Facilitating workshops – creating a container


In facilitating interactive workshops, I find it helpful to think in terms of creating a container where things can happen. We want to create a safe, engaging atmosphere where participants are encouraged to experiment with new behaviours, consider new possibilities or explore different ways of seeing things.

The physical setting of workshops is important. This doesn’t mean that they need to be plush hotels as is the trend with many workshops. I must admit I would often prefer be in a less expensive venue (where catering is also less expensive) and to be charged a bit less for the workshop. Most of the Alternatives to Violence Project workshops we ran in Newcastle were held in a Youth Resource Centre which was a bit run down but had a great feel. It was a large space with a high roof, murals on the walls, comfy chairs and a nice shaded area for lunch. It worked really well.

Catering can help create a container that is welcoming. We used to provide soup and bread before the start of the workshop, lunch on both days and tasty snacks throughout the workshop. For lunch we bought bread, salad ingredients, and various spreads and then we made lunch together. This was inexpensive, and helped with one of our key themes – caring for others.

We used to have music playing as people arrived and ensured that everybody was welcomed individually. Some people are also skilled at adding little touches to a room (e.g., flowers) which can also help give that message that participants are valued.

Setting group agreements (or ground rules) at the start of a workshop is important in creating a safe container. Sometimes we asked the group to come up with their agreements, but as we had some things we wanted people to agree to, it sometimes felt a bit tokenistic to me. While it was sometimes quite important to allow participants to determine the group agreements, I normally suggested the ones we wanted to include, checked if everyone was OK with these and asked if there were any other ones they wanted to add.

The group agreements we normally used were:

  1. Treat everyone with respect
  2. No putdowns even jokes – This was important as we wanted to create a space where people knew they were safe to say what they thought, ask questions and to have a go at a variety of activities. We wanted them to know that no matter what they did they would be respected and not laughed at. We emphasised that humour was important but that this was an opportunity to experiment with humour that built people up rather than put them down.
  3. Share group space – This largely related to how much people spoke. I normally encourage those who tend to have a lot to say to make sure they give other people a chance to have a say and I also encourage those who normally don’t have much to say to have the courage to share their insights and experience with the larger group.
  4. Share only your own story – This was essentially confidentiality. We asked that people only shared their own story and that after the workshop they were welcome to talk about their experience of the workshop but not to share the stories of other people.
  5. Volunteer only yourself – We asked people to speak from their own experience and not to volunteer other people to do something during the workshop.
  6. You have the right to pass – We emphasised that nothing in the workshop was compulsory and that while we encouraged everyone to have a go, if they didn’t want to do anything during the workshop, that was OK and they wouldn’t be made to do anything they were unwilling to try.
  7. Have fun

We really tried to ensure these agreements were observed so that we created a safe environment. Particularly early on in the workshop we would remind people quite frequently about the agreements in a light hearted not threatening manner. We would revisit the group agreements at the start of each day. Now I quite often start with my assumptions about how the workshop will be run and check with people that these assumptions are OK.

We always started workshops with introductions. I’m now surprised when I go to a workshop and we don’t have introductions. It seems to me that it doesn’t need to take long (although sometimes we might want people to take a while to introduce themselves to help start building the group connection) and I think it is important (for at least some people) to know who else is in the room. If we are creating a container where people are willing to be involved, I think we need to make sure everybody knows a bit about the others in the room.

Throughout the workshop we continued to create a container for exploration through the exercises we chose, ensuring people were listened to, looking after people’s wellbeing, and generally trying to ensure that we helped create a deep space where people were safe to discuss potentially sensitive issues.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), Facilitation & teaching, Social change and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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