Setting the Container

A simple method for creating valuable community interactions

“Taking Off the Mask” workshop hosted by Ashanti Branch at the Hive Global Leaders Program (photo taken by Skylar Stetten)

When building a community, the value of interactions between members should be your top priority.

We’ve all been in groups, online and offline, that have shallow interactions. Online it takes the form of funny memes and one word comments. Offline, it might be a happy hour filled with “so… what do you do?”s. There’s no real value there.

To build a valuable community, you must create interactions that have purpose. To do this, you can try “setting the container”.

I haven’t found a definition anywhere, so here’s one I created:

Setting the container: defining the rules, expectations and intentions of an interaction so participants know how to make a quality contribution

Simply put, tell people what to do. If you know there are questions that people will have, then answer those questions up front. Kind of like an FAQ for a conversation. Because if you don’t answer them, either people will stick to shallow interaction, or they’ll just avoid participating altogether because they don’t know how.

An Offline Community Example

Setting the container is a concept I’ve been using in community building for a long time, but only just heard it had a name at the Hive Global Leaders Program. Hive is an event bringing together 140 impact-driven leaders from 47 different countries for three days of leadership training, reflection and connection.

One of the workshops that had the biggest impact for me was called “Taking Off the Mask”, led by Ashanti Branch (pictured above). Ashanti is the Founder and Executive Producer of The Ever Forward Club, an organization that mentors young men of color in middle and high school by providing them with safe, brave communities that build character and transform lives.

He hosts workshops for these young men, and occasionally he’ll work with adults like us. In this workshop, we formed groups of 8 and went around in a circle, sharing things that “you wouldn’t know by looking at me”. Ashanti set the container before we got started. He said things like:

  • Everyone must agree that whatever is said in your group is meant for your group, and not meant to be shared anywhere else
  • You can choose to share whatever you want, it doesn’t have to be deep
  • If you’re sitting next to someone you know really well, consider moving to a different seat
  • If someone tells a joke while sharing, it may be a method for coping with the challenge of sharing something really vulnerable, and you should consider whether they actually want you to laugh, or just listen
  • You don’t need to respond to whatever the person shares, just acknowledge with your eyes and body

By setting this container, he ensured that all participants knew how to participate. We knew that it was a safe space to share, that deeply personal things might be shared, that we were expected to be mindful listeners, and that we weren’t expected to come up with a response. He even taught us something about how to be better listeners with the guidance on not laughing at all jokes.

The results were incredible. The things that were shared in the group were all concise and most were deeply vulnerable. People felt safe sharing things that they’ve never told anyone in the world. The level of trust and connection I felt in that group was unlike anything I experienced before.

An Online Community Example

You can also “set the container” online by describing the rules, expectations and/or intentions for how members should comment on your post.

I did this in a recent post in the CMX community:

Up front, I explained a few rules, expectations and intentions to guide members on how to comment. After the thread became really popular (over 400 comments), I added edits with a couple more guidelines to further set the container:

  • the intention is to help you connect with other people in the industry
  • here are a couple examples for what you might ask for
  • you should add context so that people will know if they’re a fit
  • don’t use this space to promote yourself or your products
  • try to help others connect before you ask for help

We often post in online communities and expect people to just know how to respond. Chances are they don’t. Think about what questions they might have, or what are some ways that you don’t want them to respond, and explain it up front.

Try it for yourself in your next event, team meeting, or anywhere that you’re creating a space for people to interact.

You might try:

  • telling people at a meeting that you want everyone to keep their laptops and phones away
  • asking people at your party to take their shoes off (my friend Loic tried this)
  • asking people to close their eyes and reflect for 60 seconds before responding to a post in your online community
  • asking your friends at dinner to let one person speak at a time so everyone is engaged in the same discussion
  • doing a group breathing exercise before starting your next talk so everyone is calm and focused

Set the container and you can create deeper, more valuable interactions in your community.


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