New Online Course! Introduction to the Empathic Seminar

Enrollment begins Spring, 2017

Learn to use your empathic intelligence to generate new and surprising insights about any subject of study or area of research – and dramatically transform your classroom!

What’s an Empathic Seminar like? Read this blog post for a first hand account.

Current Course is closed, but you can sign up to

Get Notified for the Next Course Offering

in Spring 2017!

Participants will:

  • Trust and affirm the authentic capacity of your empathic intelligence.
  • Learn to facilitate Empathic Seminar in your field of work.
  • Receive 6-weeks of live calls plus online office hours from Alison Fornés, originator of the Empathic Seminar (ES).
  • Connect with your classmates to establish an ES Community of Practice for facilitation practice and peer support.
  • Receive the Empathic Seminar Field Guide, a guidebook for facilitating your own ES groups.

Thought is not the only modality for processing information, nor is it the smartest – it’s just the loudest.

Intuition, emotions and empathy are rich sources of information, giving constant feedback about the systems we interact with. Yet, instead of learning from this constant flow of information, we focus on the trickle of information that comes from one narrow expression: thought.

Our thoughts get all the attention, and it’s understandable. Teachers learn that “assessment drives instruction,” and since we assess learning through language, it makes sense that we pay attention to those words in our head.  But thought is not the only modality for processing information, nor is it the smartest – it’s just the loudest.

With the Empathic Seminar, you will discover how to use your natural capacity for empathy – defined as your ability to understand and share the experience of another – for a richer, more revealing and more satisfying modality for processing information.

The Gift of Your Empathic Intelligence

When you read a book, for example, you feel a range of emotional responses to the text. You have physiological responses. You experience images and memories. There is a whole ecosystem of information flowing through you with every bit of stimulation you receive. Awareness of this constant flow of information is the first step to a brand new experience of learning.

In an Empathic Seminar, it is this powerful capacity of your empathic intelligence that we access to generate new and surprising insights about any subject of study or research. You will be in awe of just how much information is available to you, and how quickly you are able to advance and deepen your understanding of the world around you.

There is a powerful “side effect” of this approach to learning. When empathy is central, compassion and understanding, and feelings of appreciation and love, flow naturally. You experience what other participants have called “paradigm-exploding,” “transformational,” and “revolutionary”.

This course is open to any facilitator or teacher who would like to advance their own empathic intelligence, and who wants the key to radically transform their group into an engaged, dynamic learning community. This course will be focused on facilitating groups with older children through adults (12y/o+).

Introduction to the Empathic Seminar
6-Week Online Course
Next Course Offering:

Spring 2017 (Dates TBA) 

*I am SO excited to be offering this course – my first time in this format. This is a special low-cost, limited enrollment course. In exchange, I will be spending extra time with class participants to make sure the materials and approach meet your needs -and mine. Don’t hesitate to send me an email if you have questions:

A Truth and a Lie

“Help! I need an emergency consultation!”

The person calling is a wise and thoughtful leader in her organization. She explained that she was amidst end of year fundraising, and scheduling meetings to review her organization’s performance and direction.

But the reason for her call was that she was angry, and she couldn’t get over it.

She had been meditating daily and taking long walks in the woods. She was reflecting on her own mistakes and how to improve, she was empathizing with her colleagues and how they experienced the year. Yet every morning, she would wake with a rising anger at two of her closest colleagues.

Several months earlier, disagreements and misunderstandings had created a painful rift that continued to deepen. She called me wanting help, because she knew that she would not be able to address the larger needs and mission of her organization if this conflict continued.

Hidden dynamics. People come to me because the work I do as a systemic constellations facilitator reveals the unseen dynamics driving our conflicts. These dynamics are usually found in older, unresolved conflicts that are being activated by the current one.

As we sit together, I am reminded of something I wrote down when I was being trained. “There’s a truth and a lie. Our work is to figure out what they are, and put them in their right place.”

img_4794The client described the nature of the conflict and I started to sketch the system: The client. Her partner. Her colleagues. The project they were working on. The money to fund the project.

But as I listened, I heard other words, some she spoke, some hidden underneath: Betrayal. Shameful mistake. Forgiveness. Magic.

As we felt into each element, a complex and beautiful picture emerged. The conflict was triggering a return to a “Shameful Mistake” in the client’s past. We didn’t discuss what this was, we simply felt how, when faced with her colleagues accusation, it drew her back into the “Shameful Mistake”. At the same time, the power of the client’s “Magic”, that is, her capacity and visionary leadership, was misunderstood by her colleagues and perceived as threatening. These insights were the truth.

The healing movement came as a surprise: the “Betrayal” wasn’t betrayal at all. There was, in fact, no betrayal in this system. This was the lie. Instead, “betrayal” felt itself as spacious, generous and accepting. It was Grace. A large tree, Grace offered it’s comfort to the Shameful Mistake, transforming it into a life-supporting resource.

With the truth and the lie in their right place, we could feel that the client and her colleagues could face each other. The misunderstandings were gone, replaced by openness and forward movement.

The First Time: Awe

My work in empathic intelligence and sharing it with educators and changemakers is rooted firmly in a healing / therapeutic modality called Family Constellations. Below you will find the story of my first FC workshop. And if you would like to learn a version of this process designed specifically for teachers and facilitators, check out my course: Introduction to the Empathic Seminar.

February 18, 2012 – Hampden, CT

I showed up at the workshop with a combination of butterflies in my stomach and a heaviness in my chest. The butterflies were excitement, but the heaviness in my chest was less clear to me.

I had done a little research, so I had a general idea of what to expect: we would be chosen to represent members of a person’s family system. However, this basic description information of the process revealed nothing of what I was about to experience.

A man took the chair next to the facilitator. He described his issue: He had a confusing relationship with his mentor, a man he had great admiration for. Their visits would begin well, but they often found themselves in conflict, and he would leave feeling confused. He wanted to understand what was happening because he was supposed to be writing a book with his mentor, but they weren’t making progress.

The facilitator asked him to set up a representative for himself and his mentor. The man looked around the circle of workshop participants. He chose one man to represent his mentor, another to represent himself. He walked each of them to the center of the circle and placed them facing each other, about six feet apart. The two representatives stood silently in the center of the room, looking down. They both described themselves feeling “wobbly” and unstable.

The facilitator asked the client to set up a second representative for himself and his mentor. He placed the “second mentor” to the right of the first. He chose me as the second representative for himself. I stood across from the “second mentor”.

Having never done this before, I was nervous and uncertain. What was I supposed to do? What if I did it wrong? I don’t remember the facilitators specific instructions. There might not have been any instructions at all. I was simply asked, “what do you notice?”

What I noticed was that I my limbs felt weak. I even felt like I should probably lay down, and the facilitator instructed me to follow my movement. As I lay face down on the ground, I started to feel cold, and then I was shivering. I felt an unusual pressure where my body touched the floor, as if a magnet were pulling me into the ground.

“Who is that?” the facilitator asked. The client looked at me on the floor and said, “I think that’s my sister.”

“My sister died as a child. I was 6 and she was 9. My parents, in their grief, just packed up the house and we moved to another city. We almost never spoke of her again.”

As he said these things, I felt myself lighten. The warmth came back to my body, and I looked up at him with a sense of playfulness and happiness that “I” was being spoken of.

Later, the facilitator asked me to stand. As I stood, I made eye contact with the man who had been chosen as “the second mentor.” As I looked at him, I was overcome with emotion – so much love! I have described it since then as sunlight –  not the sunlight we often see coming through the window, with little flecks of dust floating in it. I felt it as clear, radiant love. The facilitator said, “This is your father.”

The facilitator invited us to follow our movements, and “my father” and I embraced. A powerful, joyous embrace, it felt like a true homecoming.

Debriefing the Field Test

In the last post I described an Empathic Seminar about the “N-Word”. In this post, I’ll debrief the experience and address some common questions.

What happened in the “N-Word” exercise?

We created a constellation of the system by identifying three points in the system: “Black Person,” “White Person,” and “N-word”. Three people stood in the center of the room and represented each of those nodes. Then, they just reported what they noticed. That’s it!

Where did the information come from? Were the participants role playing?

What we discover when we step into the system in this way is that the system creates a field of information that we perceive as physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.

It’s not role-playing. I guide the participants to attend to their felt-sense (Key #2), and if we start talking too much, I cue folks to drop back into their bodies.

To help participants build confidence in the work, I often work blind – that is, I do not tell the representatives what they are representing until  after we experience into the system. This way, they can have their experience without trying to make up what they think should be happening.

Is the information accurate? How do you know?

The number one challenge participants have is being able to trust themselves and their experience. For some, this trust comes easily. For others, perhaps because they are more analytically oriented, working in this way is more challenging. Because we are so used to relying on language and thought to convey information, it can take some practice to feel comfortable listening to one’s somatic (body) response as a source of information.

The most common question I get, the one that I still ask myself, is: Can I trust this information? 

My answer, having been engaged in this process for the past 6 years: Absolutely. I trust the information from this process more than analytical approaches. That’s not to say that I always trust how the information has been interpreted! But I do trust how my felt-sense responds in the system.

The undefended body is the reason I have such trust in this process. Unlike our ego, which naturally takes a position and defends it, our somatic response is authentic and innocent. Though we may need practice listening and interpreting it, it does not deceive.

However, this process does not preclude thinking and research! So many lines of inquiry open up after this brief process, with each experience stimulating more possibilities. On the other hand, we have all had the experience of inquiry being shut down through argument or debate, especially when we are discussing emotional and triggering topics.

With this N-word example, we could follow up the process by conducting interviews or other research to see if there was any evidence to support what we learned.

But for folks who remain skeptical, I offer a simple question: do you trust your thoughts? Where do your thoughts come from? If you haven’t given this any serious consideration, Google the question and read through the results. Very stimulating research.

What’s the takeaway? 

You have a superpower: one that reveals hidden dynamics, and can make sense of complex systems. It is hidden in this little thing we call empathy, but when you learn to engage it fully, you will perceive the world with a new capacity. 

The Fourth Key: Field Testing

In today’s post, you will read about an Empathic Seminar I introduced at a school in Bronx, NY.  This is a firsthand account of the Fourth Key to Unlocking Your Empathic Intelligence: Field Testing. I further debrief this exercise in my final post.

“I want to know why my students use the N-word with each other. Don’t they understand the history of that word?”

The questioner was an older African-American teacher from the Bronx. He said he grew up in Virginia, and he would never think of using that word.

Immediately, I noticed bodies shifting in preparation for the discussion. But I reminded the group that our work this day was not to use our analytic capacity but our empathic capacity to explore this question.  

“Every question contains a whole system of relationships. What are the core elements of this question?” I asked. After a brief discussion, we decided upon three elements, “Black Person”, “White Person” and “The N-Word,” and that they needed to be examined in two time contexts – 19th-century slavery and 21st-century youth.

Three volunteers representing “Black Person”, “White Person” and “N-Word” were placed facing each other in the center of the room. I told them that they were in the 19th-century slavery setting.  After a few seconds of silence, I invited them to follow their movement.  Very quickly, “Black Person” moved as far away from “White Person” and “N-Word” as possible, while “White Person” moved closer to “N-Word”. “Black Person” reported that if they could, they would leave the room. “White Person” and “N-Word” were shoulder to shoulder, looking silently at “Black Person”.

In the next round, I asked for three new volunteers. They represented the same elements, but this time in the 21st-century youth setting. The representatives started as before, standing in the the center of the room facing each other, but this time “Black Person” pulled “N-Word” close and placed their right arm around “N-Word”, while holding up their left hand as if to stop or block “White Person”. “White Person” said okay, and moved a slight step back. “Black Person” reported that they felt like “N-Word” belonged to them, and “N-Word” nodded in agreement.

We closed the exercise here. After thanking the volunteers, I asked the teacher who brought the question if he had any questions or reflections. He shook his head no. “I understand,” he said.

At the end of the exercise, as is often the case, a silence settled in, followed by the percolating of questions and comments. After the group came to a close, a teacher walked up to me, looking very thoughtful. “This is revolutionary,” he exclaimed. “When we started, I couldn’t imagine how we could find out anything about this question without discussing it, but what happened was so revealing. This changes everything.”

A note for those following the Four Keys: In my last post, I introduced the Three Fields Model. The model is a guide to help people map the system in which their questions are embedded.

The Three Fields are:

  • what is known,
  • what is the history, and
  • what are the limits, resources and drivers fueling or blocking the system.

In practice, we are not necessarily mapping each Field so explicitly. In the example below, what is known emerges directly from the question. The historical context is included by changing the time period of the two versions we set up. And the driver is revealed by how the parts of the system interact.

UPDATE:I’m pleased to announce the online course: Introduction to the Empathic Seminar.

The Third Key: Systems Thinking

“The idea is to pay attention to the living world as if it were a spider’s web: when you touch one part, the whole web responds.”- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Interviewed by The Sun Magazine

While many of us understand intellectually that we are, of course, part of an interconnected web, the dominant approach to teaching and learning focuses on objectifying and separating out parts and individuals in the ongoing effort to find what is core or essential.

“Whereas the scientific method (summarised by Popper as the three Rs: reduction, repeatability and refutation) increases our knowledge and understanding by breaking things down into their constituent parts and exploring the properties of these parts, systems thinking explores the properties which exist once the parts have been combined into a whole.” From, Briefing Paper One: Systems thinking

The article is an excellent introduction to systems thinking. As indicated by the quote, systems thinking provides something a purely analytical approach cannot: it allows us to discover the properties that arise from the relationship between the parts of a system.

Ironically, that line also captures the intellectual flaw of the reductive approach: “…the properties which exist once the parts have been combined into a whole” (emphasis added). The great truth is that the parts never exist on their own

There is no one combining parts into a whole. We may recombine multiple systems in a new way, requiring us to discover the new relationships in the increasingly complex system. However, the ultimate scientific truth is that properties only exist in the context of the whole. We are never not in an interconnected system. We can only truly know something if we know it in relationship to the whole.

What we know of as systems thinking today originated in the 1920s, a response to the reductivist nature of analytical thought. By the 40s and 50s, systems thinkers imagined a future in which analysis and systems thinking would be partnered in all fields of study. In many ways we do live during a flowering of systems thinking, for it is the basis of our digitally networked world. In many other ways, we have failed that vision: nearly all of K-12 education and many institutions of higher education leave out systems thinking and continue to focus almost solely on traditional analytic thought.

I’ve written about systems thinking in this blog before. Read that article, or better yet, read some of my favorite systems thinkers: Russell L. Ackoff, Donella Meadows and Peter Senge. It’s worthwhile to note that systems thinking does not require the kind of empathic intelligence that I teach. Most systems thinkers work almost entirely from an analytic approach, developing complex analytical models of systemic dynamics. However, you can’t access the full capacity of your empathic intelligence if you are not thinking systemically.

Constellating the System

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Every problem or question is embedded in a system. To use our empathic intelligence to inquire into a problem, we must be able to constellate the system. This is different from systemic modeling, for we are not looking at feedback loops or analyzing relationships at this point.  Constellating a system is a spatial/visual process in which we are identifying points or nodes in a system.

The Three Fields Model I am offering here is a set of interconnected fields or lenses that allows us to see different layers of the system. There are times when constellating only the first field provides enough meaningful insight just through the visualization of the problem as you know it. However, as the Einstein quote suggests, more often, mapping only what is “known” helps us see the problem but not the solution. It is when we add fields 2 and 3 that we start to shift our perception and reach levels where creative solutions emerge.

I wrote an earlier post that describes the origins and applications of this model in detail. You can find it here.

Three Fields of a Systemic Constellation

Field 1: What is known.

Field 2: Historical Context.

Field 3: Limits, Drivers and/or Resources.

In my next post, I will give an example of how this all comes together with Key 4: Field Testing.

The Second Key: The Felt Sense

When I learned mindfulness meditation, there was a word that one of my teachers used to describe the experience of witnessing the chattering activity going on in your brain: waterfall.

I loved that they had a description for that moment when you discover the endless stream – or great rushing river – of thoughts and stories and judgments and worries and fantasies and hopes that passes through our minds!

In addition to our thoughts, which we experience as the inner talking of our mind, there is also the physical experience that the body is having.

Now, it should really come as no surprise to any of us that we are not simply walking, talking brains. We have entire bodies attached to us. These bodies are performing miraculous functions everyday, the kinds of things we learned about in biology class. Your body is an incredibly complex biological universe communicating and responding in relationship to the parts of itself and the external environment.

Through meditation, I learned to become aware not just of our loud-mouthed brains, but also of my quieter but equally dynamic body. I became aware of my bodily felt sense, as Eugene Gendlin, author of the seminal book Focusing, would describe it.

In our ordinary consciousness, we usually only become aware of the communication of our physical bodies in the extremes of pain or ecstasy, or if something stops working as we expect it. Outside of that, many of us ignore our bodies. (Or worse, we judge and shame them, but we’ll take that on in another blog post).

Unlike the chattering brain, the felt sense does not deceive, it simply responds. When you are caught up in listening to the stories of your chattering mind, you miss the authentic expression of your felt sense. The characteristic challenge of working with our chattering mind is discerning truth. Fortunately, the truth held by your body is a truth that you can learn to interpret.

The ability to discover the authentic truth expressed by your body’s felt sense is empathic intelligence.

If you haven’t been paying attention to your body during the normal operations of your day, now’s the time. The best way to learn to do this is by intentionally calling to mind strong emotions, and then holding that emotion for a few moments so that you may become aware of your body’s response to that emotion. Today’s practice is an excellent introduction.

Felt Sense Practice:

Like a meditation practice, the felt sense practice is best done during a time when you can sit and be uninterrupted for a few minutes.

You will be working with strong emotions, by which I mean any experience where you recognized your emotional response. It could by the feeling of joy when seeing someone you love, or the feeling of anger when you felt wronged. It could be the feeling of sadness, or the feeling of excitement.

Call to mind an experience when you felt a strong emotion. As you replay that experience in your mind, freeze or hold that experience long enough for you to locate where you feel it in your body. Try to describe actual locations and senses.  Do you notice it in your belly or your chest, your shoulders or your neck? Does the sense radiate out, or does it feel constricted and tight?

After you have felt the emotion, breathe and release it. You may need to shake your body to let it go.

Choose another story, and another emotion to experience so that you learn how different emotional experiences are communicated through your felt sense.