Everything is information
The systemic phenomenological perspective in practice
Lieke is a young woman and slightly awkwardly joins the group that has gathered for a constellation evening. When it’s her turn I ask her what she wants to explore. She explains about her job as an inspector at a semi-governmental organisation and that she increasingly struggles with her large sense of responsibility. The last months have been exhausting and she has started to enjoy work less and less. Her coach told her that it could be useful to look into her pattern of taking on (too much) responsibility, by means of a family constellation.
From my systemic knowledge I know that the theme of taking on (too much) responsibility often has to do with ‘place’ and ‘order’. I don’t use that information yet, but keep it in the back of my mind.
I ask Lieke to set up her family of origin. The representatives for mother and her two older sisters (with an age gap of 9 and 8 years) are placed in one line, the representative for father (who passed away) is placed far away, to the side. She tells me that mother and father already grew apart years before because of his drinking problem. She then places herself opposite her mother and sisters, at quite a distance. Lieke is literally on her own in this image. When I ask her what she feels in this spot she confirms this: she doesn’t feel a connection with the other family members, even as if she isn’t part of the family.
The theme ‘place’ continues to puzzle me, especially because the family seems so torn. I decide to find out what happens if I put the family in the ‘natural order’: father and mother next to each other and the children opposite them from oldest to youngest. That’s where something remarkable happens: usually I’m confident about the order of the children’s row but now I’m fiddling. First I put the oldest daughter on the left (for the viewer) and the youngest (in this case Lieke) on the right. The oldest daughter immediately indicates that this isn’t right and I respond to this appeal by switching them around. Then I see that my first instinct was right all along and I put them all back …
The switching around has left me confused and I’m annoyed by my own clumsiness. Until I suddenly realise that my confusion can also be information provided by the field. Because I’m tuned in to Lieke’s family system I can also be ‘sucked into’ a pattern from this system. There appears to be an issue with the positions …
Now father and mother are standing next to each other, mother is staring straight at the ceiling. Trusting the movements I see from a phenomenological perspective I ask whether mother is religious. Lieke laughs and says: ‘That depends on what you call religious’. We both laugh and she confirms that mother finds a lot of comfort in her faith. Father has a defeated look, having dropped his shoulders and staring at the floor. Suddenly I wonder why he started drinking. Lieke answers: ‘He lost a son’.
This sentence caused new confusion for everyone in the group, including myself. The (dissociated) wording was remarkable to say the least…
Time to further investigate the facts.
So I asked if her father had another child outside this marriage. No, that wasn’t the case… This was his son (and thus her brother) from this family, who had passed away when he was one and a half. At that moment a collective sigh and a groan went through the room. It was as if the whole constellation collapsed. As if the trapped, solidified pain was set free after all this time and became tangible.
The investigation has revealed the family trauma. Vincent was the third child and four years older than Lieke. He had passed away at one and a half. Father hadn’t been able to process the fatal accident and had resorted to alcohol and mother clung to her faith even more than before. The sisters were silent. Lieke was born three years after Vincent’s death but had still caught on to his existence. As a child she had once plucked up the courage and asked her mother about him. The resolute answer was that she wasn’t supposed to talk about him ever again. She had complied with that ban until today…
I placed a male representative in Vincent’s spot and put him third in the children’s row: after the two sisters and before Lieke. Now she could finally experience what it was like to take on her own place as the fourth child. Vincent was visibly and tangibly the literal connecting link between her and her (much older) sisters. Lieke was now no longer alone but connected to the rest.
By including Vincent as the third child in the family, Lieke could take up her own place in the order of the family system. A place where she didn’t have to pretend to be bigger than she actually was. I advised her to say from now on: ‘I’m the youngest of four’, to keep practicing the right order, and also talk to someone in the family about Vincent. She thought that her oldest sister (the one who had previously announced that the children’s row didn’t feel right) would be open to that.
This exact same pattern of making herself bigger and feeling (too) responsible was what Lieke encountered in her work. Not that strange when considering she spent her whole life up to now in the place of the third child. Taking up your own true place in the family system isn’t obvious for everyone, but eventually provides peace and life energy..
The systemic phenomenological perspective is about being open to everything that approaches you and passes through you. You perceive the phenomena, without wanting to add or change something. You consider everything to be potential information about the system you are part of or with which you are working.
Would you like to know more?
The systemic phenomenological perspective, place and order are important subjects that are discussed in detail in the Course Systemic Leadership with Philippe Bailleur and Leanne Steeghs. The third edition will start on 7 October 2019 in Wange (BE). We hope to welcome another great mix of Dutch and Belgian leaders, managers and team heads and other executives.
Are you none of the above? Feel free to inform about our other workshops and courses, such as the Course Organisational Constellator that starts in February 2020 in Belgium.