The foundation of systemic phenomenological work


25 August 2020| Family Constellations, Organizational Constellations

What we stand for

Where we came from and where we are today

Bert Hellinger
Bert Hellinger left us two major legacies. Constellations and three survival mechanisms in social systems.

Constellations and three survival mechanisms.
Constellations are a method, a form of work, a lively depiction of a system, that makes, what is truly going on in the system, transparent and relatable.

The three survival mechanisms of Bert Hellinger are, the personal conscience, the collective conscience and the Spirit-Mind.

BHIN and systemic workk
The BHIN has given Bert Hellinger’s’ three consciences different names; the unit conscience, the system conscience and the evolutionary force. Only after adding the (also Hellinger’s) principle of phenomenological perception, do these three survival mechanisms become complete and ready for use. Phenomenological perception is value-free and allows you to look at a system as if seeing it for the very first time, with a birds’ eye view of the whole system and from a place of wonder: ‘what is this system trying to tell us?’

Systemic phenomenological work is very applicable without using a constellation. For example, for teachers to create a good learning environment for their students; for leaders to understand their issues better and make systemic interventions; for coaches to coach systemically without the constellation etc.
At this moment, half of the training programs at BHIN are about making the systemic approach applicable without using the constellation as a method.

BHIN makes the explicit choice to use the constellation as a method, in service of and connected to systemic phenomenological work.

BHIN and constellations
The BHIN has done exceptional work for the ongoing development of constellations, especially in the area of organizational constellations; so-called mini constellations and constellations for greater societal issues. Over the years, there have been some fundamental developments in the underlying principles of family constellations and constellations around symptoms, illness and health. This means, that many of the processes and interventions that we used to do, are no longer part of our curriculum. This ‘work in progress’ will undoubtedly continue for a long time to come.

A good example is the work of Cecilio Regojo, who (recently) started an interesting experiment. This is how it works; announce to a room full of people that you will be doing one constellation for everyone at the same time. Not for the whole group, but for everyone individually. Every participant is asked to think of a certain situation, maybe a specific case. Then, you are asked to keep in mind the four most important stakeholders for this case. One of the four stakeholders, is you. After this, four representatives enter the room: A, B, C and D. Next, each participant determines who of these four stakeholders are the stakeholders in his or her case. During a time-span of eight minutes, the representatives can move and interact with each other (without words). When the eight minutes are over, the leader stops the constellation. The four representatives can share what they experienced and participants are allowed to ask them to clarify things.

These constellations have proven meaningful to 80% of people present. (Mind you, they weren’t asked if the constellation brought new insights, a break-through or solutions).

We believe:

    1. First, that people generally want to give meaning to everything and thus, project the constellation on their specific case.
    2. Second, that these constellations mainly take place in clients’ consciousness, in the area of individual survival mechanism (the personal conscience). This would mean that the constellation mainly confirms already existing (and preconceived?) ideas.
    3. Third, that the constellation may indeed bring clarity to one single individual but what happens once it is presented to a team of 25 people, and the question is ‘in what direction should our company develop?’ Everyone sees something different, possibly confirming their own existing (preconceived) ideas, and then what? Does the constellation bring more or less cohesion? Do conflicts worsen or do they resolve it through this shared image of the constellation?
    4. Fourth, that these constellations have nothing, essentially, to do with systemic work or systemic principles.

So, a constellation in itself is nothing. Allowing representatives to move when you aren’t sure what you are doing isn’t very useful. Constellations need a firm structure. To do the constellations responsibly as well as to interpret them.

BHIN chooses the systemic approach as the starting point to all constellations; meaning the three survival mechanisms and the phenomenological perspective. And also, to do interventions and interpret them from this same framework. Together, and closely attuned with the client-system. This could also be a group of 35 managers of the same company. A whole and not only 35 parts. Noteworthy, is that this is also what Bert Hellinger has always done, even with his new constellations. Connecting constellations to the systemic consciences and a free, non-judgmental, clean perspective.

Broadening, mixing, polluting?
Since the introduction of constellations in 1998 in the Netherlands, and slightly later the introduction of systemic work, systemic constellations has become an increasingly popular method and the end is far from in sight. The different areas that constellations are being used in, is equally growing.
The constellation as a method has proven extremely attractive and the word systemic has become commonplace and literally become an attractive concept.

To be clear, constellations can be used for a variety of different disciplines. In the Netherlands, they are used for many other concepts and paradigms than merely for systemic phenomenological work. For example, within the NLP discipline, constellations are used to resource people (it is sometimes life-threatening when someone works on a burdened place in the organization!!), for constructivist goals, where a new reality (and sometimes an illusion) is built. And so much more.

We feel that the constellation as a method in the Netherlands and in part of the 30 odd countries where we work or have worked, is used for too many different disciplines. And we also feel that the word systemic is used for too many approaches that aren’t systemic phenomenological. The, in itself powerful, concepts of constellations as well as systemic work, are being polluted with many improper approaches and applications. This way, the systemic constellation loses its power as well as the credibility with the end users. Lastly, this pollution doesn’t acknowledge Bert Hellinger and the power of his work and his legacy.

BHIN and innovation
BHIN is seen as one of the most innovative institutes for the development and progress of systemic work, constellations and the application of it in many different areas in society. The core for BHIN us that we work from the starting point of the original DNA, the original sources underlying systemic work.

The three survival mechanisms that Bert Hellinger revealed are, it increasingly seems to be the case, inherent to the human species (and a few species that live in groups such as horses and dogs etc… This means, that the source of systemic work is closely connected to human nature, as a group, as part of evolution, as individual. The deepest sense of our work, be it in multinationals, with politicians, or a severely ill person, is a connection with what it means to be human in this world.

To us, innovation is nourished by a continuing deeper understanding of how the three survival mechanisms work on the one hand and how this connects to the natural systemic intelligence of people and human systems on the other.

New insights can sometimes come to you by chance, and in a choppy way. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, because we realise that we have done something in a certain way for a long time which doesn’t feel right anymore. To us, innovation also means being prepared to stop what we once lovingly started. That is also why, below, we add a list of interventions that we no longer do.

Progressive insights

An organizational system isn’t a family system
Very early, around the year 2000, it became clear that organizational systems are vastly different to family systems and that it would fall short to both systems if you consider an organizational system to be a special kind of family system. Moreover: a pattern can be a curse in one context and a blessing in another. It isn’t necessary to solve personal issues to work well in an organization.

From constellation to systemic work
Starting in 1996, Bert and others have taught us to work with a constellation. In the first courses on family constellations, up to the year 2000, the main focus was on learning how to lead a constellation. And with a fragmented, underlying theory. The theory was mainly about connection, order and balance in giving and taking. It wasn’t until the year 2000, when Bert Hellinger’s letter: ‘An meine Freunde’ arrived, in which he explained the first two consciences and how they work against each other. That is when a certain cohesion came about in Bert’s empirical theory of how social systems work. That knowledge base supported constellations.

Soon after that, we, BHIN, decided to make the systemic approach a central focus of our work. Constellations are not only the most powerful tool we have within this focus, but also the most important source for many, maybe even all, new insights.

Years later, maybe around 2008, Bert came up with the concept of the evolutionary force, the third survival mechanism. It has taken us years to fully grasp this concept and make it workable. Many people who work with constellations in Germany, moved away from this work when Bert introduced this notion of the evolutionary force.

The client is responsible
Only the client can be responsible for taking his or her life and all the consequences that go with that. In the beginning, we thought that if we helped bring (better) order to the family system, it would support the client. And it did prove to give short term relief, but it brings the client in a dependent position. The result today, is that we involve the client or the client system more actively to show all the possibilities for coming into action or to feel where the boundaries lie of taking one’s responsibility.

The leader is part of the system
A true eye-opener was the message from society that companies trusted the method of the constellation but not the person leading it. At first, we thought that the leader wasn’t part of the system that was represented in the constellation. Now we think the opposite: the leader is part of the client system.

From people to events
At first, we thought in terms of what people had done in a family system and the entanglements that stem from those actions. Granddad misbehaved, was ousted and a grandchild starts showing unconscious behaviour that resembles granddad.

Now we know, that it is not necessarily about behaviour of people but more about events that couldn’t be worked through by the system.

From entanglements to patterns
Originally, we spoke of entanglements in the family system. And something that had to be solved or dis-entangled. Until it became clear that these so-called entanglements were actually patterns. Patterns that can be very helpful yet sometimes be obstacles. Today, we view patterns more neutrally and are interested in what those patterns are trying to do for the system.

From ‘wanting to rid yourself from an ‘entanglement’ to ‘growing beyond the pattern’
In the beginning, we tried to solve entanglement or to help the client step away or out of the entanglement. Around 2003, it became clear to Bibi and Jan Jacob, that constellations don’t cause patterns (or entanglements) to go away. What works, is that you become aware, conscious, of the patterns, helping you to deal with them better. This discovery was a fundamental moment of change. It may look like a pattern leaves the family system but usually this is just appearance. It looks this way because the people involved don’t seem as burdened by them.

The next step is: growing beyond the pattern. The only way to do that is to do it is to get rid of the exact opposite of the pattern: becoming the pattern. And accepting. And let it be part of you. Then you can grow beyond it, there where the pattern is part of your history for good.

What we no longer do

Return a burden
You can’t give a burden back to your parents. That is an illusion. If your parents had been able to carry the burden, they would have. What you can do, is let go of a burden that is not yours. Without knowing if someone else is going to pick it up. Systemic passing on is no longer part of what should happen.

Receiving permission after the fact
Parents no longer give permission to their children to be successful or happy. That too is an illusion. And it keeps the child in the child position. What works, is the deep knowing that you will never get that permission of your parents for what you need and desire so much. This is what you have to deal with in life. That is where the impulse for growing up comes from. And… the ability to take persmission…

Mum, will you take your place…?
Re-ordering the past is wanting to change. And again, it’s is an illusion. It gets worse when children ask their parents to take their place. It is an implicit invitation for the child to stand above his/her parents. Veiled by the need for order, more disorder is created. What helps is to see and understand how much disorder there was when you were young. And that as a child, you couldn’t have created that disorder. And even though it cost you your youth, you have physically grown up. And then the choice is yours: remain in the child position or take the risk to be disloyal and to say: it was enough…

Illusions and hope don’t heal. Reality and taking responsibility do.
For the longest time, it was thought that constellations were a way to make the world a better place. At their best, constellations help see the world as it is, with all its dynamics above and below the surface. And to deal with reality differently from that place. Acknowledging what there is not only the most healing but also the most painful and purifying intervention.

Implicitly accusing the larger system
Of course, the force of the system that wants to draw you in, is stronger than an individual and even of the whole family. It can tempt you to take up the role of the victim. But it won’t help you take responsibility for your own life and heal the relationships that were damaged. It is the deep knowledge of the three mechanisms and how they work against each other that gives people, groups, organizations and larger systems the opportunity to stand on their own two feet and walk.

Offering solutions
originally, every successful constellation ended with the words: “that is the solution”. Solutions are also limitations. Moreover: what is a solution for the individual cannot be a solution for the whole system. Ad that gets stronger as there are more systems involved.
What we do want to offer, are insights that create room for solutions: the ability to take responsibility. And what we want to offer is the start of a transformation process: where a person or organization can face difficult issues and work through the, without even knowing where the system will end up or what its identity will be after the entire process.

In short: We have moved from the first order interventions (solutions) to second order interventions (insights) towards the third order interventions (working towards a transformative situation) which is visible on the horizon.

‘Client, take your place’
Constellations used to end in ‘Now, take up your place in the order of things’. Insights in neuroscience now show that it is more useful when the client sees, feels and perceives from different places in the system. And that he or she moves between those perspectives. It stimulates the nervous system to make connections between parts of the brain that haven’t been communicating well. And we believe that different perspectives help people to function better form the place in the system where they find themselves in today.

‘Your issue isn’t yet mature’
We no longer turn down issues. There was a habit where a question had to be pretty serious to work with it. It was an implicit sign that you needed a deeper or larger problem to be able to do a constellation. We believe that any motivation from the person asking the question can be systemically useful. Limitations may be either ethical (wanting to change your boss) or technical (the problem doesn’t have a systemic component).

Offering different sources of support
Sometimes a client or representative of the client is offered alternative support. This obviously supports the client. But how and for what did it support the client? If someone is burdened because of an unconscious pattern to ‘fulfil someone else’s task in life’, strengthening that can prove to be life threatening. Systemically speaking it is much better to figure out why the client is carrying a heavy burden before any support is brought in. Our insight: a client can mobilise his or her own support only after the insight and acceptance of the underlying patterns.

A clear and distinct question.
We used to work with a clearly defined question. What we do is systemic phenomenological work. This is diffuse by definition and isn’t linear. A clear question of the client is an invitation to think in a linear way. For us, the question doesn’t have to be clear. The question is the starting point to a process. Sometimes the question becomes clear during or after the constellation. More interesting than a clear question is: why does the client have this specific question in this way? There must be a good systemic reason for it!

Talking about systemic laws
Systemically speaking, speaking of systemic principles as if they are laws is wrong. Laws are normative and come from a different discipline than the phenomenological. Laws are prescribing by nature, and constellations and systemic interventions were never meant that way. Hellinger comes from a place of religious discipline and caused him to bring language tot his work. At the beginning, he did use the word laws. And then he let it go.

Where we are possibly heading

BHIN has a tendency to work in service of the evolutionary force. That means that we find ourselves working for organizations and countries that we didn’t choose ourselves which makes the work exciting and scary.

Of course, we have to say no once in a while. This ‘no’ finds its source in the so-called unit conscience in that as BHIN we are deeply connected to the essence of systemic work. As we know it today. Sometimes, we do some work left-field. And we then use that (mistake) to become even more aware of what we want, who we are and who we want to be in the field of systemic work that is developing so quickly, and in the world and the direction the world is moving into.

We are very aware of the generations to come. And in terms of the system conscience: we are aware that the patterns that we added to systemic work may not be the patterns that the next generations full of systemic intelligence need.

We have no ideals in the sense that we want to improve the world. Licht and shadow, prosperity and crisis ate all allowed to be. We are deeply grateful for the position that our work and passion gives us. We are aware that we haven’t had to deal with deep crises of black periods in a way that many of our clients, and countries that we worked with, have.
We love to work with people in smaller and larger scale to be able to make a difference in the world. But if that difference is for the good or the bad, we will never really be able to judge.

What we do feel, is that systemic work still has enormous potential. And where the world wants to use that potential, we are more than willing to move toward sit, with all the risks it comes with.

November 2017
Jan Jacob, Bibi en Barbara

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