“Unbelievably powerful. Your work will be much richer for this insight into a systemic stance”
Steve Ridgley,Coach, Supervisor and Manager Organisational Effectiveness for The John Lewis Partnership and Waitrose.
“This exceeded my expectations. Brilliantly facilitated, at times challenging and really stretched my thinking.”
Sally Bonneywell,VP of Coaching, GSK, Worldwide.
We provide regular opportunities to experience this approach in our scheduled workshops, however some of our work is commissioned and facilitated inside organisations, in-house. On occasions and with the client’s full permission and cooperation, we are able to share examples of these workshops. The example on this page is from one such workshop.
‘A Ghost in the Machine’
Bespoke or in-house workshops are those which are commissioned by a business that wish to spend a full or half-day exploring a number of organisational system issues. Partners, a team or the leadership of a company invite John to facilitate a workshop around a particular issue or set of issues that they are facing. [We provide the representatives for this kind of workshop. As a result these workshops provide good opportunities for executive coach students of this approach to take part as representatives in a real-world case where the client is present and has a pressing need for clarity and resolution in a confidential environment.]
In the case study that follows the client, an international consulting firm, states in all their communications that they are committed to a progressive and egalitarian culture where the idea of individual integrity and collective intelligence is central. They have made a commitment to be open and on a continuous learning journey themselves.
It was agreed that leader ‘Carol’ would be joined by two other members of the leadership team, ‘Jeff’ and ‘Simon’, who would each bring an issue on behalf of the whole system without telling the facilitator anything more before the workshop. To accommodate a request to share the workshop with the staff it was agreed to capture the experience on video so that it could be edited and shown to the wider staff group. This is often a useful resource and a good way to see and hear things from right inside the system.
With the client’s agreement the video was transcribed so that a small part of the day could be shared in the case study that follows.
Client: An international consulting firm
Facilitator: John Whittington
A Ghost in the Machine
The workshop started with a request from Jeff to look at business inertia, a search for a sense of liberation (“What do we still need to let go of from our past?”). This this led to a constellation in which we explored the foundations of the business, the relationship dynamics between founder and company and the differences between the founding and current purpose. It was a powerful piece of work and what unfolded was valuable for all three directors present.
This case study is about what happened after that, in the second constellation, exploring an issue brought by one of the other directors present, Simon.
Simon’s request was simply:
“Where should we now put our attention in order for the organisation to fulfil its purpose?”
He then suggested three potential areas for exploration as follows:
• The eco-system, including their associates
• Clients of two main kinds
• Financial stability
Note: In workshops for a single client company where there are to be several constellations around different issues, it’s my preference to treat the whole workshop as one constellation, one continuous unfolding of a field of information. For this reason I like to include a representative for the insights and learning from the previous or earlier constellations in the same session. Sometimes this representative just stands in the next constellation; on other occasions, including this one, they are more vocal and involved.
The representatives were as follows:
• ‘The Staff’ – Chosen by the director/issue holder at the start of the constellation.
• ‘The Associates’ – Chosen by the director/issue holder at the start of the constellation.
• ‘The Purpose’ – The current understanding of the purpose as it is. This representative was identified by the client/issue holder but asked by the facilitator to remain in his seat, in role.
• ‘The wisdom’ – A representative for the insights and wisdom from the first constellation. Chosen by Carol at the invitation of the facilitator part way through the constellation.
• ‘The Excluded’ element – Identified by the representative for ‘the Staff’ early in the constellation, chosen and placed by him.
• Later, all three directors themselves were invited by the facilitator to step into the constellation. Jeff, Carol and Simon. So the constellation then had the actual leaders of the system and representatives for the other key elements within it.
So the question was “Where should we put our attention…” and the issue holder offered three possible areas that the answer may emerge from. There were in fact several answers to the question to come, the first of which popped up as the constellation was being formed.
I share it here because it provides such a good example of how systems will always try and ‘re-member’ an excluded member until their contribution has been fully acknowledged.
Simon set up the staff, right in the middle of the circle, then the Associates slightly to one side. There was some immediate tension between them and the representative for the Staff jumped slightly and then moved back as the Associates were brought in.
I asked the representative for the Associates what it was like to stand there.
Associates: “I feel like I’m in the right place but not as aware of the staff as they seem to be aware of me……”
Staff: “My focus is split between you and something over there” (indicating corner of room, outside the circle of workshop participants)
Facilitator: “Try telling the Associates ‘I see you but I also see something else …’ “
Staff: He adjusted the words I’d offered and said:
“I see you but I also see other things ….”
Facilitator: To representative for the Staff
“Choose somebody to represent the other things you can see and indicate where they need to stand.”
The representative for the Staff chose someone from the group and asked her to stand in the far corner of the room where his attention had been drawn.
At this point, sensing that there was some connection to what had been before and that some balancing was needed, I invited Carol to choose a representative for all the wisdom and insights from the first constellation. She did so and found herself placing them very close to the representative for the staff.
Then I asked the representative for the purpose how they were doing and they explained that they needed to stand in the constellation, knew where they needed to be and walked to stand, like a bridge, between the staff and the Associates.
The staff didn’t like any of this and wanted both the wisdom from the first constellation and the purpose to move away. I invited the representative for the staff to say to the wisdom from the first constellation “You surprised me”.
Staff: “No. I have a different sense.”
He reflected for a while and then said
Staff: “You shocked me…”
Facilitator: “Try saying to her: ‘Please give me time to get used to you’.”
He couldn’t speak and was clearly stuck so I invited him to step away and get some space between himself and the wisdom from the first constellation, to find a better place.
He said that this felt much better and reported a sense of emotional relief. He had stepped out of the centre of the room, the middle of the constellation. The representative for the wisdom from the first constellation stepped in.
I invited him to say “Actually it’s a relief.” He said:
“Actually I’m relieved to see you both (Purpose and Wisdom). Thank you for being there…”
As the two representatives settled, the woman who had been standing in the far corner looked across at me and said:
Excluded: “I feel forgotten, really anxious, scared and emotional standing here…” She looked ghost-like and frozen.
Facilitator: “Do you know who you are – a person or a thing?”
Excluded: “I feel I’m part of him…” (indicating the representative for Staff)
Facilitator: To Simon and the two other directors in room:
“Do you know what or who this is – is this what the staff are distracted by?”
No answer was forthcoming.
Excluded: “I’m not part of it, I feel like a barrier. I feel excluded.”
Facilitator: To all three directors: “What or who has been excluded in this system between the founder and today?”
Facilitator: “Factually who has been excluded or forgotten or told they are not needed any more?”
Simon: “It’s something to do with the staff, because we have lost several people…..”
At this point the representative for the previous constellation spoke a single word, almost inaudibly:
Wisdom: “The trust is not here.”
Facilitator: “The wisdom from the last constellation says that this is a trust issue . . .”
“Who left? Who left who has the most ‘heat’ around them – a difficult leaving?”
Then, all three directors spoke at the same time and named the same individual.
Carol: “He was brought in to run the company…”
Facilitator: “He was brought in to run the company?
And it didn’t work out?”
Carol: “It definitely didn’t work out.”
Simon: “It was disastrous…”
Facilitator: After a pause and silence, to representative for the excluded:
“How is that for you, to know they are beginning to remember you?”
Excluded: “Well … this ‘barrier’ (indicating space between self and the main constellation) doesn’t matter so much any more, I feel more included. As though I matter.”
Facilitator: To three directors in room:
“How long was he in the system here for?”
Directors: Nodding in unison. “Three years.”
Facilitator: To Excluded representative: “Please come back a little, towards the system…..”
The representative for the excluded person walked very slowly and tentatively into the circle.
After a while I invited Simon and the other two directors Carol and Jeff to join the constellation and stand in an arc right in front of the representative for the excluded member. After another while I offered them a sentence of acknowledgement. “Thank you for everything you contributed.”
This is how the facilitated exchange of dialogue went:
Jeff: “Thank you for everything you’ve contributed.”
No response from the excluded representative.
Facilitator: “Not landing? Tell me more…what’s going on for you?”
Excluded: “Well I feel the anger coming from you (indicating Simon) and I just don’t…..”
Facilitator: “So try telling them: ‘I don’t believe you…’ “
Excluded: “I don’t believe … that that’s shared by all of you.”
Turning to Carol next, standing in the middle of the line of directors, I invited her to try the same sentence: ‘Thank you for everything you’ve contributed.’ She smiled and wriggled indicating that she couldn’t really say that. So I offered her an alternative:
“Some of the things you did were very valuable and others were damaging.”
She agreed to that and so said with ease:
Carol: “Some of the things you did were very valuable.
And others were really damaging.”
Facilitator: “And for the health of the whole system we had to ask you to leave”
Carol: “Yes – for the health of the whole system we had to ask you to leave.”
Seeing the embodied resistance to that in the representative for the Excluded, I offered her some words to say which she willingly repeated:
Excluded: “I’m still here, in the system.
I’m not leaving.
Until I see that something changes.”
I asked Simon what was going on for him as his anger and frustration were visibly building and he was last in the line of three directors to speak. He immediately started talking to the representative for the excluded director:
Simon: “You never cared for the staff. You were very exploitative of the staff.”
And, after a long pause and more quietly:
“Although I suspect that was never your intention…..”
Excluded: Spontaneously: “I felt I brought stability…”
Carol: Nodding in agreement. “You brought the possibility of stability…”
Excluded: Turning to Carol:
“I believe you (then turning back to Simon) but I feel scared of you and see your anger. I feel you won’t acknowledge anything I did.”
I invited Simon to confirm that by saying to the representative “You’re right” but he said that that wasn’t true. So I invited him to reflect on what he could genuinely acknowledge the excluded director for and he willingly, easily, voiced this:
Simon: “Your huge personal commitment, energy and business savvy. Which was lacking here. Thank you.”
Facilitator: Offering a sentence for Simon to say to the Excluded:
“We needed what you offered.”
Simon: “We needed some of it” he said, changing the sentence that was offered to more closely align it with his experience of what had clearly been a very challenging interpersonal and organisation issue.
Excluded: Turning to the facilitator and all members of constellation and smiling softly:
“That feels good.”
Sensing an emerging connection in the system, in the room, I invited the directors and the Excluded member to exchange whatever needed to be exchanged, initially without intervention by the facilitator. This is the dialogue that ensued:
Jeff: “What’s here for me is this topic of stability. For me it was a false stability, a sort of façade for stability and we are paying for that now….our instability now is because of the false stability that you brought then and for that I’m not grateful.”
Excluded: Turning, then smiling at Jeff.
“Thank you. For being honest.”
Simon: “I want to say thank you for all the time you spent with me personally, when you weren’t being the boss. I found that really helpful and kind. I wish I’d been able to see more of that when you were being the boss.”
“My anger is because of what it cost us to get rid of you. And with all of us for colluding with you to do that.”
Excluded: “You haven’t got rid of me”
Simon: “I think we have”
Facilitator: “Try saying ‘We thought we could buy you out of the system but I can see that it’s not entirely true…’ ”
Simon: Nodding along with other directors.
“Yes, we probably thought we could buy you out of the system …but…”
Excluded: Looking at Simon and Carol.
“I feel acknowledged by you and completely settled with you two. But, (turning to Simon) I feel like I’m in a fight with you.
And you’re not going to win.”
Simon: “I’m still here”
Excluded: “So am I!”
Rather than feed or stay stuck in this dynamic I thought I’d try another way to settle the system and then come back to this fighting energy and see what had happened to it. So I invited Jeff to repeat his earlier acknowledgement which he did with:
Jeff: “I’m grateful for everything I learnt from you which I find myself using in the role I’m in. I learnt from watching you and I can use it.”
At my invitation he bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement.
Carol: “Thank you for the good intentions that I believe were under what you tried to do…”
Excluded: “Thank you.”
Pause. Then with a smile and lightness:
“You know I feel I can leave now! It doesn’t really matter about……” indicating Simon with nod of head to facilitator: “…about him”
Facilitator: “Have a look at him and try saying ‘I can see we will never agree….’ ”
Excluded: She said: “Actually I don’t care what you think. I’ve got what I wanted from the people who matter to me and I feel OK now.”
Simon visibly recognised this truth and they nodded and smiled at each other in agreement to their differences.
Facilitator: “Tell him ‘I’m getting ready to leave your system.’ ”
Excluded: Looking at Simon and then others:
“Yes, I think I’m nearly ready…I feel like walking away now”
Facilitator: Inviting Excluded to say: “Thank you for everything I’ve learnt.”
Excluded: Looking at directors and nodding deeply:
“Yes, thank you for everything I learnt….”
Facilitator: “It was difficult for me…”
Excluded: “Yes, it was difficult… But it was useful too. Thank you.”
Then, without prompting she said:
“I wish you all well”
She then looked at me again and said she was ready to leave. I invited her to follow any inner movement that felt true.
She walked out of the constellation and sat down in the circle, free of the entanglement and free of representative energy.
After the representative for the Excluded element left I invited the three directors to stand together in a way that made sense to them, after all that had happened, in a way that they felt more settled and resourced, a place and relationship pattern in which they felt able to take in the learnings from what had happened. They did so, making eye contact as they found a place with each other, standing in this fresh field of information and insight.
The representative for the founder wanted to sit again, the constellation moved on and explored issues of leadership, hierarchy, attitudes to money and client attraction/retention.
The directors of this system refer back to this constellation workshop and use it as a guide for healthy joining and leavings in support of enduring organisational health.
“I’m a leader and have no previous experience in this field.
I was expecting to feel on the periphery but left feeling I’d learnt a great deal and inspired to learn more”
Peter Newman, Partner, Applied Works.
“For those with an interest in how constellations work in an organisational setting this is the perfect introduction..”
Helen Battersby, Leadership development.