Exercises to Build and Strengthen Group Containers
Written November 2003
Last edited November 29, 2003
These exercises are intended to increase connection and community in your life, and the world.
They are particularly useful to help provide cohesion in a group of people during a workshop or retreat where they will be working together intensely. These exercises can support the process of birthing a team or tribe, or any group where deep commitment or bonding within the group is desired. They can also be used to help facilitate reconnection and provide healing after groups have experienced problems.
In any group that has developed a life and energy of its own, there is an invisible container of intent and energy that sustains the group. This container needs the same tending and nurturing that all other life needs. The actual nurturing happens at the energy and experiential level, not the intellectual level. Unfortunately most existing exercises available in written format tend to get trapped at the intellectual level, and so frequently aren’t nearly as effective as is needed.
This paper is a start at putting into writing some of the exercises that are effective in supporting group containers. Mostly these have previously been available only by word of mouth, or scattered in bits and pieces through many different practices.
Mostly these exercises come from the repertoire that Timothy Malone M.div uses in his work. Helen Gabel and Roger Padvorac acted as writers to transfer them into written form, adapted them for general use, and expanded the exercises based on their own group work. Roger Padvorac added much of the commentary and held the role of lead writer and editor.
These exercises range from bonding strangers to working with already established intimate groups. While simple, they have a lot of potential. As with life, the more fully people participate in an experience, the more they get out of it.
Most of these exercises can be repeated during the day, and throughout a multi-day workshop. Each time they are repeated, it is an opportunity to uncover new layers, and go deeper with each other.
Even if by the end of one day, it seems there is no further to go with these exercises, by the next morning life has happened and people have changed. Now the connecting and sharing process can be started over again with more new results and discovering more depth.
During all of these exercises it is important to encourage people to push their edges and stretch for connection while supporting people to define their personal boundaries. There is a great range of what people are comfortable with, or can process without being overwhelmed, and this needs to be always held with reverence.
As the group sits down in a circle the moderator should make a few general welcoming remarks such as "welcome, we're glad you're here, today we'll be getting to know each other a little better ". While this is being done, a bowl of almonds/peanuts/grapes/M&M’S, or any other small finger food, should be passed around. Unless the group is small, several bowls need to be passed simultaneously because you need to be sure no one's eaten all of their goodies when you give the next direction, yet you can't tell them not to eat because surprise is an important element of this exercise.
As soon as everyone has some food, the moderator says, "OK, now, please stop eating for a second. What we're going to do next is that each person gets to share something quick about themselves such as “I have a cat”, “I like to dance”, or “my favorite color is blue” for EACH almond/peanut/grape/M&M that's on their plate."
Then there's lots of nervous laughter as people look at how much they took and the hungry ones are seen and have to talk fast, but everyone in the end does get to know some stuff about the others. If someone has no finger food, or a huge pile, the moderator can intervene and invite them to say a thing or two, or edit.
Then it's essential to follow up with something like “Benevolent glances” to leverage the ice breaking effect of this exercise.
Due to the surprise factor, this exercise only works once with a group.
This starts with the moderator arranging the group so they are sitting in a circle, and stating "Now we're going to spend a little time looking into each other's eyes. I'll begin." The moderator drops into DEEP stillness, looks lovingly, lightly, and gently with well-wishing into the eyes of the person on his left. When that is complete he shifts his view to the left of the person he was just looking at. As the moderator shifts his view in a clockwise direction around the circle, he models how long and how deep to be with each person.
The moderator continues around the circle, and ends with the person on his right. With a glance or gesture if needed, the moderator hands off his role to person on his right that he is currently looking at. Since this person and the moderator have just shared a benevolent glance, this person moves their eyes to the person to the left of the moderator, continuing to shift their glance around the circle clockwise, and hands off to the person on their right. This cycle continues until each person in the circle has had a chance to look into the eyes of the whole circle.
In very large groups, the moderator can create multiple smaller circles, balancing time and schedule issues with the value of everybody in the group having looked into everybody else’s eyes.
Ask people to pair up. Unless the moderator is needed to pair up with a single person without a partner, they don’t directly participate. The moderator sings a simple chant (or plays a tape of the chant that people sing along with) that wishes others well in a deep and touching way. For each repetition of the whole chant, people change partners, moving at random from person to person, holding hands and looking at the other person while they sing a wish for peace.
Looking into each other’s eyes while singing the chant is very touching, but this will be overwhelming for some. The moderator can suggest that if eye contact is too much for some, they can look at the other person’s heart while singing the chant.
Especially if the group dynamics are likely to leave out the less popular people, or if there is existing friction between members of the group, it is important to emphasize the importance of reaching out to everybody, and continue until everybody has paired with everybody else.
Strengthening comes from sharing peace with people you are close to, and healing and growth comes from sharing peace with people you aren’t close to, especially if there is currently a lack of peace between two people.
In larger groups and groups with a mixed level of intimacy in the relationships, more structure would be useful. One way to insure that all share peace with everybody in the group is to pair up in a circle, each person facing their partner, and looking over their partner’s shoulder towards their next partner. The moderator is paired with a partner, and will act as a post. After sharing peace, each person (except for the moderator) continues past the person they are facing to the next person facing them in the circle.
After the moderator shares peace with a person, the moderator turns them back towards the direction they came from. Then the moderator turns around to share peace with the person on that side of the moderator, and when done sharing peace with them, turns them back in the direction they came from. Then the moderator turns to the other side again and starts the cycle over again. The moderator continues doing this for the duration of the exercise.
Eventually everybody will have shared peace with everybody else in the whole circle. Then the moderator can stop the exercise, or especially in smaller groups, continue until everybody has shared peace several times with everybody else.
In very large groups where there is a time issue, where you need some structure, an inner and outer circle can be formed, with the circles moving in opposite directions. This is simpler than using a post, but each person will share peace only with people in the other circle.
Instead of holding hands, each person holds their right hand over the other person’s heart and with their left hand touches the hand over their heart. They should use their left hand to indicate at what distance they are comfortable having the other person’s hand over their heart.
The moderator should model this for the group with a friend of theirs. Some people want 6 inches of space between the hand and their heart; some people want the hand touching their heart. The important points are each person should feel comfortable that their personal space is being respected, and that everybody is directing the energy of peace and compassion through their right hand to the other’s heart.
"Shalom Benediction" from Dance of Universal Peace Vol. #4, pp. 35-36 is an example of a chant for singing peace, and there are others. The booklet and tape with this chant are available from www.dancesofuniversalpeace.org/main.htm It is simply “shalom” said 4 times with a very touching melody. Timothy suggested using one that’s very similar using "Shanti" instead of "Shalom".
The moderator starts by describing the exercise. "Next let's check in with one another, in a manner more sincere and open than we do in casual conversation. Our goal is to speak from our deepest truth, from our most loving heart, from the part of us that holds and values the work we are doing together. The person who is holding the talking stick has the floor and is not interrupted. Everyone will speak in turn and we will not respond to one another until everyone has had a chance to speak fully. The question I would like us to ponder together is: ______________."
The question can be an invitation to share in what way the person is currently present (a check-in), or an invitation to share wisdom about a common concern (talking stick). A check-in is often useful early in convening a group that already knows each other. A talking-stick sharing can be useful to clarify an emotionally log-jammed issue on a project.
This is for a group that has worked with each other for awhile, and needs to reaffirm their connections. It can be tricky if someone is already feeling sensitive and unappreciated – it can either reassure and reconnect them, or trigger them more if they sense people withholding or giving less to them than others. If this is a risk, doing the Singing Peace exercise first will help encourage a similar level of positive connection throughout the group by starting a clearing at the heart level. Adding appreciations on top of this clearing can help anchor people in their reaffirmed positive connections and help keep history in the past.
The sharing people offer will probably get slower and deeper as the circle moves on; this can be a long process.
The moderator starts with an introduction for the exercise. "Now we're going to share our gratitude and appreciation of one another. What have we witnessed that is good and helpful? We're going to take turns giving and receiving witness. Who is willing to be first?"
The first volunteer can be invited to physically move to the center of the circle, or everyone can adjust their seat a bit so the volunteer is the focus. The moderator takes the volunteer’s hands and states, "Now we will sit in a moment of silence while we look at what we are thankful for when we work with ______ (state their name).” The moderator sits a moment in silence looking at this person, and then speaks something true and affirming. The moderator should model how long to speak and at what depth. Then the moderator hands off with a glance and a gesture to the person next to them.
When everyone has spoken about this person, the moderator asks, "Who is next?" or chooses the next person by name, usually the person sitting next to the first person. The moderator repeats the process with all the members of the group.
When the last person has been appreciated, the moderator asks everyone to sit in silence for a few moments and then announces the next step, which should be something lighter and with movement – a break, a meal.
Gerald May is a Senior Fellow for Contemplative Theology & Psychology at www.shalem.org
They have a group process for very deep listening, both to one’s self and to the others in the group. This process supports building understanding and bridging differences at a deep level. By picking different themes or questions to focus on, the moderator can use this process to address many different kinds of concerns.
This process was developed to support Christian groups. If the religious language is an issue, the moderator can substitute meditate for pray, the Oneness for God, and reverential for prayerful. Much more important than the language is the rhythm of opening one’s self, focused listening, reflection, seeking for understanding and connection, and more reflection. It is a very powerful group building experience to go through this cycle for every person in the group.
This process is available on www.shalem.org/gsd.html Unfortunately this process takes 28 – 34 minutes per person plus 20 minutes for closing. The variation below takes less time.
This is a variation of the Shalem group process that is more of a heart sharing and bonding exercise than an understanding and bridging exercise. This exercise can be done in 7-10 minutes per person with 5-7 minutes for the sharing and 2-3 minutes during closing.
This exercise is a cross between appreciations and talking stick.
The moderator starts with “Next let's check in with one another. Our goal is to speak from our deepest truth, from our most loving heart, from the part of us that holds and values the work we are doing together. We will enter into silence, and then I will invite one person to share their heart's experience with us. When they are complete, each of us will give them an image in response, something that arose in us as they were speaking: a quiet garden, a tree in the wind, a snug cottage. Remember that we have about (say the total amount of time) before we close, so each person's sharing needs to be no more than (5-?) minutes so we have time for sharing about this experience before we close.”
The whole process can be
closed by inviting the people in the group to share what touched them, affirmed
them, or challenged them.
We hope these exercises are of use for you and your groups. If you have suggestions on how this paper, or the exercises, can be of more use, please send them to the contact information provided on
This project originated when Helen and Roger discovered we couldn’t find written materials to support the container holding the heart and soul of groups we were participating in. We are very thankful for our connection to Timothy, and his generosity.
Timothy has made it his work to serve, and is currently Co-director and spiritual director of The Ignatian Spirituality Center in Seattle, Washington:
"…responding to the spiritual hunger in persons of all faiths … by offering retreats, spiritual direction and resources."
Timothy has developed his work in partnership the Ignatian Spirituality Center and grateful for the help of Cissy McLane and Celia Chapel, co-creators of the Ignatian Prayer Experience Manual, utilizing a novel Group Spiritual Direction process. (This seven week prayer practice primer is offered each fall and winter.) In addition he is grateful for the inspiration and guidance provided by the work of Patti Repikoff and Gerald May.
For more information about the Ignatian Spirituality Center, to receive a newsletter, or to contact Timothy Malone, M.div:
Work phone: 206.329.4824
As long as Timothy Malone, Helen Gabel, and Roger Padvorac are credited for the paper, and www.skilledwright.com/Essays.htm is credited as the original source, feel free to share this paper for no charge in any nonprofit context
If you have any questions, or for permission for sharing this paper in any other context, contact Roger Padvorac for permission through the contact information provided on www.skilledwright.com/Essays.htm