Constellation work

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Summary

Constellation is a powerful mapping technique for surfacing hidden dynamics in human relationships. It may be used in both organisational and personal contexts. Hence, the different forms of constellation work is called family constellations, organisational or team constellations as well as structural constellations.

Constellation work has its origins in systemic family therapy and psychodrama and was later introduced and adapted to the field of organisational development. It comes in many forms. In the original form, people are chosen to represent key persons and positions involved in a certain situation. They are positioned in the room and in relation to each other in order to represent a dynamic or the characteristics of how they relate to each other.

Constellation work can also be done by using objects such as paper or wooden stones in different colours and shapes. The example we present here uses chairs that are usually arranged by a case-giver in the room and in relation to each other in order to represent a certain dynamic or particular situation.

Chairs are especially useful in mapping workplace-related structures, relationships or conflicts as they are a strong metaphor for positions that can be occupied by different people – but also be vacated again. Bystanders who study a constellation of chairs can usually give valuable feedback on the dynamics they observe. In addition, the chairs have the additional benefit that other people can be invited to sit in them, after they have been arranged, in order to explore and feed back on how it feels to be in the adopted position. The powerful aspect of this approach is that by representing another person or by sitting in a chair that represents a person or a position in a constellation it is mostly possible to feel, re-create and embody some of the behaviour or emotions of what the chair represents.

It is astonishing how often and sometimes intensely, people ‘pick up’ something simply by taking a spatial position in relation to other positions or persons – even though they know neither the people nor the detailed background of the situation. Crucial elements such as proximity, distance, access or exclusion can be felt directly. Hence, people are, to a certain extent, able to speak from the position, which the chair represents. Equally, they can serve as a mirror for the case-giver and give new perspectives and insights.

Goal/Learning Objective/Expected Output

Exploring dynamics in human relations or structural problems; using a group as a mirror and for making sense of complex structural or relationship settings in organisations.

Way/level of dealing with subject at stake

Emotionally and intuitively, understand psychodynamics in organisational settings.

Application in moderation cycle

Emergence

Duration

30 min to 90 min.

Group size

Medium-sized groups (between 8 and 15 people).

Level of difficulty

Medium

Facilitator

Facilitating constellation work using chairs needs an experienced facilitator. First, constellation work can bring strong emotions to the surface. Moreover, they can direct the focus of the group and the case-giver, the facilitator should also have had some experience in ‘reading’ spatial arrangements through facilitating constellation work.

The constellation using paper as a resource (see short variation below) is easier to facilitate as it mostly doesn’t trigger these emotions.

Materials needed

A bunch of chairs (at least 6–10) that can also easily be stacked on top of each other.

Additional resources

Interview with Matthias Varga von Kibéd on YouTube:

Article: The Principle of Feeling – The Method of Structural Systemic Constellations for Technical Problem Solving and Decision Making

Article in the New Yorker: on the use of family constellation work in coming to terms with family histories from the Second World War.

Process description

The process description below assumes situation where a case-giver presents a work-related situation to a group who are not part of that person’s organisation or at least not part of the described situation. This can be adapted for working internally with team constellations as well as by using other material.

The facilitator starts by doing a brief interview in front of all participants with the case-giver about the background and basic elements of the situation he or she wants to describe. It’s important at this point to keep the initial information really short and limited to the most basic information of what the case is all about, what or who is involved.

The case-giver arranges the chairs according to what feels right to him/her to represent the issue or situation in their case. Each chair can represent a person involved in the issue/ situation, but could also represent a certain aspect or abstract topic relevant to the situation such as the common goal, money or the advisory board, the target group the organisation is serving, etc. The case-giver then sits down or steps aside and, in silence, checks that the entire arrangement feels right.

Now the rest of the group is invited to comment on what they see. It is important as a facilitator to ensure that this is about what the bystanders can sense, observe and perceive in terms of spatial relations and configurations, not how they interpret the story behind the arrangement.

As a second step, one or two selected persons are invited to test how it feels to sit in some of the chairs, what they intuitively sense in a certain position. When they voice negative emotions, the facilitator can invite them to suggest how they would like to alleviate these feelings, what kind of change in the position of the chairs would feel better and be more appropriate to them. This could be tested. The case-giver at this stage is a silent observer and listener.

For the last step, it’s the case-giver’s turn again. If the positions of the chairs have been moved by a member of the group he/she is also invited to try out how this new arrangement feels to him/her. But most importantly the case-giver at this stage should adjust the positions of the chairs in order to ‘solve’ the situation. What would be a positive new development, where would he/she like to go from the situation as she/he first explained it? This should be continued until the case-giver feels satisfied they have reached the best outcome or solution.

The debriefing is still an integral part of the exercise and extremely important in order to properly close this exercise. The facilitator asks the case-giver how he/she experienced the constellation work, how the feedback from the group resonated with him/her, the proposed adjustment as well as his/her own solution – and how he/she feels right now.

The case-giver at this point often feels an urge to also explain more about the situation that was laid out and add more facts to the story. At the end, the rest of the group is invited to feed their experiences back.

Options for modification

The first modification is to do this kind of constellation work within a team. Here, there is the option to also use chairs and invite all team members to lay out their own view of a situation by using the chairs. This helps to explore each other’s perspectives and emotional experiences and thus create a deeper understanding and empathy for different realities.

As a second option, one or more chairs can also be used to represent a certain topic, situation or role in the team (for instance the chair as ‘the centre of power’ in the organisation). Then all team members are invited to position themselves in relation to this chair. How close and how far, facing which direction, possibly also their individual posture: all these can express their own experience.

Another option for modification is the use of coloured paper in doing a constellation for a work situation. The facilitator invites members of a team to lay out a representation or image of their organisation or working team by using paper, which can be torn or cut up into all kinds of shapes and sizes and then – similarly to the use of chairs – positioned in relation to each other.

After everyone is finished, the team visits every paper representation and gives their feedback on what they observe or perceive. In turn ‘the artist’ then explains what ‘inner picture’ in their head he/she aimed to depict. During the debriefing it’s important then to discuss the differences in perception of the organisation or work situation, what can be concluded and what issues need to be tackled.

Another option is to split the team up into pairs so two people present their images to each other, explore options of change and come up with a possible title for each image. Only after that all constellations are presented to the rest of the group. The same debriefing would then close the exercise.

Debriefing options

See above.

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