Note: This was written as part of my learning in the Practitioner level training with John Whittington/Coaching Constellations. While it has been some years since I wrote this, I present it here in its original form, with my original impressions and the thinking and understanding I had back in 2017. Some time after writing this, I had the distinct privilege of being taught by Klaus, several times, and I continue to hold great appreciation of his work. I share it here as a resource for people who have taken the Fundamentals training with us.
Over the course of the past few years I have engaged in a number of different learning modalities. I had started choosing my learning path based on what ‘felt right’ as opposed to my old habit of intellectualizing and validating my choices as the ‘right’ ones. At times I have wondered about, and often been questioned on, the common thread amongst all of these different things I’m studying, and how they relate to the work of my career, or even to each other. I told people that even though it was not entirely clear, even to me at times, I felt certain that at some level all of the work I was doing and studying was connected. It’s become clear to me that at the core of all of these things – Agile, Systemic Constellations, Professional Coaching, Integral Unfoldment – there are some key underlying principles that weave them all together. Most importantly, I see these modalities as individual threads that weave together to create my life’s, and work’s, approach to life and how I interact with the world. More than anything, I’m learning that regardless of the model, or the tool, or the belief system being employed, we are all uncovering some very similar things, and that the labels are just not that important. I think THAT might be one of the keys to the evolution of our society. That, and a broader acceptance and recognition that we are all interconnected, across time and space. I think the systemic work that we are doing, and that Horn and Brick are outlining in this book, might be one of the ways we are going to get there. Most fascinating to me was one of those common threads that this book identified for me.
Horn and Brick identify six principles of systems. They are not essentially different than the three we have been studying – time, place, and exchange – but to some extent an expansion of these, at least as I understand them. The first principle they provide is the overarching rule we have taken to be true in every system we encounter; precisely, what is, must be allowed to be. The authors call it the principle of respect. In addition to what we have already learned, I appreciate the underscore they make that even when it seems irrational to say something aloud that is already known, it can have a freeing effect on the system. Full acknowledgement by all, opens the system to solutions. Second, there must be a balance of giving and taking. Of note in their definition, in addition to the balance required when someone gives more without being recognized or compensated (which typically is my own personal experience), the authors highlight the situation where a leader refuses to accept help, thereby limiting the development opportunities for teams and individuals. Indeed, this is quite often one of the bigger hurdles I encounter in organizational coaching. I hadn’t quite considered this as an embodiment of this principle before reading this book. Third, is the principle on belonging, in that everyone has a right to belong. I particularly liked the way the authors stated this – that there is no statute of limitations on belonging to a system. Once in a system, you are forever part of it, and must be acknowledged and recognized as such, at least in some way. The fourth principle identified is that those who came earlier have priority of ranking over those who came later. This is in line with the principle of Time that we have been studying. The fifth and sixth principles, that competence has a higher priority, and that there is priority ranking for higher investment on behalf of the whole, seem to be expansions on the Time principle. These additions make logical sense to me, and at the same time, seem to have the potential for misinterpretation, in my opinion. One would have to ‘decide’ on who has greater competence, and greater investment, which could be tricky.
In addition to these basic principles in which the work is grounded, there are several other items of note that I take away from reading this book. In particular, I appreciate the emphasis that “assigning guilt achieves nothing”. More specifically, that cause and effect are often not related from a systemic perspective; rather the ‘guilty party’ is often a symptom carrier for the system. I found the authors metaphor on this particularly memorable and useful: firing the ‘guilty party’ would be a solution comparable to ‘if the red warning light comes on while driving, remove the light bulb and drive on’. They invite a new way of looking at things beyond the linear-causal habits most leaders have developed, into a more systemic perspective, that promotes a focus on solution, not blame. Although this concept makes logical sense to me, and I understand it from a systemic perspective, I acknowledge that there are some aspects that I grapple with, particularly in combination with the right to belong. Namely, how to think systemically, and neutrally, when someone does “wrong” in the system. As I consider, and believe, that blaming the ‘guilty party’ gets us nowhere, since they simply represent an expression of the system, I’m left with more questions. In some ways, this feels a bit like always passing the responsibility backwards to someone else, and as such, one can imagine this going back to some ‘original sinner’. It seems clear to me that simply won’t resolve things, leading us to a never-ending treadmill of the system trying to right itself. How do we put an end to that cycle? If we continue to lay blame, and don’t allow for the wronging-party’s right to belong, the disruption in the system dynamics will continue. Does it just simply take an act of courage and trust in the current moment to allow the future to become disentangled? Some see this as ‘taking one for the team’, and I haven’t figured out how to articulate the difference or help shift their perspective. How do we make it safe for entire races of people that have been wronged to find this perspective? Is it simply enough to ask affected individuals/groups to acknowledge that blaming is not productive, and both/all parties must accept and acknowledge their part in order to rebalance the system, so that future generations will not burdened by the same fate? I think this question, and its solution, is particularly relevant to our current times. As we face the reality of where we really are systemically in the world, this seems to me to be one of the most fundamental issues getting in the way of moving forward, particularly on the race issue in the USA, and women’s right in the larger world context.
I also appreciate the reminder that the solution we might find in a constellation is meant to be a symbolic representation rather than a photographic one. I find that often people think this is like a crystal ball giving the answer of the future that is to come, if only we do precisely what is shown to us in the constellation, perpetuating the idea that this work is somehow magical. I believe the continued expression of this sentiment by professionals in this field is paramount to its increasing acceptance in the business world.
What was new to me was the distinction the authors make about the Constructivist versus Phenomenological viewpoints; and moreover that both are right. This, too, is one of those topics that continually comes up for me when I am questioned about Constellations. Constructivists believe that we create our own reality, and already have everything we need to find the solution. Phenomenologists take the view that reality is more than this, such that reality can be discovered, rather than just created. “Succinctly stated, phenomenologist look at the central issue of ‘what is’; constructivists look at the imagined concept of ‘what could be’.”
As it relates to my current work with clients, the authors present constellations as a way to deal with the increasing complexity of our world. This perspective is particularly useful to me, as I develop a leadership program for Agile leaders with this very assumption as the basis for a new way to think about leadership. We are operating in a VUCA world, and yet the still commonly accepted norms of ‘command and control’ leadership remain the primary way people lead the types of organizations I am working with. I’ve been having greater success as I introduce conversations about systemic principles. Books like this, with some very useful case studies, give me greater confidence, and perceived credibility, with my clients in these conversations. These case studies, all business oriented, provide a useful demonstration of how systemic constellations can be quite natural in a business setting.
One of the big questions that the authors address is how to remain in the new behaviour pattern that may have started as a result of the systemic constellation work. Like a new year’s resolution, we often find ourselves slipping back in to old habits and behavioural patterns, despite our best intentions and heartfelt desire to show up differently. Their solution to this challenge is actually what got me the most excited about this book, and is the common thread I referred to earlier. They make a clear and direct connection between organizational system constellation work as we have been learning it, and the personal work I have been doing in another learning cohort steeped in integral unfoldment. From the very start of my study in Constellations, I formed a hypothesis that systemic organization work and family constellation work are inextricably linked. More specifically, that in almost any case of a business entanglement, there is an underlying entanglement in the family system of at least one of the parties involved, and perhaps many, or even all, of them. I could not quite fully explain my grounding for this hypothesis, and in this connection, Horn and Brick do this for me.
One of the practices I learned and use in the early stages of this integral unfoldment work is based on Jay Earley’s ‘parts work’, which is based in Internal Family Systems Therapy. Essentially, this model asserts that we are all made up of parts (some say 30-50), that often are seemingly working at cross purposes, albeit all with the best intentions, and out of love for us. We have Exiled parts, Protector parts, and Firefighter parts, that are created as we experience life. When we are not operating from a grounded place, it is these parts that are showing up. Horn and Brick bring a new perspective to the existing foundation I have in parts work, as it relates to constellations. Although they don’t call it ‘parts work’, the work they do on ‘internal systems’ is identical to this model. They demonstrate how to look at this personal work from a systemic perspective, and precisely, that the honouring of the systemic principles within the parts of the individual(s) is crucial to moving from being stuck to flowing within your internal system. This connection was a profound ‘aha moment’ for me. It connected some dots for me that were right there in front of me, yet I couldn’t yet see the solution. They rightly say that “developing your personality does not mean finally getting everything under control once and for all [that’s a part speaking!]. It means managing your inner team in a responsible way.” Addressing internal parts as a constellation exercise is fascinating way to think about acknowledging and integrating all of these parts.
What is so interesting to me, in tying these two threads together, is how to start addressing the reality of what we all face in organizational systems on a daily basis. Not only are we controlled by our own internal systemic challenges, an inevitable result of our human childhood, we are constantly confronted with the unknown invisible systemic challenges of everyone we encounter. In intimate relationships, we at least have an opportunity to talk about and uncover these items. In a business context, this is unheard of and not an acceptable path of dialogue. Having the understanding and knowledge that allows me to choose more effectively from my growing toolbox, makes me better able to be useful to my clients.
This realization, of course, raises questions for me on what potential connections I want to pursue next. Certainly the importance of shadow work comes to mind, and why it is critical for us all to do shadow work. Moreover, from a systemic perspective, I wonder how we effectively manage to work within the groups where people are not doing their own personal growth work. I imagine the more we do our own work, the more tolerance we build for others, and the greater our resistance to getting trapped or pulled into the mix of someone else’s systemic issues. I’m also curious about how this can be tied in clearly to the growing body of work on shame, particularly by Brene Brown. As with the connection I wasn’t quite getting until I read Invisible Dynamics, I suspect there is a very clear line between constellations and Shame work, waiting to be drawn.