Being the Container in Dialogic OD

One of the common images used by people who do “Dialogic OD” (Bushe & Marshak, 2010), as well as personal growth groups, is that of a “container” – the idea that as facilitators or OD Consultants we create the right set of conditions for effective processes to unfold.  I first came across the image of container in the “Men’s Conferences” run by Robert Bly, Michael Meade and James Hillman in the 1980’s.  A powerful five day residential psycho-spiritual growth experience, they seemed to break all the “rules” I was taught as an applied behavioral scientist and I didn’t begin to understand what they were doing until I learned their theory base was not social-psychology but “mytho-poetic” – a combination of anthropology, Jungian psychology and mythology  (Meade, 1993).  Over the four years that I annually attended these profound events I learned that we were creating a container to “cook our souls”.  The idea went straight back to alchemy and the metaphor of turning lead into gold.  We were there to experience initiation into the next stage in our soul’s journey and doing that required a “leak proof container”.  One of the processes for this was the creation of individual masks – a 2-3 day process of contemplation and creation using plaster bandages molded to ones face and then painted and adorned – culminating in a ritual where we wore our masks while engaged in other activities.  I still have those masks and the progression of my soul’s journey, over those four years, is clearly there for anyone to see.   Around that time one of my colleagues at the university was having our EMBA students make similar masks.  These occurred in a classroom, done by people in office attire who had come to the university straight from work for a 3 hour class.  I was aghast.  What was she doing??  Where was the containment??  How could this be anything other than a big joke?  To my surprise, when I talked to some of the students, some of them had found this a profound experience.  Not everyone, but enough that it dislodged my nice, neat ideas about what a container is and what is required for it to work.