort, ease and warmth in a space right from the second people enter the room, the better. I always make sure there is music playing when people enter (in-person or virtually). I make a point of having people ‘break the ice’ as quickly as possible with a gentle invitation to engage directly in something. I make sure we have a mindful and fulsome way of inviting those attending to introduce themselves. Food and warm drinks that are culturally appropriate for your gathering are another great way of subtly signaling – you are welcome here. The first few minutes of the engagement play a pivotal role in setting the tone for how the group will engage for the reminder of the session.
  • Community commitments / Rules of engagement. While sometimes glossed over as a point of formality, the commitments a group makes with regard to how they will interact with each other is an important part of group norming, expectation management and boundary setting. It presents values and when done well, invites groups to really take these on as their own in a way that starts to feel seamless rather than forced. This is also a supportive articulated structure that as facilitators we can come back to if we sense a leak in the container later on and need to engage in repair.
  • Time and spaciousness. This is one of the biggest factors that impacts the process of creating the container – rushing through it or doing away with key relational pieces altogether in the interest of trying to do more with less (and when has that ever worked?). People need time to land and find ground beneath them before they can participate in a fulsome way. Time and spaciousness are also important equity considerations for cultivating a container that can truly hold everyone. Rushing through the beginning of something can be jarring and confusing for groups and often results in them fulfilling their relational needs in another way: going off script from what you’ve asked them to do, not leaning in as far, or checking out completely.
  • Strong facilitation. As facilitators, we are required to sense into and notice on an ongoing basis what is arising in and for the group we are working with. In our own ways, we need to hone our skills to be able to respond with a variety of facilitation moves that can support the collective to continue doing what it has set out to do (or intentionally shifting course if that is what is needed). 

What impacts the container?

All this said, containers are not completely within anyone’s control. Often as facilitators, we can find ourselves with our hands tied or with pre-existing group dynamics that pose a significant challenge or simply the unpredictable nature of humans being in space together. Creating and caring for a container is about doing what we can to set ourselves up to be undertaking our work together in a good way, but it’s not any guarantee that things will happen exactly the way we intend from the get go. But, as facilitators, we know that’s actually not necessarily a negative thing. 

Many factors can impact the strength and quality of a group container including, but not limited to:
  • Pre-existing group norms and dynamics
  • Distribution of power and privilege 
  • Virtual vs. in-person (and qualities of the physical space itself)
  • Time allotted and flexibility with your process design
  • Client expectations
  • Participant presence and commitment (e.g. are people flowing in and out)

So if a container is so great, why are they often absent?

All too often the relational piece of process design gets dropped in the interest of time. Maybe the client wants the session to be shorter (and cheaper), maybe the group of people just simply cannot make more time in their schedules to be in the space longer. Regardless, the container – invisible yet palpable, can so often be compromised in the interest of time. And we’ve all felt a ‘leaky container’ – all the sudden, the whole conversation is focused on the leak and we’ve temporarily lost what it was we were here to do together. 

It can look like the group moving in circles, closing in or down, or even moving way off course in a way that isn’t supportive.

It can feel like the conversation disintegrating or fragmenting – losing its center. 

It can result in the group losing focus, getting distracted (answering emails, taking phone calls, or leaving), and general loss of energy and dynamic of togetherness. 

What happens when the container leaks?

Without the container, a number of things can be compromised:

  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Vulnerability
  • Creativity
  • Sharing or venturing new ideas
  • Listening to hear (deep listening)
  • Ability to see the person (and not a position)
  • Depth
  • Nuance

All of these are born of a sense of human relationship in the space that can only be created and cultivated intentionally and consciously with the support of the facilitator with an extended invitation to the group to really make the space their own and step into the process in a meaningful way. 

What can be done about it?

The good news? Containers can be repaired in the moment. The complex yet beautiful piece? It’s a bit different for each of us. My recent participation in the Next Stage Facilitation Intensive brought into clearer focus where my edges here were and what I might specifically offer as a facilitation move in these moments. As a facilitator, part of the skillset I draw upon and actively practice is a deep sense of awareness of the state of the container in any given moment. 

A current practice I have taken away from my experience is once I notice the container is leaking or compromised in some way, I gently name it out loud in the space – something like: “I’d like to invite us to pause. What’s happening right now? I’m wondering if I’m noticing X, is that resonant?” Verbalizing the energetic sensing I pick up from being deeply present supports me to direct the group in a way that not only can better support any repair to the container, but it also mitigates me making a move that the group might not need. 

The full spectrum of facilitation moves is near infinite: What moves related to the art of the container are you curious to lean into?

Kareen Wong (they/them) is a graduate of the Fall 2022 Next Stage Intensive Facilitation Intensive. They are a certified Integral Associate Coach and consultant at their own personal consultancy Kareen Wong Coaching & Consulting. At time of writing their facilitation practice spans organizational retreats and development, strategic planning, policy consultations, and community-engaged research.

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