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Everyone has a limited Container

Coaching Leadership Leading change

6.3.2014 — Understanding the emotional container is essential for not only therapists and parents, but all leaders, coaches and senior colleagues.

Everyone has a limited Container
Ari Tikka
Ari TikkaFounding Partner

The Container Function is present in every interaction. Therapists and counsellors have recognized it’s importance since a long time. Too many leaders (and parents) are unaware of it, causing unnecessary waste and suffering.

Just acknowledging the phenomenon may already relieve emotional pain. Consciously processing things in your container is extremely valuable. I wonder if you have experienced this? The principle of the container function is simple:

  1. Whenever in interaction you get a raw message having many levels: conceptual information, emotions, unconscious messages, body language.You take the full message into your container,including all conscious and unconscious stuff.
  2. Then you refine it, digest the emotions, analyze the concept, paint the roles and staging, guess intentions and needs.
  3. When the time is ripe, you return the refined message in a constructive 1) form, 2) timing and 3) dose. Something immediately, something later.

Usually the container is explained for the role of parent, leader, consultant, therapist or other authority. Using your container productively means that in that situation you take the responsibility of being a peer coach. If and when you succeed, gradually you will be given more credibility in that role.

The received message has conscious and unconscious levels. It may be difficult to understand or describe. Carrying the message in your container takes energy. Understanding different aspects of the message may take time. Working with needs, feelings and conflicting interests is often essential. Finding a productive response may be very difficult. Sometimes the response is an action. Sometimes it is not answering to the question asked, sometimes it is answering literally to the question asked.


The classical example is the mother hearing her baby cry. She takes in the anxiety. Then she thinks “pants, hunger or sleep?” Then she returns the message in actions, first diapers, then breast, then sleep.

A consultant will see a lot of nonfunctional things quite soon after entering a company. It is a million dollar question, what, how and when to return the observations and analysis. There are many styles and no right answer. The response may be an assesment, practical advice or new vocabulary to the organization’s conversation.

A well functioning team or therapy group also exhibits a container. If the group is too loaded, the group level responses become less constructive. For example participation, norms, often repeated stories or standard explanations. Think of the successful early adopters in an Agile transformation. Have you seen frustration and anger channeling to cynicism? Also at group level? Good retrospectives help. The coach may explain the container.

In some cases the parent or consultant will have the opportunity to return the message fully only after many years, if ever. It is OK, because we are interested in what is most beneficial for the customer, not what is relieving ourselves most. Not unlike the parent’s role.

The container spills over…

The capacity of the mother is exceeded, causing helplessness, frustration, anger, bad decisions and negative side messages. You have seen frustrated parents nagging, yelling or being sarcastic.

The response comes too early (anger followed by frustration) or too late (procrastination because of fear). It comes in unskilful form (blaming, naming, cognitive biases, and so on). Or the dose is too big or too small.

A manager of a factory hears bad news in a meeting, stands up and broadcasts his anger to the full staff. Then he comes back to the meeting and asks: “Why didn’t anyone stop me?” This happened more than once.

Still another unfortunate crosstalk happens, when an overloaded leader goes home and responds in an unfair way to the close family members.


Accepting the fact gives patience. Understand that the container has an essential constructive function, that is valuable and hard work. Sometimes there is no solution, and you need to act as an emotional sink. It is valid basis for the leader’s salary.

Container skills give you more patience and understanding for people, whose container temporarily flows over. They are not necessarily bad nor stupid. You can even help them to clean and refine their container and to become productive again.

You need not to identify yourself with the content of your container. You have healthy means to process the container without unnecessary involvement.

You become conscious when your own container is coming full. Then you can be more careful in your actions and process your container.

I have found meditation very effective in working with my container.

Coaching, counseling and therapy are very effective for processing the container, and learning to work with it. Learn to do peer coaching with your colleagues.

More psychological concepts for coaches and leaders.

Ari Tikka
Founding Partner

Before finding Agile, Ari built software for embedded distributed fault tolerant software for seven years. For the next decade he worked as an organizational therapist with cultural change, teamwork and leadership. Since 2006 he has contributed to LeSS-flavoured Agile transformations including mechanical engineering, market automation, and embedded system development. For the last couple of years Ari had international coaching assignments ranging from teams to board.

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