The foundation of systemic phenomenological work


31 March 2021| Personal

Perceiving, how do we actually do that?

Perceiving. Perception. How does it actually work?

  • System energy
  • Tension
  • The atmosphere in the group
  • Love
  • How present you are
  • Your thoughts
  • Your first impression
  • Representational perception

All these are things I cannot see with my eyes, hear with my ears, smell with my nose, feel with my fingers, or taste… So, how do we actually perceive things that are beyond the reach of our senses?

Apparently, we have many more senses than the classic five, or seven if you include the sense of balance and the senses of motion. We must also have senses that help us perceive relationships, proportions, distance and proximity, after all, this is crucial for our existence and for human reproduction!

Where these unnamed senses are, I have no idea, but it is clear from experience with, for example, representation, that the whole body participates.

Of course, we use many senses at the same time, and our brain also makes many connections at the same time; so most of the time, we do not have a clear idea how we perceive something.

We receive many, many more stimuli than we can process in an perception. We have learned to build in all kinds of filters to only admit the relevant stimuli for the time and environment in which we now live. Our senses have evolved and are very different from how it was centuries ago, when mankind hunted mammoths with clubs. We have learned to combine our senses, so that we know exactly how slowly we must cycle to let a crossing car pass in front of us (there are often only a few centimetres between your front wheel and the car!). We can visualize a situation someone else is telling us about. We can see a road sign with abstract signs and immediately know what they mean and what we have to do. But there are also a lot of sounds, signs along the road, smells, tastes (of detergent for example) we usually filter out, that we don’t really notice. That’s a good thing, otherwise we’d go crazy!

Nevertheless, for our work it is very helpful to train our perceptual awareness. Every time I attend a training on facilitating constellations, I realize how difficult it is for a beginning constellation facilitator to perceive all the information. Information from the distance between the representatives, the subtle changes in how one responds to a movement by the other, the way the representatives are positioned, the floor plan of the constellation, the boundaries of the constellation (sometimes outside the walls of the room!) and at the same time the client’s body language, how that person reacts to every movement in the constellation, what questions they ask, and what they don’t say.

And not to forget, what is there to perceive about yourself during this process? What thoughts flash through your mind, where do you feel contraction, how is your breathing, what are you afraid to say?

And also in coaching without a constellation there is so much to observe. From the very first moment of contact, how someone enters the room, how facial expressions change while a story is being told, how you as a coach remain present or your thoughts wander off. What hypotheses come up, how do you experience the distance or closeness of the coachee, how fast is your breathing, or do you hold your breath now and then, and does the coachee do the same?

And then, of course, we have representational perception, that which a representative perceives from a system that he or she is not familiar with at all. Apparently, our body can tune into a system, with all the dynamics at play there. This is a different kind of perception than when we try to imagine what it is like in that system. With representational perception we sense, or perceive, things that we ourselves may never have sensed or perceived. I know that I was in a constellation once and felt a pain in my collarbone. I had never been aware of my collarbone, and certainly not that it could hurt as a separate bone.

As a facilitator, you can also make use of representational perception. You can take on the role of someone in the coachee’s system for a moment, and observe what information that yields, then leave that role again and ask questions about it.

People often ask me how I come up with those questions, or words, or interventions that create just that bit of movement or bring out essential information.

That is almost never a single observation. It is a combination of previously observed information that was still simmering somewhere and many later observations. For example, the other day I didn’t know what to do with the constellation about a boy who was behaving badly in class. There was no movement. Until a thought came up: “Isn’t it strange that this competent supervisor has already brought up this question three times and also examined it in exercises.” Admitting this surprise, brought me to questions about how she had gotten her job. And that turned out to be the key.

I have a bad memory, and sometimes during a coaching session I find myself wondering what answer the coachee had given again. That too is information; have I really forgotten it, or did I not hear it? Or is this precisely what happens to that information in this system: it is forgotten? Nowadays, I feel brave enough to confess and say: “Sorry, but I don’t remember what your answer to that question was.” And more than by chance the reply often is: “Yes, that happens all the time, it seems as if that subject is not allowed to be heard…”

It is and remains a strange phenomenon, systemic work: collecting information without knowing what you can do with it, allowing the not-knowing and regularly surrendering to the fact that you really do not know. And then there is that one trigger that you want to try, and yes, bull’s eye!

And in those cases, you sometimes think afterwards: Well, I had actually seen that in the first minute, but I simply did not pay attention to it…



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People are constantly evolving. With each other, without each other. In families, in teams, in organizations. Systemic thinking makes us aware of the “why” of our being and doing. Organizational and family constellations create room for movement. The BHI provides courses, workshops and training programs in the field of systemic work, constellations, leadership and coaching. This is how we contribute to the development of people, organizations and society.

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