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.
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.