The foundation of systemic phenomenological work


31 March 2021| Personal

Perceiving, how do we actually do that?

Perceiving system energy

Perceiving tension

Perceive atmosphere in the group

Perceive love

Perceiving how present you are

Perceiving your thoughts

Perceiving your first impression

Perceiving representational perception


All these things I cannot see with my eyes, hear with my ears, smell with my nose, feel with my fingers, taste … How do we actually perceive if we cannot do this with all these senses of perception?

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

Where these unnamed senses are, no idea, but it is clear from experiences with, for example, representing, that the whole body participates in these perceptions.

And of course we use many senses at the same time and the brain also makes many connections at the same time, so that most of the time we do not have a clear idea how we have perceived something.

We receive many, many more stimuli than we can process into an perception. We have learned to build in all kinds of filters to admit only the relevant stimuli for the time and environment in which we now live. And this is different from the evolutionary centuries ago when we hunted mammoths with clubs. We have developed the cooperation of senses so that you know exactly how slowly you must cycle to let a crossing car pass in front of you (there are often only a few centimeters between your front wheel and the car!). We can picture a situation someone else is telling us about. We can see a road sign with abstract signs and immediately know what to look for. But a lot of sounds, signs along the road, smells, tastes (of the detergent for example) we usually filter out, don’t 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 for facilitating constellations, I realize how difficult it is for a beginning constellation facilitator to perceive all the information. Information from the distances between the representatives, the subtle changes in response to a movement of 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 then at the same time the body of the client, how that person reacts to every movement in the constellation, what questions they ask, and what they don’t tell.

And not to forget, what is there to perceive about yourself during this process? What thoughts flash by, 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, how the facial expression changes while a story is being told, how you as a coach remain present or wander off. What hypotheses flash past you, how you experience the distance or closeness of the coachee, how fast your breathing goes, or does it stop, and is it the same with the coachee?

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. And 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 once in a constellation I got 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.

Often people ask me how I come up with those questions, or phrases, or interventions that give just that movement, or that brings out just the 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 the thought came along: “How strange that this competent supervisor has already introduced 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 punch line.

I have a bad memory, and sometimes during a coaching session I find myself wondering what the coachee had answered again. That too is information; have I really forgotten, or not heard? Or is this precisely what happens to that information in this system: forgetting? Nowadays I dare to name it and say, “sorry, but I don’t remember what you answered to that question. And more than by chance the reply often comes: “yes, that happens all the time, it seems as if that subject is not allowed to be heard”…

It remains strange work that 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 anymore. And then one more impulse comes along that you want to try, and yes, you hit!

And then you think afterwards: well, I saw that already in the first minute, but I did not pay attention to that …

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