When I was in my early forties, I had the good fortune of participating in a women’s intensive retreat with one of the world’s renowned women’s empowerment leaders. Her approach was intense, radical and unconventional, and not intended for the masses. Some of the most powerful moments of my life were inside that small circle of women who came together to dive deeply into the multi-layers of womanhood – physical, emotional and spiritual. And I can tell you that the places our venerable facilitator invited us to go, took way more than just courage to enter.

But go we did, and to this day I remain astonished that she was able to take us there. Due to the confidentiality of the work, and the participants involved, I cannot share the details. Suffice to say it made Burning Man look like Sesame Street.

In later years she and I became friends, and we spoke a lot about her work, and what physics were at play in order to create a safe enough space for us all to have such a definitive encounter with our highest feminine selves. She was adamant that the work itself was only as good as the container that is was held in. ‘Everything must be absolutely and completely perfect,’ she would insist to her, often frazzled, retreat assistants, pointing out a fork left askew, or a tissue left on the floor.

In my return to her retreats, I became not only a student of her work, but more importantly a keen observer of the skill of creating an impeccable container so the impossible could be made possible.

The mastery of container creation is not purely for the domain of intensive retreats and workshops. Though sadly, so many of them neglect this aspect. It is also for leaders and family members, couples, friends, volunteer groups and anyone who is in a position to shape outcomes of something they deem important. For whatever it is that wants to be done, learned or achieved, it is best supported by creating an intentional container for it.

What is a container exactly? I define it as the purposeful and skillful creation of an environment, through agreements, communication, structure (physical and organizational), physical beauty, order and safety (emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical) that holds a body of work.

A container is based on the concepts of Systems Theory, which basically states that anything we do as individuals impacts others around us. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And more interestingly, the parts are profoundly affected by the whole.

W. Clement Stone said, “You are a product of your environment. So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Are the things around you helping you toward success — or are they holding you back?”

In the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms at an East Coast college and recorded how many lost letters found their way to the right mailbox.

The researchers discovered that students in some of the dorms were more considerate than others, and noticed a marked trend towards the students’ environment that shaped such thoughtfulness.

Nearly all of the letters dropped near less crowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.

Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college companions and this apparently dampened their benevolence.

Since then, many other experiments have illuminated the same phenomenon. Neighborhoods with broken windows attracted more vandalism, and litter attracts the habit to toss more trash on the ground.

In one study, social psychologists placed paper fliers on over 100 cars in a large parking lot and watched to see what the car owners would do with them.

Again, the environment appeared to shape the response.

When drivers discovered a parking lot littered with scattered fliers, candy wrappers and coffee cups (arranged by the researchers, of course), nearly half of them removed the fliers from their cars and tossed them on the ground.

In contrast, when the researchers swept the same parking lot clean before the drivers returned, only 1 in 10 tossed the flier. Unwittingly, the drivers adopted the behavior of the area’s apparent prevailing norms.

Put succinctly, ‘You get the vibes of your surroundings and it rubs off on you,’ wrote Gordon Lightfoot.

This is why creating a deliberate environment is such an essential part of leadership in an organization. I would argue that it is important in all settings where more than one person is included—families, couples, volunteer groups, church circles. Because when ‘two or more are gathered’, there is a system. And systems need to be shaped. And they need to be shaped with both the ‘care of the whole, and the individual’ as the intention.

Often leaders (and parents, group coordinators, partners in relationship) conceptualize leadership as a set of strategies, skills and directives to create an outcome. But this is linear, and therefore limited, thinking. It fails to recognize the collective soup within which the leadership is foisted.

The best strategies fall over at worst, and limp along at best, when implemented within a toxic or unconscious environment. Exceptional leadership includes the creation and maintenance of a correct environment in order for the outcomes to manifest.

Look inside any system, let’s take for example a family, and notice the impact that system has on each individual. Often parents will send a child to therapy imagining the child’s issues to be independent of the family system, unique and personal to that child. The best therapy in that scenario is one that takes the entire family into account, and treats the system as a whole.

Dutch motivational speaker Alexander den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

Recently I participated in a retreat that I had felt I had searched for my whole life. It took an enormous about of resources to attend. And I was open, excited and vulnerable in that way that all steep learning curves evoke.

Sadly the experience was mis-held. There was no container. Some common symptoms of a group absent any intentional container are: drama, negativity, gossip, creating ‘proxies’ for projecting stress, vying for position, silo-ing and anxiety. Additionally, people are denied their ability to show up as their truest and best selves.

The impact on me—regardless of clear my intention, enthusiasm and desire—was that my learning was compromised, my attention distracted, and my ability to show up as a fully contributing participant was reduced.

Event organizers do participants a huge disservice when containers are ill-made and poorly maintained. It is nothing less than an imperative to create a container of safety for all participants. Without such a container, people are subjected to uncertainty, stress, isolation and it compromises their ability to be vulnerable, to connect to one another in any capacity, let alone deeply, and to truly learn.

In our work at EQUUS we have a mantra —everything matters. Scott Strachan, CVO of EQUUS, states, ‘We know that everything we do has impact, and we take that responsibility very, very seriously. We create space filled with trust that allows for people to reflect on the environment that may have sent them to us in the first place and to view from the balcony the influence it has on them.’

Through careful container creation, we endeavor to give our clients permission to show up as their best, empowered selves, to acknowledge their courageousness so they are confident in showing up differently, in ways more true to wholeheartedness.

How do you create a good container? The details vary depending upon the context. But here are just a few broad pointers:

Physical space – the physical space in which work is done shapes a sense of belonging, respect and ease. Attend to elements of order, structure to support efficiencies, and beauty. Natural light, flowers, symmetry in a circle of chairs, enough boxes of tissues, the feng-shui of how a room flows, can all be considerations.

The emerging field of innovative office space creation is very exciting. And you’ll find and abundance of resources out there on how to create great workshop / retreat / meeting spaces, and great family spaces too.

Agreements – agreements outlined to all group members helps everyone to feel safe, heard, and accountable. They form the backbone of creating a positive atmosphere and alleviating drama. Here are some of ours:

  1. Treat everyone with respect
  2. Cell phones off – your presence matters, for yourself and others.
  3. Please arrive on time
  4. No putdowns even the joking kind – we differentiate between humor (which is essential) and joking at someone’s expense.
  5. Share group space – This largely related to how much people speak – some can tend to take up too much space, and others not enough.
  6. No FRAPP-ing (Fixing, Rescuing, Advising or Protecting, or Polling) – polling is when you illicit agreements from others to support a story you are holding.
  7. No cross-talking – let everyone speak without interruption or commentary.
  8. Share only your own story – Share using the word ‘I’ rather than a generalized ‘you’ or ‘we’. For example, ‘I often forget how privileged I am,’ instead of “We often forget how privileged we are.”
  9. Observe confidentiality
  10. You have the right to pass – It’s not ashare or die circle.
  11. No triangulation or gossip
  12. Expect a lack of closure – there’s a lot to cover in any workshop / meeting / retreat and consequently there may be some things left to resolve over the arc of time.

Similar agreements can be crafted for family environments (ie, no cell phones at the dinner table, no name calling, etc) and office environments and meetings.

Upholding Agreements – it’s not enough to just proclaim them. The real work is in upholding them in real time.Particularly early on in the workshop we remind people quite frequently about the agreements in a light-hearted non-threatening manner. We revisit the group agreements at the start of each day.

My kids had a swearing jar, not for them, but for me! Whenever they heard me swear, I had to put a dollar in the jar. After the jar was full, I would take them out for a treat. It was just one of the ways we maintained a commitment to our agreements.

Nutrition – the consistent availability of a variety of fresh, healthy and nourishing foods and snacks helps peoples brains stay on line, and prevents low blood sugar crashes. When people are learning, they burn large amounts of glucose and often need more food, at more frequent intervals, than usual. Attend to the various needs required such as gluten free, vegetarian and vegan options.

Flow – cramming way too much into a day is stressful, and compromises the ability to learn. Create a flow inside hours, days, weeks that includes breaks, down time, and integration time. Negative space is generative.

Details – the smallest things can make a huge difference between people feeling stressed, or feeling terrific. Good maps to important locations (do not rely on everyone’s GPS working well), welcome letters, ‘what to pack’ emails, in case of emergency phone numbers, are all details to include.

Feedback – the best way I’ve learned to create containers is through the direct and honest feedback of our clients. I’ve learned if the maps aren’t right, the day was too crammed, and if I overlooked elements of importance to them. So we treat feedback as a sacred, important offering from our clients. Create a safe space where feedback can be given, and received, wholeheartedly.

For me, container building is an active, constantly evolving, creative way to show care in form and in action. I am constantly learning how to refine and improve the various environments in my care. Have fun thinking of ways you can create deliberate containers for your team, or family. And enjoy the journey!

2 replies
  1. Thomas Isaacson
    Thomas Isaacson says:

    Kelly, nicely done to share concept, seemingly so simple, yet so critical to the
    System in play. There is a complementary tool called a holding environment. This is from the Adaptive Leadership realm, the work of Heifetz. Heifetz et al believe that leadership is, at its essence, about influencing change that builds and enables the capacity of individuals and organizations to thrive. Specifically, that leadership is the practice of mobilizing groups of people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. The bottom line is that leaders need to understand the importance of adaptation and are able to employ the relevant processes and tools to build the adaptive capacity of organizations. They define a holding environment as “The cohesive properties of a relationship or social system that serve to keep people engaged with one another in spite of the divisive forces generated by adaptive work.”

    All the best, Tom

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