The process of systemic constellation work and underlying assumptions

A logical sequence of phases

The practice of systemic constellation work consists in a sequence of five necessary phases. Even if they are not explicitly distinguished, the implicit operations performed in each phase are logically inevitable. We attribute to all five phases great importance for the success of the consulting or coaching process.

  1. The description of an issue.
  2. The definition of a question.
  3. The selection of theories that can explain the issue and permit to develop a model containing the elements to place in the constellation.
  4. The deployment of the constellation.

The sense-making process (or interpretation) of the constellation experience.

The description of an issue

In this phase the client describes the phenomena that are irritating him and the context in which the problematic behaviors or dynamics, that he wants to analyze and resolve, occur.

The description of the context is decisive to make sense of everything that happens during the constellation process. With his questions, the consultant orients the description of the context by “zooming in” to focus on details or “zooming out” to get the bigger picture. We have developed the “Epidauros model” as a guideline for the consultant to find the relevant logical level for describing the context.

Another important dimension of the description of the issue is time: the narrative can be referred to the past, present or future.

The definition of the relevant question

The search for a solution is triggered and oriented by a question. A relevant question can be compared to a lens that magnifies the spot on the map, where the solution can be found. It contains implicitly or explicitly pointers to the following key elements:

  • The objective
  • The main actor(s)
  • The type of action
  • The scope of the system involved

For example: “How can we cooperate with our suppliers to develop new solutions for our clients?” or “How can this team deal with the frequently arising conflicts?”

The question is an extreme synthesis of the issue that contains already pointers to a solution. It is the main point of reference for the following step in the process.

When working with a team the question permits to align the minds of the team members. Everyone should agree that the question identifies their main common interest in this moment.

During the subsequent phases information might emerge, that leads to a different question. If this happens, the original question should be explicitly modified or substituted. Finding a new, more useful question could well be the main result of the constellation.

Developing the logical model

The most significant part of a systemic constellation is the act of placing persons, symbols or placeholders that represent the key elements of a problematic situation, with relation to each other on the floor or on the table. It is obvious, that selecting the appropriate elements is of paramount importance.

The act of selecting the elements is inevitably based either on a standard model that is selected “automatically” without reflection, or on a theory that explains the specific category of situations that characterize the client’s issue. A theory explains the interdependence between selected elements or variables and describes the sign and magnitude of the interdependence.

The development of the logical model consists in the following (usually recursive) steps:

  • Classify the problematic situation
  • Choose an appropriate theory
  • Identify the basic elements of the theory
  • Identify the specific elements pertinent to the situation of the client

Find the appropriate degree of aggregation or distinction of the elements.

We can identify various categories of elements:

  • Objectives
  • Actors or players
  • Internal context factors
  • External context factors

The model should be developed together with the client who needs to understand it and accept it. To some extent, various theories and models can be combined. The model is developed with the intention to produce relevant information that gives an answer to the question formulated by the client.

Objectives and Actors are necessary elements in a management constellation.

Systemic Constellations as language

The scenic part of the process (i.e. selecting and positioning the representatives on the floor or on the table) is a continuation of the co-creative process in which clients and consultant(s) have engaged. With every step new areas of the brains are activated and linked. Sense making-takes place all the time. All participants are communicating on different levels. We can speak of a collective mind engaged in a collective thinking process, with the intention to comprehend the situation and find solutions.

The deployment of the constellation gives access to various channels of communication:

  • Visual: the structure of the relationship between the elements can be seen as a whole and observed from various perspectives.
  • Motion: in every position the representatives can feel an impulse to move (or not to move) that has a specific direction and intensity. Furthermore they can feel a reaction to the movements of other elements.
  • Emotions:  specific emotions can be triggered by the relative position, by movements or by statements of the other actors.
  • Verbal: representatives express their sentences or reflections either spontaneously or asked by the consultant or other persons.
  • Body language: the mental, emotional and physiological processes are also expressed by the body of the person.

All these channels can be present also in “normal” communication, but like in theatre, the constellation uses them all together in an explicit way. In our approach, the deployment of a systemic constellation is a simulation of a situation encountered in “real life”. The simulation serves two main purposes:

  • to enact (or reproduce) and comprehend the behavioral patterns that do not produce the expected results in a specific context.
  • to test alternative moves and interactions that are likely to produce the desired results.

The concept of simulation is based on the assumption that organizational behavior is based on a collective mental program or mental map. The dynamics of the constellation are based on the same mental map used in “reality”; therefore, the simulation permits us to understand some of the dynamics that result from the structure of this map in everyday life.

A second assumption is that by simulating a different set of movements in the constellation we “update” the mental maps. Whether this change of the mental map is retained in long-term memory depends on several factors that have still to be explored.

Sense making and interpretation

In an organizational context it is important to facilitate the sense making process, especially when working with a team. The communication about the experience of the constellation should be lead in a dialogical attitude. Research about the sense making and decision process have shown that humans have a strong tendency to “absorb” new experiences in old mental maps, instead of changing their theories of action; this tendency in even stronger within groups.

The consultant or coach should help the clients develop an idea, as concrete as possible, of the new behaviors and the new actions they will implement in the daily practice based on new information. The “Rooms of change” matrix is an excellent tool for this phase: let the client find out in which “room” he is currently dwelling and choose the attitude and actions that are appropriate.

To be able to interpret the positions in the space, we need specific reference points. We have several options to establishing reference points:

  • by marking a grid on the floor, drawing a timeline or a boundary-line
  • by positioning  representatives on fixed places
  • through the imaginary axis client –> objective

Objectives are an essential feature of management issues.

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