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.


The First Key: Motivation & Intention

When I was a high school teacher, I was very concerned with internal motivation:

I wanted my students to be internally motivated to agree to the choices I was giving them!

At the time, I didn’t see the irony. In fact, I saw myself as a progressive, compassionate teacher. A “cool” teacher. I placed my students’ interests first…as long as their interests fit with the choices I made for them, and could be measured according to the assessments I was forced to give.

Our students aren’t blind to this deception. The student who appears to the teacher as unmotivated, disruptive, unable to focus? That one is saying, “I will not be coerced to want what you want.”

And so, it is appropriate that the first key to unlocking your empathic intelligence takes this deception head on. For while the words “motivation and intention” appear rather benign and straight forward, they are actually subversive and revolutionary in the context of the dominant culture of learning and education. The question is not, “what are you being told to do?” The question is: “What is your motivation? What is your intention?”

The question is: what do you want, and why do you want it?

Because we are talking about empathy here, this question is not answered in the usual way. Empathy is about connection and relationship, and this question invites that connection with yourself. The way to hold this question is as a friend who asks and then patiently waits for an honest response.

Why are motivation & intention important? Two reasons.

First: the act of asking and listening to this question is an act of empathy.

Second: the kind of empathic intelligence I teach requires that a person have awareness of their motivations and intentions. When you are empathically self-aware, you will naturally orient away from externally motivated actions and towards your internal “yes!”

Motivation & Intention Practice:

As you go through your day today, ask yourself: “In this moment, what is motivating me? In this moment, what is my intention?” Like a good friend, after you ask the question, be patient and allow an honest response to arise. It is helpful to ask it a few times, moving from a more surface response to one that is closer to the heart.

As you become aware of your motivations and intentions through the day, there is no need to change anything or to make different choices, simply become aware of your response to these questions.

Enjoy cultivating this awareness of yourself. This is the practice of empathy.



The Four Keys to Unlocking Your Empathic Intelligence

Most of us know empathy as a spontaneous experience.

It just happens to us. We don’t control it, and we don’t really know what to do with it.

However, in the specific context of my work – the application of empathic intelligence as a way of knowing – empathic intelligence is cultivated as a practice, much like meditation. In this way, it becomes an accessible and accurate tool for insight.

Over the next week, I’m going to break down the four keys to unlocking your empathic intelligence. The good news is that they are not difficult. Some of them are familiar – or at least, you think you know them. Some will be new and awkward, so trust and practice are required.

For most, number four will be the most challenging. Not because it is difficult, but in fact, because it is so easy as to seem unbelievable.

The reason I’ve gone through the trouble of creating is because I truly believe our innate empathic intelligence is the most powerful tool we have if we wish to address the challenges of our world with compassion and wisdom. I want you to have it. In fact, the world needs you to have it.

The Four Keys to Unlocking Your Empathic Intelligence

1. Motivation & Intention

2. The Felt Sense

3. Systems Thinking

4. Field Testing

Tune in on Monday for Key #1: Motivation & Intention

Empathic Intelligence: Your Untapped Jedi Power


When I first met Jamaal Bowman, educator, leader, and founding principal of the respected Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in the Bronx, I was fortunate to have a long conversation with him explaining my work as a facilitator of “Expanded Knowing.” Fortunate for two reasons: first, because he allowed me the time to explain what I often find unexplainable; second, because he was able to sum the whole thing up in two words: “Oh,” he said, “you’re a Jedi Master!”

Yes, Jamaal, yes I am. I haven’t yet added that to my business cards, but thanks to you, I am now able to describe my work with a meaningful and universal pop-culture reference. AND, over the past few weeks, I have also developed a greater understanding of my work through another lens: empathy.

Empathy, Redefined


“Empathy: The ability to understand and share feelings of another” (google search for “empathy,” accessed 5/10/2016).

Researchers such as Frans de Waal, Paul Ekman and Daniel Goleman call the understanding aspect of empathy cognitive empathy. It is also referred to as “perspective-taking” – the ability to take an imaginative leap to understand the view of another. Perhaps because of our human bias, some consider it to be an advanced ability, for children develop this ability as they get older, and most other animals do not have this form of empathy.

The sharing aspect of empathy is called emotional or affective empathy. Researchers have shown that this has a physiological component (read this or watch this about mirror neurons), and is sometimes referred to as “emotional contagion.” A common example of this contagion is yawning (read this provocatively titled article to learn how yawn contagion correlates with empathy). Through affective empathy, a person finds themselves literally feeling in their body the emotions of another. Infants, dogs and other mammals are also wired for affective empathy. Frans de Waal uses this understanding as the basis for his theory about the evolutionary roots of morality. (He has a very thorough interview about this here.)

There is a third aspect of empathy that researchers describe: that of “compassionate empathy” to use the words of Paul Ekman (quoted here by Daniel Goleman). This refers to  the empathy we’ve already described, plus being spontaneously moved to help. Mary Gordon has several examples of how this moral courage has dramatically reduced bullying and nurtured inclusion and friendship in her book about the Roots of Empathy, a curriculum that teaches empathic intelligence to young children.

In my own work with Expanded Knowing, people come with the desire to understand the larger system surrounding their question. What people experience through the process is how easily we are able to create a living constellation of a system – that for every point in the system we are able to “understand and share” the perspective and feelings of the point in the system we are representing. I have come to understand this reliable and reproducible experience as a product of our innate empathic intelligence. From this experience, I offer my own definition of empathy:

Empathy is the ability to perceive the flow of information through any given point in a system.

This definition will require some zooming out to understand, but its application has the potential to radically change everything we currently understand about teaching and learning.

The Interconnected Web: Systems Everywhere!



It takes only a moment of reflection to recognize that we are part of an interconnected web – we are, in fact, part of an infinite number of interconnected systems. I imagine people walking around connected to numerous invisible constellations, each of us the center of our own personal solar system.  When we eat our breakfast, when we get into our car, when we interact with our colleagues – each of those interactions activate their own web of connections. Though invisible, the fact that we are embedded in these systems is an undeniable fact of our existence. The question is: can we perceive these hidden systems?

At a strategic planning session I facilitated, members of an environmental policy organization wanted to make sense of the difficulty they were facing in convening their stakeholders around a shared vision.

I asked the members of the organization to choose individuals to stand in for the stakeholders.

The representatives they chose were complete strangers to them and their work. They were not part of the organization, they knew nothing about the stakeholders, they knew  none of the of the individuals involved. Yet when they stood in relationship to each other, representing the stakeholders and the organization, they were able to perceive where they felt conflict, where they felt attraction. The representatives, using their empathic intelligence, perceived and shared the feelings of the persons they were representing.

In this particular example, what became obvious was that there was a relationship triangle between two of the stakeholders and the director of the organization. The representative for the director felt caught between the two stakeholders, and the representatives for the stakeholders felt antipathy towards each other.

After this “empathic inquiry,” the director revealed that those two stakeholders were co-founders of an organization that had split up over a conflict, and that he had been up late the night before trying to figure out how to manage the relationship between these two people, both of whom he valued and wanted to work with.

At a recent workshop I led at the Harvard Kennedy School, I asked participants to think about an issue in their life, personal or work-related, that they wanted insight into. I asked them not to disclose anything about the issue, or even to tell the representatives – or me – what they were representing.

With each inquiry, these brilliant Harvard graduates put aside their analytical minds and stepped into their body-mind: the seat of their empathic intelligence. As one participant, a lawyer working in transportation and energy policy, explained (I’m paraphrasing), “not knowing anything about the problem, I decided just to be spontaneous and follow my instinct.” In every case, the person whose problem we represented found the representatives resonant with their understanding, and in some cases, the representatives revealed genuinely surprising relationships, leading to new insights for the questioner.

When I asked the participants to share about the problems they set up, many had chosen to set up systems that included non-living, abstract elements. “Money” or “block” or “my work” was represented. This leads to a surprising revelation: that our empathic wiring is not limited to perceiving human relationships.

I (and the numerous other Systemic Constellation facilitators around the world) have discovered that information, like everything else that we can name, exists in a system, in a field of information. Our wiring for empathy enables us to access and experience how the information and energy flow through a particular point in a system.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness and The Knowing Revolution



I have been introducing empathic intelligence through the Systemic Constellation process for 5 years now. Once experienced, people often become hooked. There is something uniquely satisfying about entering the field of information in this way. It activates a level of presence and engagement that some call flow. One friend I work with jokes that she needs to “get her constellation fix,” and when trying to explain it to others, she usually ends with, ” you just have to experience it!”

Yet it doesn’t take long to learn that this ability, as real as it is, as reproducible as it is, as widespread as it is, it is still met with incredulity. Early on, I had a conversation with a well-read, scientifically oriented friend of mine. To my dismay, after I explained what I did and how I understood it to work, he went on to talk to me about charlatans who use “scientific” explanations to dupe people.

This is because we are still dominated by a scientific paradigm that views consciousness as the product of brain activity. The reason this matters here is because, under this model, a person would be unable to perceive the system behind a problem if they have no information about it, regardless of what those Harvard Kennedy School Alumni believe they recently experienced. For proponents of this view, the idea that we can perceive this invisible system is often rejected outright (and you may be called a charlatan for even suggesting such a thing).

But perhaps I am a (scientific) revolutionary at heart, because I have continued to venture into this impossible territory, happily working at leading edge of the paradigm shift. My real interest is not in taking on the question of consciousness from a theoretical point of view, however. I am most excited about this work for a very practical – and even more revolutionary – purpose: an epistemological revolution. For, if information exists in a field, and if I can perceive that field – then the entry point to any field knowledge is through my own empathic intelligence.

In my own work, I am still in the early stages of exploring this revolutionary way of knowing. I continue to introduce new people to this work as often as I can. But I still have yet to make my complete vision come true – so I’ll share it with you:

Imagine learning communities everywhere: in classrooms or boardrooms or living rooms, sitting together in a circle. In turn, each member shares something they have been thinking about and wants to explore. Perhaps it’s a book they’ve read, some family history they’ve uncovered, or a current event that’s troubling them.  In response to their friend’s inquiry, the group stands up and represents a different point in the system and reports what they are experiencing.

What emerges is a flowering of insight and empathic understanding that exceeds anything we have considered possible.

Special shout out to Roman Krznaric, whose book EMPATHY initiated a lot of my thinking here (and two of the images used here are related to his book).

Alison Fornés is an educator, a Family and Systemic Constellations facilitator, the director of (check out their latest project, SOCIAL ALCHEMY), and the woman behind She can be reached at: