Playing with life – Using Constellations to explore life, systems and stuff

Nearly five years ago I found myself on Dartmoor in dark misty rain, wearing my then rubbishy wet weather gear, leaky boots, and surrounded by an intriguing mix of people I had met only earlier that week.  I was on a course at Schumacher college exploring personal, ecological and organisational constellations.

There were some aspects of this learning that were quite far along on what some of us dubbed the “Perceived Weirdness Index”, some parts that were uncannily powerful, and some parts that we thought you might just about get away with in an indoor corporate environment.  Some of it was all three.

Over the years since then, I have deepened my understanding and practice of constellations and in this article, I’d like to share what it is and a bit about how it works.

Constellations derives originally from a combination of gestalt approaches, native African conflict resolution practices, field theory and family therapy approaches as practiced by Virginia Satir et al.  It basically involves mapping out elements of a system spatially, exploring the different perspectives and positions of that system, and then, if needed, making moves to realign it.

It is very powerful in enabling us to more deeply understand the systems we are part of and to make change.  As such, it is a powerful tool for leaders of organisations and of society to have access to so as to more deeply understand how the systems they lead or are part of really work.

It is easier to demonstrate than to explain.  So, in the absence of a large room and our physical presence, I shall share some examples.

A client system was very stuck.  If anything, it was moving backwards.  The business was successful, but future success depended on urgent changes to products and to improving customer service.  In the constellation, we chose the different elements to represent and laid them out, exploring the different positions and perspectives.  It seemed all departments needed urgent IT changes to be made.  Blame was being thrown at the overworked and under-resourced IT team – as a result they were paralysed and constantly firefighting.  Through the constellation, all saw clearly the pain of the IT team, and crucially, the IT team leader did too.  As a result, he was able to understand why he was feeling and behaving like a hunted victim, and to move on from that.  As we played with realigning the system, it became clear that dealing with the IT team differently was the key to moving forward.  The organisation prioritised its requests for the IT team, agreed to some short-term resource secondments, and adopted more collaborative approaches to working with them and with each other.  Within a few weeks, improvements were seen, and the organisation is now working across boundaries in a much more collaborative way.

As we constellate, we deliberately place attention on the more neglected and unconscious aspects of the knowledge embedded in the system we are exploring.  In organisational life, we pay a lot of attention to our intellectual knowing, but in constellating, we work with three other types of knowing, our emotional knowing, our intuitive knowing, and our embodied knowing.  Through exploring these, we unearth the powerful insights that sit below our conscious awareness.  Once known, we find it is impossible to unknow these things.

Another story, coaching a client who was on the senior team of a large fast growing manufacturing company.  He had risen from the shop floor and was totally in awe of his charismatic managing director.  This was to the extent that in his presence, he felt like a gibbering idiot, putting the boss on a massive pedestal.  He became unable to articulate the simplest thought.  We constellated this in the coaching room, and a major shift occurred.  The pedestal and the gibbering feelings disappeared.  The client found that in subsequent meetings with the MD, he could behave more “on the level” as a respected colleague rather than a diminutive serf.  He didn’t just think differently about the interactions, his whole physical experience of them was totally different.  This has had a very healthy impact on my client’s effectiveness and position in the organisation.

In the years since I began my constellations practice, emotional intelligence has gained massive ground in the leadership development space.  What I love about constellations is that it builds this so effectively.  Finding ways to access that inner emotional and physiological knowing is incredibly enabling for people.  Being able to access the assumed experience of someone else is a powerful way to build empathy and understanding of that other person’s perspective.  In addition, the ability to be able to step back and see a whole system playing out over time builds systemic thinking capacity – an important transition for those leaders who see things in a black and white linear way.

I have been interested too to see how versions of constellations based approaches are appearing in other respected methodologies.  The Social Presencing Theatre that is part of MIT Harvard’s Theory U toolkit is a simplified version.  As are approaches based on “standing in another’s shoes and looking back”, and other perspective taking approaches that abound in coach training.  Bringing some constellations understanding to these enriches them further.

And constellations is playful.  As children do, we take our “toys”, our representatives, and lay them out, and look at them, and talk to them, and rearrange them.  With constellations, we play and experiment.  Sometimes the insights reveal quickly, sometimes we need a bit more play and experimentation.  I don’t think I have ever done one which has not revealed well.  Sometimes, its lessons are hard, tears flow, and time must be taken for the revelations to settle.  Bizarrely, we often find that as we do a constellation, relevant things appear to have shifted in the outside world to match the shifts within the constellations space.  It is like magic.

If you would like to have a go at exploring a challenge, system or dilemma using constellations based approaches, do get in touch.  I would be delighted to play.

Written by Liz Hill-Smith, an experienced user of Constellations Practice, a 3gHR Associate and an accredited member of APECS.