We’ve all had the experience of being in a group where everything is flowing really well, people are aligned, and everyone’s energy is high. Then one person says or does something that seems to pop the bubble, and the flow of good ideas stops. The typical response in these situations is a kind of uncomfortable silence followed by a disinterested push to get back to the topic at hand. Everyone in the room can sense that something is different but few are aware of what happened, and almost nobody is aware of the actual phenomenon at work. What follows will be a departure from the typical ideas and style of discourse usually found in a business environment, but it's important to note that most new ideas about how people communicate and behave take a very long time to become accepted in corporate cultures. Those with the courage to adopt cutting edge ideas early stand to gain great competitive advantage.
In the example above, the group, through a sense of shared purpose felt uplifted by how well everything was going. The environment of positivity encouraged people to share their thoughts more freely, and better, more creative ideas were coming to light. In a corporate environment, this almost always happens by accident unless the group has a very forward thinking leader who knows how create those conditions, or there is a trained facilitator (like an agile coach) present. The person who "pops the bubble," also tends to do so by accident and they're not quite sure what it was they said, or often that the had anything to do with it!
This is called “breaking the container,” here is a good description of how containers work.
The "container" is the psychological or spiritual space within which a group works. The facilitator's role is to create (through invitation) and to help the group co-create, that psychological space, and then to hold it open, to allow knowledge, learning, understanding, energy, ideas, perspectives, tensions and dissonances, and appreciation to flow and be contained in that space, to enable the group to process all this 'content' and achieve its purpose and intention.
"If you think of holding space as being in the center of the wheel, it's being in the center and holding the energy of what's both inside the bounds and outside; it's magnetic - you draw in what's most coherent to the intention." (Margo Adair)
This requires the facilitator to be totally present, attentive to what is said and not said, happening and not happening, dancing energetically between purpose and agenda, and intervening when necessary to keep the space open (not close ideas, possibilities and understanding off prematurely), to keep it safe (so those present are not afraid to contribute), to set appropriate boundaries, to maintain its flow and energy, and ultimately to help the group narrow it (through the "groan zone") to converge on a consensus and appreciation of what makes sense to the group.
This entails stepping in when someone goes off topic, makes a hurtful or sarcastic comment, or when there are multiple, unintentional side conversations, or when people are interrupting or dominating, or when outside agenda or distractions intervene. It requires encouraging openness (honesty, openness to receive, openness to solutions and new ideas, openness to possibilities, encouraging people to share. With the facilitator holding the space, the participants are freer to participate, to immerse themselves in the doing of it.
It is a process of deep listening, enablement, active reflection, supporting all sides, stewarding forward, and supporting all sides. It requires setting clear intentions, setting expectations, establishing norms and ground rules, and providing clear instructions. It may entail ritual, and always requires trust.
There may be occasions where we need to make space at the boundary for people to be half-in and half-out.
Vulnerability can be powerful in its ability to create a safe space, and facilitators as well as other leaders in a group are well positioned to role model such behavior. When one person is honest, it can give permission for everyone else to be honest. Spaces are safer and more likely to grow in a healthy and creative way when a culture of not knowing all the answers exists. This culture cultivates a learning community where curiosity is valued and it is important to ask questions.
If you are looking to create a container in a corporate culture a good way to do so would be to set some ground rules for your meeting without describing what you’re trying to do. Once the container is established, you will be able to both see (in people’s body language and behavior) and feel it (this could take more practice as it’s gradual, but it’s a growing sense of connection, trust, and common purpose). After it is established you can relax in the surety that someone will do or say something to break the container, at which point, without making the offender feel bad, ask the room how that person’s action made them feel. If people are reluctant to share, reinforce that there is no judgement, and that this is just an exercise to introduce them to the concept of containers. Agile folks will understand the idea right away, as we have all lucked our way into creating containers, and had them popped at some point. Here are some simple methods to creating a container (lots of these will be very familiar):
- No multitasking
- Alert, active listening with eye contact
- Sit in a circle or square where everyone can see everyone else easily
- No interrupting someone when they’re speaking unless absolutely necessary (time/topic concerns or they are breaking the container)
- “Yes and,” rather than “no but,” try not to say (with words or actions) “no” to what someone is putting forth, again, unless necessary
- Ask clarifying questions
- Assume positive intent
- No side conversations (we think they are just distracting, but in fact they make it impossible for the container to form. Think about it like a bucket with a hole in it.
- The above is one of many things that can create a “leaky container,” where the energy of the group leaks out and you are left with very little. Other things include gossip (containers can be maintained in between sessions), going behind someone’s back, general lack of trust, etc.
- Don’t spend too much time speaking if you are the facilitator, leave open verbal space
- Maintain Open Focus (this takes practice)