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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.

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:

The Knowing Revolution!

I am so pleased to announce my new YouTube Channel: The Knowing Revolution!

The channel is designed for educators who want to bring more joy and engagement into their learning environments through empowered, expanded knowing!

I will be providing instruction in expanded knowing, and interviewing people who inspire me.

Check out Episode 1: Intuition and Education right now, and stay tuned for Episode 2: The Felt Sense.

Politics, Emotions and Intelligence

This afternoon, I was consoling my son who was crying after getting a jab in the eye, when I heard another parent say to their son, “there will be no crying on the playground today!”

Years ago, as a freshly minted teenager in 1984, I remember the criticism voiced around dining room tables when Geraldine Ferraro was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate by Walter Mondale: as a woman she was too emotional and unable to make the kind of reasoned decisions a man can.

And here we are today, with Donald Trump as the leader in the Republican primaries, where many voice concerns like this one from the National Review: “Now is not the time to be voting for president based on emotion.

I have always been suspicious about the call for “reason” vs “emotion.” My suspicion lies in the fact “reason” seems to have more with a person’s ability to express their biases while remaining calm than it does with reason of the intellect or the heart. In this distortion, emotions are viewed as a problem to shut down, without stopping to inquire into the deeper stirrings that produced the emotion.

On the playground, for instance, not crying does not eliminate the actual cause of the tears: the physical pain and the lack of safety my son experienced in that moment. Instead, “no crying!” means the cutting off of connection with those vulnerable feelings. And this interruption and separation of your “reasonable”/unemotional self from the vulnerable/emotional self is where the trouble begins.

Peter Levine’s ground-breaking work studying how animals respond to threat – with a quick “emotional” release: a squawking and flapping of wings, for example – has been instrumental in helping understand what happens to humans when we interrupt this release: trauma.

A discussion of how this is connected to the suppression of the feminine in general, and women in particular, is beyond the scope of this post. However, being emotional and unreasonable has long been the criticism of the feminine, and Geraldine Ferraro was just one example of this.

The solution is to focus less on emotions and more on emotional intelligence. My son’s tears were about pain, safety and vulnerability. What he needed was someone simply to support him while he released the stress build up from his experience. As an adult, when difficult emotions arise, I hope that he will learn to greet them with compassion and openness, that he may learn to understand what lies beneath them.

When it comes to Trump voters, the emotions are just the surface of something greater: fear, insecurity, lack of control. But our ability to be with these emotions got shut down very early – on the playground. My reasoned argument is that the separation from our emotional intelligence has led to the sea of stunted emotions that are buoying the Trump campaign.

What Belongs? Three Dimensions of a Social Constellation

Three Dimensions Social Constellation


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.