To have a conversation, create a container

This post explores how we can create the conditions for generative dialogue so that together we achieve more than we could alone. A “container” for a conversation provides a “holding” atmosphere in which the things that matter most can be discussed.

As a fan of the British writer Virginia Woolf, I recently went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to see an exhibition about her life and work. Virginia Woolf, a novelist, publisher, essayist and critic, was a leading light of the London literary scene during the first half of the twentieth century. Insights from her life and writings throw some light on how conversation can become a powerful tool for change both in organisations and at home.

The influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, which also included John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forester, has significantly shaped modern attitudes towards literature, economics and aesthetics. The Bloomsbury Set was not, however, a group in any formal sense. They were united by a belief in the value of the arts and a passion for talking together. As the commentary at the exhibition put it:

“Bloomsbury had no manifesto or party line. It was chiefly bound together by a love of conversation. This might include argument, analysis, gossip or debate, but it was a means by which its members deepened understanding of each other, and themselves, and the world around them.”

The power of conversation

Given the potential of conversation to transform our understanding of each other and the world around us, the question is: How do we make the most of being in dialogue together? How can create the conditions so that we shift our mindset? What is needed so that conversation deepens our relationships and generates fresh understandings?

There are, I believe, some clues in Virginia Woolf’s observations about women and writing. In A Room of One’s Own, she highlights how women writers didn’t begin to appear in any significant way until the early nineteenth century. Why, Woolf reflects, were the four famous names – George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen – all compelled to write novels? Two of these women were not, by nature, novelists. Emily Bronte should have written poetic plays. George Eliot’s capacious mind should have turned itself to history or geography, not just fiction.

Virginia Woolf notes how the creative outpourings of these women were shaped by the physical conditions of their lives. Their novels were shorter than the books of the men writing at the same time. They were framed so that they did not need long hours of steady and interrupted work. Significantly, a woman writing in the nineteenth century would have to have written in the common sitting room; she had no separate study to which to retire. Virginia Woolf is famous for saying that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”

A woman writing at that time would also have been constantly interrupted. It would have been easier for her to write prose than to write poetry or a play, as less concentration is required. Jane Austen had to be careful that servants, visitors or anyone beyond her own family did not suspect her occupation. When the hinge of the door to the sitting room creaked, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting paper.

Why creating a “container” matters

To generate creative output, physical conditions matter. In the workplace, if our meetings are interrupted, we are unlikely to do our best thinking. If our conversations are broken as we check emails on our smartphones, valuable insights are unlikely to emerge. If we try to talk with a colleague about something important squeezed in between other meetings, we are less likely to get an extraordinary outcome.

What our creativity and our conversation both need is, in short, a “container”. Container comes from the Latin con, meaning “with”, and tener, meaning “to hold”. The essence of a container is, therefore, the sense of being held. Our attention is held, our energies are engaged and our minds are open.

A container has both physical and psychological dimensions. On a tangible level, a conversation that takes place in a circle of chairs with no table in the middle to hide behind can go places that a boardroom discussion typically cannot reach. A meeting in a light-filled room has an expansive atmosphere that a meeting in a windowless room cannot match. A presentation without Powerpoint slides rolling means that eyes don’t glaze over.

On a more subtle level, a container emerges when people feel it’s safe to open up and talk. People are energised when others start to say what’s really on their minds. When there is a palpable sense of the potential, people’s energies gather together. When there is more understanding than criticism, a decidedly different atmosphere appears. Each one of us can bring to the conversation the psychological qualities that co-create a container: authenticity, acceptance and appreciation.

With a strong container, our conversation and our creativity can go to the next level. As an individual, we might find that we can write not just prose, but plays and poetry too. As a team, we might develop a new strategy that no one could have come up with thinking alone. As the quality of our container expands, so does our dialogue.

For reflection

  • How can you create a “container” for yourself? When do you do your best thinking? Where do you feel “all of one piece”? What rhythm or routine can you establish to anchor a “holding” environment for yourself? It could be to go for a coffee to a quiet café or to take time to gather your thoughts before going to a meeting. Pay attention to the conditions that nurture your creativity.
  • What is needed for you to create a container for a group that you are part of? In what way could you change the physical environment so that it becomes more supportive? What resources could you draw on to create conditions that are conducive to conversation? For example, you might remove the table, place chairs in a circle and switch off laptops. Attend to the space in which you meet.
  • How can you shape a conversation that matters in more subtle ways? Before an important meeting, could you speak to individuals to create some connectivity? What questions could you ask people so that they start their thinking process before you even meet? When you do get in the room together, how could you use some appropriate self-disclosure to help others to feel safe and open up? Be aware of how you contribute so that people leave the room feeling excited, energised and engaged.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 28 October 2014.

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