Methods and Tools – Part II

Create a Strong Container

While this can sound like an abstract concept, the relative strength of a container is likely something each of us has experienced. If we are confused about why we’re in a meeting, if we don’t know what will be asked of us, if we feel our voice will not be considered, if we don’t know how conflict or disagreement will be handled, and other uncertainties, are all experiences of a weak container.

In contrast, a strong container in a meeting is one in which participants are clear in their purpose for attending, feel that their contributions will be valued alongside others, understand how they can contribute (including having the information they need to participate), are able to contribute (this includes having language and accessibility needs met), and more.

The STAR Model from Human systems Dynamics uses the following questions to support a strong container for group processes:

  • Do we know why we’re gathering together here and now?
  • Is each of us connected authentically to our own purpose for being here?
  • Do we have space to embrace and weave together the differences and diversity that make up our group?
  • Do we have agreements for ways in which we will talk and listen to each other?

Setting a strong container starts outside the room, but also happens quite visibly in the way a room (in person or over video) is set up.

  • Are the chairs in a circle or in rows?
  • Is the person who holds institutional or other power seated at the front?
  • Is the session designed to be accessible for multiple learning styles? Physical or other access needs?
  • Is the meeting opened with a listing of the agenda items, or is it anchored in shared purpose and an opportunity for all to speak in some way?
  • As the meeting progresses, is the facilitator acknowledging multiple points of view, or skipping over differences out of discomfort?
  • Is the facilitator helping the participants see where they are on the path towards their shared objectives?
  • Are participants being asked to help identify important insights and gifts from the conversation and make meaning together?

Considerations for the use of community agreements

Some facilitators choose to use community agreements as a key tool for creating their container. Others do not, arguing that the list of aspirational statements are not something that participants can realistically ‘promise’ to uphold for the entire meeting. At the same time, some feel that the process of reflecting on and articulating what matters about how a group gathers is itself a valuable way to build relationship and connection. And that the product is often less important than the experience of generating it. Whether you choose to use community agreements or not, consider what you will do to support the group to be present for the work they are there to do together.


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Strategic Dialogue and Engagement for Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Simon Fraser University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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