Boredom and Side Conversations in Ritual

DSC02414Another common question I get from people who lead rituals is, “How do you get people to stop having side conversations in ritual?” Truth is, I don’t often have this problem, so it took me a bit to figure out some suggestions I could offer. However, then I went back to some of my early training in rituals and remembered that most of the logistical problems in any ritual (or other facilitated activity) are resolved by skillful setup at the beginning. There are a lot of common ritual problems I don’t run into because I always start with a pre-ritual talk.
However, there are a number of different techniques that can help with unwanted side conversations and other related issues in rituals. The core of this is that you’re trying to get a group of people to focus.
There are a few major tips to help get your group to focus and not be distracted with side conversations.

Pre-Ritual Talk

Before you start the ritual, do a little talk/introduction. Go into the theme of the ritual, teach any chants you’re going to use or discuss any logistics, like, “At one point in the ritual we’ll be writing down our wishes on a piece of paper and then burning them in the fire.” That makes it easier to facilitate during the ritual without a big confusing moment where folks aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do.

The other thing you can lay out during that part of the ritual is agreements for behavior.

Typically I start out with the theme of the ritual, get people excited for it. “Today we celebrate Beltane, and what we’ll be doing in today’s ritual is focusing on ____.” Then I might say, “For today’s ritual, I’m going to ask for a few agreements from each of you. The first is that after we cast the circle, you’re welcome to leave if you need to use the restroom or take some space, but if you leave or return, please just do so quietly and with respect. Also, I ask that once we begin, you give your full attention to each person speaking and not have side conversations. That will help keep our energy focused together for this working.”

You’d be amazed how much asking for something helps it happen. An axiom of facilitation, and of groups, and of relationships for that matter, is that if you didn’t ask for it, don’t expect to get it. When you ask for people’s help in making something happen (like not having side conversations) they become complicit and can actively support it.

In other words, don’t expect people to read your mind. If you want people to not chatter during ritual, to not take pictures, to not text or answer phone calls, you can’t expect people to just know that those aren’t appropriate behaviors. Ask for the behavior you want.

Confidence and Presence

This one can take a little more time for a new facilitator, but when you get to a certain point, you may find you don’t need to specifically ask people to not have side conversations, they naturally won’t because your presence, your confidence, your charisma is engaging enough to keep the group focused.

The reason it took me some time to think about how to keep side conversations from happening is because I don’t even usually outline that agreement any longer. Not for rituals. For workshops, sure; people are naturally chatty during workshops in the format I use. I encourage conversation as a learning method instead of me just being a talking head.

In a ritual, though, I can’t remember the last time I actually asked people to not have side conversations. People just don’t do that when I’m leading a ritual, with few exceptions. I’d say a good percentage of that is because of my confidence, my presence. Some call it charisma, some call it energy. Whatever you want to call it, I (and the other facilitators I’m working with) are focused and present for the work of the ritual, and our focus and presence naturally extends into the rest of the group and inspires their focus and presence.

If you’re a newer facilitator, or you have issues with confidence as a public speaker, just know that this part of things will get easier with time. The more you do it, the more confidence you build, the easier it is to project that energy.

Don’t Design Boring Rituals

Probably the other biggest reason I don’t often have people talking to the side during a ritual is because I design rituals specifically so that there aren’t large chunks of boringness in the middle of the ritual. I often pick on things like Cakes and Ale or smudging, but there are any number of ritual logistics that can take a long, long, long time.

It’s beyond the scope of this brief article to talk about ways to handle ritual logistics and design rituals that aren’t boring, but in my book Ritual Facilitation I outline a number of different techniques for designing rituals and making sure your logistics don’t take forever. However, one basic red flag is if it’s something that each person in the group is going to have to do one at a time, and it’s going to take more than five minutes, you’re definitely running the risk of boredom and side conversations.

A deeper issue (and way beyond the scope of this post) is that many rituals have no point. What I mean is, I’ve attended dozens of public rituals that were boring not just because there was a large poorly-facilitated logistic at the core…but because there was no hook, no reason for me to be there, no reason for me to emotionally invest. That’s a far larger and more difficult issue to address, but it’s worth at least bringing up.

You’ll probably find that when you have a ritual that is–at the core–engaging, a ritual that draws you in, a ritual with deep impact…at these rituals, people are way to busy being engaged with the work of the ritual to have side conversations.

Engage The Group with Chanting

On the same vein, let’s say there are some logistics in your ritual that are just going to take a while. Maybe it’s a ritual for a hundred people and people are going to be lighting candles off of one another. Even if you have multiple candle-lighters, this could take a while. Or maybe you have multiple people aspecting/drawing down a deity, but it’s still going to take a while as each person gets a message from the deity or archetype. Or, you have different altars where people will go and do a thing.

First, if you have a one-at-a-time logistic, try to have another simultaneous logistic that is happening where people can do it as they are ready. If one altar has someone speaking oracles from a goddess and people are visiting the altar for a one-on-one experience, perhaps have another altar or two where multiple people can go at the same time.

My catch-all, though, is to engage the entire group with a simple chant. Even if I have a group of sixty people and it’s going to take them twenty minutes to visit multiple altars, if they’re singing a simple chant while they are waiting it keeps them busy, and it holds and sustains the energy for the whole group.

Picking the right chant, and having solid chant anchors, is crucial for that to work. But with a simple (yet engaging) chant, it’s amazing how much more focused the group can become.

Shutting Down Side Conversations

Worst case scenario here is that you’ve employed some of these techniques and those pesky, distracting side conversations are happening. You’re in the middle of your ritual. Now what? How do you gracefully call out the people talking and get them to stop without bringing your whole ritual to a screeching energetic halt?
The answer is definitely not raising your voice and asking everyone to shut up. Or calling out people from the center in a public and embarrassing way. If you do so, you’ve just tanked the energy of the ritual.
And yet, as the facilitator, if you want the side conversations to stop–and especially important, if you don’t want more people to get the idea that it’s ok to do that and add more distraction–you still need to make it stop.
I was once a supporting facilitator in a large group ritual at a Pagan conference. There were about a hundred attendees in a ballroom, and maybe a dozen facilitators. During the trance journey/meditation piece, there were five of us leading a multi-voice trance journey. I noticed that three women in my section if the circle/room were talking and giggling together. It was becoming more and more distracting.
Proximity is a great subtle way of shutting down those conversations. I didn’t shift what I was saying, but I just started getting closer and closer to them. When they didn’t stop, I gave them direct and sustained eye contact.
Pro tip: Usually at this point most people stop talking and look down, embarrassed. These three women did not.
I got closer still until I was maybe a foot or two away from them. We’re talking, close enough that it would invade our general sense of what’s acceptable social distance. I looked at them directly, dropped my voice down to not be audible to the rest of the group, and said something (still using my rhythmic trancey voice) along the lines of, “And taking a breath now into silence.”
For the people on either side of them, it was obvious I was talking to them and asking them to be quiet, so it wasn’t completely subtle, but it wasn’t like I was yelling at them in front of the whole group.
If you can subtly bring people to silence it’s going to support the energetic flow of the rest of the ritual.
If you have a ritual where perhaps you forgot to mention at the beginning that you didn’t want people to break into side conversations…and then it happens, sometimes it is best to just address that so you can move on. An example: You indicate that your participants should begin lighting their candles off of one another, and as soon as that begins, there are whispers, and then louder voices, and suddenly the whole room is speaking all at once, and that’s not the energetic signature you’re going for.
If you have a sound-making device like a singing bowl you can strike it; that sound will often gracefully bring a large group to silence.
You can also step to the center with your arms raised (do the physical gesture and take the center of the room before you try to speak over the group, just the physical gesture will bring some to silence so that you don’t have to shout as loud) and say something like, “Can I ask you to all take a breath together, let’s all take a breath together,” and repeat some version of that until people are silent again and joining you in a breath. Then, “It’s in our nature to speak while we do this. It’s in our nature to try and break the tension. But here in this moment, we want tension. We want silence. We want focus. Can you each light these candles together with breath, with silence? And if the urge to speak rises up, if you feel the urge to break the silence, to break the tension…just notice that urge, just hold that.”
Or whatever happens to be authentic for your ritual theme. You could also at that point introduce a ritual chant. “I neglected to teach the chant we’ll be singing while we light our candles. Let me sing it once through and then have you join me.”
Having an instrument like a singing bowl on hand is invaluable; the sound is high and cuts through conversation, and the non-human sound will instantly bring many folks to silence, which brings the volume in the room down so that your words can more easily be heard. It can be difficult to be heard over a large group that’s all talking, but it’s also energetically detrimental to try and shout over everyone to get them to be quiet.
Hopefully these quick tips offer you some tools as a facilitator to keep your group focused and bring more success to your rituals!

Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: chanting, distractions, facilitation, ritual, side conversations