Social work's core values include social justice, dignity and inherent worth of all people, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. Family systems therapies share these values.
Paul Watzlawick said “The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions”. Polarized positions serve to keep problems going in an unending struggle. Understanding the context that supports the existence of problems is critical to systemically oriented work. This requires illuminating all levels of response including individual, relational, institutional, cultural and political. In this time of crisis in our country, Robert Kennedy’s words “There is another kind of violence, a violence of institutions” resonate and motivate.
Here are some ideas for all helping professionals about doing family systems oriented work with larger social issues. One aspect of our current problems is used to exemplify the way these ideas can be put into practice. You can also use these ideas with individual, couple and family meetings. Imagine that a person with political power calls your office wanting you to help with the problem of police violence against people of color.
Systemic assessments find the pattern “the more X, the more Y”. One way you can articulate the problem pattern evident in this situation is: the more people in the dominant group have access to resources; the more they lead successful lives; the more they think they created their own success; the more the dominant group does not share resources; the more trouble people of color have leading successful lives; the more people of color are blamed for not doing well; the more communities of color are marginalized, treated as other and victimized, the more they are likely to get caught up in illegal and violent activities which they are set up for and the cycle goes on and on. Due to the brevity of this article, critically important factors that are part of this cycle have been left out.
One hopeful aspect of general systems theory is that a change in any part of the problem pattern can lead to transformation. You decide to meet with key stakeholders from the police and community organizations using practices for facilitating successful meetings that we teach in our yearlong Intensive Program in Family Systems Therapy. Here are some simple practices that we use.
The first task when meeting with people is to join with them. Joining means meeting people where they are at, seeing them as more than the problems or dilemmas they are caught in. Your clients are waiting for you to unearth some of their worst behavior; you ask about their humanity. “What commitment to a better world brought you to agree to attend this meeting?” Looking for strengths and common ground is the foundation of the work. People get caught up expressing their passions in ways that are confrontational. You lean into the idea of slowing down to go fast and ask questions from a place of curiosity. “Before we get started, tell me what your intentions are for being here. What are you hoping to accomplish? If this meeting were successful, what would your wished for outcome be?”
Next it is useful to ask how each participant sees the dilemma(s). It is easy for arguments to start even as people are naming problems. To avoid this, let people know that there will be time to hear from each person. Ask people to agree to listen when it is not their turn to speak. Request that people speak for their own ideas and feelings rather than as a representative of a group, about “facts” or from intense emotions. Normalize “conflict” by stating that you expect and appreciate hearing different perspectives. This allows you to honor the dignity of each person, pulling for disparate voices and opinions in a reflective way. In this way you co-create communication agreements about how to speak and listen based on what people are hoping for, creating a structure to hold successful conversations.
Acknowledging the problem from everyone’s perspective is necessary. Each person’s view of the problem is witnessed. Sometimes the problem is solved when people think about it differently from a reflective meta position that occurs by deeply listening to others. Sometimes thinking about the problem differently allows solutions to emerge.
Systemic assessment or information gathering, which happens until the problem is solved, is fraught with anxiety that occupies each person related to their view of the problem. Murry Bowen said “The process by which a person can reduce his level of chronic anxiety depends primarily on learning. The learning depends on having the courage to engage in emotionally intense situations repeatedly and to tolerate the anxiety and internal emotional reactivity associated with that engagement. This is anxiety associated with…progression rather than regression.” Stay steady as you listen to people who are in distress and disagreement with one another. In order to find solutions, the details need to be enumerated from each person’s perspective. This requires grace in leadership.
Your next task is to redefine the problem in an artful way that does not blame or shame any person or group and creates possible paths for change. Everyone’s dignity remains intact. In this case, you might say that everyone in the room is very passionate about the issues at hand. The conflicts between them reflect deep caring about what is right, fair and safe from each of their perspectives. Tragically, they are caught in a system that harms everyone. You posit that imbalances of power need to be addressed. You ask that people who have more power and privilege in the room take responsibility for ameliorating those effects in future conversations. You acknowledge that in the present people on both sides of the issues can contribute to a lack of safety. You ask how this formulation sits with people. When there is enough agreement, you ask them to develop and name a common goal.
The next task is to see what each person is willing to do. You ask each person in the conversation: if you woke up tomorrow and the problem is solved, how would you be acting? Then you ask: what is one thing are you willing to do now to act in the way you would if things were better? What systemic changes would you propose to ameliorate the problems at hand? These questions help participants’ change in ways that can begin to solve the problem while they are working on it.
Getting feedback from participants about how the conversation is going is critical. Requesting feedback helps participants take responsibility for the direction of the work. Feedback helps you know how you can best facilitate the process. In subsequent meetings, you help people change their positions by making sense of them in a new way. You create a space where people on different sides of the issue get to know each other and appreciate each other’s humanity and dilemmas. You create a generative working group that can create new processes and systems.
How change happens is often mysterious. Gregory Bateson said that change is, “the difference that makes a difference”. As a systemic thinker you are wary of “solutions” that keep the current problem going because they are new ways to contribute to the pattern that holds the problem. You know that change will evolve organically from expansive conversations in ways that cannot be predicted.
Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Here are possibilities that could flow from your meetings: Stakeholders representing the police are moved to put pressure on officers who have been guilty of crimes against black people to take responsibility for their actions. Officers admit guilt; avoid a trial, plea bargain. While serving time, they educate themselves about structural racism. After being released, they implement a new model of policing that is predicated on community building and self-enforcement, deescalation and safety for all. Advocates and organizations in communities who have successfully won rights for equality join to support others who are currently marginalized. People in our country are moved by recent violence to see that denying people of color rights and resources needs to stop for the safety and benefit of everyone. New leaders are elected who enforce local and national laws to dismantle the system of racism. As these changes unfold, people of color have access to more resources, hope, life paths with less energy expended living in a system rigged for others.
Whether you are Rosa Parks, Ieshia Evans (who said “sometimes jobs are given to you that you didn’t apply for”) or one of many helping professionals making small systemic changes every day, let’s keep on living our values.
Liz Brenner, LICSW is the Director of Therapy Training Boston and has a private practice in Watertown MA. Let us know your thoughts on our Therapy Training Boston Facebook page here or by email here