I have recently been working with clients in the non-profit world who have been using systems thinking and mapping. These organizations are working on a variety of social and environmental change questions. Their goals are greater understanding of their systems to create effective, lasting, positive change.
What they have found is that while they value systems thinking and the systems mapping process, it has proven to be time-consuming and costly, and the maps they produce are valuable, but can be difficult for many to make sense of and use.
Their hope is that constellations will be a more efficient and powerful tool to meet the same goals. (Spoiler alert: it is!)
In working with these teams, I have started considering social system constellations (social constellations) in three dimensions: Personal, Historical, and ‘Limits, Drivers & Resources.’ In developing this framework, my personal references are systems thinking, and Dan Booth Cohen’s Three Dimensions of Consciousness (Personal, Ancestral and Spiritual / ‘Beyond Human Scale’.)
When facilitating social constellations, I keep this framework in my awareness as I listen to the client describe their problem. It is a tool to identify what’s missing or hidden in the system.
The First Dimension: The Personal Change Model
The first dimension refers to a person’s current understanding of a situation. From a systems thinking view, the personal change model is an individual’s mental model of a situation. It is worth noting that popular discourse and analysis of social systems are often confined to the first dimension only. Systems thinkers and constellators both recognize the limitations of the first dimension in affecting change.
“Lack of systems thinking produces a mental model based mostly on what you can physically see. This tends to give a shallow understanding of the way a system works. For example, when pouring a glass of water we usually think only in terms of turning on the faucet until the glass is full, and then turning it off.”
The personal dimension comes from an individuals first-hand experience, or their understanding and beliefs about the system and what effects change. Using gun violence as an example, an individual’s personal experience of gun violence, and “gun control laws” would both be aspects of the first dimension in this model.
The Second Dimension: Historical + Familial + Ancestral
In the second dimension, we are looking for a “systemic imprint” that would have emerged in a previous context.
The second dimension is largely hidden in analysis and popular discourse. In my experience as an educator, it is considered only in specialized academic settings. In my experience as a systems thinker, it is rarely identified as part of system dynamics. This is significant because the hidden drivers of a system are often located in the second dimension. This important understanding comes to us from Bert Hellinger, the founder of the Systemic Constellations process.
In the example of gun violence, the family systems of the perpetrator and victim would be included here. It can also refer to the systemic imprint of historical traumas, such as slavery and the legacy of racism, or the treatment of Native Americans. Specific historical events may also be important to a particular system: migration, war, legal agreements, etc.
The second dimension is largely hidden in analysis and popular discourse. In my experience as an educator, it is considered only in specialized academic settings. In my experience as a systems thinker, it is rarely identified as part of system dynamics. This is significant because the hidden drivers of a system are often located in the second dimension.
As a facilitator, I don’t try to identify all of the things that might be in this dimension. In fact, at times it may be my role to limit second dimension elements to what’s most important to the issue we are addressing. I allow the constellation process to surface what is relevant for the group.
The Third Dimension: Limits + Drivers + Resources
What limits, fuels or supports the system? What institutions benefit or fail in the current system? What spiritual or non-material resources are important to this system, such as earth or life and death?
Third dimension elements are part of a personal change model. For example, depending on one’s belief system, “more guns” or “gun control” are both offered as limits to affect gun violence. However, personal change models are often incomplete or incorrect.
Third dimension elements are also included in most complex analyses. We see the third dimension in investigative journalism and throughout academia; it is represented by the feedback loops and leverage points in systems thinking. What sets constellation work apart from these other ways of knowing is its ability to illuminate the actual drivers and resources – experienced as an “ah-ha” moment in a constellation.
How does one identify third dimension elements that are important to a system? In my role as a facilitator, I hold the intention to see what belongs. As I listen to the client presenting their issue, I often start to feel what’s missing. Similarly, when I observe the constellation, I have noticed that a disturbance will start to build until it points to what’s missing. And when in doubt, I ask the group. In my experience, if I can’t see something, another person in the group is perceiving it. I trust that the information we need is available in the Field.
One new feature I have recently started adding to these constellations is a person representing “The Systemic View.” When I check in with that representative during the constellation, I find they are able to identify dynamics that I may be missing.
Using the Three Dimensions of a Social System
When introducing constellations to the organizations I am working with, I sometimes describe the three dimensions to help provide a framework for what we are setting up. This also allows the group to offer suggestions as to what might be represented for each of the dimensions.
Many other times, I don’t talk about it at all. I simply keep it in the back of my mind as I’m facilitating. Or I may not consciously refer to it during the constellation, but I will use it as a tool for reflection to see how each of the dimensions were represented. In this way, it is also an aid for developing my facilitation skills and developing follow-up constellations for the clients.