Virtual containers

In the Sunday Times in April 2020, Helen Fielding revisited Bridget Jones, writing an extract from her self-isolation diaries. The piece offered light relief in disturbing times.

It also touched on an issue that’s live for me. At 7.29am, Bridget is FaceTiming her friend Miranda. In the absence of her usual grooming regime, Miranda is consumed with anxiety about a Zoom meeting ‘in hideous close-up’. She wails:

‘Why did audio calls choose the moment we turn feral to become obsolete and rude?’

For me, audio calls are neither outdated nor impolite. I find them intimate and absorbing for small numbers of people. As a coach and supervisor, an audio-only setting allows my attention to be fully on what’s being expressed, listening for nuances in tone, pace and breath. And yes, in bigger groups, the quality of this environment may become diluted, making it more difficult to stay present. However, I this this also applies to visual interfaces, raising questions about the threshold at which any virtual gathering become less potent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  

In tune with the notion that audio calls are past their ‘use by’ date, I find I’m being pressured to use video interfaces for all kinds of conversation in this world of social distancing and home-working. I sense an implicit assumption that visual channels are superior to audio-only. In declining to use them, I feel like an outcast, a practitioner who will be ‘remaindered’ in a world operating via WhatsApp, Skype and Google Hangouts. I hope this won’t be the case!

In recent years, I explored the use of visual media in my coaching, supervision and dialogue work. My inquiry began because, on a personal level, I find visual-virtual very difficult. I’m sure I’m not alone – which prompts me to share my thinking. In doing so, I’m not trying to convince or persuade: one medium isn’t better than another, but each creates different conditions for conversation. If we’re aware of this, we’re better equipped to select appropriate settings for our exchanges with others.    

To offer some context, all my work is anchored in embodying dialogue practices. Paying attention to actively establishing and sustaining conditions that support our important conversations is central to dialogue work. We create a container, a climate agreed consciously by all present and then collectively fostered. If we don’t do this deliberately, a container will form unnoticed, shaped by factors such as physical setting and the preconceptions and habits of behaviour of those present.      

For virtual gatherings we tend to overlook the question of physical space and yet, when meeting in person, we routinely consider the attributes and layout of the room we’re using, aware that they influence what unfolds. It seems reasonable to assume there are similar considerations in virtual spaces. And, of course, individuals dial in from physical locations and the quality of these affect what ensues.     

In the field of virtual containers, Ghislaine Caulat is a thought-leader. She proposes that virtual settings have unique attributes, some enabling and some less so, and that navigating them skilfully calls for new forms of leadership and new ways of engaging with each other. In particular, she champions audio-only environments, drawing on the work of practitioners from psychotherapy, action learning and dialogue to support this stance. She posits that, stripped of visual stimulus, our capacity for listening is amplified and honed, and we literally have more time to think.

What does this mean for leadership and for coaching?

For coaching, I believe that working virtually calls on coaches to pay attention to our sensory preferences and to be curious about which medium supports us to be most effective. For example, my realisation that I’m less able to do good work using video interfaces allows me to refer clients elsewhere if they strongly prefer to work visually. It’s important, when contracting, to explore the fit between our preferences and those of the client. The container for coaching work is determined by the quality of the contact and contract with a client, regardless of medium. It feels important to remain alert to this, amongst the hubbub.

For leadership, similar considerations apply and I explore these further in ‘To see or not to see?


  • Whether you’re a coach, leader or other practitioner, which settings best support you to listen well, think spaciously and speak with impact?
  • How might you use this insight to support your important conversations?