Understanding the social system and o yea, what can I do about me


Photo by Rob Felton

Last month, I began a web-based summer course for consultants and members of family business, using the book, Your Mindful CompassThe course is limited to 6 people and meets four times, May- August. The first time was so interesting that I decided to summarize the ideas for a blog.  Most of those who signed up for the course are taking the Navigating System course. See http://navigatingsystemsdc.com/


I asked each person to read 50 pages of the book and then presents a question about the book or Bowen Theory or anything of interest.  My question – is this book useful in figuring out how to manage self in social systems?

There are four points on the mindful compass:

1. Taking a responsible “I” position—this is what “I” will or will not do.

2.  Preparing self for the inevitable resistance when one person defines self to the system. People can learn to have fun with criticism and to not take too seriously negative statements from others.

3. Using knowledge of social systems in order to relate in meaning filled ways to individuals caught in the system.   This involves seeing how people are aligned in triangles, and to relate to them in a way that neutralizes and may sets people free from the grip of the system.

4. The ability to stand-alone and not seek love and approval for decisions made can shift a system over time.  — Clarifying and defining what one will and will not do is the hardest position for an individual to take as it takes time to know where one stands and to mange self as the system must and will object to one individual separating more of a self from the “needs and demands ” of the social system.



The basic assumption is that our emotional position in our families and in other social system is out of our awareness. We just automatically respond to the way the system nudges us.   Yes, it takes work to bring the emotional system that guides human behavior into awareness.  The emotional system appears to be manipulating our behavior for its own more primitive reasons.  Knowledge of social systems gives us an advantage.  By understanding the nature of relationships systems we can be less reactive and we can be more curious about how human nature expresses itself in managing anxiety.  With systems knowledge, anyone who is motivated to know can enter into an adventure to see the way in which people are influenced and are influencing others.


Each of us automatically participates in ancient relationship processes. When anxiety and uncertainty increase, we are guided to be more for the system than for ourselves.   When a consultant is hired, that individual can easily become just another family member.  They can seamlessly become a part of the system and automatically do its bidding.


Initially, a consultant/family member hears that they have been hired by someone to fix a particular problem.  The problem is partially logged in the relationship with the “boss,” and his or her erroneous perception of the problem.


Subsequently, the consultant/family member discovers the challenge to relating openly to the people in the system—Everyone wants to tell you a secret and, of course, you are not to tell the others. The final bind is you are not allowed to talk to others.  A good consultant will find many ways to wiggle out of the relationships binds and to gain his or her own perspective.


This is not a problem that is only the province of family business. The cordoning off of information is ubiquitous in all social systems. Knowing that social blindness is a property of all social systems allows the consultant some amount of objectivity.  It is not personal what people are doing.


The real challenge is to ignore the social emotional signals and to keep one’s eye on a neutral way to understand and to represent one’s best self.  How do we keep our eyes open to see things differently?


So now the job is to figure out how to relate well to deliver knowledge and to gain knowledge about the parts of the system that your client cannot see and may not want to see.


In the first three pages of Your Mindful Compass there is a description of how Dr. Bowen managed to perturb and often mystify the author forcing her to think for self.  Of course, it is a different matter to perturb your “boss” to encourage them to think systems.  But here is one example of engaging in challenging others by saying and or doing things that push people to think outside the box.  Emotional issues are never solved with logic and rationality and this in itself should give you courage to experiment and to see what might work in challenging others.


Evaluating self and the social systems

Bringing new information to people, asking them to think for self, is really what people are paying a consultant to do.  As to the family member they have to choose to be a leader in the family.  For both family members and consults there has to be a deep and abiding interest in increasing one’s functioning, while figuring out how to offer information and freedom to others.


The first chapter, Bowen Theory 101, shows us the mechanisms of the system as to how roles are assigned, how anxiety is distributed and how to understand the multigenerational family and it’s organization.


It’s wonderful if you can develop a family diagram of your client to get a broad systems view, but in many cases the one, who hires the consultant, may think a family diagram a bit off target.  After all you are hired to “fix” some other smaller problem.


It is almost automatic for people to see others as the problem and leave self out.  When this reluctance to see the broader field is present, most consultants slow down and consider how to listen to the one, who hired them, and slowly gain knowledge of the family system.



After listening to the way the family wants the problem solved, the consultant can begin to develop his or her own perspective and look at the family through the lens of Bowen Theory. By gathering a sketchy history of the family and the business, the consultant has an overview of the emotional forces, which may prove useful.


During this time, the consultant can take a guess at the level of maturity, the potential for leadership in the various people, and how much information they can take in.  It is important to figure out what the current leader’s ability to move towards more differentiation of self is. For example, some people can hear ideas of family emotional process without it being a threat, while others consider bringing up problems as evidence of being disloyal and therefore threatening the status quo.


If the leader is not interested in changing self in relationship to problems then one is left with taking small steps to gather information from others, who are surrounding the leader.


The consultant looks at their own family and how “fits” with the family, who has hired them. Once they understand the fit between the two systems, they are less likely to be swayed by the emotional process.  With knowledge, the consultant can be more objective, neutral and able to ask good questions about another family.


By doing a family diagram the consultant will learn as much as the family members. Often people say they learn so much by seeing the family spread out over time.


They begin to see how people are influencing one another and what kind of roles people are playing out. One can start with simple questions, such as “How does the sibling position of people in a work group function?” This can be a reminder of just how the consultant’s sibling position is important when relating to various family members.


Often, showing the pattern of inheritance in a family can clarify if and how the past ways of inheritance are playing out again. What does the consultant do if such information makes people anxious?


How does the consultant enable people to calm once they have been upset?  There were a few ideas as to structuring time out, reflect.  Some use neurofeedback, meditation or just a time to walk in the woods.  The goal is to create an atmosphere where people feel safe being open.


When anxiety goes up, blame often follows.  People feel justified in their anger and hurt one another automatically.  They are on automatic reactivity.  They react towards real and perceived injustice.  When you enter a family where mistrust and anger are buried under a smooth, well manner surface appearance, get ready to manage yourself.




First Case: Inheritance by the Weak

For most of us, the family system is not easily seen.  Emotional issues or problems are pushed down and smoothed over.  This keeps the happy ship running.  It is only when someone in the 3rd generation, who has been “chosen” begins to drink and succession is threatened, that problems begin to be seen.  The problem can create great anxiety in the family and an automatic rush to fix the problem.


Once you have seen a few families, you are less inclined to jump in and try to fix and save people.  In any social system secrets are kept. People often talk about the one who is the problem and the one who is not there.  So how does all this “focusing on others” help the system?


The system needs someone to absorb anxiety and that will be the one who gets the symptom. They are somehow vulnerable.  They have been impinged on by the way people operate on and around them.


So in this example, the boss is looking for the next leader.  On the surface, it appears that this individual is motivated and wants to learn and take over the business.  But underneath there are doubts.  They never surfaced.  For the leader it is a done deal. He wants to move on. But rumor has it there is some early morning drinking going on.


The leader has all kinds of emotional reasons not to know that the person whom he or she has picked has weakness.   Perhaps this guy is his wife’s favorite?  The list of reasons for picking someone can go from the simple – the oldest male always inherits, to the more complex—the oldest son left me and this is his son and now I get a chance to have someone from that family back again.


Other common problems

  • The system may not “approve” of the chosen new leader.
  • The person who has “inherited” the position may not really want it, but feels he or she must or should at least try to do it, and then gets stressed out.
  • Often people in family business can feel overwhelmed and not able to talk about the uncertainty they experience.
  • People in the family or the business do not know how to bring up problems with the about-to-be-new leader.
  • The new leader sees problems requiring others in leadership positions to rethink strategy.

How do you, as a coach or a consultant, encourage people to understand the system sensitivity and not focus on she or he did this or that?   One way is to gather information about the family history.  Now one can see how over the generations decisions have been made.  One may not want to repeat patterns but without knowledge we can automatically do what has been done in the past. Tradition is a kind of sneaky comfort.



Second case: Inheritance by the Talented

In this second case, the CEO decides that the next CEO will be his son/daughter who is very smart.  But in this case the CEO is out of touch with the board and is shocked at the Board’s opposition.


Even a CEO can take things for granted and not be all prepared to deal with resistance.  Adding to this may be the problem that the son/daughter does not know how to deal respectfully with the board and just wants to get things done, now.

But the board is not on the same page. They see problems ahead and feel responsible to exert its oversight.  They are not sure that this new leader will be reasonable.  What to do?


From the outsiders position we can see that no one is thinking systems and no one has a mindful compass and that a few triangles have formed.


Once the main triangle is seen, the consultant must figure out how to relate to the other sides of the triangle.  The main triangle consists of the consultant, the board, and the CEO father-son team.  The consultant must figure out how to relate to both sides without taking sides.


There seems no individuality, just alliances. Let’s consider the alliances in looking for individuals to relate to.  What does the head of the board think as to taking on or even talking to the CEO?  What does the CEO think about talking to the board members as individuals?   What are the worries and hopes of each individual?


When push comes to shove the consultant can see that there are many interlocking triangles within the board. There are many view points and not all are negative as to the new  “possible” boss.  But, we find that the board is a group and has no idea of how to communicate with the boss or this young, energetic future leader. In all likelihood this will continue until they can stop being a board and start being individuals, who are willing to take things up as an individual. How many boards do that?


The CEO may want a “happy ship” and can find the ship sinking.  For this person to see the system may be hard.  They are used to making decisions and having people go along.  For the CEO to learn about systems, he would have to have a deeper motivation for finding the best leader, and understanding the resistance and not just reactively passing this job onto someone in his family, who not be motivated to figure out how to relate to the board members.  In one ways this is test for one and all to go beyond comfort and to figure out how to relate to the “other” as thought they were important to the future of the company.


If he were talking about his observations, of just how he sees the system functioning, that would be a step forward.  What would it take to see the opposition as part of natural resistance to new ideas?



Acting on principle and seeing resistance as part of nature’s way

If people accept that there is a system, which automatically influences people to act without reflection, then one may find it easier to relate to people as individuals and not as resisters.  Often, we are blind because we are afraid to see but once we can see there is a great deal less fear.


There are many suggestions in chapter three as to how to take action for self and see that resistance is a natural and system phenomena and to not let it rattle your cage.  Once people are able to see that the system itself generates a resistance they do not take it so personally when people do not go along with our amazing ideas and suggestions.


If anyone has the courage to, on principle, communicate observations as to the state of the system, often there will be a reaction. People can then use that information to adapt. (A principle would be: open communication is better for an organism than when people in the system are shut down or are misinformation.)


Communication and information cannot always prepare us for everything. All systems are subject to unpredictable shocks.  However, most of the time we are operating in systems with knowable changes and perhaps resistance to change is the biggest problem for the system.


Knowing the history of a system helps the leader or the consultant to see how people have adapted to changes in the past, to recognize what might be new and challenging and to figure out a position for self.  A systems viewpoint really does help us to be more neutral to those, who MUST automatically oppose us.


The automatic way systems work is that there has to be opposition to forward progress, especially if the action needed is to be a leap forward instead of small step.

Side taking, polarizations and triangles are part of the way people interact once anxiety about a change hits the system.


Usually, you see an increase in triangles when anxiety arises around a change—even if it’s a good change.  Automatically, in response to anxiety, two people gang up to oppose, to put down, to scapegoat, or just pass anxiety onto a third mindlessly.


Why don’t they stop that and just be direct with another, you might ask?


People resist the opportunity to change.  It is expensive and by yourself standing up and saying “I” feels dangerous and it often is.  Our social brain likes being social, and being a self is lonely.


When the leader wants to change, often just like children we resist. It was not our idea.  People are often anxious as leaders can want us to move into unfamiliar territory.  Just think about what the leader is asking.  People are often unsure if the leader is going in the right direction. (Think of Abraham Lincoln as an example of a leader who knew he had to take people slowly into change.) And so people resist. They complain about the leader.  They tell others about the problems and feel better, but no action is taken to deal with problems or to deal more directly with the leader.  The opposition to the leader gains energy by complaining about their common enemy. Complaining is cheap energy.


How does a leader take a neutral position emotionally and not get caught in the polarizations of the opposition?  One answer is if the leader can relate to both parties reasonable well, things will change.


First, the leader recognizes how the resistance is forming. Just to remember it is hard for the comfortable ones to give up alliances and to manage self without the approval that is  gained by “blaming” others.  They will have to get something out of having more open and direct relationships with the leader.


Seeing the system, figuring out how to interrupt emotional and / or disorganized relationships is not for the faint of heart.  Those consultants or family members who want to be a more responsible self, find thinking systems an advantage and find courage in seeing patterns as not personal.


It is a lifetime commitment to self and to one’s family to always be working on developing greater awareness of how complex social systems function both at work and at home.


June 22nd from 4:00–6:00 pm EST, we will start with chapter four: “Systems Knowledge and Standing Alone.”  Please note that on page 65 there are 33 questions to answer as to how to understand and alter your functioning in relationships.


If you have any questions or comments please let me know.








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