The more dialogue-related work I do, the greater my appreciation for the connection between the outcome of a conversation and the climate within which it’s held. By ‘outcome’ I mean not just the immediate ‘upshot’, but the impact of the conversation on relationships and the bigger system.
Climate is harder to articulate. It’s a mash-up of energetic feel, quality of engagement, levels of safety, rhythm and tone of voices, perceptions of power, freedoms to speak…very little of it is concrete and yet it’s palpable. It is significantly influenced by the dialogue practice of creating a ‘container’: actively examining tangible aspects of setting and conduct that affect the quality of conversational energy. Just as the hollow defined by a ‘bowl’ is a usable emptiness, so a container shapes a space within which to talk and listen.
The material of a physical container ascertains what it can hold – a flimsy plastic dish distorts when filled with hot contents, for example. In a similar way, the fabric of a container for conversation determines the levels of intensity, turbulence and discomfort that can be (safely) handled by those present. A routine conversation may be ‘held’ by social customs, a formal agenda and a chairperson, whilst a ‘higher, deeper, wider’ conversation (as one client describes dialogue) calls for a more complex container.
To nurture a climate suitable for expressing differences – which are often passionately promoted or doggedly defended – those present must collectively create a context in which it’s possible to accept and acknowledge irritation, frustration, dislike and more highly charged feelings. They must also foster the grace, compassion and humility to absorb self-doubt, embarrassment, disappointment and regret.
Exploring and clarifying the shared conditions for holding a conversation introduces a change in collective capacity to support whatever emerges. For example, if we explicitly attend to how we will receive what is said, we establish a shared intention to recognise and consider each voice. This, in turn, encourages greater openness. The very act of turning towards such matters, and bringing them into awareness, fundamentally changes what is possible. In Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs is unequivocal:
‘no consciously held container, no dialogue.’
In my view, every conversation has a container, whether or not we pay attention to its nature. When ignored, it still shapes what unfolds, in the way the layout of a room goes unremarked yet subtly enables or limits collaboration. To be sure we can talk about important issues with appropriate frankness and depth, we must take note of our container and ask if it supports the kind of conversation we aspire to. Yet how much time do we typically invest in cultivating and maintaining this aspect of our conversations?
I know I’m not alone in experiencing finding tasks, decisions and problem-solving as magnetic. The short term attraction of content and achievement easily seduces me into skipping over the non-urgent business of creating a container. When things are going well, this doesn’t matter. If things get messy, it’s too late – emotions are already running high, ambiguity and uncertainty abound, and self-interest predominates. In the midst of all this, it’s much harder to attend to holding the conversation. And so I create my own circumstances, time after time.