Required Reading

  • The Art of Convening

    by Patricia and Craig Neal
    with Cynthia Wold
    [downloadable PDF]
    Purchase here via Amazon

    Additional Resources

    Mødekunst: Meeting Art
    Danish translation

    Coming in 2020! The Art of Convening Chinese translation

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Patricia Neal

Great question!
I have 2 women's groups (each of multiple years) where we are holding this question. We can’t grow deeper until we feel safe to go deeper, but not everyone wants to go there. In this case, dissent feels unsafe, so creation/something new emerging doesn’t really happen.


This is a good question Debra and something I also wonder about a lot in my work. Sometimes I find it helpful, if group habit and history gets in the way of the flow of creation or authentic conversation is to pose a brainstorming question about what the benefits and possible challenges of 'doing nothing new or differently' in regards to the present situation. If the group can focus on the challenges or voice the challenges to remaining where we are, it can sometimes shift the energy to finding a new path. Also I have sometimes taken a breath and just acknowledged the eddies of energy in the space, valuing all of the energy present but noticing that maybe it is asking to be acknowledged or clarified. Then I ask if anyone would feel moved to speak to the energy currents that they perceive (hoping with a full heart that someone will!) This has worked on a few occasions
if the container is strong enough for the trust of the group.
I would love to hear how others work with this as well!


Fantastic question--I was just in a retreat that would have easily fallen into the everything must appear "wonderful" -- it was helpful that the convener added early on prefacing a stringing of the beads that we don't have to just share positive things/all ranges of emotion and expression are welcome. That might be helpful as a starting point as part of container building. During the middle, it might also be appropriate to just name (without charge) that many other spaces x happens and therefore some people here might feel that, and that is not what this is about, and you invite to them to y. If there's a clear dissenting opinion, I've been in cases where the convener also just named that (without naming the person) and brought that to light to be looked at by the group and released the tension from the group holding on to it wondering whether to bring up or not.

It seems these are the moments that are the portals to the group reaching a deeper connection. Looking forward to what comes next for you!


Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience about authenticity and the container as your comments spurred more thoughts and connected more of my own experiences.

You mentioned that "these are the moments that are the portals..." I remembered a time in a group where there was an overt culture of being extra friendly and even pressure in joining in "cuddle-puddles." After this had been going on for some time a young woman raised her hand and with just the right amount of intensity said, "I feel bad about saying this; but I do not feel safe in this group!" A dam broke with that and all sorts of admissions and complaints came pouring out, including mine. When I reflect back on this experience, it seems now that there was a lot of undigested energy just hanging in the group field that no-one had been even touching until she had the courage to speak up.

On the other hand at the June Seattle workshop, the facilitator explained how questions of perceived safety in a workshop group, are about belonging as there are individual aspects to feeling unsafe that are projected onto the group. He went on to say that a sense of belonging must be established within the individual adult, whereas a child ( and child consciousness) needs a horizontal connection and protection.

And then there have been groups where this kind of container really taken more for granted allowing lots of tensions to build within and among people. These have even been in situations where I was expecting a high level of expertise and caring, so then I have asked myself is this like this because they want things to explode here? (These have been in more process-oriented groups, not those for the purpose of problem-solving.)

So I agree that the facilitators you mention who mention disagreement explicitly add to the container boundaries by normalizing disagreement or disagreeableness. It seems to me that this would allow a positive perception of safety because the boundaries of belonging are clearer and they are also wider. Even if the group is for the purpose of processing personal interpersonal issues, I think this kind of container building would allow for more vulnerability, with the assurance that belonging is not on the line for our child-consciousness within that is.


I just noticed your response! Thank you! Your mention of noticing the energy and the eddies in the room is so helpful. How do people respond to this and what do they tend to say?


Hi Just catching up on this wonderful conversation, I think it can be helpful to have an open conversation around norms/agreements encouraging diverse viewpoints.

It can help to create defined spaces so people know what and how to share. For example, brainstorming is creative open, space where no idea is rejected. This space requires us to withhold critique.

Narrowing is when groups explores and evaluates the ideas generated. The transition between the two is critical- so people know it’s okay and helpful to share differences of opinion. We In my work with strengths and talents, I often highlight those that have the gift of seeing obstacles, difficulties and subtly call them out if they don’t share. I’ve worked with groups that have opted to create a mini-space for exploring “Why shouldn’t we pursue/do x,y,z? What are overlooking?”

Thanks for opening the conversation, Debra.

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