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Creating Containers for Meaningful Exchange

Why do we meet? 

I have been thinking about why we meet and what makes it feel worthwhile versus a waste of time. We meet for many reasons: to plan, share information, develop a shared understanding, problem-solve, make decisions, connect, synchronise or look for ways to improve. Sometimes, these happen in different places or contexts, but occasionally occur at one event. 

If these are the outcomes that we are trying to achieve, what are the things that can enable that and what things get in the way and leave us feeling frustrated? 

What makes this messy? 

The events/meetings we organise to achieve these goals don't always meet our needs or expectations and can often get messy. Some of the things that I have noticed that contribute to the messiness are : 

  • No agendas

  • Too many people

  • The wrong people

  • Different kinds of thinkers but only one mechanism for communication

  • Too many open loops and not many closing loops

  • A lack of o safety

I'm sure you can think of many of your own. So, what are the things that we, as facilitators, can do to change this? How can we be intentional about creating containers that can enable meaningful exchange? 

What are containers? 

A tongue-in-cheek answer is something to carry water; on one level, that is true. One dictionary says, 'an object for holding or transporting something.

In this context, a container is a metaphor, an invisible yet tangible object created when we meet—something to hold the humans, the outcomes, the purpose, the structure and the interactions. If intentional about what we do, we can be purposeful about the containers we create, enabling more meaningful interactions or exchanges. 

Containers can have rigid or permeable boundaries; they can be challenging, brittle, softer, and more resilient. A glass, for example, will break easily and has a precise shape and rigid boundaries. Still, if we look to nature for containers, they often have permeable boundaries and are more resilient, for example, nests, warrens, a heart, cells, etc. 

What does this mean for facilitators? We can intentionally create containers and improve the interactions and exchanges of value and information. I was trying to identify the mechanics of what I do as a facilitator and came up with some headings. These are some things I realised I was using unconsciously to create my containers. 


How I show up and bring myself to any space, remote or otherwise, significantly impacts the participants and the general mood. If I show up angry, I can create an angry space. If I show up a bit playful, I have noticed that some of the most straight-laced executives smile. 


The impact of the agreements that I set up as facilitator and between the attendees has surprised me more than once, as has the effect of not having agreements. Just making the time to set up a few minor rules of engagement can change everything. 


I have been burned many times for not taking the time to clarify people's expectations. Sometimes, people arrive with definite ideas of what will happen and can get very frustrated or angry when things don't happen that way. Managing expectations about what is and isn't going to happen can help people relax and lean into what emerges.

Purpose and Outcomes

Spending time clarifying the purpose and outcomes of what you are trying to achieve upfront is a powerful way of underlining the boundaries of the meeting and creating focus; when I do this well, it's so much less likely that we will go off target. 


I used to hate Agendas. They had this specific format: meeting minutes, acceptance of the minutes, and many topics that seemed a waste of time before you got to the whole reason you were all in a room together. There was no time to talk about the real purpose at that time. Then I realised that agendas didn't have to be like that and were helpful to reinforce the purpose and outcomes and create mini timeboxed containers within a bigger container. Co-creation of an agenda also helps to form a container for collaboration. 

Anchors and Biases

People bring biases to events, and we can use these to the advantage of the event. At the beginning of a meeting, some words I use and how I say things are either done to anchor something that I want or shake up something that worries me. For example, as a trainer, some people come to training expecting to be an expert on everything and download information. When I open my training, I make space for them to see me as a fallible human. I might misspell something or tell them about my bad jokes. That way, I make it safe for them to make mistakes and for me to make mistakes, too. 

I decided it would be great to get some other views on this. What do others think and do so? We organised a world cafe at our Hacking Remote Facilitation Meetup. 

What did we do at HRF?

Hacking Remote Facilitation was a global community of remote facilitators and coaches. We organised a meetup and a world cafe. We had breakout rooms for each topic, and people chose where to go. Each group spent some time chatting about their experiences and insights. 

We also created space for people to explore a container they recently facilitated or were about to that was a little edgy for them and used this space to explore with a new lens. 

Sharing stories

What insights did we gain? 

Some of us realised it was our first thought about this explicitly. 

We realised that we all have biases as facilitators, so we intentionally put those aside or do our best. We thought about containers in nature and how the best containers often have space. So, how do we ensure that our meetings have space to move where they need to go? 

We spoke about how sometimes our role is to set things up, let go, and manage the energy—amplifying the good and dampening the bad. We talked about how sometimes it's a balancing act of setting just the suitable constraints and not over-engineering the whole thing, and we wondered how much we are blind to. 

Thank you to all the unique humans who joined this session. 

What are your thoughts? 

What are some of the things that you do? 

Perhaps unconsciously. If you have to think about the things you do and pay attention, you can make them explicit, and these then become intentional. You will also notice the impact this has on the containers you create.  

Think about your containers; play with how you create them. Share your learning with us by getting in touch at

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