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 work form, a lively depiction of a system, that makes, what is truly going on in the system, transparent and relatable.

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

BHIN and systemic work

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 principle of phenomenological perception (also Hellinger’s), 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, giving you a birds’ eye view of the whole system and from a position of wonderment: “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 offer systemic coaching without the constellation etc.
At this moment, half of the training programs at BHIN are about how to apply the systemic approach without using the constellation as a method.

BHIN has made the explicit choice to use the constellation only 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 field 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 group as a whole, but for everyone individually. Every participant is asked to think of a certain situation, maybe a specific case. They are then asked to think of the four most important stakeholders for this case. One of the four stakeholders is you. Four representatives then enter the room: A, B, C and D. Next, each participant determines who of these four stakeholders are the stakeholders in their case. In the eight minutes that follow, the representatives can move around and interact with each other (without words). When the eight minutes are up, the leader stops the constellation. The four representatives can share what they experienced and the participants are allowed to ask them to clarify things.

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

We believe:

      1. Firstly, that people generally want to give meaning to everything and thus, project the constellation on their specific case.
      2. Secondly, that these constellations mainly take place in the client’s conscience, in the field of individual survival mechanism (the personal conscience). This would mean that the constellation mainly confirms already existing (and preconceived?) ideas.
      3. Thirdly, 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 “Which direction should our company go in?” 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. Fourthly, that these constellations have, essentially, nothing 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 facilitate the constellations in a responsible manner as well as to interpret them.

BHIN has chosen the systemic approach as the starting point for 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 to the client-system. This could also be a group of 35 managers of the same company. As a whole, not as 35 separate parts. What is noteworthy, is that this is also what Bert Hellinger always used to do, 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 the Netherlands in 1998, and the introduction of systemic work slightly later, systemic constellations have become an increasingly popular method and the end is far from in sight. The variety of fields where constellations are being used, is equally growing.
The constellation as a method has proven to be extremely attractive and the word “systemic” has become commonplace, and has 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 concepts and paradigms other than systemic phenomenological work. For example, within NLP, constellations are used to resource people (it can sometimes be life-threatening when someone works in the organization in a position that places a heavy burden on them!!), for constructivist goals, to build a new reality (and sometimes an illusion). And so much more.

We feel that the constellation as a method is used for too many different disciplines in the Netherlands and in some of the 30-odd countries where we work or have worked. 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. The systemic constellation then loses its power as well as its credibility with the end users. Finally, this pollution doesn’t do much to 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 progression of systemic work, constellations and the application of it in many different areas in society. For BHIN, our key focus is 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, as 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 with a severely ill person, is the 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 with 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 with difficulty. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable, because we start to realize that we have done something in a certain way for a long time and it 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 are adding a list of interventions that we no longer do.

Progressive insights

An organizational system isn’t a family system

In the early days, around the year 2000, it became clear that organizational systems are vastly different from family systems, and that it would not be fair to either system if we would consider an organizational system to be a special kind of family system. Even more, a pattern can be a curse in one context and a blessing in another. It isn’t necessary to solve personal issues to be able to work constructively in an organization.

From constellation to systemic work

Starting in 1996, Bert and others have taught us to work with constellations. In the first courses on family constellations, until 2000, the main focus was on learning how to facilitate a constellation. This was based on a fragmented 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 a certain cohesion came about in Bert’s empirical theory of how social systems work. That knowledge base supported constellations.

Soon after, we at 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 charge of his or her life and accept 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 help the client. It did prove to give short-term relief, but it makes the client dependent. Therefore, today, we involve the client or the client system more actively, to show all the possibilities for taking action, to feel where their boundaries are of for taking responsibility.

The leader is part of the system

A true eye-opener was the message from society that companies trusted the constellation method, 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 excluded, and a grandchild now subconsciously starts showing behaviour that resembles granddad’s.

We now know that it is not necessarily about how people behave, but more about events that couldn’t be processed by the system.

From entanglements to patterns

Originally, we spoke of entanglements in the family system. About things that had to be solved or disentangled. Until it became clear that these so-called entanglements were actually patterns. Patterns that can be very helpful, yet sometimes form obstacles. Nowadays, we view patterns from a more neutral perspective and we 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 entanglements or help the client get away from 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 does work is becoming aware, conscious, of the patterns, which helps you deal with them in a better way. This discovery was a fundamental moment of change. It may look like a pattern disappears from the family system but usually this is just appearance. It looks this way because the people involved don’t seem as burdened by it anymore.

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

What we no longer do

Return a burden

You can’t hand 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 whether someone else is going to pick it up. Systemic hand-overs are 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 does work is knowing deep down that you will never get that permission from your parents to do what you need and desire so much. This is what you have to deal with in life. That is where the impulse to grow up comes from. And… the ability to take permission…

Mum, will you take your place…?

Re-ordering is wanting to change the past. And again, this 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. Under the guise of a 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, it wasn’t you who created that disorder. And even though it cost you your youth, you have now physically grown up. And now the choice is yours: either remain in the child position or take the risk of being disloyal and of saying: enough is 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 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 perspective. Acknowledging what is, is not only the most healing but also the most painful and purifying form of 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 than a family as a whole. It can tempt you to take the role of the victim. However, that 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 of 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 an individual cannot be a solution for a whole system. And 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. What we also want to offer is the start of a transformation process: where a person or organization can face difficult issues and work through them, 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 first-order interventions (solutions) through second-order interventions (insights) towards third-order interventions (working towards a transformative situation) which is visible on the horizon.

‘Client, take your place’

Constellations used to end with: “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 a situation from different places in the system. When 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. We believe that different perspectives help people perform better from the place in the system where they find themselves today.

‘Your issue isn’t yet mature’

We no longer turn down question. Before, a question had to be pretty serious to work on it. This way, we implicitly indicated that you needed a deeper or larger problem to do a constellation. We believe that whatever the motivation is of the person asking the question, it can be systemically useful. The limitations may be more ethical (wanting to change your boss) or technical (the problem doesn’t have a systemic component) in nature.

Offering different sources of support

Sometimes a client or the client’s representative is offered alternative support. This obviously helps the client. But how and why did it help the client? If someone feels burdened because of an unconscious pattern to “fulfil someone else’s task in life”, strengthening that feeling 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 only mobilise his or her own support after the insight is gained and the underlying patterns are accepted.

A clear and distinct question

We used to work with a clearly defined question. What we do is systemic phenomenological work. This is, by definition, diffuse and not 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 of 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 is not phenomenological. Laws are prescriptive by nature, and constellations and systemic interventions were never meant that way. Hellinger comes from a place of religious discipline, which is why he used that language in his work. At the beginning, he did use the word laws, but later on, he let go of it.

Where we may be heading

BHIN tends 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 at the same time.

Of course, we have to say “no” sometimes. This “no” finds its origins in the so-called unit conscience, in that as BHIN we are deeply connected to the essence of systemic work. To the extent we know it today. Sometimes, we do something out of the box. 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 in.

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 make the world better. Light and shadow, prosperity and crisis, are all allowed to exist. We are deeply grateful for the position that our work and passion gives us. We are aware of the fact that we haven’t had to deal with deep crises or black periods in a way that many of our clients and the countries that we worked with, have.

We love working with people in smaller and larger-scale situations, where we can make a difference in the world. But we will never really be able to judge if that difference is for the good or the bad.

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 towards it, despite the risks.

November 2017
Jan Jacob, Bibi en Barbara

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About the Bert Hellinger Institute

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.

For up-and-coming and established leaders. An initiative of the Bert Hellinger Institute.