Creating a Container for Conversation

“We need to talk.”


That simple sentence can spark fear and trembling, especially when we know there's a disagreement and the stakes are high. We know that a conversation is a path forward but we also fear that the conversation will be unproductive and difficult. As a result, we either avoid conversations or we have them at the wrong time and in the wrong way.


Heated Situations

Relationships, by their very nature, create heat. On the one hand, we want so much to be connected—to be unified, to be together, to belong. On the other hand, though, we are so different! In our congregations, families, and workplaces, we have vastly different experiences, opinions, stories, and ideas about what is right and wrong.


Even when we have grown up in the same family, town, or denomination, people can be so very different. Those differences frustrate and confuse us, and the result is heat.  


When our feelings are stirred up and our opinions are strong, it can seem impossible to have a conversation that is not just civil but also productive and life-giving. We may jump into the conversation impulsively, driven by emotional urgency, rather than by our best thinking about what is most important to us. Or, we may avoid the conversation anxiously, paralyzed by the fear of conflict.


A Contained Burn

Creating a container for conversation is like creating a pit for a fire. When the heat of normal relationships is generated, the container has to be strong enough to hold the fire without hurting anyone or destroying anything. In fact, while the fire blazes, we can stand around it and enjoy it without fear of what it might do.


The word container tells us what we need to know about this process: “con” (with) and “tenēre” (to hold); literally, “to hold together” or “to hold with others.” In conversation, we trust the container process to hold our relationship together while we talk things out, even if things get heated. The container keeps us safe so that we can understand each other and learn together.  


A container is, above all, a structure. It consists of agreements and boundaries and values, all mutually agreed upon ahead of time.  Creating a container for conversation means that we decide how we will have the conversation in a way that is both safe and challenging. In fact, taking the time to create the container together builds our capacity to then have the hard conversations.


Creating the Container

The key question in creating a container for conversation is not, “How can we agree?” The container assumes that we will disagree, not because we are bad but because we are human.


Rather, the question is, “How will we be together in the face of disagreement?” Will we focus on trying to get our way, trying to get others to give in to us? Will we sulk, gossiping and sabotaging things when they don’t go our way? Will we talk over people and demand to be heard? Will we pretend like everything is okay even when things are tense and difficult?


Or will we build containers for productive conversation so that we can communicate the way God intends for us? After all, it was the apostle Paul who reminds us that we can “speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) James tells us that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)


Here are a few ways to begin to create a container for the difficult conversations that we know we need to have:


1. Have a clear intention that is shared by all involved.

What do we really want? Is it just to get our way? Or do we want something bigger than that? A container works best when we are seeking to move forward with our brothers and sisters in a way that includes everyone and glorifies God.


2. Together identify your core values.

What is really important to us as we have this conversation? One group I worked with agreed from the outset that they had a value of curiosity; they wanted to understand all the points of view. Another important value might be inclusion, that each person matters as much as the others. Authenticity and confidentiality are other core values that we might agree upon.  


3. Create agreements to provide structure.

Once we know what our values are, we will know what kinds of agreements we will make. Some agreements are basic: we will not interrupt each other, we will not shout, we will take frequent breaks. Other agreements may be more complex. When I lead these kinds of conversations, I ask participants to let me guide the process with questions that have been carefully considered ahead of time, answering only the questions I ask.

When we create a container for overheated conversations, we can talk things out without hurting ourselves or anyone else. We can make progress toward mutual understanding and decision-making.


In Case of Emergency

And what will we do when one of us disregards the agreements or acts counter to our values? Our efforts to create a container are only as good as our willingness to hold each other accountable, lovingly and firmly. Should your container begin to char, you may need to take further steps to have that difficult conversation.


1. Use a talking object.

A talking object reminds all of us that the person holding it is responsible for talking. If you’re not holding it, you’re responsible for managing yourself with curiosity and empathy. You are not responsible for managing the whole circle or others’ places in the circle. You are only—and completely—responsible for yourself.


2. Sit in a circle, no matter how many people are involved.

This reminds us that we are all equal participants in the conversation and also allows us to see and hear the person who is speaking.


3. Remember the specific role of the leader.

A leader or facilitator is in the conversation to hold the boundaries of the conversation according to our agreements. They watch for what is trying to emerge and to keep things both safe and challenging.


Remember: Heat is not bad. But it’s not necessarily good either. It’s just what happens when you put different people in relationships and ask them to work together on anything that matters. With a little work, though, we can create containers for conversation in our families, congregations, and workplaces. When we create a container for these overheated conversations, we can talk things out without hurting ourselves or anyone else. We can make progress toward mutual understanding and decision-making.