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ISBN Print: 9783525404539 ISBN E-Book: 9783647404530

2014, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG, Gttingen
ISBN Print: 9783525404539 ISBN E-Book: 9783647404530
2014, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG, Gttingen
Andreas Fryszer / Rainer Schwing
Handbook of
Systemic Psychotherapy
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
ISBN Print: 9783525404539 ISBN E-Book: 9783647404530
2014, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG, Gttingen
With 30 Figures and 14 Tables
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ISBN 978-3-647-40453-0 (ebook)
2014, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG, Gttingen /
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht LLC, Bristol, CT, U.S.A.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or utilized in
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Contents Contents
Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Foreword . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
1 Peeking Inside the Box: Whats There and Whats Where . . . . . . . 16
1.1 An Outline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
1.2 The Formal Layout of the Texts Notes for the Reader . . . . . . 17
1.3 Our Position: Shish Kebab Yes, Goulash No . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
2 Exploring, Observing, Beginning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
2.1 What to Expect: The Initial Phase . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
2.2 What Is a System and Who Belongs to the System? . . . . . . . . 22
Background Text: The Term System and Its Constructions . . . . 22
2.3 Preparing for a Conversation: Facts, Positions . . . . . . . . . . . 26
2.3.1 Facts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Background Text: Facts Is There Such a Thing as Objectivity? 28
2.3.2 Points of View . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Background Text: Differences Provide Information and
Information Makes Change Possible . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
2.4 From Contact to Contract: Initial Interactions . . . . . . . . . . . 32
2.4.1 Structure and Possible Questions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
2.4.2 Joining: Warm-up, Becoming Acquainted and Introduction 32
2.4.3 The Referral to Counseling, Clarifying the Contracts and
Concerns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
2.4.4 Exploring Problems and Resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
2.4.5 A Contract for Continued Cooperation . . . . . . . . . . . 38
2.4.6 Evaluating the Initial Contact . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
Background Text: Is It Possible to Observe Without Acting? . . . 39
2.5 Observing Behavior and Interactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Background Text: To Interview or to Facilitate Enactment? . . . . 42
2.5.1 Behavioral Patterns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44
2.5.2 Interactions: The Social Dynamics of a System . . . . . . . 47
Background Text: What Are Interactions? . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
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2.5.3 The Group as a System: Interaction as the Key to Social
Dynamics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48
2.5.4 Behavioral and Interaction Sequences . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
2.5.5 Roles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52
2.6 Observing Ones Own Physical and Emotional Reactions . . 54
3 Processing, Analyzing and Visualizing Information . . . . . . . . . . 57
3.1 The Genogram . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
3.1.1 Notes on Constructing a Genogram . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
3.1.2 Genograms: Two Examples . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
Background Text: Contextualization . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63
3.2 Map . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
3.2.1 Functional and Dysfunctional Relationship Structures
According to Minuchin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
Background Text: What Is a Structural Approach? . . . . . . . . 66
Background Text: Normative or Neutral Perspectives . . . . . . . 69
3.2.2 Remarks on Using the Map . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
3.2.3 Action Possibilities: Dealing Creatively with Difficult Triads 72
3.3 Family-Helper Map . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
Background Text: First- and Second-Order Cybernetics . . . . . . 75
3.3.1 Drawing Up a Family-Helper Map . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78
3.3.2 Notes on Registering the Informal Helpers . . . . . . . . . 79
3.3.3 Notes on Registering the Professional Helpers in the Map . 79
3.3.4 Key to the Family-Helper Map . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80
Background Text: On Neutrality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
3.4 Timeline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
Background Text: Contextualization The Temporal Dimension 85
3.4.1 Designing the Timeline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86
3.4.2 Working Together with the Client on a Timeline . . . . . . 86
3.5 Sociograms: The Group as System . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
Background Text: Sociometry and Group Dynamics Were the
Earliest Approaches to Systemic Thought . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
3.6 Reports . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93
3.6.1 Criteria for a Good Report . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93
3.6.2 What Dimensions to Include in the Report . . . . . . . . . 94
3.6.3 Progress Reports for Evaluation Purposes and Planning of
Interventions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
4 Making Decisions: Preparing a Contract, Setting Goals, Planning
Interventions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
4.1 The Contract Is the Basic Guiding Principle of Systemic Work . . 99
6 Contents
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Background Text: Why Do Systemic Therapists Speak of
Contracts and Concerns? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100
4.1.1 How to Set up a Contract . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
4.1.2 What Does a Contract Contain? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
Background Text: Noncompliance with the Contract . . . . . . . 105
4.1.3 System Politics: Open, Hidden, Contradictory and
Ambivalent Mandates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
Background Text: In Praise of Hidden Mandates; or: How to
Slowly Melt an Iceberg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
4.1.4 Complaining Clients: Listening as Mandate . . . . . . . . 111
4.1.5 Draftees: When Others Are More Motivated than the
Clients . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114
4.1.6 Control as Mandate: When Counselors Must Be More
Motivated than their Clients . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116
4.1.7 A Method for Resolving the Mandate Matter: The Carousel 118
4.1.8 Does the Mandate Match the Offer? . . . . . . . . . . . 119
4.2 Generating Hypotheses and Summarizing a Working Hypothesis 122
Background Text: Why Do Systems Theorists Prefer to Speak of
Hypotheses and Not of Diagnoses? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
4.2.1 The Sources and Themes of Hypotheses . . . . . . . . . . 126
4.2.2 How to Construct Hypotheses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127
4.2.3 Three Practical Tips . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
Background Text: In Praise of Hypotheses and the Demonizing
of Hypotheses by the Followers of Not-knowing . . . . . . . . 130
4.3 Preparing Hypotheses When Working with Foreigners . . . . . 134
4.4 Defining Good Goals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
Background Text: Goal-Oriented Approaches or: Does
Perturbation Stimulate Open Processes? . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138
4.4.1 Criteria for Formulating Goals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140
4.4.2 Goals for Placing Children in Foster Homes . . . . . . . . 143
4.4.3 Describing and Using Goals: Two Instruments . . . . . . 144
4.4.4 Planning and Evaluating Interventions . . . . . . . . . . 146
4.5 The Group as a System: Constructing Hypotheses . . . . . . . . 149
4.5.1 Different Group Contexts, Different Demands on
Counselors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 149
4.5.2 Hypothesis: Too Little or Too Much Cohesion . . . . . . . 150
4.5.3 Hypothesis: Destructive Group Dynamics . . . . . . . . . 152
4.5.4 Hypothesis: Too Few or Too Many External Limitations 153
4.5.5 Hypothesis: Different, Contradictory Values and Interests 154
4.5.6 Hypothesis: Alpha Stands for the Wrong Values and
Interests . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155
4.5.7 Why Develop Such Normative Hypotheses? . . . . . . . 156
Contents 7
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5 Acting: Intervening and Accompanying Processes . . . . . . . . . . 159
Background Text: Inducing the New Where Does Change
Begin? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161
Background Text: Solutions Are Important And so Are
Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162
5.1 Sculptures: Three-Dimensional Metaphors . . . . . . . . . . . . 166
5.1.1 Sculpture as a Metaphor for Relationships . . . . . . . . 167
Background Text: The Value of a Sculpture . . . . . . . . . . . 174
5.1.2 Verbal Metaphors as Sculptures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 180
5.1.3 Sculpture as a Metaphor for Time: Memory Lane . . . . . 184
5.2 Extensions: Sculptures in Different Settings . . . . . . . . . . . 187
5.2.1 In Individual Therapy: Social Atom and Chair Sculptures . 187
5.2.2 The Family Board . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 190
5.2.3 Symbol Sculptures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 192
5.2.4 Working with Sculptures in Case Reviews . . . . . . . . . 193
5.2.5 Sculptures in Family Reconstructions . . . . . . . . . . . 194
Background Text: Systemics and History . . . . . . . . . . . . . 196
5.2.6 Systemic Structural Constellations . . . . . . . . . . . . 197
5.3 Circular Questioning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 198
5.3.1 How to Construct Circular Questions . . . . . . . . . . . 199
Background Text: Whats So Circular About Circular
Questioning? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 200
Background Text: How Circular Questioning Works . . . . . . . 208
5.3.2 Problem and Resource Contexts: Using Circular Questions 211
5.3.3 Two Suggestions for Dealing with Circular Questions . . . 224
5.4 Comments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 225
5.4.1 Normalizing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 226
5.4.2 Paying Compliments and Activating Resources . . . . . . 227
5.4.3 Reframing: Changing Your Reality by Changing Your
Description . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 229
5.4.4 Ambivalent Comments (Paradoxical Intention) . . . . . . 235
Background Text: On Paradoxical Mandates and Paradoxical
Interventions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 236
5.5 Witnessing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 240
5.5.1 Expanding the Perspective of the Client System . . . . . . 241
5.5.2 Inner Authorities, Role Models and Critics . . . . . . . . 243
5.5.3 Sympathetic Companions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 245
5.5.4 Cultural Perspectives in Intercultural Counseling . . . . . 245
Background Text: Studying, Creating and Deconstructing
Constructions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247
5.6 Modeling Behavior: Behavior-Oriented Interventions . . . . . . 250
8 Contents
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Background Text: Helping in Word and Deed: Is That Still
Systemic? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250
5.6.1 Personnel: Who Gets Invited? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 252
5.6.2 Initial Encounter: The First Few Minutes . . . . . . . . . 253
5.6.3 Using Vehicles: Working Directly on the Scene . . . . . . 254
5.6.4 Changing Spatial Constellations Working with Limits . . 258
5.6.5 Presenting the Situation: Staging and Enactment . . . . . 261
5.7 Modelling Contexts: Network . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 265
5.8 Externalization . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 268
Background Text: How Do Externalizations Work? Plus:
A Warning! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 271
5.9 Metaphors and Stories . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 272
Background Text: Using Stories in Therapy and Counseling . . . 272
5.9.1 Joining: Stories Can Be Useful . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 274
5.9.2 Illustrating Stories, Encouraging Insights, Mirroring . . . 274
5.9.3 Encouraging a Change of Perspective . . . . . . . . . . . 275
5.9.4 Stories Cause Searching Behavior and Open up Lost
Resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 276
5.9.5 Introducing Possible Solutions Indirectly Through Models 276
5.10 Between Sessions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 279
5.10.1 Observational Tasks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
5.10.2 Ambivalence Tasks: Do nothing! or More of the same! 282
5.10.3 Change Tasks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 283
5.10.4 Rituals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 285
5.10.5 Practicing New Behaviors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 288
5.11 Accompanying and Supporting Changes . . . . . . . . . . . . 289
5.11.1 How to Be Supportive . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 289
5.11.2 Cheerleading and Asset Growth . . . . . . . . . . . . . 290
5.11.3 A Climate of Change . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 292
5.11.4 On Relapses and Incidents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 292
5.12 Leave-Taking and Final Phases . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 296
5.12.1 The Dynamics of Parting Processes . . . . . . . . . . . 296
Background Text: Phases in the Process of Leave-Taking . . . . 298
5.12.2 Shaping the Final Phases . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 299
5.13 When Is it Best to Do What? Is There Such a Thing as a
Typical Course? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 302
6 Positions, Values and Roles in the Systemic Trade . . . . . . . . . 307
6.1 Positions and Values . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 307
6.2 Control . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 311
Contents 9
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6.3 The Role of the Counselor: Teacher, Facilitator, Consultant,
Evaluator . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 315
6.3.1 Teacher . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 315
6.3.2 Facilitator . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 316
6.3.1 Consultant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 317
6.3.1 Evaluator . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 317
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 321
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 329
10 Contents
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Preface Preface
Some 20 years ago a few colleagues active in social education asked Winiger Beuse
about obtaining training insystemics that would not be limited to simple therapeutic
know-how, but rather concentrate on imparting the knowledge necessary for work-
ing professionally in social welfare and in healthcare. At that time there were few
opportunities of this nature, at least not in that particular geographic area. Most
courses in continuing education were more of a clinical nature even if they did
contain the word counseling in their title. The methods taught there tendedtostem
fromtherapeutic settings and were designated solely for therapeutic situations. Our
observations both as therapists and as teachers of various training courses in family
therapy had led us to the conclusion that systemic approaches could be very enlight-
ening when reflecting on psychosocial work, the more clinical approaches failing to
be particularly relevant in such contexts.
From this original inquiry arose the idea of creating just such a curriculum. To
this end, four teaching therapists (Winiger Beuse, Erika Ltzner-Lay, Artur Goer-
ke-Hengst, Rainer Schwing), up to that point only a loose-fitting network, sat
down together to draw up a 2-year course in continuing education. The course
was based on the needs of the original group and on their own experiences during
training courses. The goal was to create specialized systemic know-how for the
field of social work, for experts in the field of healthcare, and for educational
institutions. From this interaction and from the growing pool of teaching expe-
riences arose the praxis institut fr systemische beratung (praxis institute
for systemic counseling).
Today we can look back on 18 years of experience with this curriculum and
on 40 different training groups. We now have a wealth of literature available on
systemic approaches in many different disciplines. There are also excellent basic
works available on the market outlining systemic practice and describing various
methods. Yet few methodological textbooks exist that describe the whole com-
plexity of psychosocial practice and the practical methods available for the vari-
ous fields.
That is why we decided to draw from our own materials, which arose in part
through our interaction with participants in supervision and training courses and
have been thoroughly tested and fine-tuned in the course of their participation.
Our goal was to prepare a collection of methods to be put again at their disposal.
We were very pragmatic: We wanted our colleagues in these courses to have a
collection of tools they themselves could employ when working with groups from
all sorts of fields (inpatient, outpatient, semi-residential). The participants of
these courses tend to come from many different areas, such as caretaking, coun-
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seling, or support of both individuals and groups: They are the ideal recipients
of our package of systemic tools. And, not least, we want to address the needs of
students and trainees in the social, educational and therapeutic professions who
need practical depictions to prepare them for the daily work ahead of them.
Of course, not every method is appropriate for every situation. Anyone at-
tempting to put the methods presented here into practice stringently will encoun-
ter be met with above all one reaction: resistance. The better choice is to pick the
methods wisely and narrowly to fit the client in question. An interview does not
automatically become systemic, or, for that matter, good, simply by asking a co-
pious amount of questions. Rather, the method must be adapted to ones own role
and to the circumstances.
A further reason for writing this volume was to demonstrate the diverse tools
that have emerged from the various different systemic traditions. In our opinion,
the conscious combination of diverse approaches under consideration of the
respective theoretical background will be the future method of choice. The lat-
ter conviction has largely determined the structure of this book, as detailed ex-
plicitly in the first chapter. We sometimes wander back and forth between male
and female designations in an attempt to include both sexes in our remarks.
The most important thing, however, is the following: No thought, and certainly
no book, is the work of single individual or even two. Many different people
participated directly or indirectly in the development of this volume: Our families,
who have accompanied our work with patience and support; trainers and col-
leagues at our institute, from whom we have learned so much and who make
our work so pleasurable; the scientific board of our institute, which has contrib-
uted many suggestions and much support particularly in difficult times; our read-
ers, who have provided critical thoughts, both positive and negative; our clients,
colleagues, and customers with their valuable feedback.
In particular we thank Inge Liebel-Fryszer, Franca, Lina and Leon Fryszer, Eu-
genia Schwing, Erika Ltzner-Lay, Winiger Beuse, Artur Goerke-Hengst, Verena
Krhenbhl, Dr. Margarete Hecker, Prof. Dr. Nossrat Peseschkian, Ruth Heise,
Ingrid Sorge-Wiederspahn, Marika Eidmann, Heike Schwarz, Hans-Werner
Eggemann-Dann, Cordula Alfes, Irma Schnocks, Anja Deger, Carole Gammer,
Rainer Bosselmann, Antony Williams, Jrg Hartmann, Carl Wrner, Dr. Fritz
Glasl, the Caritasverband Frankfurt and the team at the Eltern- und Jugendbera-
tungsstelle Stadtmitte, the team at our own praxis institut, the former Psycholo-
gisch-Pdagogisches Zentrum (PPZ e.V.) and its employees as well as our clients,
colleagues and customers from whom we have learned so much.
A comment regarding the English translation of our book: literature which has
previously been published in English is quoted following the original translation.
Excerpts taken from literature which has only been published in other languages
have been translated by us into English. For some interviews, we were unable to
find some of the original English versions of the German translations and thus
used our own English translations. These may deviate from the English original,
even though the interviews were originally conducted in English.
12 Preface
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We would like to express special thanks to our translator, Joseph A. Smith, for
his competence and dedication and his patience with our many questions. We
also thank Emily Falkenberg for her efforts and for the many discussions we had
with her to clear up questions surrounding English and American technical terms.
Gnter Presting at our publisher, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, is also due many
thanks for supporting this project so heartily and with great commitment and for
encouraging us all the way.
Special thanks go to our parents for the foundations they laid that have made
this book possible.
Andreas Fryszer and Rainer Schwing
Preface 13
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Foreword Foreword
This is the book I would liked to have written myself from my own experience in
the teaching and continuing education of social workers and social educators.
Unfortunately, because of other personal and professional commitments, that was
not possible. All the more I would like to congratulate Rainer Schwing and
Andreas Fryszer, who have drawn on their own wealth of experiences in the su-
pervision of helpers of all sorts to compose this handbook containing a plethora
of practical approaches to comprehending and reacting to even the most compli-
cated and problematic situations. They show how systemic theory and systemic
practice can impart to professionals from various fields a pragmatic and helpful
approach to both solving concrete problems and understanding the general the-
ory of social work.
How often have we, as university instructors, been told that the therapeutic
concepts and the many case histories provided in our courses were interesting,
albeit of little practical use under real-world circumstances. That can be a very
frustrating experience, to say the least. This book employs an abundance of case
histories that, like the systemic concepts originally developed in clinical surround-
ings, can be transferred to all sorts of areas where helpers are employed. A rather
gloomy mood ensues among social workers and social educators when they get
together and discover how very little they can actually effect in their professions,
how overworked they all are, and how little solidarity they experience from oth-
ers. This volume, on the other hand, often speaks of resource orientation and how
new approaches and new concepts can provide both satisfaction and pleasure at
work all the while strengthening ones competence.
Colleagues react particularly positively to the simplification gained through the
use of the legendary Philadelphia Map, where one enters the various hierar-
chies, relationships, and the systemic structures experienced. This map is meant
to be understood as a provisional, experimental diagnosis not a final one that
may change in the course of the helping process: The client is not labeled or
reduced to some scheme. A further example: Finding a diagnosis and initiating
an intervention are not treated as separate entities; there is no need for a long
preparation for the exploration the process of change commences immediately
after the joining begins, i.e., the first contact between counselor and client. This
approach bolsters ones courage to attack even more complex, perhaps even stale-
mated client systems.
This book offers its readers many pragmatic suggestions and imaginative ways
to induce change, such as reinterpretation, positive connotation, telling stories or
inserting rituals in systems with aberrant behavior. That is not to say that the
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reader is presented with a magical grab bag of solutions to choose from. Rather,
the how of systemic therapy always lies at the forefront; systemic thought and
action patterns are presented as concrete events emerging from theoretical foun-
dations, thus preserving the close relationship between theory and practice.
We knowfromthe many comparative studies the question of why various types
and schools of intervention succeed (or dont) that success depends greatly on
the personality and the credibility of the respective counselor and on that per-
sons emotional identification with his or her own method. The hand that holds
the tool is decisive. This book does not have a chapter devoted exclusively to the
personality of the counselor, but the many case examples highlight howimportant
the esteem of the counselor for the client is in an emotional emergency; and how
carefully and cautiously the proper type of intervention must be chosen. A prac-
titioner wanting to become better qualified in systemic concepts and the systemic
approach will find many references to the fact that the map one constructs to
better understand the client is not the same as the actual situation itself, which
in fact may be very different from the construction used to help understand that
persons situation. However intensely one may choose to apply previously un-
known or unusual intervention methods, when observing the client system it is
imperative to ask oneself the following: What type of feedback am I getting from
the client and how sensitive am I toward those signals?
The German-speaking countries have had at their disposal a number of good
and proven theoretical textbooks on systemic therapy and counseling. We learned
a great deal from the American pioneers, who in the 1950s and 1960s began to
look beyond the individual and expanded their view to clients in their respective
contexts. Andreas Fryszer and Rainer Schwing have written a handbook that
deals, in depth, with the current social, legal and institutional situation readers
face throughout their lives and work in Germany today. The case studies comprise
all social strata, from the unstructured poor family relying on help from a social
caseworker, to the middle-class family seeking help from a counseling center, to
a dysfunctional team from a highly structured administrative setting.
The need for more experienced practitioners is becoming ever stronger because
of the social precariousness now found in the poorest areas of large cities. I hope
this book will be widely read by colleagues fromsocial work and social education,
by psychologists and psychiatrists alike, indeed by everyone working in the busi-
ness of caretaking. I hope they can integrate the help, suggestions, and options
provided here to manage their daily tasks. By strengthening their skills and com-
petence they can contribute to furthering an appreciation for their professions
something that is sorely needed in light of the increasing social fracturing occur-
ring in broad parts of the population.
Margarete Hecker
Foreword 15
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1 Peeking Inside the Box: Whats There and Whats Where 1.1AnOutline
1 Peeking Inside the Box: Whats There and
Whats Where
1.1 An Outline
Anything we do and thus of course anything we do professionally begins with
a series of things we see, organize, and decide upon. Ideally, that process would
look like the one depicted in Figure 1.
In fact, however, action often takes place first, before weve even seen and un-
derstood why we acted in such a way. And, alas, the same is true for professional
dealings. The reverse order is often necessary because of the way the situation
unfolds. And sometimes seeing, organizing, deciding, and acting can all occur
Systemically speaking, this course may be considered a circular one that com-
presses the four steps into ever-shorter cycles. Circular in this regard means the
opposite of linear which introduces us to an important pair of opposites in the
systemic way of viewing things: Linear means a temporal succession first seeing,
then organizing, then deciding, and finally acting. Every step is the result of the
previous one: Seeing is the prerequisite for organizing, organizing is the prereq-
uisite for deciding and so on.
Circular, on the other hand, means mutual dependency, an interconnected-
ness. Seeing can arise from organizing, deciding can follow action. The order in
which things occur does not necessarily adhere to the causal context; rather,
the various elements mutually influence each other. Every beginning and thus
every end, every form of punctuation in such a circular process is arbitrary (see
Figure 2 as well as the Background Text in Chapter 5.3). In this respect, the
quote by Heinz von Foerster is valid: If you desire to see, learn how to act
(1984, p. 61).
This book deals with the conscious reflection, organization and planning of
these steps when working with families, groups and individuals. It depicts the
ideal phases of an intervention process, the goal being to show how this order of
things works from a systemic point of view:
Figure 1: The (ideal) linear course of seeing, organizing, deciding, and acting.
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Seeing: exploration, diagnostics, initial interview (Chapter 2),
Organizing: data analysis and documentation (Chapter 3),
Deciding: devising hypotheses, setting goals, planning interventions (Chapter 4),
Acting: intervening and accompanying (Chapter 5). 1.2 TheFormalLayoutoftheTextsNotesfortheReader
1.2 The Formal Layout of the Texts Notes for the Reader
It is our goal to present the tools of systemic therapy so that any practitioner can
follow and implement them. We describe the individual methods in detail and
provide additional extensive notes and instructions that have proved to be useful
in practice. To this we add many examples drawn from practical experience. All
examples have been modified to prevent any reference to actual persons or situ-
The use of certain tools is inherently connected to the systemic perspectives
behind the methods set forth. Thus, employing these tools simultaneously sup-
plies the user with an introduction to systemic perspectives, basic approaches and
theoretical considerations. Only the repeated use of such a skill will turn it into
ones very own skill something true of therapists and craftsmen alike. In addi-
tion, we emphasize these skills by putting them in special sections titled Back-
ground Texts, which serve to present basic systemic tenets and theoretical con-
cepts to the reader as well as to show the connection between the practical
application and the ideal or historical background of systemic work.
Conversations with students of systemic thought often yield a number of main
Figure 2: The circular approach to seeing, acting, organizing and deciding.
1.2 The Formal Layout of the Texts Notes for the Reader 17
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questions: What exactly makes a method systemic? And what are the ideas be-
hind this approach? These questions further the discovery ones own identity as
a systemic-oriented helper.
Methods and techniques enable us to carry out specific actions, much as ham-
mers, pliers, and welding equipment do. Glasses, microscopes, telescopes, and
infrared cameras all help us to perceive our environment. Theoretical positions
train our vision of the world around us they are as it were the glasses that allow
us to focus on the various levels of social systems. In this sense not only methods
and techniques, but also theoretical constructs are tools of perception and should
be treated as such. Their usefulness depends on the situation, the persons in ques-
tion and the goals at hand. Their usefulness, in turn, determines whether a par-
ticular concept, a method or a technique should be employed or not (see Herwig-
Lempp, 2012, p. 44). Thus, in the Background Texts we introduce various, not
necessarily compatible theoretical positions and invite the readers to choose for
themselves, depending on the respective situation.
Yet, what we do not provide is a complete and self-contained presentation of
the theory of systemic principles. To that end there are a number of very good
and competently written publications (e.g., von Schlippe & Schweitzer, 2007).
One central matter is of utmost importance to us: We want to support students
in the application and use of systemic thought in their daily work and provide
more experienced practitioners with a handbook of useful suggestions. The
Background Texts can be skipped by the more skilled and practice-oriented
readers already familiar with the various theoretical viewpoints.
Nevertheless, we consider it important that the reader be aware of his or her
own implicit assumptions about how the insight these tools yield, where their
true value lies and how they work. We encourage readers to combine different
methods while consciously dealing with their implicit assumptions (the so-called
shish kebab principle: putting anything you like and anything that fits on a skew-
er), but are opposed to the generous use of tools without a clear notion of their
theoretical background (the goulash principle: put everything into one big pot
and stir). 1.3 OurPosition:ShishKebabYes,GoulashNo
1.3 Our Position: Shish Kebab Yes, Goulash No
A look at the articles, books and the curricula available for continuing education
concerning systemic topics may create the impression that systemic therapy or
counseling refers solely to a set of methods and nothing else. Arent systemic
therapists the ones who pose circular questions, explore narratives and want
nothing to do with real problems? Arent they always interested first and foremost
in exceptions and miracles?
Every systemic theory, like the theories of other therapeutic schools, wants to
develop its own methodology. Yet such a restrictive approach tends to hinder
more than help us to benefit from the cornucopia of methods, techniques and
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theories that have arisen throughout the history of systemic thought. Moreover,
it is inadequate for the broad range of demands of the diverse people we meet in
psychosocial work.
We understand the systemic pursuit to be primarily one of action; it provides us
with the orientation necessary to form hypotheses and to plan interventions. This
perspective encompasses many ways and methods of understanding the situation
garnered from systemic and other traditions. Working with colleagues from various
disciplines and with very diverse backgrounds has enlightened and encouraged us.
The psychoanalytic approach of understanding events as scenes can enrich sys-
temic work enormously; exercises from behavioral therapy can be integrated into
systemic intervention quite well. In the appropriate dosage, methods from psycho-
drama and gestalt psychology can lead to a better understanding on a nonverbal level
and can help to implement change. The common denominator remains the systemic
perspective: always viewing the entire field and determining the impulses that a
certain intervention creates or obtains in a specific context.
Our previous 20-year experience in supervision, training, and in organizations
from diverse fields has showed us that it is rarely possible to implement the the-
ories of any one school of systemic thought in its purest possible form and that
this, in fact, is not even attempted. A situation is usually characterized by a com-
bination of various forms of therapy and counseling something we consider
both appropriate and adequate. In school one should learn for life and not learn
how spend life playing school!
In our opinion, the future of therapy and counseling lies in the combination of
the various schools, methods and techniques. Especially more recent publications
point in that direction, such as the development of the generic principles by
Schiepek and others (see Introduction to Chapter 5 on intervention). These re-
semble the principles formulated by physicists which initiate processes of change
in self-organizing systems (see Haken & Schiepek, 2010). Chapter 5 also discuss-
es the determinants of change set forth by Grawe. In his work, Grawe compares
different types of therapy which are now found in many modern approaches. The
results of Schiepek and Grawe are amazingly similar in nature and confirm our
own experiences in therapy and counseling with social systems.
We take this as encouragement for combining the various approaches, meth-
ods, and views from the different schools of thought both within and outside of
systemic theory. Thus, we choose the shish kebab: picking and choosing the best
and most tasty morsels that fit together on one single skewer.
We do, however, think it is still necessary to understand the background of the
respective tools, that is, to know why this method or that method should produce
some particular change. Any user of such methods will want to know just how
the respective theory defines things such as knowledge or truth, and how that
affects the relationship between the client and the therapist:
1.3 Our Position: Shish Kebab Yes, Goulash No 19
1 Our thanks to our colleague and teacher Dr. Rainer Bosselmann for this metaphor.
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How much respect does the therapist have for the framings and viewpoints of
his or her clients?
How sure is the therapist about possessing a valid norm or truth how systems
function so that life may be successful?
How sure is the therapist that reality and system structures can be recog-
nized as something real?
These points should be kept in mind when employing the methods of the various
approaches. The answers to these questions may differ considerably from school
to school and indeed sometimes differ even within approaches to systemic
thought, especially in the newer approaches. But they are all relevant to the way
the client-therapist relationship is structured. If this point is not heeded, one ef-
fectively puts the tools and views of many different schools of thought indiscrim-
inately into one pot. That would be the goulash method of consultation.
Thus, we prefer shish kebab over goulash! Even though we realize that one
cannot resolve all the contradictions between the different approaches. A norma-
tive approach, such as that of Salvador Minuchin, and a narrative approach, such
as that of Steve de Shazer, are and always will be opposites and mutually exclu-
sive. But here, too, we can learn from physics: Whether light consists of an elec-
tromagnetic wave or particles of material is not completely known, although the
two opinions are mutually exclusive. Yet some phenomena can best be explained
with the one theory, others with the other theory. Physicists thus tend to change
their views on the explanation depending on the respective situation! We like this
pragmatic strategy regarding various schools and opinions. In our own practice,
we apply a theory as long as it proves to be profitable. We would rather change
our theoretical frame of reference during counseling than doubt the ability of our
clients to develop and to change, just because we have failed to achieve change
with our previous viewpoint.
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2 Exploring, Observing, Beginning 2.1 WhattoExpect:TheInitialPhase
2 Exploring, Observing, Beginning
2.1 What to Expect: The Initial Phase
The initial phase is concerned with building up trust among the persons involved,
establishing relationships, and gathering information in order to reach an agree-
ment about the type of help to be offered and the goals of that cooperation. The
best term to describe this process is exploration, which comprises both inves-
tigating and examining. In this phase the counselor first looks, listens and ob-
serves (in a passive-receptive way), but then also approaches the client to ques-
tion, investigate and examine the situation. It is especially important to establish
contact with the client: open doors, build bridges, gain trust and provide confi-
The following matters are of primary concern:
Who belongs to the clients system?
Who is in need of help? Who is most motivated?
What resources are available?
What are the problems and deficits? How are they and their causes seen by
the various persons involved?
What does one learn from the conversations about the structure, rules and in-
ternal communication of the system?
What are the first (nonverbal) impressions of the clients system and the clients
extended environment?
Only after having answered these questions can we formulate possible ways to
help the client and, together with the persons involved, determine whether and
how their expectations can be met by our offer.
There are situations in which the exploration phase will go on for a long time
and require multiple meetings both with the persons involved and with other
potential helpers. The themes of such meetings may be centered around conver-
sations or any other activities such as playing, hobbies or taking long walks. In
other situations a single interview of an hour or so may suffice to reach a conclu-
sion of whether and how to proceed.
Depending on the institution involved, the recipient of the offer for help may
not be the actual person footing the bill. This creates triangular relationships con-
sisting of the recipient of the support efforts, the actual contractor, and the person
or institution providing the support. That may make several discussions necessary
with all three parties, with only the recipient, or with only the contractor. The
contractor and the provider must reach an agreement about how to proceed, for
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example, when the familys bills are being paid by a welfare agency or when the
head of an institution is looking for a team supervisor.
Some activities demand very intensive preparations with the clients system to
ensure that it is ready and willing to make a contract with the counselor. With
clients who have multiple problem areas, the counselor may need a long time to
judge how best to offer such help.
Regardless whether the initial contact takes only a single meeting or a six-
month period of preparation, the contents of this phase is basically always the
same. 2.2 WhatIsaSystemandWhoBelongstotheSystem?
2.2 What Is a System and Who Belongs to the System?
Whenever we want to observe a system, a number of questions arise: How do I
recognize a system when I see one? Who belongs to the system and who doesnt?
What am I actually observing when I observe a system?
Does the biological father belong to the system when he has had no contact with
his son for over 5 years? What about the deceased grandmother whose influence is
still very much palpable within the family? Howto classify the teacher who has been
so intensely active on behalf of the family the past couple of years? How does one
recognize the boundaries of the system? What should be taken into consideration if
we are to understand and observe a group of persons as a system?
Background Text: The Term System and Its Constructions
How can I really know who belongs to a system and who doesnt? How do
I recognize a system? What is a system anyway?
First, the bad news for all systemic counselors: There are no such things as
systems! And now for the good news: That is why we can conceive of an
unlimited number of systems, the only requirement being that a system is
in the end meaningful! Our definition of who belongs to a specific system
must enable us to work successfully on that case. Otherwise, we need to
change our view of the system and create a new approach. The criterion for
determining the boundaries of a system is not that our definition somehow
corresponds to a particular truth, but rather that it is pragmatically useful.
The idea behind this thought is: Like any another term the term system is a
willful construction.
Viewing the world through glasses that see only systems is in fact a con-
scious decision on our part. It is a way of interpreting the world around us,
one that appears to us to be helpful in understanding the world and in de-
veloping ideas about how to successfully deal with that world. There are no
clear boundaries to systems or subsystems. One family therapist said it very
succinctly: You cannot kiss a system! Differentiating systems rather serves
22 2 Exploring, Observing, Beginning
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our own orientation; we prepare maps of our experience. Of course, one
could draw a particular mountain on the horizon differently. And we have to
remember that our drawing of a mountain no matter how we draw it is
not the mountain itself and never will be. The map is not the same as the
landscape itself. And a map is only as good as the orientation it offers us.
This approach stems from constructivism (see von Glasersfeld, 2002;
Watzlawick, 1977, 1984), an epistemology that assumes that our theories
and conceptions of the world are based on our cognitions and can thus never
be viewed independently of them. An infrared picture of the earth is not the
same as a normal picture, although the object the earth is the same in
each. What we perceive is very much a product of how we perceive it. We
process perceptions and develop from that knowledge our own view of the
world our theories. All of which is dependent on the way our nervous sys-
tem functions and thus determines how to interpret the information. The
construct in constructivism means that our theories are dependent on our
perceptual and cognitive apparatus and are not necessarily reproductions
of an external reality.
Maturana and Varela (1992, p. 149) drew the following analogy: Imagine
someone who has spent his entire life in a submarine, has never left it, and
was trained to command it. Now from the beach we see the submarine com-
ing closer and gliding to the surface. We radio to the Captain: Congratula-
tions, youve avoided all the reefs and have elegantly reached the surface;
youve maneuvered your submarine excellently. The Captain retorts from
within: What are reefs and what is surfacing? All I did was pull some levers
and turn some switches to achieve certain relationships between the displays
and my moving the controls all in a certain order I am used to. I didnt do
any maneuvering and I dont know what you mean by submarine.
The captain of the submarine sees only the displays of the instruments
before him, their actions, and the way in which certain relationships arise.
For us, outside the submarine, observing how the relationships between the
submarine and its surroundings change, the submarine displays a certain be-
havior that is, depending on the consequences, more or less appropriate. If
we stick to our logical approach, we should not mistake the way the subma-
rine works and the dynamics of its conditions with its shifts and movements
in the water.
The situation of a submarine with a captain at the helm who is unaware
of the outside world is not consistent with what the external observer sees:
There are no beaches, no reefs and no surfaces, rather only correlations
between displays within certain boundaries. Things such as beaches, reefs
and surfaces are valid only for the external observer, not for the submarine
and its captain, who is part of that world. What is true for the submarine in
our example is also true for all living systems: for the frog with its skewed
eye, for Wolf Boy and for every human being alive.
2.2 What Is a System and Who Belongs to the System? 23
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Constructivismis not concerned with whether there is a reality beyond our
perception. Nor does it dispute the existence of such a reality. The material
theories of epistemology, on the other hand, assume a certain material reality
beyond our perception and thus do not speak of constructions but of repre-
sentations of reality. In this sense these representations are either true or false,
and they tend to become ever more exact and correct over time, since we
continually improve upon how they represent the world.
Constructionists, however, do not say whether a construction is true or
false. But if we cannot make a statement about the actual existence of reality,
how can we judge whether our constructions are correct or incorrect? The
main criterion of the constructionist, when judging a theory, is not whether
it is true or correct, but whether it is useful and pragmatic.
Thus, we can determine who belongs to a system and who does not. It is
useless to discuss whether our definition of this systemis correct or incorrect.
But it is sensible to discuss whether the system we have defined is meaning-
ful, whether it furthers the goals we have set, and whether the boundaries of
that system could be set differently to optimize our work.
But what does the term system mean? The meaning of system, and social
systemin particular, may become clearer once one has looked at the following
assumptions concerning the characteristics and features of social systems:
Wholeness: A change in one part of a system necessarily affects the whole
system (de Shazer, 1980, p. 21). All elements of the system are bound
together like those of a mobile: The movement of one element defines the
movement of all others and individual movements are transferred to the
Summativity: The whole is different fromthe sumof its parts (de Shazer,
1980, p. 21). There is a different quality to the whole, it is more: Music
is more than an accumulation of notes; a team can do more and different
things than a collection of individuals.
Circular causality, nonlinearity: The relationship of the progression of
cause is such that the initial cause is also affected by the progression itself
(Simon & Stierlin, 2004, p. 393; de Shazer, 1980, p. 21). Events that take
place in systems are best described as processes of circular interaction and
less as linear processes, which assume a one-way street between cause and
effect (see later Chapter 5.3).
Open system: Organic systems at the level of the cell, complex organism,
and population of organisms exists in a continuous exchange with their
environment. This exchange is crucial for sustaining the life and form of
the system, since environmental interaction is the basis of self-mainte-
nance. (. . .) The idea of openness emphasizes the key relationships be-
tween the environment and the internal functioning of the system. Envi-
ronment and system are to be understood as being in a state of interaction
and mutual dependence. The open nature of biological and social systems
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contrasts with the closed nature of many physical and mechanical sys-
tems, though the degree of openness can vary, since some open systems
may only be responsive to a relatively narrow range of inputs from the
environment. Towers, bridges, or even clockwork toys with predetermined
motions are closed systems. A machine is able to regulate its internal op-
eration in accordance with variations in the environment may be consid-
ered a partially open system. A living organism, organization, or social
group is a fully open system (Morgan, 2006, p. 46).
Homeostasis: The concept of homeostasis refers to self-regulation and the
ability to maintain a steady state. Biological organisms seek a regularity of
form and distinctness from the environment while maintaining a continuous
exchange with that environment. This form and distinctness is achieved
through homeostatic processes that regulate and control systemoperation on
the basis of what is now called negative feedback, where deviations from
some standard or norm initiate actions to correct the deviation. Thus when
our body temperature rises above normal limits, certain bodily functions op-
erate to try and counteract the rise, e.g., we begin to perspire and breathe
heavily. Social systems also require such homeostatic control processes if they
are to acquire enduring form (Morgan, 2006, p. 46).
Diversity demands: This principle means that the internal regulatory
mechanisms of a system must be as diverse as the environment with which
one is trying to deal. For only by incorporating required variety into inter-
nal controls can a system deal with the variety and challenge posed by its
environment. Any system that insulates itself from diversity of the environ-
ment tends to atrophy and lose its complexity and distinctive nature. Thus
requisite variety is an important feature of living systems of all kinds
(Morgan, 2006, p. 47).
System evolution: This principle describes the ability of systems to develop
and to change, to move to more complex forms of differentiation and
integration, greater variety in the system facilitating its ability to deal with
challenges and opportunities posed by the environment. (. . .) This involves
a cyclical process of variation, selection, and retention of the selected char-
acteristics (Morgan, 2006, p. 47).
Observance systems: From the above comments on constructivism results
that there is no such thing as an unobserved system. A system is always
the invention of an observer. Thus, the observer is always part of the system
(see Background Text on p. 22).
Thinking and acting systemically means contextualizing events (see the Back-
ground Text on p. 63 and p. 85). A systemic approach sees both the problem
and the human being dealing with that problem, both within that persons
context and independent thereof. In this respect, we consider the idea of sys-
tem as outlined above to be expressly useful and helpful.
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Thus, when approaching a new task we must always define who belongs to the
system and who does not. There are no set rules for doing this; there is no right
or wrong. Nevertheless, we are responsible for determining a meaningful allo-
cation that leads to a good result.
Case example: In this sense, the nuclear family of the 12-year-old boy whose family was
seeking help because of his school problems and dissocial behavior is the system with
which we have to work. We can differentiate the son, the daughter and the mother into
subsystems, leaving the father somewhat off to the side. The important figures of the
maternal grandparents, who exert great influence on the nuclear family, may be seen as
the extended familial system, the boys school and the Social Services office as inde-
pendent systems. At this juncture, based on our institutional, conceptional and technical
knowledge, we can commence planning how to proceed whether there should be a
long and intensive exploratory phase with many conversations with the parents, the
entire family, the grandparents; or whether to begin with just the children, the social
services office and the school. Or should we limit our scope to the nuclear family and
present a contract after the initial interview?
2.3 PreparingforaConversation:Facts,Positions
2.3 Preparing for a Conversation: Facts, Positions
When working with a social system it is important to keep in mind that we are
going to hear very different depictions of the same events. Sometimes the mem-
bers of a system will agree, sometimes not, and sometimes they will be diametri-
cally opposed in both tone and content. Whos right? Whos lying? Who sees
things with a bias and who sees things correctly? Should these matters be dis-
cussed in full and resolved or should we rather avoid such differences since
they only lead to quarrels?
During the exploration many pieces of information are provided spontaneously
or given as answers to direct questions. Differentiating between facts and points
of view can sometimes be of great help to us. We consider such a discrimination
to be a valuable tool while listening to and subsequently sorting through the in-
formation (even if we do revise that statement somewhat in the discussion be-
2.3.1 Facts
When interviewing the members of a system, it has proved advantageous to first
collect some basic facts about the situation before addressing the positions of
those involved. This gives us, as outsiders, a better perspective on things. We
recommend combining certain questions to create content units. This better
frames the situation and helps the others to concentrate on their answers. The
following list represents our suggestions based on a family intervention. It shows
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what we mean by facts. Of course, the questions can also be applied to other
systems such as teams, groups or organizations.
Defining the family system: Who belongs to the family? Who is presently living
in the household? Are the family members related to each other? With this
information we can prepare a genogram (see Chapter 3.1).
Family anamnesis: What is the background of the family? Where have the chil-
dren previously lived? Who were the childrens caregivers and at what time in
their lives? What were the most important events in the course of the family
history (milestones, highlights, stumbling blocks, lucky breaks, fateful events,
etc.)? With this information we can draw up and order a timeline (see Chapter
Problem anamnesis: This means recording the history of a particular problem.
What does the problemconsist of? Since when has it been a problem? Did some
particular thing happen to trigger the problem? What has had a positive influ-
ence on the problem? A negative influence? No influence at all? Most of this
information can also be charted on a timeline.
Determining the existing helper system: Who is presently concerned with the
case? What is their mandate, goal and approach? Through whom and how did
the helper(s) come to be involved? This information can be put into a family
helper map (see Chapter 3.3).
Recording previous attempts to solve the problem: What have those persons
involved done up to now to solve the problem? Which helpers were previously
involved and who asked them to find a solution? How and by whomwas (were)
the attempt(s) stopped? This information too can be documented in a timeline.
Gathering such rudimentary facts not only gives us some initial orientation in a
new system, it also allows us to assume the leadership by asking specific and
relevant questions. Unlike nondirective counseling approaches, the systemic
method is characterized by the counselor controlling the conversation through
active questioning. Many clients welcome this approach. For them, the counseling
situation is like entering an unstructured, unknown space, which can be discon-
certing and cause unease or even fear. This method offers both clients and the
counselor a sense of security, and provides the opportunity for everyone to size up
each other.
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Background Text: Facts Is There Such a Thing as Objectivity?
The notion of facts suggests that we can discover objective circumstances
independent of the respective observer. Yet every fact must first be perceived,
analyzed, tagged and finally defined by some concrete person. And then
someone has to receive this information, interpret it and evaluate it. How we
perceive something, howwe interpret it and express it, however, is dependent
on the way we generally perceive and process information. This in turn de-
pends on our experiences in life and our own very peculiar and personal
approach. The physicist David Bohm, in his volume On Dialogue (2004),
described in detail the processes that make it impossible to separate the in-
formation gathered from the inner states of the person doing the perceiving.
Maturana and Varela (1992, p. 32) put it this way: Everything is said by an
In this sense, there is no justification for speaking of facts at all. No
information is objective; every piece of information is inextricably fused with
the cognitive state and interpretation of the observer and thus subjective.
Strictly speaking we are thus always concerned with points of view never
with facts!
This state of affairs determines our basic approach:
All statements are subjective viewpoints and not objective facts.
Determining whos lying and whos right and whos wrong is generally
What is interesting and contains the important information are the differ-
ences between the various opinions of those involved. They determine how
we proceed and how we can help to create something new.
With this in mind, we should beware of having a firm opinion of processes
in a system when the information at our disposal stems from someone within
that system and we have not heard the positions of other members of the
system. This piece of advice may seem self-evident and superfluous; but we
know from working with helper systems how quickly and confidently profes-
sionals make statements about marriages, families or persons within a clients
system although they have in fact never spoken with these people. Even in
expert opinions the statements of individual members are presented as facts
and form the basis of a professional conclusion and opinions.
Here is a further example for differentiating between facts and positions.
Regard the following two statements:
a) New Years Day is on January 1st.
b) My husband is incapable of raising kids.
It will generally be easier to have a family agree on the truth of the first
statement than of the latter. Especially the father in the family may find it
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2.3.2 Points of View
Once we have gained an initial orientation to the system by collecting some facts,
we can turn to the positions of the various family members. Also the positions of
the other helpers involved are important. Again, it has proved valuable to pool
questions to content units:
Points of view toward the problem: What do the various persons involved (sys-
tem members, friends, helpers) consider to be the problem? What do they con-
sider to be its origin? Why do they think it would be good for something new to
happen? What, in their opinion, would have to happen to make the problem
Suggested solutions by the persons involved: What solutions do the persons in-
volved envision? What could be the first steps in that direction? What would the
goal be? What would make things right? How would those involved notice
that everything is right?
Recording the mandates/desires of those involved: What do those involved think
the helpers should do and with what goal? Howshould the helpers proceed and
how much should they get involved themselves? What should they rather not
do? What would the helpers have to do to be dismissed?
Opinions concerning previous attempts at solving the problem: What do those
involved think has resulted from their own attempts at solving the problem?
How, why and by whom were previous professional interventions stopped?
What have those involved learned from previous interventions (by previous
helpers)? What do they criticize about and what was missing in previous at-
References to the documentation of positions: The information we obtain from
querying the system members about their positions can be documented in the
legend of the family helper map (see Chapter 3.3).
Ones Own Stance When Asking About Points of View
The perceptions voiced will be very diverse and sometimes even contradictory.
From the vantage point of the various system members things just look very dif-
difficult to accept the second statement as a fact. But that is exactly what we
mean when we speak of the difference between facts and perceptions. Gen-
erally speaking, every piece of information is a perception and is thus subjec-
tive. In practice, however, it is worth differentiating between relatively un-
ambiguous facts such as the first sentence and positions that concern the task
at hand. For our purposes, a fact is above all a piece of information that has
been confirmed and agreed upon by the members of a system. When record-
ing the parameters of a system it is important to differentiate between facts
and positions to bring some sort of order to a system.
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ferent. Here, our own stance during the interview is important in order for the
intervention to succeed.
We should not be afraid of these very different and contradictory points of view
or of the disharmony even agitation or animosity they may cause among
those involved.
We need to keep a firm inner stance and conviction that all the different posi-
tions are interesting and valuable, and that everyone can learn something from
We need to keep a firm inner stance that projects our understanding that differ-
ent positions are indeed acceptable and normal even among a group of people
who are near and dear to each other.
We ourselves must be convinced that each and every position is valid, that there
are no right or wrong positions, but that they are all of equal value.
As helpers who actively inquire about the various positions we take responsibility
for the interview situation and for what happens among those involved. For this
reason it is important to be able to stand up for the approaches taken and to
introduce themas the basis for the situation. That creates an atmosphere in which
diversity and contradiction do not necessarily lead to denunciation, conflict, tri-
umph or defeat, but rather are allowed to exist side by side in order to be contem-
plated and accepted. To this end, it may be necessary to intervene if participants
try to devalue the positions of others or declare someone a liar because he or she
sees things differently.
These differences should be viewed against the respective background and in light
of the possible consequences. This must succeed, at least in part,
so that the participants are less and not more stressed after the session than
so that an atmosphere is created that is conducive to working with the many
individual differences of experience, interest and behavior;
because the situation is in fact a litmus test for the trustworthiness of the helper.
Can the helper provide sufficient space for each and every opinion, without
repercussions for the individual holding that opinion? This matter is of great
importance to those involved, and the helper must pass the test.
Background Text: Differences Provide Information and Information
Makes Change Possible
This is a very fundamental part of the systemic creed. Systemic theorists al-
ways assume that it is valuable to understand differences because they are
considered the sources of information that can induce change in a system.
Every piece of information represents a difference. The statement The sky
is blue is possible only because we are aware of things that are not blue. The
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term sky is meaningful because we can observe things that are not desig-
nated by the term sky, i.e., that are differentiated from their surroundings.
The Sufis have a nice analogy that contains this thought: If you want to know
something about water, dont ask a fish. Experiences other than water are
what make it possible to understand the essence of water an experience fish
rarely survive!
Tom Waits, the singer-songwriter, expresses this both lyrically and precise-
ly in his song San Diego Serenade: I never sawmy hometown until I stayed
away too long . . . I never saw the East coast until I moved to the West.
How do social systems change? They usually change through events
(births, deaths, weddings, illnesses, divorces, relocations, changes in environ-
ment, etc.) not through counseling. But they also change when members
of that system do something different than before, when they change some-
thing! And that is precisely the point at which we begin our counseling: We
try to influence the persons involved to make them understand that they are
in the position to act differently. They can do this only if they see things dif-
ferently than before when they give up their previous approaches and de-
velop new ones. To that end, the systems with which we work require new
information. But because information means differentiation (see above), we
are interested mainly in the differences that arise in the perceptions and po-
sitions taken by the members of the system. We may even actively produce
new or alternative positions, formulate them ourselves or ask questions in
such a way that the systemmembers develop newinsights. That is why asking
questions about the various perceptions and viewpoints in the group is such
an important procedure at least as important as any of the questions we
may pose about facts.
Inquiring about positions is especially fruitful for obtaining information
when less direct and more circular questioning is employed (see below in
Chapter 5.3.1 for a more extensive look at this).
Of course, every additional point of view means even more new informa-
tion. Therefore, it may also be helpful to interviewpeople who are not directly
involved but are of great importance to the members of the system: What
does the maternal grandmother have to say about the problem and who (in
her opinion) should do what to solve it? What would the family pastor think
about solving the problem? Such an approach is often called involving wit-
nesses (see Chapter 5.5).
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2.4 FromContacttoContract:InitialInteractions
2.4 From Contact to Contract: Initial Interactions
Independent of how the exploratory phase is constructed, there will always be an
initial contact. We suggest using a set of guidelines for such conversations. Talk-
ing about initial interviews or introductory phases at the beginning of a scientific
paper or a systemic training can be a problem: The initial interview and the in-
troductory phase comprise everything that is particular to systemic therapy its
approach to interventions, its points of view, its inner attitudes. Yet all that has
to be first acquired. Thus, the following represents a sort of overview for the new
student of the systemic approach to be fleshed out with the later contents of
Chapter 5.
2.4.1 Structure and Possible Questions
The initial contact with a client or a client system may be broken down into the
following phases:
a) Joining, warm-up, introduction of the counselor and the counselors organiza-
b) Discussion of the referral and the nature of the concern;
c) Exploration of the clients resources, problem and possible solution(s);
d) Arranging a contract;
e) Evaluation of the initial contact.
These guidelines and suggestions are meant to help frame the initial contact and
then to expand it by introducing systemic elements. We do not think it is expedi-
ent to employ all of the possible questioning methods during the initial contact.
Rather, one can pick and choose areas to be included (and/or excluded) in accor-
dance with ones own intuitive hypotheses. Depending on the setting, some phas-
es and approaches may be spread out over several sessions or even longer. Or it
may be better to set up separate initial contacts with the different members of the
We sometimes speak of clients and sometimes of client systems because
the guidelines we use in our contacts with individual clients have also proved
useful for client systems (families, groups, teams).
2.4.2 Joining: Warm-up, Becoming Acquainted and Introduction
Joining means establishing a contact, connecting, getting to know someone in
their present situation. We attempt to create an atmosphere that allows everyone
to become acquainted with each other; we also try to find the optimal way to
approach the client.
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A suggestion: The first step is to engage more or less in small talk then one can proceed
to talk about more personal matters and ask questions that will further the process of
mutually getting to know one another. Mutual, in this context, means: Not only do we want
to become acquainted with the client system, the client should also learn something about
our own personal and institutional background.
The goals and importance of joining:
The clients can slowly get used to the counseling situation sometimes the mind
adapts more slowly than the body. They can orient themselves to the room, the
counselor and the entire surroundings.
The counselor takes on the active role of host and shapes the atmosphere and
the conversation.
The counselor attunes him- or herself to the clients, listens to them speak, ob-
serves their nonverbal behavior, where they sit and how they sit, how they artic-
ulate themselves, the words they use. In this way we can adapt to the clients
style (pacing) in order to conduct the conversation (leading).
From a professional point of view we must remember that we are dealing here
with the initial meeting of very different human beings. Once we have struck up
a conversation with a stranger in a newsituation, it is easier to extend the contact.
We keep the threshold low for the various family members to establish contact
so that we can gain contact with everyone present.
The clients need not present themselves as somehow problematic, but may be
seen by others as capable people with their own resources and skills.
The conscious inclusion of children shows everyone present that children and
their points of view are welcome.
The counselor takes a few minutes for small talk and then proceeds to shape the
situation: How was your trip? Was it difficult to find the place? Did it cause a
lot of trouble for all of you to come today? The counselor then provides some
own personal information.
The clients are not identical with their problems. Clients have jobs, they like
sports, they have hobbies and other resources we should know about. Everyone,
even the children, should be asked about the positive aspects of their life, daily
routines, interests and opinions. The best topics to choose are those that provide
Directed toward the parents: What do you do for a living? How does that work
out for you? What do you do for fun? Who takes care of the children in the
afternoon? How do you like your neighborhood? What do you do in your spare
time? What hobbies do the other family members have? Where do you go on
Directed toward the children: What do you like to do in the afternoon? What
is your favorite subject in school? Do you participate in sports? Where? How
does that work out for you? Do you have a lot of friends? Do you enjoy going to
(nursery) school? Whats your favorite game? Whos your best friend?
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A short introduction of the counselor and the counselors institution is useful to
acquaint the clients with ones work and methods. Clients tend not to ask about
these matters on their own. The counselor can tell the clients
where they are presently situated;
how the institution functions, what its goals are and what role the counselor
plays in the organization, how it is connected with other institutions, how pro-
fessional discretion works, and how the counselor goes about the task at hand;
what laws and stipulations affect the counselors work, the legal and ethical
background, when the counselor is required to transfer information and how
that is then communicated to the clients;
who pays for the counseling and why.
2.4.3 The Referral to Counseling, Clarifying the Contracts and
One prerequisite for concluding a contract with the client system is determining
the mandates. These can be differentiated as follows:
the expectations for the initial interview,
the expectations of the person doing the referring,
the expectations of those present in the roomfor the assistance they will receive.
The latter two points will likely have to be revisited at the end of the initial inter-
view when the counselor and the client/client system make up a contract. The
extent to which one can already discuss such mandates at this point depends
greatly on the client system. Some clients are under great pressure to report as
quickly as possible about what is bothering them to get to the real problem at
hand. If you notice this pressure building up, dont adhere too closely to system-
atic procedures, but put them off for later discussion. The clients should above all
have the feeling that they are being taken seriously.
At this point in time it is important to provide a stimulus and to make sugges-
tions about how expectations and mandates can be formulated. Of course, diffi-
cult constellations sometimes crop up: expectations that cannot be fulfilled, con-
tradictory or hidden expectations, systems in which everyone wants something
different. In Chapter 4.1.3 we discuss in more detail the various possible man-
dates and present solutions for dealing with them.
Example questions for determining the expectations of those present for the
initial interview:
How long were you expecting the meeting would last?
What are your expectations for todays meeting? Howwould you knowat the end
that your expectations had been met? (Ask the client for a concrete description!)
What in your opinion should definitely not happen today?
What are you expecting of me as counselor from our first meeting?
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The counselor should also express how he or she imagines the initial contact
would occur (time and organization) and what needs to be discussed concerning
the respective goals.
Important points to be included in agreements between the client and the
counselor concerning the initial interview:
How long should the conversation last? Who should learn about its contents?
How far should the client and counselor go in their first meeting and when
should they pull back?
What is the counselor responsible for in the first meeting? What role should the
counselor assume (or not)?
What should be reached in the end (or not)?
The context of the referral and the mandate
The situation surrounding the mandate can be very complex since, in addition to
the persons present at the sessions, others individuals as well as institutions and
functionaries harbor their own interests and expectations.
Case example: A problem arises in the office of the company president: Three part-time
employees share a position in the office. There is no clear hierarchy among the three, which
leads to conflict. They cant work together (forward information, coordinate the filing and
ordering of documents, take care of daily business), yet no one wants to assume the overall
responsibility and none of the three is accepted by the others for that position. By now,
the president is rather unnerved by all this and wants to clear up the matter in a few joint
counseling sessions, so that peace and quiet can rule again. The goal is for everything to
run smoothly again on its own. Above all the president wants one of the three (the one she
finds most suitable for the job) to be accepted as coordinator.
Case example: A juvenile magistrate orders a youth to receive 10 hours of counseling and
requests a report should the youth fail to fulfill the court order.
Case example: A child therapist refers a family to family counseling because she sees major
problems between the parents and considers the fathers parenting methods to be inappro-
priate and destructive. She expects of the counselor in the family counseling center to try
to get the father to adopt another parenting style. The mother likes the support of the
therapist and has the same expectation of the counselor. The father is uncertain about why
he should even go to counseling, but in the end he comes along.
Case example: A company director sends his department managers to supervision counsel-
ing because he has noticed deficits in the companys personnel management and thinks
cooperation between the various managers could be improved. The managers themselves
would also like to receive some feedback because they, in turn, see problems in the mana-
gerial style of their boss. Everyone quickly reaches a consensus that such counseling is
sensible and appropriate, without discussing the exact contents and goals of such a step.
The person doing the referrals and other persons in the client system play a major
role without even being present at the sessions. These examples show how impor-
tant it is to determine the parameters:
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Who made the referral, who suggested, sent, forced, convinced or otherwise
motivated the client to go to counseling?
What are the expectations of those doing the referring for how the counseling
sessions should be carried out? What do the clients actually know about these
motives and what do they presume?
What are the expectations of those doing the referring for the results of counsel-
ing? What do the clients actually know about these motives and what do they
Howmuch pressure (and what type) is being applied by the referrer on the client
to accept the help being offered?
What would happen if the client failed to come to the counseling sessions? What
would happen if the client were to terminate counseling prematurely?
How high is the motivation of the client to attend counseling?
Why did the person doing the referring suggest this particular counselor and
what do the clients know or presume about these motives?
The information we gather from the answers to these questions will help us to
a) understand the problems and pitfalls of the contractual situation,
b) form hypotheses in light of the referral context,
c) draw up a contract with the clients which is realistic and viable.
Particular attention must be paid to clients who have been sent by someone else
and whose inherent motivation may lag behind that of their referrer (for more on
this point see Chapter 4.1.5).
Determining the clients mandates
Here, we discuss how to determine the concerns of those present:
What are the clients concerned about? What do they think should come out at
the end of counseling? How do they envision the cooperation during counsel-
What should the helper contribute to the process? How should what sort of
support be given?
What should the counselor refrain from doing and not do under any circum-
stances during the sessions? What subjects are to be avoided altogether?
What is the client willing to do? What is the client completely unwilling to do?
Howmuch help should be given? What, for the client, is a reasonable timeframe
for reaching a solution? How long, how often, for how long and with what
frequency should sessions be held?
What else is important to the client (e.g., information policy)?
The answers to these questions should be given by each individual client so that
differences in the expectations for counseling become clear to all. We recommend
not posing the questions directly, but circularly (cf. Chapter 5.3):
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Case example: If I were to ask your husband what he expects from counseling, what do
you think he would answer?
Case example: What do you think your wife is expecting from me as counselor? What
would I have to do so that shes happy with my work? From the vantage point of your wife,
what should I avoid doing at all costs?
One can also size up the expectations and mandates of the clients using the mir-
acle question (see the example in Chapter 5.3.2).
Mandates Change
The therapist should take the clients mandate seriously at the beginning of coun-
seling and express interest in its realization. Yet one must also remain open to
modifications of mandates and reckon with the fact that not all mandates will
actually be expressed at the beginning and some may never be put into words
because the client is unable to. The way both the client and the counselor view
things will necessarily change in the course of the intervention; some matters will
become clear(er) as part of the process. As the saying goes, when the tip of the
iceberg melts, the first part you see is what was below the waterline. It is not our
duty to speculate at the beginning of therapy about what aspects of a possible
major problem may or may not be visible. Rather, we must assume that new
aspects, questions and themes will become visible on their own as clients formu-
late their concerns and turn them into new mandates for future sessions.
For this process we need the following:
Time during the course of counseling both for ourselves and for the client system
to understand everything that is part of the problem,
A willingness to say goodbye to the myth that one can determine the whole
breadth of the problem from the very beginning if one is only thorough enough,
Trust in the process of concerted efforts, which allows us to realize that under-
standing follows action.
2.4.4 Exploring Problems and Resources
We have now reached the focal point of systemic work. All of the questions we
now deal with, in fact, already comprise interventions. For that reason, we pre-
sent them again in Chapter 5 together with examples. In Chapter 5.3.3 we discuss
the various questioning methods used in the initial interview to explore problems
and resources. Depending on the information available in advance, the counselor
should decide in which direction questioning should go. In our opinion six vari-
ations are appropriate for the initial interview (see also Chapter 5.3.2):
Clearly defining the problem and the persons involved,
The dance around the symptom,
The past: history of a problem,
Exploring previous attempts at problem-solving,
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Differences in explanations for the problem and desirable solutions,
Questions for determining the systems resources.
2.4.5 A Contract for Continued Cooperation
One of the main goals of the exploration phase or the initial interview is to sign
a contract with the client (system) concerning the assistance to be given by the
counselor. In such a contract the parties agree to what constitutes such assistance,
what goals are to be pursued, and how long and under what conditions the co-
operation should take place. Chapter 4.1 shows in greater detail what is included
in such a contract, what it can mean to the further relationship with the client
and the role such a contract plays within systemic therapy.
The basis for any such agreement is, first, that the mandates of those doing the
referring and of the client have been thoroughly examined with respect to the
assistance to be offered. Second, the counselor must have reached an opinion
regarding what he can and will offer. Also, the counselor should have developed
a first impression and have drafted some hypotheses about the client system in
order to make an offer and to reach an agreement with the client. Theres nothing
wrong with suggesting two or three sessions for further explorative purposes be-
fore reaching a consensus about the full extent of the contract. Client systems,
referrals and client histories can in fact be very complex and large. It is better to
first gain some perspective to sleep on it and maybe discuss it with a colleague
before agreeing with the client on a particular setting, on goals and on ones
own personal and professional efforts on their behalf.
Once the mandates of those present and not present i.e., the clients and those
doing the referring as well as ones own perspective on the case have been
cleared up, the contract can be drawn up. It is helpful to write a short summary
of all previous results:
A short summary of the exploration of the problem at hand,
A short summary of the expectations of the client and of those referring,
Ones own assessment of what constitutes a meaningful offer of assistance for
the client to solve the problem (setting; length, number and type of sessions;
goals for the process; tasks and responsibilities of all involved; information man-
The assessment of whether it may be better to refer the client to someone else.
Further, it is recommended to clearly point out where the expectations of the
client, those referring and the counselor agree and complement each other and
where they disagree. If further cooperation is to occur, then now is the time to
arrange a contract as stipulated in Chapter 4.1.2.
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2.4.6 Evaluating the Initial Contact
Before proceeding to the next phase, one should take the time together with all
participants to evaluate the initial contact and exploration phase, in order to
make clear that the goals and agreements stemming fromthe initial contact have
been observed;
ensure that the counselor has learned whether or not the client is satisfied;
make clear that the client systemis being taken seriously as partners in the coun-
seling process.
The following questions may be used to evaluate the initial contact:
Did we reach the goal we set during the initial contact? (question for both coun-
selor and clients)
Howdo you feel about the first session? What did you like about it? What didnt
you like about it? Was it helpful to you? What was not so fitting in your opinion?
Did anything upset or anger you did anything please you?
Background Text: Is It Possible to Observe Without Acting?
On the risks and side effects of communication
In the initial phase we are concerned with laying the foundation for a con-
tract. Only then can we turn to concrete helping, intervening and taking ac-
tion. Up that point we as counselors mainly absorb information and clarify
the expectations of others. We cannot yet intervene until we have received a
contract stipulating the extent of the mandate.
But is it even possible to observe a social system without changing it by
our very actions, without effectively intervening? Is, perhaps, the question
alone What can your son do particularly well? enough to change the atmo-
sphere of the conversation? If we insist on getting an answer to the question
and the father or mother feels pressed to describe what the son can do well
and how that contributes to family life, havent we already exerted an influ-
ence on the system?
When parents argue during the initial contact about what their sons be-
havior means and the counselor interrupts the quarrel so that each of them
can fully describe his or her standpoint, we are of course intervening in the
system and changing the communication pattern at least in this particular
This example shows that within social systems observing and acting cannot
be separated from each other. Our particular way of seeing things and of
absorbing the information automatically changes the system, as does our way
of structuring the conversation and posing questions.
Systemic work means being active. We effectively control the conversation
through our questioning. Other types of assistance, on the other hand, are
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considerably less determinative and leave it more to the client to control the
course of the conversation. Yet even if we were less active and less control-
ling, it is doubtful that we could simply observe a social system without
changing it.
Every form of interaction with a client or a social system occurs through
communication. Paul Watzlawick (2011a, 2011b) in his pragmatic axioms
on communication put it like this: One cannot not communicate.
Even if the counselor does nothing at all, this will inevitably lead to inter-
pretations and reactions on the part of the client. And such reactions are
indeed in the very sense of the word re-actions responses to the behavior
of the counselor. Statements such as But I didnt do anything! or I meant
something completely different! may be well intentioned, but that does not
change the fact that my counterparts have already interpreted the situation
in their own way. And only their own interpretations determine what they
will do next. Thus, their interpretations of my actions and not my intentions
determine the course of the meeting. Another pragmatic axiom of Watzla-
wick was the following: The recipient determines the content of the mes-
Whether we personally think these axioms are correct or not, they clearly
are valid for communication processes. They are, as Watzlawick said, prag-
matic, i.e., they are reasonable assumptions with which we can understand
and comprehend communicative processes. This leads to two conclusions:
We cannot communicate with a social system without changing that sys-
tem. Observing without acting is not possible in communication.
The course of an initial contact or first conversation is dependent on both
the client and the counselor.
The latter conclusion serves to keep us humble: Our insights are not objective
not only because were the ones doing the reporting and thus report only
our own interpretations, but also because the course of an initial phase or
contact would have been different had some other counselor been there in
our stead. The family, the group, the entire team all of them would have
exhibited different facets. We as counselors should not view the results of the
initial interview as inherent properties of the client system, but as the copro-
duction of the client and our role as counselor.
Besides humility these considerations demand something else of us: If our
actions are so important to the results of the initial encounter and determine
what can and cannot be achieved, then we must remain ever aware of our
own behavior!
How does our behavior occur? Again, we must view communication as a
circular and not as a linear process. Our actions are clearly the result of our
perception of the situation, which in turn is colored by our interpretation of
the behavior and the input of the client system.
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But how do we arrive at our interpretations? Our interpretations deal only
partially with the behavior of the client system; they are also based on our
own biographical experiences and what we have made of them. Our systemic
knowledge and abilities do not relieve us of the duty to reflect on our own
points of view. Even systemic counselors need a measure of self-awareness!
Nevertheless, we should be as interested in the many other possible inter-
pretations of communication as possible. We should be open to and curious
about other vantage points, particularly those that differ from our own. And
that is not an easy task!
One way to help us recognize the diversity of opinion toward communica-
tion was expounded by Schulz von Thun (1998), who describes the four sides
to every opinion:
1. The content side per se: what a member of the systemrecounts in the initial
interview (the facts, the points of view).
2. The self-disclosure side: what the speaker says about him-/herself, includ-
ing revelations about pride, insults, anger, exhaustion, helplessness, be-
3. Description of the relationships: whether the speaker feels superior or in-
ferior to other members of the system, feels like a victim of the others or
guilty toward them.
4. The plea side: what the speaker expects fromothers or from the counselor.
Points 2, 3 and 4 describe information present only between the lines, which
underlie the interpretation of the recipient. This model is important because
we often interpret things selectively or one-sidedly and act accordingly. We
all are partial to certain sides of communication and tend to choose them as
the basis for our behavior. Some of us listen mostly to the pleas (Help me
quick! Oh lets not talk about that anymore! Get me away from that
man!) and react intuitively by either taking on or refusing the mandate.
Others hear only the statements about relationships (You cant really help
me! Youre too young to understand. Youre so much more clever and
capable than I am!) and react with irritation, pride or withdrawal.
Coming to terms with the self-disclosure side, with the pleading side and with
the relationship side of statements can help us to listen better; it effectively gives
us more room for interpreting our perceptions during communication with the
client system. We can thus choose which of the relationship statements, which
of the self-disclosure statements and which of the pleas we want to react to. Our
behavior within the communication with the system automatically becomes
more versatile and is no longer bound to first, intuitive interpretation. As pro-
fessionals it is our responsibility to deal with our own patterns of interpretation,
to question them and to develop alternatives. This provides us with choices
when meeting with clients and it keeps us from viewing our positions and
experiences with a client system as something absolute and objective.
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2.5 ObservingBehaviorandInteractions
2.5 Observing Behavior and Interactions
In our social and pedagogic professional life we not only interact with clients in short
spurts of conversation, but often accompany them through long and important se-
quences of their everyday life. We are usually not dependent solely on their accounts
of things, but can directly experience how they master life. This is particularly true
for inpatient and semi-inpatient settings, but also in family counseling centers, family
therapy institutes (see Conen, 1992) and in all forms of outpatient systemic coun-
seling in which several members of the system are present at the same time. Partic-
ularly with clients who are more action-oriented and less verbally adept do we have
to rely on our observations. Activities, nonverbal behavior or habitual behavior pat-
terns can then be more revealing than any statement. This is sometimes true even
for clients with more differentiated verbal talents.
Background Text: To Interview or to Facilitate Enactment?
Verbal and behavioral accentuations in system work
We are dealing here with distinctions: Distinctions are known to create infor-
mation and thus new insights. But distinctions can also be arbitrary differenti-
ations drawn by an observer, delimitations that someone else might drawdiffer-
ently. We distinguish between systemic approaches that work primarily with
conversation and those that lean more toward clients acting-out scenes. The list
of authors we present in Table 1 is clearly based on our own subjective judg-
ment, and of course there are many counselors who combine the two methods.
Yet it is worth taking a look at the distinctions we draw: They reveal inherent
differences in the way a counselor employs systemic principles (see Minuchin,
1996, p. 23 ff.). Such differentiation can help us to imagine
1. which of the approaches we prefer because it better fits us;
2. which of the methods better fits which particular setting;
3. which of the methods is best suited for which client and/or groups to en-
sure rapid progress.
Table 1: Comparison of the various systemic approaches
Interviewing Enacting
Cybernetic, constructivistic and narrative
approaches: Selvini-Palazzoli, Cecchin,
Boscolo, Anderson, White, de Shazer
Structural, experience-oriented, strategic
approaches: Satir, Minuchin, Whitaker,
Gammer, Williams, Haley, Madanes
Stimulations from
constructivism, language philosophy
Stimulations from
Psychodrama, Body and Gestalt therapy
The counselor
questions the participants individually
interlinks the answers with hypotheses
leading to new questions
highly structures the encounters
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When we observe behavior we differentiate between four levels, characterized by
increasing complexity and abstraction:
1. Behavioral patterns: Sven is distracted in class, playing with his cell phone or
whispering with his neighbor. When called on he becomes angry. Jessica ap-
proaches adults with great obtrusiveness. The father is hostile and command-
ing toward his children. This level of observation is oriented toward the indi-
vidual. We observe and describe how the person in question acts in the respec-
tive context.
2. Interactions: The teacher asks Sven to be quiet, whereupon Sven leaves the
Interviewing Enacting
Centralized communication between the
questioning counselor and the answering
client; the system dance becomes clear
in the answers the system members give
Often decentralized communication,
among the clients as well; the system
dance is present only indirectly
Asking questions Movement and staging
reveal(s) information about relationships and positions
point up differences
allows new perspectives as well as new ideas for solutions to arise,
The significance and the inherent reasons
become clear and are modified in part
Situations are experienced emotionally
and new behavior is practiced
New patterns arise through the comments
and prescriptions offered; behavioral
changes arise in everyday interactions be-
tween the sessions based on shifts in
meaning and new information within the
New patterns arise directly through the in-
tervention: changing the seating order,
structured dialogs, sculptures, behavioral
suggestions; behavior changes arise by try-
ing out and practicing new behaviors dur-
ing the sessions, through emotionally
charged images and experiences
The difference between these two approaches may be seen in normal coun-
seling situations:
Case example: During a family session, the 4-year-old son begins to make a lot of noise
while playing with the building blocks in the room. The parents remark that he always
does that when adults are trying to have a conversation; sometimes he even becomes
outright defiant. It makes a normal conversation impossible. What does the counselor
do interpret the childs behavior as a disturbance or turn it into a subject of discus-
sion? A more verbally oriented counselor would comment on the noise as a valuable
part of family life and try to arrange a session without the child present. A more be-
haviorally oriented counselor is pleased to see the son so active in the family and would
try to work with the theme by asking the parents to offer their son a more quiet activity
and to set boundaries for his behavior. All the while, of course, the counselor observes
the scene as well as the way the parents cooperate and interact with their son and
only then does he make any suggestions.
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room in a huff. If adults speak with Jessica in a friendly manner, she imme-
diately goes up to them and wants to be near them and touch them. When
his children voice their wishes, the father rejects them harshly. Here we are
concerned with how two or more persons interact, and we try to filter out the
most typical interactions.
3. Interactionsequences: If the mother expresses her needfor help, the father attacks
her and accuses her of not being in control of the family. The older daughter then
turns against the father, accuses him of never being at home and only causing
everyone stress. He then leaves the room in anger. The behavioral patterns here
are more complex: We can observe typical processes or sequences of interactions
that tend to repeat themselves. We must take a step back from the concrete inci-
dents, which are fluid, to see the repetitive background patterns behind these
sequences the grammar of interactions: the mother makes demands of the father,
the father attacks her, the daughter attacks the father, the father withdraws.
4. Roles: The daughter always supports the mother in domestic conflicts.
When behavioral patterns tend to repeat themselves again and again, we can
consider the behavior of the individual actors to be roles that may be observed
in various contexts. This approach presumes a certain amount of abstraction
and combines information from our observations into a single, summary de-
scription a social stereotype. In this example, the daughter is the mothers
supporter. Other examples for such stereotypes are the attacker, the fami-
lys little sunshine, the mediator and many more.
These examples demonstrate that behavioral patterns are always part of interac-
tions and cannot exist independent of the context. Systemic descriptions thus
usually refer to the second to fourth level mentioned above. But it is worth trying,
just for practice, to describe client behavior. We then better understand the small
differences that occur when describing, classifying, interpreting or evaluating our
own perceptions and formulations. Is it: the father rejects the childrens wishes
and speaks loudly and in a commanding tone with them? Or: the father acts like
a dictator and is hostile toward his children? Or: the father is overwhelmed by the
large family and reacts with improper authoritarian behavior?
2.5.1 Behavioral Patterns
In reports we often find statements that are a mixture of descriptions, interpre-
tations and evaluations; or the behavior of some actors is described as character
attributes. Both methods, however, contradict the systemic approach: The behav-
ior, observer and social contexts must be viewed individually and separately. More
importantly, such methods do not really help us to develop ways to solve and
change the situation. The danger lies in reinforcing the status quo and turning
changeable behavior into long-term attributes. The verbal implications are clear.
We tend to speak about how a person is and not how that person behaves:
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Sven is inattentive is a classification; Sven is distracted in class, playing with
his cell phone or whispering with his neighbor. When called on he becomes
angry describes his behavior in context.
Good and precise descriptions of behavior form the basis for an in-depth anal-
ysis of the problem and the resources available to a person. For example, they
may point to developmental deficits when we have observed motor impairments
that call for expert assistance.
The systemic counselor does not describe the deficits or disorders found in a
particular context, but rather pays attention to the skills, strengths and resources
of individuals (cf. Durrant, 1993). This in turn has a great effect on the way
clients see themselves, the client-helper relationship and the planned interven-
Case example: Sabine is very obliging during group activities. Michael can share with others
and, despite his aggressive tendencies, is very accepted by others.
Further, the skills buried in problematic behaviors can be described:
Case example: By disrupting class David reveals his pronounced creativity and his ability
to master funny situations. Beate, on the one hand, tells lies and must attend to this matter,
though on the other hand her stories are very ingenious and full of details.
Sometimes it is helpful to take a look at the way other schools of thought ap-
proach these matters.
Scenic Comprehension
The termscenic comprehension (Lorenzer, 1983) is widely used in psychoanalytic
circles. The counselor observes the clients behavior patterns and applies this
knowledge in order to better understand the unconscious patterns and themes
that lie behind them.
Case example: The single mother almost always arrives late for nearly everything: picking
up her child from the special needs nursery school, meetings at Child Welfare Services and
conferences with caretakers. She always has plausible explanations, of course, which in
light of her raising three children are generally then accepted. But it remains a persistent
pattern. The helpers interpret her behavior as resistance against their care, which was set
up on the initiative of the school and was initially rejected by the mother. In a meeting, her
behavior is simultaneously treated as a disturbance, addressed both morally and pedagog-
ically (You know, you should have . . ., your child is waiting . . ., this mustnt continue . . .),
and as a way to understand what is going on with her. It quickly becomes clear that her
explanations are often just excuses; she explains that she has so much going on that if she
gets behind, she has to rush to the next appointment in her schedule and nearly always
arrives too late. She is effectively staging her own opposition to the many demands being
made of her. These demands of her as a single mother are, indeed, heavy and force her to
push back her own desires for more space and freedom for simple downtime to enjoy her
own impulses. In the end, the nonjudgmental conversation defuses the theory of her staging
resistance and lets those involved understand and appreciate her true desires. The meeting
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results in the resolution that the mother should get some space and time to attend to her
own needs.
Behavioral Patterns in Behavioral Therapy
Behavioral therapy attacks problems by probing and observing: What is the client
reacting to with the specific behavioral patterns? System therapists can profit
from the amazing precision with which behaviorists describe behavioral relation-
ships. Observing behavior in vivo often leads to more revealing insights than just
simply listening to someone talk.
Case example: Mr. P., a truck driver, describes the fact that he tends to avoid driving on the
interstate because of a diffuse fear and the stress reactions it causes in him. Conversations
about this matter have yielded little concrete information; Mr. P. has no real explanation
for his behavior, and he is not accustomed to observing himself and his actions and deci-
phering possible reasons. But an in-vivo-session in the front seat of his truck during a long
trip did bring some revelations: Mr. P.s particular problem lies in making split-second
decisions in high-volume traffic. He hesitates and tends to overtax himself for the benefit
of others. But of course the normis that such situations occur again and again when driving
on the interstate: on the ramp, when passing another truck, when changing lanes. If you
always wait for a big gap and only then have the nerve to pull over, then it will be a long
trip, or one full of stress both for oneself and for others. That is why we experience a number
of situations during the trip in which Mr. P. waits to enter traffic with a long line of honking
drivers behind him. This behavioral pattern also manifests itself in other social situations
where self-assertion is necessary or where his own behavior becomes a burden to others.
In family sessions and in a group context he learns to be more forceful. As far as we can
see, he now also drives more resolutely and more relaxedly on the interstate without
overdoing it: In any case, he has yet to cause an accident!
From cognitive behavioral therapy (more precisely, from the rational-emotive ther-
apy proposed by Albert Ellis, 2004) we can adopt an instrument for our own pur-
Table 2: The ABC analysis of the case example of Mr. P., the truck driver
Activating situation
Mr. P. approaches, or is in the middle of, a situation that requires
him to expect something of other people, for example, to slow
down or brake for him. In a restaurant Mr. P. would like to or-
der a drink but sees that the waitress is very busy, so he goes with-
out and leaves the place thirsty. At home, when he is tired, he
doesnt demand that his daughter complete more household
Belief system
Mr. P. is very respectful toward his fellow human beings, demands
little of them and spares them a lot (which is not all bad). He is
convinced that he is not worth enough to demand anything from
others. He sees his role in life as just standing back.
When Mr. P. is in an activating situation, he feels stressed and
freezes up, reacting with anxiety and somatic symptoms (trem-
bling, lump in his throat) or he withdraws completely and sup-
presses all of his own needs.
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poses, which is both simple and profound and quickly accepted by many clients: the
ABC analysis. The classic stimulus-response model introduces a third, cognitive
component: B for belief system for ones convictions and values (Table 2).
This simple scheme can be used when planning interventions: self-instructions
and convictions can be tested and modified (B), alternative behavior discussed
and practiced (C). At the same time, one can determine which behavior is appro-
priate to which situations and when it is worth adhering to (A).
2.5.2 Interactions: The Social Dynamics of a System
In social systems, be they families, groups of children or adolescents, teams or
organizations, participants interact intensely (and sometimes very volatilely) with
one another something an outsider can then observe.
Here are a few examples of how we can observe interactions even in the very
first few minutes and how they, already, can become part of our hypothesis-
building process. But beware: The more we structure things by asking questions
or by direct intervention, the less we get to observe spontaneous behavior. If we
cause everyone to speak at the same time, we will not be able to see who is being
heard and who is being ignored.
Background Text: What Are Interactions?
During interactions we take reference to others by means of behavior; we
exchange information with others and we mutually influence each other.
Social systems arise through interactions (Luhmann, 2009). By social in-
teraction we mean speech and behavior we act (from the Latin agere).
Observing interaction thus also means observing the nonverbal signals hu-
mans exchange. Hence, systemic diagnostics is always a matter of interac-
tion diagnostics (see Cierpka, 2003, p. 23; Ritscher, 2012, pp. 36 ff.), re-
gardless of whether we have initiated the interaction by inviting the
participants to talk to us via our circular questioning, or whether we are
observing the interaction directly; regardless of whether we are dealing
with a spontaneous interaction or one instigated by our intervention. But
what advantage does this perspective offer for our work? The exact obser-
vation and description of interactions tells us something about how the
family or group in question is structured, and from this information we
can build hypotheses for our work. By observing the changes that occur
in interactions, we receive better feedback concerning changes to the sys-
tem than we would have gotten from narrations alone. Narrations tend to
be repetitions of the official versions of events, whereas behavior usually
cannot be cognitively controlled as easily as language.
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The counselor should register, during the greeting phase, who greets whom and
how and howparents react when their teenager goes by without even a glance.
The counselor should observe the seating order and how it came to be: Did the
parents or the children guide things? And who sat next to whom?
If the father begins with a long monolog, listen carefully to the content while
remembering that it is the Alpha male who is speaking.
If you ask the mother for her opinion, observe whether she says something dif-
ferent than the father or whether she effectively yields to him.
Ask the parents to pick one of several matters that are important to them and
then observe whether they can reach an agreement or whether the children in-
During the conversation note who speaks when and with whom, who faces (or
ignores) whom, who is listened to and who is ignored.
During socioeducational family interventions one can put the focus on slightly
different matters:
How is the situation structured (where does the meeting take place, how clean
and tidy is the place, is something offered to drink or eat)?
Are limits set (neighbor comes by, children jump around and over the furniture,
dog runs around everywhere, baby cries)?
Such observations can greatly help to focus the attention during the intervention.
2.5.3 The Group as a System: Interaction as the Key to Social
In groups and teams, too, precise observation can reveal existing relationships and
the changes that occur following intervention. But once again: The more we strive
to structure things, the less spontaneous interactions will be we end up observing.
This means that, besides infusing structure, the counselor should also leave
roomfor spontaneous behavior: questions, small tasks, requests for quiet, appeals
for consensus, exchange of arguments all of these are also invitations to act and
to present information.
In our work with groups of children and adolescents, in particular, we are depend-
ent on observing interactions. Using questions and sculptures to understand the
social dynamics is of limited benefit. Most readers are aware of and have experienced
the situation that children and youths in groups (or families) react to questions
concerning relationships, interactions, etc., with disinterest or even displeasure:
With children up to adolescence, language is usually not the preferred medium
to present how they deal with reality. They are more adept and amenable to
48 2 Exploring, Observing, Beginning
2 In Section 3.5 we show in more detail how these observations can be structured and
documented in a sociogram. And later, in Chapter 4, we are concerned with how to
build hypotheses for working with groups.
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games, acting out, painting and other physical activities to express and work
through their thoughts. Sometimes, however, one nevertheless chooses to inter-
vene verbally with children, particularly if they are in need of instruction on how
to develop such skills and how to use them to find solutions.
Children generally tend to avoid dealing with conflicts and troubles. They ap-
proach such matters by developing exciting fantasies or games to compensate or
to simply distract themselves. Up to the age of 8, make-believe (symbolic) play
is the main type of play and is then slowly replaced by games with rules. How
much one actually gains by dealing directly with difficult matters in order to
solve problems is usually clear, at least cognitively, to adults in helper roles; this
is the basis for our interviews and interventions. But children do not always
accept this method. Fryszer (1995) diagrammed how, in therapy, children deal
with even the most difficult circumstances and experiences without directly ad-
dressing their suffering.
Thus, we need to exhibit great sensitivity and care when using verbal interven-
tions in children. When a teacher speaks directly with children about conflicts or
social situations in the class, she is attempting to get the children to reflect on
social relationships in very adult ways. This method may sometimes be an impor-
tant stimulus for child development, but it may also prove to be inadequate for
children in this age range. When working with children and youths we are, in fact,
often limited to observation and nonverbal interventions.
Collecting observations in a group of residential youths:
How do the individuals in the group act toward each other and toward others?
Who is closest to whom? Who avoids whom? Who speaks up? Who interrupts
Is there a person or persons with whom contact is often sought?
Is the activity equally distributed or do some individuals talk more and others less?
How does the group deal with mistakes and weaknesses?
What themes, activities, games or interests help to make contact?
What themes, activities, games or interests create subgroups?
Collecting observations in childrens groups in an institution, school or nursery
Which child likes to play with which other child? What does the group do as a
Which child is excluded? Which child is overlooked?
Which children form subgroups?
What themes, activities, games or interests create subgroups? Which of the sub-
groups become rivals or pursue contrary interests?
Which children are able to form dyads with another child? What themes, activ-
ities, games or interests connect these dyads?
Which choices are made unilaterally? Which choices are met with rejection?
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An observer with a schooled and trained eye (and sometimes ear or nose) can
obtain many profound insights and a deep understanding of what is going on in
the group. Of even greater interest, albeit more complex in nature, is when we are
dealing with sequences of behavior and interaction.
2.5.4 Behavioral and Interaction Sequences
When we observe that typical series or sequences of interactions always occur in
the same manner within a system, a family, a team or a group, we can begin to
form hypotheses about the organization and structure of that system: The content
may change, but the basic patterns of the sequences (the so-called grammar of
interactions) remain the same. Minuchin (2012) has coined the term transac-
tional patterns. He is a proponent of families being encouraged to have concrete
interactions and work directly with the results: In general, instead of letting peo-
ple talk about past events. Rather, I tend to give situations immediacy by bringing
them right into the session. For instance, if I am working with an anorectic pa-
tient, I eat with the family. If spouses talk about a conflict, I ask them to enact it
(Minuchin, 2012, p. 93 f.). Here, we can differentiate between redundant and
escalating interaction sequences.
Redundant Interaction Sequences
Case example: Whenever a mother expresses her need for support, the father attacks her
and accuses her of not being in control of the family; the older daughter then turns against
the father, accuses him of never being at home and only causing everyone stress. He then
leaves the room in anger.
This interaction may be observed in families in many different variations. The
reasons may change, but the type of disagreement doesnt: a ritual the family has
(unconsciously) come to agree upon. This we call redundant interaction se-
quence. If the dissocial behavior of the daughter is the problem in the sequence
presented above, then from the redundant pattern we can conclude that the
daughter has used the parents conflict to ally herself with the mother in order to
weaken the subsystem parents and avoid sanctions.
This hypothesis is formulated on the assumption that the daughter has initiated
the quarrel and is responsible for the intractable situation. Yet this would not
correspond to a systemic view. The mother (who needs support in her fight with
the father) or the father (who displays an inadequate reaction, in part overly ag-
gressive, in part huffy as to weld the mother and daughter together) could equally
form the crux of the hypothesis.
Systemic observation does not look solely at the systemic function of any one
50 2 Exploring, Observing, Beginning
3 Sometimes it is a good exercise to formulate newhypotheses by alternating the persons
involved as the initiator of the sequence.
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behavior, but rather at the behavioral bandwidth the individual members have at
their disposal. Such interaction sequences may be maintained solely through a
lack of knowledge or the incapability of the actors present.
Case example: Did the father learn other behavioral patterns as reactions to the demands
and needs of his wife? Is it hard or easy for the mother to set boundaries for the daughter
because she herself had no model of good parenting in her own family? Do the parents
have any experiences, ideas or models of how they can cooperate as parents to help their
daughter during the difficult phase of puberty?
This is the first level of behavioral patterns, and from our experience in our work
with so-called marginalized groups we believe that the elements of leading, sta-
bilizing, teaching and coaching have a definitive place in systemic thought and
are particularly helpful and effective in that context (see below in Chapter 6.2).
Escalating Interaction Sequences
Bateson (2000) differentiates between symmetric and complementary escalation
in systems. In symmetric escalations the actors act similarly, reacting to each other
in a circular pattern with ever the same behavior: The more one person does of
one particular thing, the more another person does of another. An arms race,
much like that found between sovereignties a typical symmetric escalation:
Case example: The more the husband yells, the more his wife yells back at him. The same
is true for withdrawal. Or: the more the wife brags, the more her husband boasts about his
successes. Mutual goading ensues.
In complementary escalations, the participants act differently, though they never-
theless mutually reinforce their behavior patterns:
Case example: The more the husband clings, the more his wife withdraws; so he clings even
more, and she withdraws even more. The sloppier the son is, the more his mother assumes
responsibility for himand takes care of him; the sloppier he gets, the more she takes care of him.
Maria Aarts (2009, p. 107) very impressively describes such an escalating convo-
lution in parents with so-called cry-babies:
The child cries often and long, never quiets down.
The parents are tired, reacting gruffly toward the child, or they become hectic,
helpless, rude. Their inflection and nonverbal signals point toward high tension.
The child now shows his or her malaise even more clearly.
The parents (over)react with total attention, attending to the child simultaneously.
Now the child has even less opportunity to quiet down.
Symmetric and complementary escalations are similar in that the interactions always
escalate, being mutually reinforced, and the situation inevitably comes to a boil.
There is much to be gained fromanalyzing such interaction sequences. Often we are
dealing with circular communication loops the participants are unaware of. In com-
plementary escalations, especially, a hint by the counselor about the nature of the
situation can be very enlightening: The participants tend to see things only fromtheir
personal vantage point, which leads to an endless series of mutual accusations.
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Case example: The mother in the example given above says: My son is so irresponsible. I
have to take care of everything myself, otherwise it ends in a catastrophe. To which the
son replies: Theres no use in my becoming active, my mother will always butt in with
something to say. She always knows better, bosses me around, and if I want to do something
myself, shes already done it!
Helpers, too, are in danger of personalizing everything: If the circular process has
been going on for a while, the actors inevitably become self-caricatures. They
show only limited parts of their personalities and seem to have forgotten the rest.
This makes them vulnerable to stereotypical diagnoses, as the following case ex-
ample shows.
Case example: The son who at one time may have been a little lazy now appears to be
completely irresponsible a freeloader who just wont growup. In other situations, however,
he can very well assume responsibility and act goal-oriented. The mother, who originally
was just very concerned about her son, is now an overprotective bermother who cannot
let go of her 35-year-old son though in other situations she can draw boundaries and
demand more of others.
2.5.5 Roles
When typical behavioral sequences occur again and again, we can describe such
behavior as a definitive role that is always observed in the specific context. Roles
may be seen as the distillation of repeated interaction sequences. If these inter-
action sequences occur in the same way with a high predictability, then expecta-
tions occur: The parties come to expect that the others will always act that way.
Case example: When the parents fight, the daughter regularly takes the role of her mothers
supporter. The father takes the role of the aggressive screamer who always backs down
when things get too rough for him. The mother has the role of the helpless demander.
Cave: Roles cannot be observed. They can only be assumed from watching be-
havior, but they always remain constructs. How do roles arise? Here a short story
to elucidate the question:
Case example: A group of trainees meets for several days every 6 weeks. On the next to
last day, one member (lets call him Jan) saw to it that enough taxis were ordered the next
day for all participants. He writes on the flip board the names of everyone who needs to
go to the train station, to the airport, etc. Then he calls and orders the taxis. No problem.
The second time they meet, Jan repeats this action and, again, everything works out fine.
The third time the group meets, however, Jan does nothing. At dinner the night before the
conversation turns to him: But Jan didnt . . ., Its going to be very close now . . . The
next morning he is scolded: Why didnt you . . . Surprised, he replies that it was not his
duty and he simply didnt want to order taxis, and maybe someone else could take care of
it. This causes great irritation: You cant just stop doing your job and walk away from it!
Other group members become engaged in the conversation, and the whole thing eventually
reaches absurdity, so that in the end only humor can help in the analysis of what happened.
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Jans role resulted from the interplay of supply and demand or, in other words:
One person offers his surroundings a part of his skills and resources, and they
accept what they can use (organizational talent and willingness to help). When
this interaction repeatedly succeeds (in our example twice), a role is established.
Everyone grows accustomed to this course, since indeed they need what is of-
fered, and soon they begin to expect that it will always be that way in the future.
Behavioral expectations toward the role-player arise, with the danger of sanctions
if that person fails to correspond to the expectations (anger, withdrawal). Strong,
fixed roles, in turn, reinforce certain behavioral tendencies in that person, which
then remain in the foreground. And these tendencies negate other, weaker ten-
dencies wither away or are forgotten completely.
Below, we would like to demonstrate this scheme with an example taken from
the role of children in families. Our first and foremost learning field about be-
haviors and roles is the family in which we grew up ourselves, whose models we
transfer to other contexts. If in our own family we had the part of, say, the arbiter,
then we may end up in a helping profession and train to be a mediator: Basic
training took place in the boot camp called family.
The roles in the family develop for various reasons:
According to the childs disposition.
According to needs, i.e., which roles are necessary within the family. A depres-
sive family, for example, may need someone to lighten things up; an uncertain
family needs a brainiac to be proud of. Stierlin (1982, 1992) describes such
mechanisms as forms of delegation the assignment of unconscious wishes to
ones children to live out.
According to the roles available in the system.
According to the chances for success, i.e., that the choice of a particular role will
reap attention, devotion and appreciation.
We are constantly assuming roles; we live in a world of expectations and we adapt
our behavior to the necessities and successes we experience. Ahealthy upbringing
is favored if the roles among the children in a household change once in a while
depending on the situation (at home, with relatives, on a sports team) or change
over time to fit our age and development. This ensures a broad range of experi-
ences and the ability to better cope with life.
Dysfunctional development arises when children are pressed into fixed and
rigid roles and bound to a certain behavioral spectrum. This lopsidedness can
encumber a childs behavioral range since complementary qualities can no longer
be experienced and integrated.
Table 3 shows a few of the roles children play in the family. Also, besides nam-
ing the role itself, the table describes the basic characteristic of the respective role
and the possible contribution it offers to family life. The table also lists the com-
plementary, hidden behavioral repertoire which children in that particular role
cannot or rarely show.
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2.6 ObservingOnesOwnPhysicalandEmotionalReactions
2.6 Observing Ones Own Physical and Emotional Reactions
When we meet with clients we are often touched by the things they say; their
stories can really get under our skin some we find sickening, others give us
goose bumps or warm our hearts. Our language is full of sayings that reveal how
involved our entire body can become in such situations. This is true even for
counselors who try very hard to remain neutral: We are irritated, happy, bored,
distracted. Sometimes, after a good meal, when our eyelids are only half open
(and we wonder whether the clients are noticing), or when our attention wanders
suddenly we are wide awake at what is being recounted. Are such circumstances
only minor disturbances that any professional counselor and therapist must have
under control? Or can we somehow use them for our work?
Emotional reactions (anger, sadness, happiness), physical reactions (fatigue,
tension, disquiet) and cognitive reactions (images, thoughts, memories) reflect
what has happened and are thus important sources of information. Learning to
understand and to use these various types of reactions is part of systemic work.
That, however, requires a large measure of self-awareness. And because we know
that our perceptions are not just reflections, but also active constructions on our
Table 3: Roles in the family
Role Characteristic Possible contribution to the
family system
Hidden quality
Little sunshine Friendly Easily makes contact and is
Anger, withdrawal
Poster child Competent Makes you proud, satisfies
parents own need for self-
Misbehavior, hedo-
Clown Funny Cheers up, deflects sadness Seriousness, sadness
Precocious Responsible Supports parents Shows weaknesses,
needs, being childish
Problem child Problematic, ill Diverts from other things,
unites parents in their con-
Happy-go-lucky life
Fidgeter, trou-
Burdensome Diverts from other things,
unites parents in disciplining
Peace and quiet
Black sheep,
Lives out the
hidden desires of
the family
Unites the family in their re-
jection, assume all negative
projections, exonerates the
Getting respect
Mediator, peace-
Even-tempered Resolves conflicts, ensures
harmony and reconciliation
Feeling and asserting
own needs and opin-
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part, our own stake becomes even more important. All of which seems to suggest
that one should be careful and allowonly very distanced and impersonal cognitive
components to be employed in ones therapeutic and counseling work.
Yet our experiences speak a different story: Human beings perceive things holis-
tically, and it is our conviction that a conscious exclusion of these inner processes
would negatively affect our work. Important channels of information would lie dor-
mant. Or, put more radically: Our inner reactions will happen nomatter what there
is no avoiding them, whether we consciously introduce them into our plans or not.
We could, as psychoanalytic theory would suggest, even postulate that the denial of
these inner processes would carry with it the danger of our introducing them in an
unreflected manner into our otherwise rational actions.
Case example: When I amparticularly irritated at a client but think this is an unprofessional
reaction and thus try to regain my rational composure, I may actually increase the proba-
bility that I will insert at least some of my anger into the encounter. Alternatively, I could
simply accept my feelings and ask: What is making me angry? Do my feelings have more
to do with me and my hectic day in my own family or am I ignoring some important things
in the client system that need to be put on the table?
Using these reactions carefully and professionally assumes that one can differen-
tiate between the two and not mix up ones own experiences and reaction pat-
terns with those of the clients (projections). As a counselor I must know what I
am reacting to, what has its origin within me, my own familial traditions and my
present situation in life. Of course, one cannot be 100% sure of properly assign-
ing such an experience; yet, the more consciously I deal with my own reaction
tendencies, the better I can use my own feelings and impulses in any particular
situation as a valuable source of information.
Case example: In a supervision group with juvenile court counselors the topic is one par-
ticular youth who is causing one of the members a great deal of consternation because of
his very aggressive behavior. The group is exploring the background and context of the
situation in order to better understand his behavior and perhaps to gain some insight into
his actions. One colleague, however, remains very quiet. When asked what he is thinking
and what is going on inside him, he answers that he just isnt in a good mood today and
cant concentrate, a private matter. When asked again he says a song has been spooking
around in his head the whole time, which he attributes to his bad mood. The supervisor
becomes curious about this and asks him what song it is: Im so lonely by The Police, a
song with a relatively aggressive rhythm. He apologizes again for not being very attentive.
The colleague who brought up the problematic youth reacts immediately and asks whether
that might be a key for the young man in question, whether his behavior might be the result
of his loneliness, that his behavior reflects his need for contact with others in order to
discharge his built-up anger at his unfulfilled needs. The group now pursues this line of
thought, which proves very fertile for understanding the client and planning further inter-
ventions. The concerned colleague decided to focus on the concept of contact and was
largely successful.
Colleagues who have a background in hypnosis are well aware of such processes,
since their therapeutic concepts put great emphasis on unconscious patterns of
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reaction and communication (see Schmidt, 2010, pp. 198 ff.). The same is true
for the concept of countertransference in psychoanalysis:
Feelings and reactions can be indications of unexpressed themes: A sudden flow
of sadness can be a harbinger of an important matter or simply point out that
the client does not wish to address this theme directly.
Feelings can reflect process dynamics: Fatigue can indicate that no one present
truly wants to work on the matter at hand; energy dissipates, the conversation
falters. Carl Whitaker cleverly showed at congresses both in live demonstrations
and on video howto address these processes head-on and howto use the dynam-
ics initiated in this manner.
Feelings can describe relationship and behavioral patterns: Anger at the behav-
ior of a client may reflect that persons provocative and disrespectful manner of
dealing with relationships.
Inner reactions can correspond to the attitudes of the client: A sudden feeling of
inner tension may mean one is now approaching a difficult and fear-ridden top-
Achieving competence in counseling and therapy by perceiving and employing
ones own somatic and emotional reactions is difficult to do by reading a book.
Guided experience is the best route, so we will leave it at that.
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3 Processing, Analyzing and Visualizing Information
3 Processing, Analyzing and Visualizing Information
During the exploration phase the counselor is confronted with a large amount of
information. Human systems are complex, and keeping track of whos who and
of everyones function can be difficult. Every actor in a system has some connec-
tion with every other actor, and depending on the perspective that relationship
may take on a different hue. Remember that every systemconsists of many stories
within a grand story. Clearly, the limit to our intake capacity is quickly reached.
Evaluating and documenting this flood of information plays a major role be-
cause of the very complexity of social systems. The goal is to reduce the complex-
ity and make it manageable. We need simple techniques that provide a quick
overview a birds-eye view at the system and its particular history. This enables
us to identify the most important structures and later use this knowledge to make
proper decisions. If we dont have sufficient distance to our information or the
situation, we will inevitably fail to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Long
descriptions or reports of the sessions are time-consuming and of little value for
extracting the necessary information: Recipients of such reports have great diffi-
culty filtering out the essential from the unessential information.
In this volume we have assembled a number of methods and tools for organ-
izing, documenting and analyzing information about social systems, which have
proved themselves in the past. These graphics help to condense information and
provide that birds-eye view of the basic structures. This prepares us for the next
step, namely, developing hypotheses.
In daily practice there is another advantage to this method: What we learn in
the sessions we can also pass on to others; colleagues can learn from our infor-
mation. This saves clients repeated exploration, too. A supervision or case-study
group can easily and quickly orient themselves to the client and helper system,
without having to know all the (sometimes confusing) details.
Case example: In a large center for youth welfare services, following a number of general
training courses in systemic counseling for the colleagues employed there, we began to
create guidelines on how to carry out and document explorations, initial phases and initial
interviews. This simplified their work considerably and helped to better structure it. Above
all, moving clients from one house team to another no longer meant that the new team had
to start from scratch. The coordinated approach to exploration and documentation also led
to a common technical vocabulary.
In the following we present tools such as the genogram (Chapter 3.1), the map
(Chapter 3.2), later united in the family-helper map (Chapter 3.3). This will help
us to better sketch the affiliation and social dynamics of the system. A timeline
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(Chapter 3.4) orders the systems history and anamnesis. The final sections of this
chapter are devoted to suggestions for preparing reports. 3.1 TheGenogram
3.1 The Genogram
The genogram is a graphic representation of the relationships within the family.
Today, it is a widely used, traditional tool for displaying the structure of a family (see
the family tree). The symbols used are similar across all depictions and provide quick
and easy orientation even in genograms with slightly different schemes. We adhere
to the depictions suggested by McGoldrick and Gerson (1986, Figure 3).
3.1.1 Notes on Constructing a Genogram
The solid lines between the person symbols are arranged so that biological par-
ents, biological children, marriages, divorces and separations are clearly identi-
The various generations in a family are arranged from top to bottom so that one
can immediately see who belongs to the generation of grandparents, parents and
Encircling persons with a broken line (sometimes with another color) shows
who is presently living with whom.
In client systems we recommend including only a selection of aunts and uncles
from the parent generation as well as grandparents in order to reduce the com-
plexity. The criterion should be: Who is relevant to the planned intervention?
Otherwise, the genogram may suffer in clarity and usefulness. The situation is
different, however, when reconstructing a family or determining the relationship
of a client to his or her original family. In such cases, all known family members
should be included.
In addition to the symbols suggested, we recommend noting the names and first
names as well as the age, dates of birth and dates of death of all persons.
In client systems add such details as symptoms, illnesses, peculiarities, cause of
death, special handicaps, etc., to the persons names. For this reason, too, it may
be advisable to limit the number of persons depicted in any one genogram.
It may be best to draw up a genogram directly together with the persons in-
volved. Clients often consider this engaging because it offers themtoo an orderly
overview of their own family. For this purpose use a big-enough piece of paper
(flipchart size, portrait or landscape mode).
Sometimes, however, it is not easy to draw up a genogram together with the client
since modern families often consist of many patchwork elements of siblings, step-
siblings, half-siblings, adopted and biological children. In such cases the follow-
ing has proved advantageous:
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Start off with the child level (at the bottom of the sheet). Order the children
from left to right according to decreasing age, putting those first who presently
belong to the family system. Paternal half-siblings of these children can then be
entered on the left in the same way, maternal half-siblings on the right.
Then connect, as described above, those children who have the same father and
the same mother and connect these subsystems of siblings to their respective sets
of parents.
Figure 3: Symbols for creating genograms
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Now, present and past partnerships can be entered on the parent level; encircle
with a dashed line those partners presently living together.
Now add the grandparent generation and the parents siblings (aunts and un-
cles) inasmuch as they are relevant to the problem at hand.
Finally, note any special information such as symptoms, illnesses, peculiarities,
The counselor should gather ideas together with the clients on how to make the
connections between the various constellations and problems.
3.1.2 Genograms: Two Examples
In the following we present two examples of what genograms look like and how
they can be practically integrated into systemic counseling.
Case example: Paul, 14 years old, goes to secondary school. His grades are poor, he often
forgets to do his homework, sometimes he skips school altogether, hangs around with his
no-good friends. The exploration reveals the following:
Pauls father has his own business. He too was a poor pupil at school and to this day
doesnt think much of education. In fact, he respects his sons attitude toward the school
and has a certain amount of sympathy for his sons friends, who remind him of his own
acquaintances at that age. Despite his own problems with reading and writing, he was
able to become a good craftsman. He enjoys spending time with his employees at the
building sites and tends to hang around there longer than necessary.
Pauls mother is head secretary at a midsized company. She was always good in school
and still believes in getting a good education and vocational training. She likes to go to
the theater. In her family everyone except her has a college degree.
The parents disagree on a lot of things, including how to judge Pauls situation in school.
The father thinks its not all that bad, but the mother is worried about him. They also
have very different interests and hobbies, which causes problems in the family.
In recent years Paul has tended to lean toward his fathers position.
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3.1 The Genogram 61
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Background Text: Contextualization
What is so systemic about drawing up a genogram?
A psychoanalyst working as a counselor could just as well draft a genogram
to get a better look at a confusing family system. The most important thing
about working systemically is not the gathering of information about family
relations and the subsequent creation of a genogram. This act becomes sys-
temic only when one uses the genogram to contextualize the disorder. Such
contextualization of disorders, symptoms or problems is the core element of
the systemic method and contrasts sharply with other approaches that em-
phasize the individual.
But what does the termmean? Let us take a look at the difference between
the person-centered approach and contextualization using the two geno-
grams depicted in Figures 4 and 5.
First, Pauls client family: In the person-centered approach one would trace
the problems back to Pauls personality. Paul is lazy, stubborn, unmotivated,
aggressive. Depending on the theoretical orientation, these traits would be
seen to result either from his biographical or his genetic background. In this
approach the problem always originates from the individual. Therapy means
offering Paul an individual plan to help him to change his personality traits.
This could mean supporting him in school or providing intensive individual
counseling or complete psychotherapy.
Contextualization, on the other hand, means looking at the problems against
the background of the familial and nonfamilial relationships. According to this
approach, Pauls behavior, seen within the dynamics of his family and his com-
plete environment, makes sense. This view also points out the influence Pauls
school problems have on the dynamics of his parents marriage. His orientation
toward his father and the fathers clandestine sympathy with Pauls attitude
toward school may end up reinforcing Pauls school behavior. Pauls behavior
may be the way males in that family express their identity. And his school prob-
lems could serve to strengthen the dynamics of his parents relationship. The
problems may be centered on Pauls leanings toward the one or other parent in
the conflicts between the parents, reflected in the differences between the moth-
ers middle-class, educated family and the fathers blue-collar background. To
contextualize the disorder means seeing Pauls behavior as making sense in the
context of his family and his surroundings.
In this sense the systemic approach to working with the parents or the
entire family would be an alternative to initiating individual therapy with
Paul. One could talk about the different traditions in the parents families
concerning education and training. One could see how the new family ap-
proaches this matter, how well the parents can agree on a single stance to-
ward education, how they deal with the conflicts that arise in childrearing
because of their different background or value systems.
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The goal of systemic therapy is always to see the problem not as the result
of characteristics found within an individual, but to viewthat persons history
in situ to observe the relationship structures and conditions. Even then the
cause-effect relationship can be viewed linearly: Because the parents have a
hidden conflict, Paul has a problem. Thus, the context of the problem is seen
as its cause. In early systemic approaches this was the norm. But contextual-
ization can also introduce the circular perspective, which factors in the effect
the problem has on the context: Pauls behavior in school both stabilizes and
exacerbates the parents conflict. This highlights the reciprocal stabilization
effect the system and the symptom have.
On the genogram of the Freud family shown in Figure 5, von Schlippe and
Schweitzer (2007, p. 132) write the following:
An interesting example: Sigmund Freud suddenly developed migraines at the age of
40, which caused a burdensome interruption of his work (he could no longer write or
publish). The genogram . . . reveals a number of hypotheses about this event: Is he
stressed by his many children? Does the recent addition of his sister-in-law to the
household represent a temptation to him, the rational, self-controlled man of the
house? Perhaps the situation is like the one in his own family: His fathers second wife
was considerably younger than her husband in fact, she was just as old as his sons
fromhis first marriage. Or perhaps Freud felt pushed aside in the family since his wifes
sister had moved in, since the two being were very close. Did he withdraw to nurture
his migraines for this reason? In his own family he was the oldest in a long list of
siblings: Was the responsibility too much for him to shoulder? And finally: His father
had died that very year what did his death mean to Freud, the eldest son who had
been so extremely oriented toward his father?
In this example the authors clearly show how a genogram can be used to
contextualize a problem, in this case Sigmund Freuds writers block. We
could add to the above-mentioned hypotheses others that reflect the reper-
cussions of Freuds work problems and his migraines on the familial context,
thus utilizing both contextualization and linear components. If we were deal-
ing here with a behavior in need of treatment, then viewed in a person-cen-
tered environment we would make very different assumptions that would
reflect only the personality of Sigmund Freud (say, a reactive depressive ep-
isode with somatization). Consequently we would consider offering him in-
dividual therapy of course, what else but psychoanalysis!
Because contextualization is such a central tenet of systemic thought, we
will come back to it repeatedly when looking at other tools that can be ap-
plied in this sense, too.
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3.2 Map
3.2 Map
This type of graphic depiction of observations made in a family stems from Sal-
vador Minuchin (1967, Figure 6). Minuchin used various symbols to draw up
a family map to provide information about the relationship structures in the
respective family. But a map is not the same as the landscape. The map sum-
marizes and distills information, allowing for quick orientation. But it provides
only the observers subjective point of view! It is an interpretation of reality, a
snapshot, so that further information and developments would necessarily lead
to change in the map!
3.2.1 Functional and Dysfunctional Relationship Structures
According to Minuchin
Before we take a closer look at this tool, let us first consider its conceptual back-
ground. Minuchins approach is considered a structural approach.
Figure 6: Symbols for a map according to Minuchin
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Background Text: What Is a Structural Approach?
Steve de Shazer offers a good explanation: According to structuralist
thought, the meaning of a sign, a word or any other behavior can be known
through its signifier or its deep structure. (Minuchins structural family ther-
apy is but one member of a much larger class known as structuralism.)
Structuralism, a movement for determining and analyzing the basic, relative-
ly stable structural elements of a system, especially in the behavioral sciences.
The structuralists, in general, are concerned to know the (human) world
to uncover it through detailed observational analysis and to map it out under
extended explicatory grids. Their stance is still the traditional scientific stance
of Objectivity, their goal the traditional scientific goal of Truth (Harland,
1987, p. 2). Traditional forms of psychotherapy, including brief psychody-
namic therapy and most family therapy, are based on structural thought, on
what seems to be a commonsense point of view about problem-solving: Be-
fore a problem can be solved or an illness or disease cured, it is necessary to
find out what is wrong, to make a diagnosis. That is, they share the structur-
alist assumption that a rigorous analysis of the problem leads to understand-
ing it and its underlying causation or disease; what the client presents or
complains about is ordinarily seen as just a symptom of something else (de
Shazer, 1980, p. 30).
Consequently, there are two basic assumptions common to Munichins ap-
proach and all other structural approaches:
Behind all observations and descriptions there lies an identifiable struc-
ture. To that end, however, we need descriptions that are independent of
the observers. This assumption runs counter to the constructivist approach
we introduced above in Chapter 2.2 in the Background Text concerning
systemic thought.
An analysis of the system is both meaningful and necessary in order to
recognize the workings and particularly the dysfunctional parts of the sys-
tem and to excise the symptoms. This assumption runs counter to the so-
lution-oriented narrative approaches such as that of Steve de Shazer.
We should keep these basic assumptions of Minuchins theory as well as their
contrast to other approaches in mind when we look at the range of different
approaches (shish kebab vs. goulash method of counseling!); we can learn a
lot from Minuchin that will help us in our work with systems. Yet we need
not assume that there is indeed such a structure, though it is helpful to com-
bine information into structural hypotheses. In our practice we have learned
that some relationship structures are indeed helpful and others not very help-
ful for families, parents and children. It is worth remembering this even if
we dont make it our only guiding principle for all clients.
Besides the now popular tendency to be critical of Minuchins structural
approach, there is another aspect that should enter into the picture: Minuchin
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Figure 7: Examples for functional family structures
worked in the United States and was focused on clients from lower SES who
often lived in slums (Minuchin, 1967, 2006). Above all he was concerned
with structurally weak, fragmented systems, which made himbelieve that any
element that strengthened structures would supply the system with new and
useful impulses. This makes his approach particular interesting to counselors
dealing primarily with clients from lower classes.
Figures 7, 8 and 9 showsome of the relationship structures Minuchin deemed
functional or dysfunctional, quoting from a script developed by Dr. Marga-
rete Hecker (Darmstadt, Germany). She studied under Minuchin and together
with Verena Krhenbhl established the systemic advanced training programat
the Evangelische Fachhochschule (Protestant Polytechnic College) in Darm-
stadt. She wanted to study under Minuchin because many of her students were
working with clients from lower-class surroundings and needed an approach
that would be effective with this group. The examples provided are equally
useful for showing how to draw up relationship maps.
Figure 8: Examples of dysfunctional relationship structures
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Figure 9: Examples of triadic relationship structures
Figure 10: Examples for solution paths in structural therapy
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Background Text: Normative or Neutral Perspectives
Minuchins work was one of the earliest approaches from the 1970s. At that
time researchers were trying to depict the complexity of systems as realisti-
cally as possible in order to make them controllable and planable. To this
end, various authors described the different aspects of social systems: Minu-
chin was concerned with relationship structures, Haley (2007) with strategic
aspects and Satir (1990) with communication. Together they determined
what is functional and what is dysfunctional in systems and thus causes prob-
lems. Such a method is called normative as it tries to explain what causes
normal functioning. These results then serve as the basis for interventions in
social systems, i.e., replacing dysfunctional with functional structures.
The terms and symbols introduced above are all examples of normative
procedures and point to central problems:
How do we define overinvolvement and what is simply closeness?
What is a clear boundary and what is a vague boundary?
In 1990 Satir described in great detail how one can properly communicate
and how dysfunctional communication occurs. Minuchin says a family must
be structured such that it can raise children successfully and shows what
happens in a family in which children have problems. Later generations of
systemic counselors, however, did away completely with such normative ap-
proaches and were content to upset the existing state of equilibrium in a
system (with all its dysfunctional relationship structures) and to instigate
changes leading to a new state of equilibrium (hopefully with better func-
tioning relationship structures). The latter approach was followed, for exam-
ple, by the Milan team of M. Selvini-Palazzoli, L. Boscolo, G. Cecchin and
G. Prata (2013, 1981). Exactly how this new equilibrium functions is left to
the system itself: The Milan group places their trust in the wisdom and com-
petence of the system. The counselors, in any case, remain neutral toward
the result (i.e., the new condition); they have no opinion as to how that con-
dition should or should not look. Mara Selvini-Palazzoli, in a 1979 interview
with Klaus Deissler, said it as follows (taken in 2006 from http://www.syste-
Our families are clever enough to solve their own problems once I have interrupted
their repetitive game. They are better at finding the solution than I ever could be.
Minuchin is so certain what is best for the families. That is ridiculous, absolutely ri-
diculous. Its the typical American concept: I know whats best for you because Im a
specialist. I know whats best for you as a couple. I know whats best for you as a
family. Again and again I have had the experience that if I have been successful in
interrupting the repetitive game, the family itself will find the best solution, even when
I cant even imagine what that solution might be. Three months ago we successfully
treated a schizophrenic-catatonic girl in one session the family found the solution
that was fantastic! It was a very good session, but the solution was much, much better
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once we had broken down the repetitive pattern. Almost immediately the girl recov-
ered from her schizophrenia, and the family had to quickly find a solution they
stopped the therapy. Regarding therapy terminations, we differentiate between those
stopped because of changes and those terminated because nothing is changing. In the
case just described termination resulted because of change: The family knew how to
find a solution without the therapist indeed, a better solution that I could ever have
come up with . . .
Interviewer: . . . You interrupt the repetitive pattern and do not provide a solution . . .
Selvini: . . . never, never, not once neither I nor Dr. Prata, Dr. Boscolo or Dr. Cecchin
tell the family what they have to do. Never!
Interviewer: So you dont consider yourself the educational instructor of your families?
Selvini: . . . Never, because I have the greatest respect for my fellow human beings.
The narrative approaches, which arrived later on the scene, are very distinct
fromthe earlier normative ones. Narrative in this context means that as coun-
selor one is interested in the clients story and in the way it is told, in the
clients point of view toward life, in the problem at hand and in the possible
solutions to that problem. The goal is to change the points of view (construc-
tion) of the persons involved, to dissolve them (deconstruction) and to allow
new ones to arise. This way the members of the client system can re-experi-
ence reality and their own story anew and learn to behave differently. How
this new story develops lies in the hands of the client and does not depend
on what the counselor considers functional or dysfunctional. Steve de Sha-
zers and Insoo Kim Bergs solution-oriented method is such a narrative ap-
proach. Steve de Shazer (1992, p. 280) also differentiates his approach from
the normative one of Minuchin:
I have learned to value differences, that differences are meaningful . . . As I see it now,
this leads away from a position like that of Minuchin. He imagines a type of family
ideal valid for all families. This produces an image of what a family is like and how
such a family should function. I have seen families from many different cultures, and
they all did very different things. But they all appeared to function properly, and they
all had very different ideas about what functions and it worked. Rational human
beings emerge from such families. So why would I have a reason to assume that there
is only one proper path?
Both the Milan approach and the solution-oriented, narrative approach are
neutral toward the solution emerging from the client system. Yet there are
important differences between the Milan teamand the solution-oriented, nar-
rative position of Steve de Shazer and Insoo KimBerg. We shall explore them
in more detail in Chapter 4.
The controversy we discuss here concerns the distinction between these
and the normative approaches. At times it has been a hard and explicit fight
between the two positions, as the quotes above clearly show. Yet we consider
the controversy to be of major importance, and we consider our own expe-
riences with these two opposing views to have been extremely fruitful. Nev-
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3.2.2 Remarks on Using the Map
When working with the map the following procedure has proved advantageous:
The map quickly becomes confusing if one introduces comments on every rela-
tionship and every subsystem boundary. One must be rather selective, deciding
which of the observations is important and which is less important for the ques-
tion at hand.
Relationships between family members are not always or consistently the same
in all situations. This means that systems are not rigid, but flexible entities. Put
into the maps those relationships that are presently relevant for the counseling
situation and the problems at hand. In other situations and with other topics the
family will display other relationship structures.
In contrast to the genogram, when working with the family-helper map or with
the timeline, we recommend against drawing up the map together with the fam-
ily. Such a map includes many interpretations and assumptions on critical as-
pects of the family structure. These are in fact hypotheses that interpret and
reveal things we dont necessarily want to confront the client system with. Rath-
ertheless, no one must necessarily join a church every time there is a theo-
logical dispute. There is no single pill to cure all ills unfortunately! (At least
none that we know of.)
Even if the normative approaches of earlier systemic authors have become
somewhat old-fashioned, we still think they can be useful and helpful in the
practice of counseling today. Once in a while we should take another look at
them and see whether they have something to say about the case we are
dealing with. All the while, however, we must keep in mind that these ap-
proaches demand a great amount of interpretation, construction and simple
belief on the part of the observer, and that the instruments and terminology
reflect normative thoughts about how a system functions or not.
It is important to be aware of these prejudices. In our work we use these
methods to reflect on our own approach and the results thereof, and to put
them into perspective. Perhaps we can then spare our clients having to expe-
rience long odysseys in normative dead-ends which happens quickly enough
if one considers oneself to possess the holy grail of systemic therapy. But
remember: This path is even easier to take if one is unaware of even being
on or actively denies being on this track. Holding a position that regards
results neutrally does not protect us from our own values and norms, which
we then (unconsciously) try to implant into our clients.
There are many contexts in which we are dealing with social control, where
we consciously have to work with norms. In all other contexts we consider
it better to reflect consciously on ones own norms and to test them and rend
them transparent. We will later return to this thought.
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er, we prefer to use systemic questions or sculptures together with the family
members to view the interactions within the system. In this way, clients can
come to their own conclusions about relationship structures (see Chapter 5).
This method also strengthens the impression that structures are amenable to
change, which is an important part of the counseling process. Maps as helpful
as they may be tend to make relationships seem hard and fast and unalterable
realities; they demand of their viewer a hardy portion of abstraction to see them
only as the subjective snapshots they really are.
Case example: Lets go back to the Mller family (Chapter 3.1, Figure 4), whose genogram
we viewed earlier. The family wanted help because of Pauls school problems. The counselor
connected the information given at the bottom of the genogram with that gathered by own
observation and impressions from the exploratory sessions and drewup two possible maps.
The first map (Figure 11, on the left) depicts the subsystem boundaries; the second map
(on the right) uses the symbols to depict the quality of relationships.
In these maps the counselor expresses his assumption that in school questions the father
and son will join together against the mother, at least initially. In the first map he shows
that the subsystem boundaries between the parent subsystem and the children subsystem
are diffuse. Father and son (P = Paul) as well as mother and daughter (J = Jessica) have
close bonds in this matter. This causes the hierarchy boundaries also to dissolve, at least
sometimes. In the second map the counselor considers the conflict concerning the impor-
tance of education and training between the mother and the father to be a hidden one,
whereas the conflict between the mother and her son with respect to his behavior at school
is out in the open. This clearly reveals that, in the triad of mother, father and son, the conflict
(between mother and son) is an open one, whereas that between mother and father may
need to be resolved.
3.2.3 Action Possibilities: Dealing Creatively with Difficult Triads
Difficult triads may develop not only in client systems; counselors are excellent
objects for offers of coalition and enticements to take sides particularly when
the counselor was well trained in his own family to become involved in the con-
flicts of others. The danger lies in becoming partner in alliances, coalitions or
triangulations to save the wife from her macho husband, to stand up for the
Figure 11: Map of a nuclear family
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child toward the insensitive mother, to protect the husband against the unjustified
demands of his wife.
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with difficult triads or for disengaging
oneself from enmeshed triads:
Knowyour own level of seduction: Which systemmember or what issue can best
seduce me into entering into a coalition? This point also clearly shows how
important it is to be well grounded before offering systemic counseling.
Free yourself from inflexible positions: It is important to retain (or regain) ones
freedom of movement and ability to act particularly within the sessions. We
can stand up, move around, sit with one member or the other, change seating
arrangements, take on new positions and perspectives. Physical movement and
change sometimes brings with it new agility to ones thoughts and behavior.
Take the time to latch onto and to understand whatever appears foreign or in-
comprehensible: Whether its language, behavior, mentality or philosophy of life,
these aspects of the members of a systemare important, even if we have difficul-
ty penetrating them.
Be clear about the mandates (institutional mandates, client wishes): Try to de-
termine whether hidden or contradictory mandates have been introduced.
Point out mandates that are contradictory: Verbalize hidden mandates and then
ask whether they are still valid. State clearly what is possible and what is not.
Clear up any open questions about who owns problems and who is respon-
sible for solutions: By asking questions we can bring clients to assume respon-
sibility and to define themselves (e.g., forward-looking hypothetical questions).
Take sides (and sometimes change sides), but only consciously and transparent-
ly, for a limited time and in a balanced way.
Slow things down: Give everyone the time and space to speak his or her mind.
This serves to shed light on what is causing conflicts and which constellations
are at hand.
Especially when dealing with triangulations or redirected conflicts in client-helper
systems the following has proved effective:
View yourself and other institutions as part of the system (and thus as part of
the problem). Helpers and institutions too have their own interests their
own self-interests! Which ones are active? Can they be openly discussed? (see
Chapter 4.1.6)
Conduct a systemic analysis of the problem that goes beyond the client system
and investigates the participating helper system(s) as well. Draw up a map of the
client-helper system that identifies potentially problematic institutional triads.
Make clear arrangements with any institutions that are participating or that did
the transferring, while at the same time integrating the client system: Who does
what? Who informs whomabout what? Who is responsible for what? This is also
true for any desired limits: Who abstains from doing what? (see Chapter 4.1.2)
Avoid allowing a hierarchy to arise within the helper system! Cooperating insti-
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tutions should not become our clients, but should rather always remain partners
on equal footing.
Set up round-table discussions that include the client system and the most im-
portant institutions involved. 3.3 Family-HelperMap
3.3 Family-Helper Map
The family-helper map is intended to facilitate orientation within the system, con-
sisting of family members, informal helpers and professional helpers. Much like
one uses a geographic map during a long hike in uncertain territory, such a map
can be consulted whenever things become unclear. The family-helper map con-
solidates and visualizes many different pieces of information; it provides an over-
view of the case as a whole and allows a more clinical birds-eye view.
Such a map concentrates and structures information by asking the following
How large is the clients family system? What is the clients role? (genogram)
What informal support system, e.g., friends, relatives or neighbors, does the
family have? (informal support system)
Who belongs to the helper system and which institutions are actively participat-
ing in the case (social services, school, kindergarten, counseling center, doctors,
therapists, clinics, etc.)? Howlarge is the helper systemand is it manageable for
both the helpers and the family? What do the individual members of the helper
system know about each other? Do they know what the others are doing and
what their respective role is? (existing helper system)
Which helpers were involved in the past but are no longer involved? How many
helpers has the family had to date? (In a family with, say, three children, with a
difficult social and familial situation, and with multiple problems with all of the
children, we can be talking about up to 40 persons!) How often have the partic-
ipants already told their story? How often have they already been helped? How
often have they set up contracts with helpers? (earlier helper system)
What are the relationships between everyone involved, including between fam-
ily members and helpers: close, distant, with or without boundaries, coalitions,
alliances? (map according to Minuchin). Here, too, it is essential to include only
the fewest possible, most important relationships (symbols) which clearly de-
scribe the most vital structures. The family-helper map would otherwise quickly
become confusing and impractical.
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Background Text: First- and Second-Order Cybernetics
Observers are part of the system
The family-helper maps demonstrates one of the most important tenets of
systemic work: It is not sufficient to look only at the family system; the fam-
ilys context inasmuch as it is relevant to the question at hand must also
be included. Especially other active helpers greatly influence what happens.
We helpers are equally part of this new system, consisting of family, informal
helpers and professional helpers. This thought may seem obvious, but it rep-
resented a major step forward in the history of systemic therapy: It marked
the transition from the first to the second level of cybernetics.
If we put aside our role as helpers and view only the client system, we
ignore the many reciprocities that exist between the system and ourselves.
We are viewing the system as if it were purely as an object to be dealt with,
whereas if we see ourselves as part of the system, it becomes clear that we
must deal with how our views of the system and its members are influenced
by our own position within that system. The prerequisite for analyzing our
own position is the ability to differentiate between the various levels of ob-
servation in the system. These levels are described in the following illustra-
tions and texts.
A system (e.g., a family)
A family with all its relationships, communication patterns, history, culture
and conflict rituals is depicted in Figure 12. If an observer (counselor)
were to observe and describe this system, the result would be something
like that given in Figure 12. Yet the observer does not exist in this descrip-
tion! The description asserts the claim to objectivity because the observer
is not present (first-order cybernetics). Systems and their internal workings
would appear to exist exactly as the observer denotes. This method ob-
scures the fact that all descriptions are merely the perceptions and assump-
tions of an observer.
Figure 12: A system (e.g., a family)
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An observer system: Counselor plus family (see Figure 13)
Together with the counselor the family forms a new systemin which the main
themes are communication, family structure, its relationships, communica-
tion patterns, history, culture, etc. For example, in this observer system the
counselor could let a sculpture be done depicting all of these things. We speak
of second-order cybernetics only when the fact has been admitted that the
observer interacts with the system, that all observations and all hypotheses
of the counselor about the system are not objective but rather the result of
such interaction, filtered through the cognitions, opinions and assumptions
of that observer. The structures and even the system boundaries of the family
are all assumptions made by the observer and not objective facts (see the
Background Text on What Is a System? in Chapter 2.2).
Figure 13: An observer system (counselor plus family)
Observer-observer systems: Supervision group or team (see Figure 14)
In this constellation a group of observers observes and analyzes the interac-
tion of another observer with a system. This is the case in supervision or a
case-management meeting. The group makes hypotheses concerning the in-
teraction, for example, about howthe helper can initiate change in the system
by own interactions, or why such a change has not previously been possible.
The family-helper map, which includes both the observing and the interven-
ing counselor, is the driving force behind the idea of second-order cybernet-
ics: The observer is part of the system! A counselors own observations,
standpoints and assumptions about the system cannot be isolated from his
or her own position and relationships within the system.
Family-helper system (see Figure 15)
A family-helper system can be an observation system with several observers
(helpers) with their respective hypotheses about the dynamics of the family.
These hypotheses depend, among other things, on the context of the respec-
tive helper, their relationship to the family and the institutional mandate. Fur-
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Figure 14: Observer-observer system (supervision group or
Figure 15: Family-helper system. The figure shows an example drawn from youth wel-
fare services. For readers not familiar with the terminology in this field here a few of the
pertinent abbreviations:
GSS = General Social Services, whose role it is to carry out the laws pertaining to
children and adolescents, among others, protecting children from abuse and supporting
families, children and adolescents. The GSS is usually the authority that sets up the
interventions to be taken on behalf of the family.
FA: Family Assistance, the authority that carries out the measures decided upon by the
GSS and maintains contact with the family. The family gets its direct support from and
is accompanied by the FA. The FA counsels the parents and, together with the parents,
works out the details of daily life, often directly in the familys living quarters.
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3.3.1 Drawing Up a Family-Helper Map
The basis of any family-helper map is a complete genogram with all levels of
family relations. The informal helpers can be grouped around the genogram. The
professional helpers involved should be entered in the lower part of the map, with
past helpers best listed under a line at the bottom part of the map.
Besides the basic facts determined during the exploration, the map should also
include information and assumptions concerning the relationships of the system
members. Draw in the most important ones with the help of Minuchins relation-
ship symbols. Assumptions about relationships that seem vague, or if one is un-
certain or consider them of lesser importance, should be excluded at this point,
for the following reasons:
A proper overview is sacrificed if there are too many relationship symbols pre-
sent. A geographical map that contains every single stone and bush is a poor
map indeed.
ther, the helpers have relationships among themselves as do their respective
institutions. Thus, there is a danger that the individual interventions of the
many helpers could disrupt instead of complement each other. If there is an
impasse in the work with the family or disruptions in the cooperation be-
tween the various establishments, it may be advantageous to build some hy-
potheses concerning the interactions going on in the family-helper system.
The helpers and the family member involved are greatly influenced in their
hypotheses about the dynamics of the family-helper system by their own per-
spective on the system. At this juncture a new level of observation may arise
that of a supervision group or professional team. The observers of a fami-
ly-helper system use the external perspective of such a viewpoint to suggest
new hypotheses about the dynamics of the family-helper system. This in turn
forms the basis for new interventions to bring about changes in the family or
in the cooperation of the helpers involved.
When working systemically with families, other helpers, professional teams
and supervision groups, it is important to distinguish between the various
system and observation levels:
Which system are we describing now? And what is our role as an observer
in this system?
How influenced are our hypotheses by our own perspectives within the
From what perspective and in whose interests are we writing reports and
official statements and making decisions?
How can we take into account the perspectives and actions of the other
helpers when setting up cooperations, agreements and relationships?
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The map is an important tool for documenting the case but not for recording
every fleeting thought about the case.
The map should be such that we can show it to other colleagues. That means
eliminating all speculative assumptions about the relationship network which
might cause unnecessary irritations.
3.3.2 Notes on Recording the Informal Helpers
In this step those persons who support or are important to the client system are
introduced onto the map. This can include friends, relatives, an adolescents peer
group or other important consultants such as pastors, godparents, mullahs and
imams as well as the classical helpers and healers of the respective culture (ma-
gicians, witches, healers). These various sources of help can be very important to
persons from other cultures who may not be accustomed or willing to turn to
Western psychosocial counseling centers with their developmental and familial
problems. We usually try to actively query foreign clients concerning such tradi-
tional cultural helpers since they may not come forward with this information on
their own: They think we are not interested or do not take them seriously.
The social system of a street gang may provide a 17-year-old delinquent with
useful suggestions and solutions albeit different ones than a social worker or
counselor might come up with. Likewise the friends fromhome in Morocco might
give a Moroccan man whose wife and children have moved into a womens refuge
very different advice about what he should or should not do in the situation and
offer him other practical tips.
It is important to note these influences and give them a symbol on the map.
Otherwise, we may overlook relevant and important elements within a system.
In particular we may miss the valuable resources that lie in such informal helper
systems and can be implemented in our interventions to ensure a success therapy.
3.3.3 Notes on Recording Professional Helpers in the Map
We recommend a thorough exploration of the professional helpers who are presently
working with the family or have worked with them in the past. Ask about the goals
that were set, about the intensity of their engagement, about their successes and
failures. It is also interesting to find out what the individual family members learned
from previous helpers and how, why and by whom their efforts were terminated.
(Such questions are given in Chapter 2.3.1 for use in explorations.)
Taking too little time to elicit this information will inevitably be punished in
the long run: You will inevitably miss out on the perspectives of other professional
helpers toward the same problems you are now confronted with, or how the fam-
ily system has dealt with such helper relationships! It may make you feel good to
be unique and exclusive, but it definitely damages your realistic chances of
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achieving success with the clients. Above all, in this way one fails to learn from
earlier attempts at intervention.
The map should contain the names of the helpers institutions in squares. We
recommend entering the actual persons from the institutions involved with whom
the family had contact as well as those persons from the respective institution who
played a major role in making decisions or participated in helper conferences.
3.3.4 Key to the Family-Helper Map
Up to now we have entered on the map mostly the facts learned during the explora-
tion. But putting in the relationship symbols according to Minuchin now means
entering ones own points of view and observations regarding the relationships.
The key on the family-helper map can also document the perspectives of the
most important persons in the family-helper system. These are determined by
asking the questions suggested in Chapter 2 (What are the familys strengths?
What is the problem? What would be a good solution? What does this person
expect from me as a helper?). Note the positions of each person on a separate
piece of paper that can be added to over time. It is also helpful to make sketches
of the most important belief systems, convictions, value systems, etc., of each of
these persons (see Table 2 above).
This method also reveals which of the positions we have given the greatest atten-
tion to: Which page has the most entries and which has none? Whose positions
were more (or less) carefully documented? Once again we are dealing here with one
of the most basic tenets of systemic work: Systemic counselors feel obliged to remain
neutral. In practice that entertaining all perspectives of the system, every point of
view of every participant. The counselor must always see to it that the individual
positions in the system are not discriminated against, simply because
they take up less time during the sessions,
they incite less curiosity and appreciation in the counselor,
they are less well documented.
Documenting the positions of the individual system members in the key to the
family-helper map reveals the following:
which of the system members I am attracted to or not: social neutrality;
which of the system members captures my attention and engages me or not:
social neutrality;
whose behavior, problems and explanations I more readily accept or deny:
neutrality toward process;
whose goals, solutions, points of view and interests agree with my own or not:
neutrality toward outcome;
toward whomI ammore lenient (or harsh), whomI knowbest (or least), whose
interpretations get lost (or always come to the forefront): social neutrality;
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Background Text: On Neutrality
Systems may be viewed from many different vantage points (Morgan, 2006):
technically, as the logical intermeshing of different feedback loops.
biologically, as organisms that adapt again and again in order to survive
under new circumstances; as organisms that strive to secure the satisfac-
tion of their needs and thus their own survival; or as organisms whose
main task it is to regenerate themselves both fromwithin and fromwithout
via activity.
psychologically, as a place where the psychological needs of the partici-
pants are staged, for example, creating something together that extends
beyond death (children, a house, a company, etc.); or roles that are acted
out (the princess, the fool, the kings murderer, the warrior, the diligent
one, the vamp, the lover, etc.).
politically, by recognizing interests, power distribution, struggles for self-
assertion, strengths, weaknesses, fear of failure, parties, coalitions and
Of particular importance for all social systems families or organizations
alike is the political moniker one looks through. This aspect must receive
special attention when a newhelper is added to a system. Adding newparties
and new power distribution plans this inevitably changes the previous polit-
ical equilibrium. Such a situation is important to the participants because the
system is usually unstable and at danger at exactly those points of time when
new helpers are added. This is why the new helper is seen an important par-
ticipant in the future development of the system:
How much influence does that person garner?
To which party does that person belong?
Which party suggested adding that person to the system and why?
Does that person remain neutral?
Does that person sympathize with the values, goals, beliefs, solutions and
programmatic positions of a particular party?
Does the person endanger ones ability to assert their own interests?
Can that person be utilized by someone to assert their own interests?
If it is our goal to be a counselor to the entire systemand not a partisan to one
side or the other (consciously or not), then we need a certain measure of
neutrality, if only to be accepted by all participants of the system as a coun-
selor. For this reason, systemic therapists and counselors began early on to
concern themselves with various concepts of neutrality.
One early suggestion was that of multidirected partiality (Boszormenyi-
Nagy, 1985; Stierlin et al., 2002). According to this principle, the counselor
should be able to identify and side with all participants of the system
throughout the entire duration of the intervention. This idea is difficult to
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realize because it demands a great deal of internal flexibility and great
breadth of empathy. It is also difficult to test or even observe this in everyday
Later there evolved the concept of neutrality (Selvini-Palazzoli et al., 1981),
in the sense of a continually changing partiality. In this scheme the counselor
allows space for newsystempoints of viewor perspectives, is interested in those
positions, examines them, and tries to understand how they affect the interac-
tions within the system in both the past and future. If the helper does this in a
relatively fair manner with respect to his or her own available curiosity, time,
interest and appreciation, then something approaching social neutrality can be
reached. For many systemic counselors this concept appears to be easier to
manage because it emphasizes the successive pattern of attention paid to the
various persons in the system. Unlike multidirected partiality, it focuses more
on concrete behavior than on some inner disposition. Whether each person in
the systemhas in fact been treated more or less equally becomes apparent in the
course of the session. Thus, the concept of neutrality is easier to verify and
operationalize than multidirected partiality. The idea of neutrality forms the
basis of the conscious and systematic questioning of the various points of view
and their documentation in the key to the family-helper map.
Neutrality in this sense of the word does not exclude the counselor from
having own opinions. Thus, we differentiate several different types of neutrality:
The counselor can be socially neutral by favoring no one and being equally
interested in all positions of all persons involved.
The counselor can have neutrality toward the outcome (Simon & Rech-Si-
mon, 2012, p. 26 ff.), meaning the counselor is indifferent to whether one
solution or another comes to be accepted (whether the son moves out or
not, whether a couple separates or stays together, whether the solution
suggested by colleague A or colleague B wins out).
The counselor can be neutral toward the process, i.e., impartial to whether
the problems have to be solved quickly (different parenting styles, the
daughter hangs around all day, aggressive behavior in the team) and im-
partial to whether the explanation of one person or another better reflects
the root of the problem.
Often we have very clear opinions and must be able to defend them. Sexual
abuse and physical violence are not good solutions in a family: There is no
room here for neutral expectations. Social services are state-run organiza-
tions. They represent societal values (e.g., children enjoy special protection).
If we are a part of such social services, we cannot be completely neutral about
the solutions our social system prefers for existing problems. Of course, there
is always leeway within these limits to shape the state of social systems. There
are many different acceptable lifestyles that we can and indeed must treat
neutrally. Still, we should be clear about the following:
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whose positions and interests rather receive my personal sympathy and whose
dont: neutrality toward outcome;
whose positions and interests conform to my institutional mandate or are dia-
metrically opposed to it: neutrality toward outcome.
For these reasons, the key on the map serves not only as a documentation to better
understand the system participants. It also serves as a good basis for me as coun-
selor to deal with the question: How neutral am I really? And, of course, is it OK
the way it is? Such documentation also helps us to foresee both future pitfalls and
opportunities in the interactions between the counselor and the various members
of the client system in a political sense (neutrality, interests, coalitions) and to
analyze their risks, chance and side effects. 3.4 Timeline
3.4 Timeline
Up to now we have been concerned with documenting and organizing the infor-
mation that defines the present state of our system: Who belongs to the system?
What are the relationships within the system? Who represents which points of
view? But systems also have a past that is not unimportant to our understanding.
There are three aspects to the history of a system:
the developmental history of the system: family case history, the history of an
organization or a team;
the developmental history of the problem and its development over time: partic-
ularly important in systems with chronic problems history of the symptoms,
the disorders and problems;
the history of the attempts to find solutions through own resources or with pro-
fessional help: history of previous attempts at solving the problem.
When do we harbor neutral outcome expectations and when not (own
values and positions)?
When are we comfortable with being neutral toward the outcome?
When do we have to maintain neutrality toward the outcome?
When is neutrality completely wrong?
Above all: What consequence does our neutrality or nonneutrality have on
the system?
Whereas social neutrality (sensu Selvini-Palazzoli) is an appropriate and es-
sential position when working with systems, each new case demands our at-
tending to the question of neutral outcome expectation especially for situ-
ations in which decisions are to be made: Neutrality is not always the best
choice there. In Chapter 4 we look at these matters more closely.
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Existing information on these areas can be documented with the help of a so-
called timeline that presents and visualizes previous efforts in a chronological
fashion. This enables a birds-eye view, which in turn provides a more general
overview and emphasizes relationships. The timeline orders the helpers informa-
tion into a history of the system and helps to prepare hypotheses. Belowwe touch
on some relevant questions regarding the three aspects mentioned above.
Developmental history of the system: Which distinctive events have shaped the
system and its history: marriages, separations, extramarital affairs, moves, unem-
ployment, new family members, births, deaths, sickness, changes of status of im-
portant persons or caregivers, etc. Here, too, one should limit the list to only the
most important events.
Depending on the situation some aspects may be more important than others
and need to be documented on the timeline accordingly. For example, when work-
ing with juveniles it is important to know who was the childs main caregiver and
at what times, whether there were any changes or separations from caregivers in
the past. The history of a childs attachment often plays a key role in understand-
ing the present situation.
In organizations and teams, on the other hand, the question may be a very
different one: Who founded the group and under what circumstances? Did it at
any point increase in size? Did any other important changes occur? Did compet-
itors come into play or leave the scene? What were the past circumstances and
how have they changed over time? Were there any changes in the administration,
structure or personnel at decisive points in the system? Have the financial mo-
dalities changed in any way over time?
Developmental history of the disorder: When did signs of the problemfirst occur?
Have they increased in strength? Decreased in strength? Changed at all? Were
there fluctuations over time? Did new and different problems occur? What other
changes occurred simultaneously?
History of coping and previous attempts at solving the problem: Were there any
experiences of success and overall good times? What hurdles did the clients have
to overcome and how did they succeed? What did the clients try on their own to
solve the problem and what were the results of their efforts? What did informal
helpers suggest? When did professional helpers enter and leave the picture? What
was undertaken and when was it undertaken? Recording this aspect may take
considerable time, patience and interest as it doesnt concerns present problems,
and the members of the system may have little motivation to talk about past (un-
successful) attempts. Persistent querying and active probing with due respect to
the limits and coping skills of the clients are necessary. Information obtained
here is very useful, but need not be gathered during a single session or even at the
beginning of counseling.
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Background Text: Contextualization The Temporal Dimension
The timeline serves to document information on the history of the system,
the systems problem and previous attempts at finding a solution. It puts
things in order and provides an overview of what is known. In addition, it is
capable of temporally contextualizing problems and placing them against the
background of a historical development. In genograms, maps and family-
helper maps we can contextualize symptoms or difficulties by connecting
them to present system constellations and relationship structures. The goal
is to determine (or invent) connections between family history and system
history, attempts at finding a solution and the problem history. This in turn
opens up other ways of explaining or viewing the problem and its conse-
The idea of putting the history of a problem in a temporal context was
introduced early on in the development of family therapy (see, for example,
Minuchin, 2012; Carter & McGoldrich, 1989) and was foreseen above all in
conjunction with life phases and passages. Carter and McGoldrick describe
the typical tasks humans face during the various phases of family life: leaving
home, finding a partner, having children, children go to school, adolescence,
children leave home, becoming a grandparent, retirement, death and loss.
The hypothesis of critical events leading from one phase to the next forms
the basis of this school of thought. Viewed from this perspective, problems
can sometimes play a meaningful role by slowing down or even stopping the
transition process. For example, the neglected or immature young adult child
can keep the normal parent-child activities going for a long time. Or when a
difficult phase of marriage follows the birth of the first child, which may point
to the couples failure to find a balance between old and new roles.
In their phase model of the development of organizations, Glasl and Lie-
vegoed (1996) describe how the transitions from one phase to the next can
become the origin of new problems and crises a plausible conclusion since
any transition confronts the people concerned with more or less difficult
changes. A transition can be successful or it can fail, depending on the con-
textual circumstances and the coping mechanisms present in the system. Re-
gardless of whether these models prove tenable in all conceivable cases, they
are useful hypotheses for dealing with problems such as normal transition
crises. This can be a relief to many clients and often allows them to gain a
new perspective. It steers them away from exasperation and self-reproach
and toward recognition of the necessity for change and the search for prac-
ticable solutions.
The goal is not to establish a complete and linear causal chain (because
the separation happened, the symptoms appeared shortly thereafter), but
rather to describe the reciprocal effects (circular processes) in the sense of
the effects a problemhas on the development of the systemor on the attempts
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3.4.1 Designing the Timeline
We use the following elements to construct the timeline (Figure 16):
The timeline proper with information on the year or month lies in the middle or
upper third of the figure. (Here, too, we recommend using a flipchart in land-
scape when setting up the timeline together with the client.) How best to parti-
tion up the timeline will depend on the case at hand. Sometimes past events are
put more closely together since there is generally less to report on, whereas more
eventful times are given more space.
The most important events in the family or organizational history are entered
above the timeline.
The development of the problemor symptomis entered directly belowthe time-
The lower third of the figure is reserved for denoting resources, past experiences
and previous attempts at finding solutions.
3.4.2 Working Together with the Client on a Timeline
Experience shows that clients enjoy working together with the counselor on pre-
paring a timeline. That has a number of advantages:
When clients recall events fromthe past and these are entered into the timeline,
it triggers their memory of even more events from that period. We all know this
phenomenon: The more we think and speak about a past event, the clearer it
becomes in our mind. Warming up old memories tends to activate all sorts of
at solving the problem. The timeline can help one to form hypotheses con-
cerning the relationship between a life situation and a disorder and thus
offers assistance in defining the makeup of our professional support.
Figure 16: Example of a graphic depiction of a timeline
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associations and visualizing them in the form of a timeline supports this pro-
cess considerably.
Clients often have a rather disorganized picture of their own past. Looking at it
together with someone can often bring a better overview and more order than
previously possible. Grawe et al. (1999; see Chapter 5) regards such experiences
as important factors contributing to successful psychotherapies.
With chronic problems the clients may have already consulted many different
helpers and they can no longer remember exactly who suggested what or what
the respective results were. Getting an overview and reflecting on it together
with the client can be very helpful to the new counselor; resources are activated
and dead ends avoided.
During an anamnestic interview, many clients like to see exactly what the inter-
viewer is writing down.
For many clients working with a sheet of paper that both parties can see is better
than just talking about things while facing each other. This is especially true of
When looking at the timeline together with the client, give the client some time
to peruse and think about the result. Clients often develop their own theories
and contextualizations that would not have arisen without the visualization.
Case example: The following stems from a supervision in a child and adolescent center,
where one of the adolescent clients reported the following: Sonja, 14 years old, did not
keep to the rules. She was always running away and often had to dramatically be retrieved
by the police only to disappear again after a few days time. She had spent little time in
school and had a huge file at the welfare services. The social workers were at their wits
end: All of their attempts, even those involving closed institutions, had proved ineffective
in the long run. In the supervision group we were all rather helpless and perplexed at this
phenomenon. It was the timeline that helped us further: Sonja was from a Roma family
and had early on experienced many relocations.
Her timeline (Figure 17) showed what had been known previously from the oral report,
but not completely realized: Sonja was acting exactly as she always had in her family. She
had moved around a lot and had, following the disintegration of her family, been put in a
number of foster families. She had established relationships neither to the localities and
nor to the persons there; her home was wherever she was passed around to next, her family
consisted of those who took care of her for a while. Against this background it became
clear that any attempt to offer her a specific place to live with unchanging caretakers would
not work. Fromthe resources analysis we knewthere was an aunt, and one of her caretakers
was particularly important to her. This led to the following suggestion: Sonja was to be put
into a single room in an assisted living facility for juveniles along with the caregiver she
liked so much. The caregiver initially did not demand much of Sonja; she simply followed
her around and was available to her if needed. This strategy was not a little risky (in a legal
sense too) and had first had to be discussed with the courts and with the police. After a
years time Sonja had stabilized and showed increased interest in her own perspectives,
including a possible vocational training. She spent more and more time in her own apart-
ment and even went back to school (with much special educational support). She did not
completely stop roaming around, but her trips now tended to be less often and shorter.
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3.5 Sociograms:TheGroupasSystem
3.5 Sociograms: The Group as System
In Chapters 2.5.2 and 2.5.3 we described methods with which we can observe
and record the social dynamics of systems in residential juvenile groups, in
groups of children in homes, at school or in nursery schools. In this chapter we
introduce the methods used to organize and document these observations. The
symbols suggested by Minuchin for maps (see Chapter 3.2) generally describe,
organize and document the social dynamics found in families. But this language
of symbols, with some additions and supplements, can also be used to describe
other systems, such as groups, teams or whole neighborhoods.
We understand the social dynamics of a group to be the relationship structures,
the social roles and the subgroups that emerge during interactions and enable a
group to function and act as a group.
Whenever we create sociograms with the help of Minuchins symbols we use
circles and squares for girls and boys, entering their age and symbolizing their
emotional proximity or distance by putting them closer or further apart. Also, we
can depict the quality of the relationships by employing symbols for closeness
(choice of joint actions and games) and conflict (rejection).
We construct social dynamics from our observations how individuals in the
group react to each other, who wants to be with whom, who rejects whom. But
Figure 17: Example of a timeline
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there are also other observations we can make in a group (see the questions given
in Chapter 2.5.3):
What are the values, interests and needs that link the subgroup together and
which of them are associated with the individual members?
What are the common group activities? Are there common interests? What do
the subgroups do together to have fun and what do the individual members
prefer to do alone?
We suggest adding the observations from these questions to the subsystems. Nor-
mally, the results of our synopsis of the social dynamics of these aspects provide
a better understanding of what lies behind the social dynamics of the group. The
interests, desires, needs and values
weld the group together if they are similar or identical,
drive the group apart if they preclude each other, or if they are felt to be some-
how threatening or dangerous,
can prevent some individuals from gaining access to the group.
With this information we can, as the person responsible, develop hypotheses
about what motivates and drives the group members. This in turn provides us
with inspirations for particular interventions, activities, work structures and ideas
Figure 18: Typical patterns for recording social structures and roles in a group (on the
symbols see Figure 6 above)
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on how to design our interactions with the individual members or subgroups (see
Chapter 4.5).
Methodologically speaking, we suggest proceeding stepwise as follows:
First, chart the social dynamics observed in the interactions in a sociogram.
Second, add the actions, interests and values of both the subgroups and the
individual members.
Third, draw up hypotheses based on these results and plan the respective inter-
Background Text: Sociometry and Group Dynamics Were the Earliest
Approaches to Systemic Thought
The methods described here did not emerge solely from systemic work, but
can also be found in older traditions present long before systemic observa-
tions of social systems led to the conclusion that social contexts play a major
role in the development of human beings, their well-being and their produc-
tivity. Part of this tradition was the work of Jakob Lewis Moreno (e.g., 2001,
2008), Kurt Lewin (1951) and Bradford, Gibb and Benne (1964). Many of
their methods for recording the interactions and dynamics of social systems
are useful when working systemically with groups. In some of these ap-
proaches the behavior of the individual is not causally related directly to his
or her personality, but is rather seen as part of a reciprocal relationship with
the particularities of the group and the personalities present in that group.
This sort of interaction between the characteristics of the group and those of
the individual can be understood as a circular process. How closely systemic
methods resemble these traditions from group-oriented psychotherapy be-
comes clear when we compare Minuchins family maps and the sociograms
Moreno (1953) drew of groups. Below, we concentrate on two particular
research approaches to groups that have proved extremely useful for the
study of groups as social systems.
The first approach is that of J. L. Moreno, who early on recognized how
dependent a persons well-being is on the respective context. His book enti-
tled Who Shall Survive? (1953) describes his experiences after World War
I as a young doctor treating dislocated farmers in South Tirol, who had been
driven from their farms and were now living in a refugee camp. All the res-
idents of the camp were living under the same (very poor) conditions, yet it
was his observation that those patients who came to him with extreme veg-
etative afflictions were living in barracks full of stress, anger and tension
among the dwellers. The healthier camp residents, it turned out, were living
in family barracks together with family members as well as old and new
friends. Morenos conclusion was that the well-being and health of humans
greatly depends on whether or not they live within a network of well-meaning
others or whether their life is full of adversity. He studied workgroups and
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other systems as to how much choice (sympathy or positive energy) or rejec-
tion (antipathy or negative energy) the individual members enjoyed, depict-
ing the results in the form of sociograms and tables (sociometric tests). These
sketches and sociograms were generally based on real enquiries and directed
toward measuring social relationships. We use this instrument to depict ob-
servations made by the team leader or an outsider. The roles described in
Figure 18 (p. 89), such as star, unseen, excluded, subgroups and
couples are borrowed from Moreno.
The second model is that of Raoul Schindler, who in 1957 described rank-
ing orders in groups. He focuses on social roles that occur in all types of
groups and guarantee group existence. This approach was also an attempt to
understand what went on in the social system of Germany during the so-
called Third Reich. His approach was a fruitful one for systems theorists be-
cause he was able to depict the dynamic reciprocity of various functions
(what Schindler called ranking group positions) and their interactions in a
social system. Figure 19 shows the ranking group positions. The double line
between Alpha and Gamma expresses the closeness of their positions; the
dotted line between Beta and Alpha as well as Gamma symbolizes the greater
distance between these elements. Beta takes part in the actions that Alpha
suggests (which the participants at the Gamma position are also part of), but
Beta is more dissociated, has doubts or wants modifications to the plan. The
Figure 19: Schindlers ranking group model
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line connecting Omega and Alpha as well as Gamma represents conflict.
Omegas connection to Beta is not necessarily one of conflict, but it is in any
case less intensive. In Chapter 4.5 we describe group situations that can be
well understood and graphically represented with this model.
One major advantage of this model is that it makes clear to all that Alpha
actually supplies the participants at the Gamma position with something:
Alpha clearly expresses the interests, values and needs that appeal to them;
Alpha also has the ability to translate these expressions in the form of attrac-
tive actions and to communicate them in an engaging way to those at the
Gamma position. In our opinion, this model is not capable of properly de-
picting processes in large groups or, say, the developments in fascist Germany
in the 1930s and 1940s. But in smaller groups of up to 25 members it can
offer a useful perspective for describing system dynamics.
A further advantage of this model lies in its creating a connection between
social dynamics (closeness, distance, partialities, attraction, hostility, rejec-
tion, subgroups, etc.), on the one hand, and psychological dynamics (the val-
ues, needs, issues and interests of the participants in a particular context),
on the other hand. This allows insight into group processes and reveals that
the junction of the individual and the context determines what happens in
the system.
A rather weak and awkward, reserved young boy who is interested in logic
puzzles and reads a lot will hardly be able to assume the Alpha position in
the local soccer team he may even (depending on the conditions) be con-
demned to assume the Omega position (much to his own chagrin). In the
local chess club, on the other hand, he might advance to the Alpha position,
whereas the boy in the Alpha position of the soccer team could easily land
in the Omega position of the chess club.
Lets look more closely at the first boy: At school he might be stuck in the
Omega position up to age 13, since athleticism, strength and male boasting
are dominant values in his class. At age 17, however, he could switch to the
Alpha position when the previously dominating factors of physical prowess
have changed to intellectual and political interests. This move from Omega
to Alpha position is a very real possibility when the group changes its orien-
tation, interests or values. This scenario also shows that there is no Alpha
type as such; rather, whoever assumes this position does so because of cer-
tain contextual conditions that fit that persons personal skills and willingness
to assume the role.
Raoul Schindler assumes that all of these positions must be occupied to
ensure group stability and viability. The objective is thus not to prevent the
positions from being occupied; if we want to assume a position of responsi-
bility for a group, then we have to endure there being some people who end
up in the Omega position, certainly not always a very thankful position. We
must also accept that some group members consciously choose and accept
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.5 Sociograms:TheGroupasSystem 3.6 Reports
3.6 Reports
Sometimes reports have to be written for external employers or for internal rea-
sons. A report can also serve as the basis for further planning and decisions. The
courts demand expert opinions; health insurers need reasons to continue care;
final reports are sent to experts who in turn become actively involved. Further,
case reports as well as therapies and their effects have to be documented. In
practice we see many solid, informative and succinct reports as well as pages
upon pages of information with no orientation whatsoever.
Most institutions have templates to be used for such reports, which correspond
to the legal and practical necessities and are developed as part of quality-man-
agement systems. For that reason, we will provide only a few indications about
what makes a good report, a concrete suggestion to serve as motivation, and a
case report. Finally, we would like to give a few pointers on choosing useful ele-
ments for a proper system-oriented report.
3.6.1 Criteria for a Good Report
Write the report together with the clients and give thema copy of it. This method
guarantees use of clear and simple language.
Within the report, separate sections should be devoted to what was actually
undertaken with the client, what was observed and learned in the process, and
to ones professional judgments and assessments.
A report is easier to understand and use if it describes the most important as-
pects shortly and succinctly. Anything longer than 23 pages serves only to water
down the meaning. If this cannot be avoided for strategic reasons (e.g., a court
demands extensive descriptions), keep the structure as lean as possible, breaking
down the text into central statements and accompanying descriptions, so that
the reader can quickly grasp the gist and later be concerned with the details.
being in the Gamma position, or that the persons in the Alpha position do
not always act democratically and sometimes push others aside. For those of
us who work in psychosocial professions this can be a very trying experience
indeed! Our ideas of harmony, our own values (libert, egalit, fraternit),
our ethical imperatives, our conception of right and wrong, our belief sys-
tem these sometimes just get in the way. If ones goal is to further the well-
being of humans and the viability of a group, then a certain measure of flex-
ibility and tolerance toward changes in the positions within the group and
especially respect for all positions taken is necessary.
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Graphic and concrete descriptions garner a greater understanding and accep-
tance of what is being described. Instead of stereotypical abstract generaliza-
tions (Peter has pronounced dissocial characteristics, particular in performance
requirements at school) use concrete descriptions of what actually happened
(Peter was rude to the teacher and runs out of the roomif he is called on in class
and doesnt know the answer).
Consequently, use more verbs and less adjectives and nouns. Write Petra helps
her mother several times a week with the dishes instead of Petra is coopera-
tive. Or Simon fails to come home several nights a week. He pays little atten-
tion to his clothing and personal hygiene and not Simon may already be con-
sidered a runaway with clear signs of neglect.
Many reports consist solely of a list of deficits. In systemic-oriented reports,
however, it is of utmost importance to include the resources present in the sys-
tem, any positive results achieved at solving the problems and the context of the
problematic behavior.
Reports tend to be more vivid and readable if they contain at least some of the
visualizations mentioned above.
If the contractee and the situation allow it, we like to employ a graphically orient-
ed template that puts the most important pieces of information in a clear and neat
order. The advantage is that the most important information is consolidated on
one page, which in turn forces one to be selective and succinct. On the other
hand, using shorthand descriptions bears the risk of leaving out all the shades and
nuances when selecting what is deemed important or unimportant.
3.6.2 What Dimensions to Include in the Report
The answer to this question depends on the field of study, the goal and who is
contracting the report. But it is worthwhile to use a theme grid as a checklist.
We enter into the list all areas of information we may need to develop our hy-
potheses. Obviously, everyone has their own favorite topics, depending on the
respective professional focus we have areas we explore in detail and others
we tend to ignore. A theme grid, however, demands precision of us by forcing
us to look at every single area, even those heretofore neglected. Of course, it
would be nonsense to go through every single area during the first phase of
contact with the client; we dont want to torture the client for the sake of com-
pleteness, which would inevitably cause the clients trust to wane. We necessar-
ily have to choose which information to deem important and valuable to our
goals. Using the theme grid as a sort of self-inspection helps us to make such
decisions based not on subconscious inclinations, but consciously and according
to professional and replicable criteria. In practice, we also find the following
advantages of this method:
When planning an intervention, I go through all the relevant areas and carefully
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put the information I have received in order. I look at the risks and problematic
areas with an eye toward their interaction with the symptoms or syndrome in
question. I compile the possible foci of intervention based on the findings
(finding derives from to find, and as constructivists we know that in every
finding resides an opinion; see Chapter 4.4).
Resources are often overlooked. That is perhaps the greatest benefit of such a
list since its rigor forces us to look closely at those areas where things are going
well, where coping is actually working. It requires us to denote all those every-
day tasks that are successfully being mastered and that are often taken for grant-
Table 4: Theme grids for exploring aspects of family situations
Family situation Risks Resources Notes
1. Familial status
Family structure
Parental care
Place of residence
2. Economic situation
3. Work situation
School/vocational training
Working hours
4. Living arrangements
Living space
Residential environment
Social network
5. Parental background
Parents childhood
Stressful events
Earlier relationships
6. Present stressful life events
In the family
External circumstances
Traumatic experiences
Coping strategies
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ed. We need to register these strengths, put a name to them (De Jong & Berg,
2012) and utilize them (Durrant, 1993).
Such a list also serves to point out all the empty spaces on our own map. One
can then plan further contacts to collect the relevant data. Or one can ask: Why
dont I know anything about this yet? Why didnt I ask about it earlier? Did I
overlook it? Or did I not have the courage to ask? Did the client hide the infor-
mation from me or sidestep its mention? Should I leave it be or would that be a
major sin of omission?
Finally, the list proves useful when preparing the information for a report. One
can complement ones own observations and define the most important areas to
include in the report. It is thus a good preparation for conversations about set-
ting up counseling or other help schemes.
For the area of youth welfare services, the Bavarian State Youth Ministry (2005)
issued materials to help in preparing diagnoses in social services interventions.
The materials have the advantages described above. We have modified them for
our own purposes and present the reader with parts of them as inspiration for
own creations (Table 4, p. 95).
3.6.3 Progress Reports for Evaluation Purposes and Planning of
The following example illustrates how one can apply the report grid to evaluate
an intervention and to simultaneously prepare for the next intervention (Table
5). It was prepared with the help of colleagues from an emergency-care group
who determined the content of the cells based on their own experiences. The
information gathered is entered in shorthand, as is any information on previous
interventions based on the perceived effectiveness thereof. In case studies this
point is often very important: Particularly in the most desperate cases it is worth
searching for those interventions to which the clients reacted positively if only
minimally. They can provide important clues on how to continue. In the next step
one formulates the main hypotheses and writes them down along with the activ-
ities deduced from them. The main hypotheses are those that are behavior-driven
(see Chapter 4.2).
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Table 5: Report grid from youth services. The case is of a 13-year-old named David who
has been living in an emergency-care facility for 2 weeks. A genogram and a relationship
map were also available.
Present state Problems Resources
Family Parents divorced for 4 years,
both now have new partners
David alternates living with
Father has custody; David to
go to mother; both parents
stressed and unwilling to in-
vest time in David
Father: doesnt come
home for days, smokes
pot, conflicts between
Father and David; in
court for stealing,
mother unreliable
Close contact to
mother (calls her of-
ten, wants to live
with her)
Back in school since last
Thursday (7th grade middle
Poor grades since 3rd
grade, skips school of-
ten, changed school of-
Used to be good in
math, likes to go to
school, good con-
tact to one teacher
Group in
cy care
Adjusted quickly, good contact
to other children/adults
Sidesteps rules, particu-
larly curfew; some-
times obtrusive
Helpful (cooking),
quickly makes con-
tact with others
Many contacts in the home,
very active
Hangs around with old-
er kids, smokes, drinks
Likes sports, active
Friends Others interact with him Dominates weaker kids Supports others,
shares with others
Well-groomed, independent,
Enjoys being center of
attention, talks a lot,
Open to conversa-
tions and conflicts
(2 weeks)
Positive (effective): opens up
during collective activities, ap-
proachable via motivation (see
school record)
Negative (ineffective):
restraints, rules, ad-
monishments accepts
them but then skirts
Following his parents very conflictual divorce, David has failed to find reli-
able support. He quickly learns to make contact with others and feels at home
in his clique. The escalation of conflicts, particularly at school where he has a
stable relationship, led to the introduction of external helpers and to the con-
frontation of the parents with the fact that they have to find a tenable solu-
tion for David.
Activities Establish contact via school and collective activities (strengths and own mo-
tives were most detectable here)
Stabilization via school and by strengthening his contacts in school: conversa-
tions with both teacher and David
Work with parents and David to figure out where David can live in the future
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4 Making Decisions: Preparing a Contract, Setting Goals, Planning Interventions 4.1 TheContractIstheBasicGuidingPrincipleofSystemicWork
4 Making Decisions: Preparing a Contract,
Setting Goals, Planning Interventions
4.1 The Contract Is the Basic Guiding Principle of Systemic
At the end of the initial phase or initial interview, a contract should be set up
between the helper and the client system. This chapter is concerned with the role
of the contract in systemic work and how to design such a contract.
Contracts form the basis of all cooperation. They contain all the necessary stip-
ulations, goals and duties of the parties concerned.
A contract creates transparency: Both sides know exactly what they must do or
refrain from doing.
A contract furthers a sense of security: Both sides know what they are getting
themselves into, what is expected of them, what they can expect of others, and
what is not the subject matter of the intervention.
A contract establishes commitment: A contract means being mutually obligated
to comply with the arranged rules.
A contract sets clear boundaries for the assistance: Whenever we agree on who
does what and how we want to reach that goal, it also becomes clear what
cannot be expected!
This is relevant not only for the initial phase and initial interview, which establish
the framework for the entire intervention. Discussing and agreeing on a contract
is an essential and continuous work principle of all systemic interventions:
The present problems and concerns of the participants are discussed at the be-
ginning of every session and the further procedure is agreed upon. The parties
ensure that the agreements lie within the contractual framework, which may
mean that some current (new) problem cannot be discussed because it is not
part of the contract or would change the contract.
Within a session the parties can agree to other, smaller contracts for the next
Case example: In an assisted-living facility for the mentally ill, Ms. Miller helps the female
patient B. The two of them have agreed that Ms. B. should learn a different way of dealing
with her withdrawal tendencies than simply sitting in her room all the time, failing to join
the others in the common rooms and not participating in any recreational activities. This
form of withdrawal tends to be the result of conflicts that occur when B. has contact to
individuals from outside the facility. In the past, one could observe a pattern: conflict,
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withdrawal, deterioration of mental state, patient enters hospital, patient is discharged from
hospital, new outpatient program established with the goal of integration, new conflict etc.
Thus, this seemed to be a reasonable contract goal for the assisted-living facility. In the
session Ms. Miller notices that the patient is hardly paying attention and is apparently lost
in her thoughts. She mentions this and points out that they had agreed the last time to
discuss the course of the patients contacts with others over the past week and to plan things
for the next few days. Yet this is not possible if the patient does not pay attention. Ms. B.
agrees. She says she has been thinking of her grown daughter who rejects any contact with
her. Ms. Miller suggests talking about this matter for 30 minutes and considering whether
Ms. B. could somehow plan her contacts with her daughter and with her entire family
differently in the future. Ms. B. agrees but doesnt want to talk at all about the last fight
she had with her daughter. That would stir up too many bad feelings in her. Ms. Miller
accepts this and says that she will take care not to discuss the feelings connected with that
fight. She asks whether the patient will agree to the suggestion of setting up all the persons
involved in the form of little figures on the table (the daughter, the daughters husband,
their two children, the patients father and mother, the parents of her son-in-law, etc.). The
patient agrees and the two begin the session.
This example shows how discussing and agreeing on a contract becomes an in-
tegral part of systemic work. There is the contract for the entire intervention
(support for making and maintaining social contacts), there is the contract for
the individual session, and there are contracts concerning the next steps in the
overall course of the session (exploring the family context by means of symbolic
figures). This discussion also includes clarifying what the patient did not want
to talk about, namely, her feelings emerging fromthe last fight with her daughter.
This agreement clearly delineates the scope of the conversation for both sides.
Background Text: Why Do Systemic Therapists Speak of Contracts and
If you want to make a good contribution to a discussion in a team or super-
vision session of systemic therapists, it is advisable to first ask what the man-
date and the contract in the case are. Everyone present will immediately con-
sider this a reasonable and proper contribution: Your goal has been reached.
Whats the story behind this almost mandatory ritual in systemic circles?
First, a very practical explanation: When we go from a work setting with
an individual client to working with an entire system, we meet with the fol-
lowing problems:
The concerns of the individual members will not always be identical and
these differences can be very explosive.
If we fail to explain exactly what will be talked about and what wont be,
the system will suffer and have more problems after the session than be-
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Especially if other helpers or institutions are involved, the procedure about
how information is to be handled must be completely transparent.
Within the systemic approach when compared to individual-oriented ther-
apeutic approaches we descend more deeply into the overall life situation
of the clients in order to achieve change. For this reason, clarifying and de-
termining the framework of the intervention is of utmost importance if the
helper and the rest of the system are not to end up in chaos or serious entan-
glements. And that means checking the mandates and contracts again and
But there are also some fundamental arguments that support contracts.
The systemic approach sees the clients as the true experts on their life
(Rotthaus, 1989; De Jong & Berg, 2012, p. 46, 284 ff.). The relationship
should be a cooperative one, where everyone is on the same level and the
resources and competence of each partner are respected. This philosophy
may also be found in the formal part of the helper-client relationship: ne-
gotiations and agreements are carried out in an open and transparent way.
Steve de Shazer (1985) introduced the term customer into systemic
thought the informed customer one might say (Hargens, 1989). Jochen
Schweitzer (1995) suggested the idea of customer care as the service phi-
losophy of systemics. But customer care also means that we, as contrac-
tors, have to be concerned with determining our customers needs and
what they are demanding of us. If our offer fits the bill, then a contract is
the next step.
This attitude can, with some modifications, also be applied when we are
in a supervisory role, where it is also worthwhile to work closely with the
clients to make the premises and course of ones actions transparent and to
agree with them on ones own leeway (s. Chapter 4.1.6).
From Steve de Shazers (1985) differentiation of the three types of rela-
tionships we can have with clients we can deduce additional, quire pragmatic
reasons for making contracts. De Shazer differentiates the following types of
a) Customers who want to change something and are willing to invest in this
b) Claimants who want someone to listen to their story in order to complain
about it.
c) Visitors or draftees who were sent by others and have no inherent reason
to be there.
If you want to work a lot and achieve little, treat these three categories the
same. Everyone else should note carefully who the client is and adapt the
contract offers accordingly (see also Chapters 4.1.4 and 4.1.5).
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4.1.1 How to Set up a Contract
Contracts for a specific intervention, for a session or for the next step of a session
cannot be made at the beginning of an encounter with a client system too much
preliminary work is necessary for that:
As with the initial interview, one must first establish a good basis for working
together, consisting of good contact between the parties and an atmosphere of
trust. It is important to establish a personal connectiveness in each and every
The present issues and the motivations of those involved need to be thoroughly
explored. Who wants what and why? What is that person ready to do (or not to
do) to this end?
The helper must also know what he or she can offer the system. This offer must
be formulated by taking the institutional contract and professional demands into
account (see Chapter 4.1.8).
Only now can the concerns of the client system and the stipulations of the helper
be negotiated into a single agreement.
We are dealing here with many individual steps that both impatient clients (and
counselors) have to take a difficult mission especially when both sides are under
intense pressure to get the help flowing. The clients often feel pressured to solve the
problem as quickly as possible because they are suffering tremendously or fear seri-
ous consequences. The counselor is often under institutional pressure to offer ade-
quate help quickly in order to secure his or her facilitys welfare. But others, too,
particularly those transferring the clients or footing the bill, can exert pressure to act.
Nevertheless, it is not wise to work without a solidly developed contract. Of course,
there are situations where first aid is demanded and should be given; contracts are
then added later. Or perhaps one starts by defining only the exploration phase and
agreeing to close the contract later. Sometimes clients are so moved or so excited at
the beginning of a session that the counselor must first simply try to soothe and
reassure them before negotiating what should happen during the session.
4.1.2 What Does a Contract Contain?
Contracts usually have four aspects to them:
Goals: Where are we headed?
Tasks: Who controls, who brakes, who looks at the map?
Setting: Whos coming along, whose car are we taking, when do we get back?
Information management: Who sends whom a greeting card?
What is the goal of the entire intervention, the next session, the next step? The
mandates presented by the client system to the helper system form the basis of
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such decisions. That is why it is important to first talk about issues and mandates
before deciding on goals. The art of a good dialog about mandates and goals lies
in advancing from general and imprecise goals to more exact goals (see Chapter
4.4). Vague goals such as improving overall communication or supporting and
consolidating the partner relationship do not suffice for a work contract; they
can, at best, indicate the general direction the work should take and thus be a
starting point for further concrete steps. For this dialog, the solution-oriented
questions formulated by Steve de Shazer can be very helpful: They invite the
clients to describe their lives without the problem or symptom (see Chapter
5.3.2). It is also important to flesh out the goals very concretely so that we dont
cheat ourselves or the clients out of the successes. Only when the goals are con-
crete and observable do we know when we have truly reached them and can
rejoice at their completion. Such a dialog is also useful for discerning realistic
and unrealistic goals.
Case example: A couple had just lost custody of their child, and the child had been placed
in a foster home. Their mandate was to get their child back. This may be unrealistic and
should not be made the goal of the intervention. Likewise, a couples mandate to help them
get over the loss of their child from an accident as quickly as possible is not realistic. In
both cases helping the couples with their normal mourning reactions could be a realistic
goal, inasmuch as they are willing to go that route.
Thus, the task is not only to see what sort of mandates the clients have, but also
to see which meaningful and realistic goal helpers can offer clients based on their
professional competence and experience. That means checking whether the goal
lies within the conceptional framework of the helper, the institution or the organ-
ization paying the bill.
Once the goals have been established, it is clear where we are headed. Now is
the time to determine who will be in the drivers seat otherwise disappointment
and anger will inevitably arise among the traveling party. This is especially true
of large helper systems with many different involved institutions. Above all, the
following should be clarified:
Who does what and who does not (actions)?
Who is responsible for what and who is not (responsibility and accountability)?
In an inpatient facility for children, the problemarises as to howthe responsibility
is to be divided among the Youth Welfare Office, the facility itself, the childs
therapist, the mother, the mothers legal guardian, and the childs grandparents.
In very complex helper systems it is not always 100% clear to the involved
helpers which tasks the others have and what cannot be expected of them. Espe-
cially clients who have little formal knowledge of how institutional support works
may quickly lose track of which institution is in charge of what. This latter point
is important for a successful cooperation and for the overall success of a complex
system. But it is also the case even in relatively simple helper systems. Clients
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intuitively have expectations about what helpers do and what they are responsible
What can a client realistically expect from institutional family-welfare counsel-
ing? Will they come and clean the house or raise the kids? They probably will.
What can one expect from debt-management counseling? Do they pay the bills,
balance the checkbook, write letters to the creditors and take care of everything
else for that matter that would be very practical!
What can one expect from child guidance counseling? Theyll surely tell the
daughter to stop behaving in that way and to listen to her parents more.
Counseling, on the other hand, is real easy all you have to do is go there once
a week and spill your guts. Thats good because all your friends run away when
you even mention the topic. And of course you can call your counselor any time
you want in between.
There is a good chance that these intuitive expectations of the clients do not nec-
essarily agree with those of the helpers. And perhaps the expectations the helpers
harbor for the clients are also unknown to the clients:
The life counselor may expect of a client that the client try out something new
to relieve or resolve the suffering.
The educational counselor may expect that the parents of adolescents also be
willing to deal with their own problems and with their relationship with their
child, to question themselves and to try out something new.
Debt counselors may assume that they will give some clients only a few sugges-
tions, and that clients will be able to watch out for their own accounts and deal
directly with the bank and creditors.
A good contract thus clarifies the following:
what help is to be offered and not;
the limits of support and assistance;
mutual expectations and obligations.
Clients should have a realistic idea of what the actual assistance will look like;
their own commitment should also be concretely spelled out.
By setting we mean the entire external framework of the intervention:
For which period of time will we be working together?
How long will the individual sessions last and how often will they take place?
Where will we meet and what will be the rules of these meetings? If the meetings
are to take place at the clients residence, it is important to ensure that the setting
will be sufficiently undisturbed.
Where will the evaluation take place? Who will be present? Clarifying this point
is especially important if the recipient of the service and the person paying for it
are not one and the same.
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Information management
Questions pertaining to this area tend to get overlooked, though they are of major
importance in more complex helper systems:
Who reports to whom and in what form?
Does the client system receive notice of such reports? Does it see the actual
content of the reports?
What effect will such a report have on the client system?
What special occurrences must be reported by the helper?
Who coordinates the helper system? Who is responsible for ensuring that
information is passed on to the other helpers involved? Does someone have
overall control of the project is there a case manager for all supporting mea-
These questions are of particular importance when social control is part of the
mandate and when clients would suffer severe disadvantages if the information
were to be passed on:
In probation counseling it must be clear howthe probation helper is to deal with
information received concerning other misdeeds of the client: When must the
counselor report things to the court and what are the possible consequences for
the client?
In adolescent counseling, should the clients family know that information con-
cerning abuse (physical or sexual) has been passed on and what are the conse-
quences thereof?
Background Text: Noncompliance with the Contract
The Power of the Counselor and the Independence of the Client*
What it means when contracts are unclear or not adhered to becomes obvious
when we think about concrete situations experienced with clients. Imagine,
for example, a family going to a family-counseling center for a session sched-
uled to last 1 hour. Yet the counselor doesnt stop after the prearranged period
of time, apparently thinking that something is so important that it has to be
discussed at greater length. The family, of course, wonders: Is this going to
last another 15 or 20 or 30 minutes? Will I miss some other appointment
because of this delay? Well, hes the specialist, he ought to know whats best!
But should I contribute to what is being said or will that bother the others
since were already over the time?
As a client I am at the mercy of the counselor, unless I possess sufficient
social competence to can say to the counselor (without endangering our re-
lationship) that I am no longer able to concentrate on the conversation be-
cause Im so unsure of the timeframe.
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4.1.3 System Politics: Open, Hidden, Contradictory and Ambivalent
Social systems always represent a web of interests and thus always have a po-
litical dimension to them. There may be differing, even contradictory interests,
some of which are laid open, others kept hidden. That is all part of the com-
plexity of social systems. For helpers this means being alert to the type of man-
dates the system approaches them with. Below we discuss some of the various
forms of mandates and give some advice for proper communication in the re-
spective situation.
The counselor does have a certain measure of power over the client system
in the situation described, especially when moderating the session and not
keeping to the time schedule as agreed upon. The client system becomes de-
pendent if we assume that many clients in fact do not possess the social com-
petence to actively step in as described. Everyone has experienced such situ-
ations in group, team or business meetings when the boss or group/team
leader overruns their time without an agreement in place on how long the
meeting will go on. In such situations helpers may be acting out their (un-
conscious) needs for power in socially acceptable ways. After all, they are the
good guys who are sacrificing their valuable time to take care of this im-
portant client. Similar dynamics may also be found with respect to the strict
observance of the content of contracts.
Lets turn to the role of the client system. So we are in counseling because
our adolescent son is acting up, not listening to us and doing poorly in school.
We are sitting together with the counselor and he keeps asking us how I and
my wife are getting along, whether we do things as a couple, when the last
time was we were out on the town, etc. the only thing missing would be
his asking about our sexual practices! It would be a different matter altogeth-
er if he were to say that he first wants to talk to us about how my wife and
I cooperate at being good parents in order help us do a better job. If hed just
explain shortly what hes doing then we could say yes or no.
These situations show how a unilateral power position of the counselor
and the corresponding inappropriate dependency of the client arises when
the contract is unclear or nonbinding. The same is true when the helper fails
to observe (or interprets freely to his advantage) other parts of the contract,
e.g., particular goals or the handling of information. But it is exactly this type
of action that contradicts the basic tenet of cooperation in systemic thought.
*The ideas described here stem from Antony Williams (Australia), who analyzed the
dependence of group participants when group leaders exceeded time limits during a
seminar he gave in the summer of 2003 in Hohe Tanne (Switzerland).
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Open Mandates
This is where the clients openly and clearly state what they expect: I want to get
rid of my debts! Help me please!
Here the best route is to
repeat what one has understood as the mandate in ones own words and let the
client confirm what has been said (active listening);
query the client exactly about what is being expected: How exactly would you
notice if the job had been done? Dont settle for generalizations!
determine exactly how the client wants your support.
Ambivalent Mandates
The mandate is open and clear, but the client refuses to take certain steps neces-
sary to reach that goal.
Case example: A client may think as follows: Well, I would like to get rid of my debts, but
I definitely do not want to deal with all those unopened letters from creditors lying in the
drawer. And I dont really believe in keeping records of household spending. And I sure
dont want to sell my (expensive) car!
On the one hand, the mandate demands of the helper to bring about change. On
the other hand, everything should be left as it was, Change can be unpleasant and
comes at a cost, which may appear so high as not to be worth it. Sometimes the
desire not to change to keep everything as it is is not immediately clear to the
client; or the client notices it later in the midst of the intervention, when the time
has come to actually carry out the planned resolutions or do ones homework.
The following has proved useful:
Give clients the room to explore their wish to maintain the status quo and dis-
cuss with them the potential costs of change.
Suggest to the clients that you, as their counselor, think the mandate is problem-
atic, and that you dont want to take it on right away that it is important to
think through together all the advantages and disadvantages before turning to
the matter of actual change.
Warn the clients about going at things too quickly and too radically because the
results can be negative if implemented too rapidly.
With ambivalent mandates, the goal is to provide sufficient room for doing noth-
ing and for thinking about the potential negative consequences of change to do
that side of the ambivalence justice, too. This type of intervention was called by
Selvini-Palazzoli and coworkers (2013) paradoxical intervention (see Chapter
Hidden or Secret Mandates
Some members of the system may expect that the helper will change or stop
certain developments or problems which the system cannot even properly label.
Besides the explicit, official mandate there may thus be implicit, unofficial, secret
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mandates that unfold only during the course of the intervention and have a great
Case example: In couples counseling, the hidden mandate of the husband may be: My
wifes tendency to be a neat freak really gets to me. That is the true problem, and I certainly
hope the counselor sees it and can get her to stop being like that. The open mandate, on
the other hand, is: Our communication is poor, and we want to improve it.
Not always does one part of the system have a different hidden mandate toward
the other part of the system, as in this example; a family may have a common but
hidden mandate toward the helper:
Case example: A nursery school sends a family to counseling because the caretakers are
skeptical about the development of the child as well as about the familys overall ability to
care for the child. The family comes to counseling and presents itself as trouble-free but
highly motivated. So the hidden mandate may lie in the helper attesting to the family that
they are cooperative and motivated and have no real problems. The nursery school is pac-
ified, and the family has one less conflict to deal with.
Hidden or concealed mandates may stem from other helpers in the system:
Case example: Social Services ask a Family Counseling Center to work with a family to
improve the educational capabilities of the parents. In fact, however, Social Services want
the center to check whether the children are being neglected, mistreated or abused in any
way. They hope to then be in a better position to judge whether the childrens welfare is
endangered, and to possess sufficient evidence if the whole matter lands before a court.
Hidden or concealed mandates may also be discovered in the gap that lies be-
tween what is expressly said and what is actually meant the message between
the lines. We can often surmise such mandates via our emotional or even physical
reactions. Often they emerge only during the course of an intervention. But we
must differentiate: The mandates may be ambivalent but those involved are not
they always know exactly what they want!
Case example: The wife from the above-mentioned couples counseling does not, in fact,
want to be cured of her knack for cleanliness. She just wants her husband to help keep
the place clean and in order. Shes not ambivalent at all its her husband who is disturbing
her notions of orderliness. Hes the one who can no longer live with it which means hes
not ambivalent either.
Further below we look at contradictory mandates. If the husband and the wife
were to clearly vocalize their respective mandates, we would have a state of con-
tradictory mandates. The exceptional thing here is that both officially claim to
have a very different mandate formulated rather neutrally: We attend counseling
to learn to communicate better and to have fewer spats.
In this respect, the following has proved useful:
As counselor, keep your distance to the various clients in order to first resolve
your own feelings about the case, so as to keep your flexibility in the midst of
such a complicated system.
Openly question the clients about suspected hidden or concealed mandates.
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Sometimes you may even have to be forceful or a little bold by directly mention-
ing what you are feeling. At the same time, respect is necessary in order to know
exactly when and how to bring up the topic.
If the hidden mandate is revealed, ask the other participants whether they agree
to work on this matter. Give space to all positions and see to it that they can exist
side by side, even if there is no immediate solution.
Finally, discuss with the participants which of the common mandates and goals
can be agreed upon.
We suggest that the counselor not just take on such mandates, but rather work
closely with the clients to turn the hidden mandates and the discrepancies toward
the official mandates into matters of general discussion. This may even make an
open and official mandate out of a hidden and unofficial one. Thus, we often
avoid doing some real conflict management. But that will increase the chance of
successful cooperation with and among the clients. Simply taking on hidden man-
dates restricts the counselors freedom considerably. Hidden and concealed man-
dates give us the chance to avoid lunging headfirst into coalitions with parts of
the system.
Background Text: In Praise of Hidden Mandates;
or: How to Slowly Melt an Iceberg
Proper clarification of the mandate considerably increases the chance of
success it is worth ones while to take the time and effort to see it through.
This is why so many systemic theorists are such great fans of clear man-
dates. Yet life is not always that tidy sometimes we have to fish in muddy
waters, and suddenly we discover that things keep getting muddier the
more we stir them up. If we just let everything sit for a while, clarity will
So lets pay tribute to hidden mandates and do it systemically: with respect
and with an eye toward finding significance in such a dastard act. The fol-
lowing comes to light:
a) Being open toward all sides may lead to drowning. Clients who are com-
pletely open and honest from the beginning about why they are there may
go under. They dont yet know whether they can trust us and what they
are getting into.
b) That is especially true when the matters of discussion (whether open or
hidden) are delicate, intimate, taboo or shameful.
c) Sometimes clients dont know at the beginning what the whole thing is
about and discover it for themselves only in the course of the intervention.
Case example: During conflict counseling for a team from a church organization for
the handicapped, we received the mandate to settle an escalating conflict between the
director of the organization and the board of the sponsoring church. The board had
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strongly criticized the director, and a number of alarming incidents seemed to support
their claims. The mandate was outlined very precisely and contracted clearly. All par-
ticipants, including the counselors, put great effort into finding solutions. After four
months time, however, we had the feeling that the board wasnt really interested in
clearing up the matter, but rather in getting rid of the director. After a while this was
even expressly admitted and subsequently carried out. What then came out into the
open seemed to warrant the drastic measure in our eyes, too. An evaluation session
revealed that the board knew from the very beginning that there was no alternative to
firing the director.
This is a good example of a hidden mandate; and it turned out to have
been of the utmost importance that we so trustworthily (and trustingly)
carried out the official mandate. The director (who, like us, was not privy
to the hidden mandate) had learned to trust us during the course of the
many sessions even in light of his impending suspension. For personal
reasons he felt very attached to the organization, but was obviously com-
pletely overwhelmed by the demands made of him, especially in difficult
economic times. To have to leave the organization was the worst possible
personal tragedy he could have imagined, and he reacted with depression
and suicidal tendencies. And had he gone through with it, it would have
been the greatest possible tragedy for the organization and for the church
sponsor. Our attempts as counselors at finding a solution to the problem
created the foundation of trust that eventually helped us, upon his being
fired, to counsel him in his anger, feelings of failure and sadness and to
prevent his attempting suicide as well as to guide him toward a new ori-
entation in life.
This example shows, among other things, that we should not be com-
pletely critical of hidden mandates, but sometimes accept them as an im-
portant means of protection as the wisdom of the system. We should
believe more in the process of building up trust, which in the course of an
intervention allows us to then name and deal with difficult and tabooed
matters as well as with hidden or bad motives. Bernhard Trenkle used
the so-called iceberg metaphor (1994, personal communication): He trusts
that the iceberg will slowly rise up, and that the hidden parts of the iceberg
underneath the surface of the water will rise more quickly the faster one
melts those parts above the water surface: The iceberg becomes lighter.
We would add: It is sometimes impossible and undesirable to try to meas-
ure the entire length and breadth of the hidden part of the iceberg before
beginning with the melting work. Rather, it is better to work honestly with
the visible part. But you have to be careful and always keep in mind that
there are still many important things to discover, and that these may (or
may not) become visible in due time.
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Contradictory Mandates
Various members of the system may have mandates that contradict each other.
These are not necessarily hidden or secret mandates, but rather can be contradic-
tory mandates that are out in the open for all to see:
Case example: My husband is so hard on the kids and doesnt take care of them enough.
Please make this clear to him and help him to change his ways. My wife is simply too
permissive and overprotective. Please help me to get her to grow up. She just wont listen
to me.
This is the sort of mandate that begins with a clear conflict. As counselors we
should see to it that the contradictory mandates are put on the table, and that
enough time and effort are invested in solving this conflict as the first step in the
counseling process.
Several Different Mandates
Various members of the system have varying mandates that are different but not
necessarily contradictory, nor are they hidden or secret in any way:
Case example: We have a problem keeping our finances straight. Our problem is that
my husband cant find a job.
The best thing here would be to collect the various mandates, problems and re-
sources into one pot and then decide
which mandates are realistic and which are unrealistic,
which helper can best offer what help,
who does what,
in what order the mandates are to be worked on.
Resolving these matters is the prerequisite to avoiding endless rounds of support
sessions and unrealistic expectations among the members of the client-helper sys-
4.1.4 Complaining Clients: Listening as Mandate
Up until now we have mainly followed de Shazers (1985) terminology of cus-
tomer relations. We have spoken of clients who articulate wishes, have the nec-
essary motivation to work together with the counselor, and (more or less) seize
the incentives and support offered. Since most psychosocial professionals have
been trained to stimulate change and personal development in their clients and
see that as their primary mission this type of work can be very satisfying and
successful. It can become frustrating, however, when clients can clearly describe
their problems (sometimes lots of problems), but declare all attempts at effecting
change to be unrealistic; or when clients show behaviors that clearly demonstrate
that the suggested solutions will never come to be. Steve de Shazer called this
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type of person the complainer. Note that we are still talking about types of
interactions, malleable typologies of relationships not about individual person-
ality traits. How does one recognize such situations?
Concrete problems are brought forth, but no plausible goals are formulated.
Plausible, in this context, means: The client does not (or cannot) contribute
anything to the attainment of the goals.
The client describes him/herself as a victim, at the mercy of some circum-
stance(s) or malevolent people, with no possibility of changing anything for the
better. This type has two variants: Some refuse all possibilities for change during
the sessions. For helpers, this offers a rare chance to touch up on their knowl-
edge of killer phrases: Oh, Ive tried that already . . . That wont work be-
cause . . . I dont think you really understood what I meant, otherwise you
wouldnt suggest such a thing . . . The better behaved clients will thank you
after the session for the interesting conversation and promise to honor your
suggestions. In the next session, you can expand your repertoire of excuses,
while listening to countless reasons as to why it didnt work out: I tried, I really
did, but . . .
Either no concrete mandate is given or the mandates are impossible to fulfill
(e.g., changing other people or changing structural circumstances).
The trap we helpers frequently fall into is putting even more effort into the affair by
assuming the responsibility for finding solutions and then actually thinking up ever
better, ever more realistic ones. This results from the subtle dynamics helpers are
apparently susceptible to: assuming the clients responsibility for change and taking
more and more of the steps necessary to effect such change. This makes the client
even more passive and regressive, and it neglects the clients resources while the
helper becomes ever more active, intensely searching for solutions. Incipient feelings
of anger on the part of the helper are held in check by a well-practiced agency of
self-esteem: Im not yet good enough to truly help this person.
If you suspect that these descriptions might fit one of your interventions, you
should quickly extricate yourself from this dynamic. This becomes easier when
begin by simply listening to the client without offering or working out solutions
on our own;
acknowledge the clients difficult situation and express our understanding for
how tough it must be;
introduce the possibility that the critical situation wont be resolved quickly, and
that, based on your past experience, helpers have not been able to bring about a
significant improvement;
take up the cause of no change and ask how the client would adapt to such a
possibility: Now that it has become clear that changing your situation will be
difficult if not impossible, how can I help you to endure this and still stay
ask the miracle question: If, by chance, a miracle were to happen overnight and
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all these things were no longer a problem, howwould you notice it what would
have changed for you, what could you do then that you cant do right now? (see
Chapter 5.3.2)
lend a sympathetic ear: Maybe what I can best offer you is that you come to me
once a week for half an hour and just let it all out. Ill simply listen to you for
that time.
How do complainers interpret such offers? We would like to offer three hypoth-
eses and show how the suggested method can work:
Clients are highly ambivalent toward the idea of change. Here the same is true
as in the section concerning ambivalent mandates. The paradoxical emphasis on
no change helps the clients to take a hard look at the realistic possibility that
everything will indeed stay the same whereupon they can develop some sort of
motivation to change or to find a way to live with the status quo.
Clients want change, but they also want the helper(s) to become actively in-
volved, even if they themselves dont want to raise a finger (or at least believe
they dont have to). Here, too, the helper should decline assuming responsibility
as described above and clearly show the clients that they must become active.
This can be successful, especially if coupled with questions concerning how the
clients envision future solutions and compliments about previous small steps.
Life is full of situations that are difficult and sometimes almost impossible to
change. The offer to simply listen may, in fact, be sufficient. Not everything can
be modified to ones complete satisfaction, and empathy can sometimes help
others to suck it up when there are no good alternatives. Of course, the joint
search for what little relief there may be should be continued.
In any case we should try to determine where the possibilities and motivations for
change lie and use them once found. On the other hand, we should completely
respect the decision of a client or a systemnot to change (or not to want to change).
Case example: A 68-year-old woman is in a very unhappy relationship. Her busy husband
fails to pay much attention to her and takes advantage of her. There are also other conflicts
in the family. The idea of leaving her husband or at least talking to him about her problems
appears to be unthinkable for her. First, she doesnt really want to leave her familiar sur-
roundings (home, children, grandchildren); her value system and her self-image wouldnt
allow such a drastic step. Second, her husband, apparently, is unaware of any problems and
is unable to accept criticism or change his ways. In counseling the woman learns to set clear
boundaries, to better ward off his impertinences and to gain more space for herself. Her
husband also seems to react to the changes in her attitude hes become more open, she
thinks. The situation has become relatively acceptable to her. Still, many of the burdens
remain, and there is no real change in sight. She complains to the counselor, who is per-
plexed about what to do now regarding the matter of change, that is. It appears to help
her and relieve her woes when they talk about things and she is offered a sympathetic ear.
She still comes to counseling irregularly, still complains, but now it is clear that there is no
pressure to change. Smaller impulses to expand her network of friends or make time for
positive experiences in her life seem to help her to cope.
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4.1.5 Draftees: When Others Are More Motivated than the Clients
Counselors in psychosocial services are often confronted with clients who have
been sent to counseling by someone else (sometimes under great pressure): A
family is sent by Youth Services to a family counseling center; an alcoholic mother
has to attend addiction counseling to keep her visiting rights with her children;
a court orders someone to get anger therapy; a convict has to cooperate with his
probation officer; a school sends parents to family counseling (Figure 20).
The third party involved always has great interest in the course and results of
counseling often more so than the clients themselves. Such draftees tend to
approach counseling accordingly:
They are openly defiant, stubborn, and are present at the session only the phys-
ical sense: I dont know what I am doing here, so ask your questions . . .
They attribute their problems to external sources, oftentimes the organization or
person who sent them: At home, hes always so well behaved. But the teacher
at school apparently cant handle such active children.
The following is true in all variants: No concrete problems are mentioned, no
goals brought forth, no mandates desired.
The counselor and the client have very different goals.
Yet it is also possible that such clients can in fact learn to appreciate the offers
made and take the counselor up on them knowing, of course, that they effec-
tively have no choice and need to cooperate to avoid getting into trouble with
the organization or person who sent them.
Case example: Mr. Snare, already convicted of fraud and now confronted with new accu-
sations, is sentenced by the court to a forensic clinic for therapy. The prosecutor says he
would consider waiving an arrest, suspending the execution of the warrant of arrest, and
the probation officer is agreed. The therapist pays careful attention to whether the man is
only superficially complying with therapy and takes considerable time setting up the con-
tract by pointing out the compulsory nature of the intervention all of this by the book.
The client does the same: At first rather reluctant, he takes his time telling his story; but
then he recounts truly emotional situations and implements the therapists suggestions (in
moderation, not everything and not all at once). So hes being very cooperative. The ther-
apist becomes skeptical only when both the first and the second invoice go unpaid. A call
Figure 20: Clients sent by others often go to counseling because of pressure froma third party
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to the clients insurance company (with the clients consent, of course) reveals that both
invoices had been submitted and in fact already paid out to Mr. Schlinge. (With his type of
insurance policy, the client first sends in the invoice, part of which is paid out directly to
him, and then pays the therapists bill in full.) A call to the client by the therapist causes
the client to terminate the therapy. Further attempts to contact the client go unanswered;
collection agencies are unsuccessful as is subsequent litigation. About a year later the pro-
bation officer says to the therapist, in an attempt to console him: If its any consolation,
the prosecutor was also duped, and the case had to be abandoned. The therapist, a 20-year
veteran (with a number of compulsory cases) chalks it up to experience.
Even if we keep in the back of our minds that some clients are more scheming
than counselors could ever imagine, we should remember some basic things when
dealing with such cases, which will at least raise the probability of success:
Discuss expressly the pressure being applied by external parties (see Cohen,
1999): What could we do, and what should we do, to satisfy the people who
sent you here? To force them to let up, pull back and give you more room to
decide for yourself? Is that a goal youd consider worth fighting for? How far
would you go? What would we have to change to get rid of me as soon as
Discuss openly with the client the motives, interests, intentions and ideas of who-
ever sent the client and see where they correspond with those of the client. The
questions listed in Chapter 2 concerning the transferring of clients may be helpful
Talk about the forced nature of the situation; show sympathy for the clients
anger and displeasure. Who wouldnt feel this way in such a situation?
Address the clients resources and strengths, respect his free will and discuss the
consequences of his decisions. In doing so, we make clients aware of their re-
sponsibility for their own behavior: I do not want to do anything against your
will, but lets think about how the court would react if the desired changes do
not come about.
Whenever possible, hold joint contract discussions between the person or insti-
tution sending the client, the client and yourself as counselor, much as is routine-
ly done nowadays in youth welfare services (assistance planning conferences).
These meetings should deal with responsibilities, information flow and cooper-
ative arrangements.
For example, when a school is the one sending the client, it has proved advanta-
geous that meetings be held with teachers, parents, the child in question and the
counselor in order to interrupt the game of mutual accusations and prevent a
triangulation of the counselor. Once a good cooperation has been established,
one of the main factors keeping the problem alive is weakened or disappears:
With behavioral problems in school, children often take the negative comments
of their parents about teachers (whether openly or secretly expressed) to be
implicit approval of their own disruptive actions. A broad cooperation (e.g.,
rapid information exchange, weekly telephone conversations) stops this pattern
and often suffices to bring about positive behavioral changes.
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Of course, inall these instances we are dealing with the themes of control, obedience
and autonomy. Draftees are always worried that it will have negative consequences
for their children if they as parents dont do what the experts suggest they do,
which in turn can lead to apparent conformity and superficial cooperation.
Establishing the mandate can make the draftee feel restricted in his or her
decision-making authority or unable to decide completely freely. The theme could
then be: How can one regain the competence to make ones own decisions
including the ability to freely decide pro or contra professional help? How can I,
as counselor, be supportive?
4.1.6 Control as Mandate: When Counselors Must Be More
Motivated Than Their Clients
The systemic tradition, as it was originally intended, was a formof psychotherapy
far removed from concepts such as coercion and control. The basic tenets of sys-
temic thought respect for the autonomy of the clients and the conviction that
systems are not teachable, not consciously controllable dont exactly encourage
its transfer into contexts of external constraint. Thus, initially a sharp line was
drawn between therapy and social control (Figure 21).
Nowadays, however, many users of systemic principles stem from institutions
charged with duties involving control: youth welfare services, psychiatric clinics,
inpatient adolescent wards, (juvenile) prisons, probation services. For this rea-
son, we address the issue of compatibility of coercion and systemic concepts for
a number of fields of work. Our own experiences with youth services, having
closely cooperated with the social services of the youth welfare offices, have
opened our eyes to how the coupling of pressure and support can in fact instigate
developmental processes that would not have been otherwise possible in a clas-
sical counseling context. Many families from social fringe groups have great dif-
Figure 21: In some control mandates, the clients are forced to submit to support mea-
sures because of legal regulations that restrict their free choice; the institution providing
the assistance then has a control function
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ficulty with the classic therapeutic setting and either fail to even come to the first
session or soon break off the therapy. Experiences in the United States combining
coercion and therapy were also very helpful: Clo Madanes, for example, reported
at several congresses on her experiences in therapy projects for persons convicted
of incest, all of which were closely enmeshed with the justice system.
In principle, we are dealing with a triadic structure similar to that discussed in
the previous section, albeit one in which the third party doing the referring is a
virtual partner.
To be effective and successful in this situation, you must be completely clear
about the role you are assuming: Someone is demanding that you provide support
and aid, while at the same time controlling, confronting and challenging the cli-
ents. This also means being confident enough in ones own abilities to stick to the
unpopular side of exercising power. By the way: If we succeed in bridging this
split personality, this is no different from what millions of parents do every day,
namely, combine a portion of partisanship with a portion of limit-setting power
politics in a ping-pong formation of constant role-switching. But limits also
imply support, and that is exactly what many clients from marginalized social
groups have rarely experienced in their lifetime.
The following suggestions have proved useful when discussing the projected
mandate with the client:
Make everything completely transparent, i.e., make the prerequisites of ones
own behavior very clear. Declare unambiguously when the counselor has to act
against the will of the client: As your family counselor I will treat all informa-
tion I received confidentially; I will let you know what I tell the authorities, and
you can read all of my reports. But if I see any signs of violence or abuse in or
on your son, I will even against your will notify the Youth Welfare Office.
Show sympathy for sometimes very radical and provocative behavior on the cli-
ents part while also making clear that this type of behavior will have to be reined
in. And if we fail to create acceptance and understanding on the part of the clients
for the role of the counselor, then we must to stand by our position without their
approval: Your extreme resistance tells me how much you love your daughter
and would like to live together with her. I can understand that if it were to
happen to me, I would probably act similarly. But we cant have that here and that
is not the path to take if you want to have contact with your daughter again.
Show where the limits of your willingness and ability to compromise lie and
invite the clients to use the whole breadth of that (albeit limited) space to shape
the future.
A counselor in the parole counseling office could explain to a man who has
repeatedly become aggressive toward his wife and children: I know that you
have the wish to be a good father to your children and to be loved by them just
as youd like to be a good, strong and loving husband to your wife. I want to help
you to show these sides to your family in everyday life. However, if you continue
to resort to old patterns and use violence, then I will intervene and set hard and
fast limits limits that will be very unpleasant to you.
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Show the clients future perspectives and explain to them how they can be
Suffer through the hard times in which the clients are constantly belligerent
toward you. Even while defending yourself and others by applying necessary
limits and self-protective defenses, always be prepared to offer your support.
Acknowledge every single bit of cooperative behavior on the part of the clients
as a special achievement and thank them for the good teamwork.
Case example: Mr. Good is a social worker in a Social Services Office of the Youth Welfare
Office. He always tries to help and to solve conflicts consensually. Today he comes to super-
vision with the case of a girl with health problems whose single mother squanders the money
they receive for her daughters medical attention. There is mounting pressure among the
authorities to withdraw custody. The case discussion reveals that the mother receives an
optional payment from the Welfare Agency (situated in the same building), which, albeit
small, is quite important to her. The supervising therapist, Ms. Goodhardt, is able to convince
the others that pressure can sometimes set things in motion: They prepare a new strategy
together with the Social Services Office, to the effect that every Friday the mother is to present
Mr. Good with a confirmation by the childs pediatrician that an examination has taken place
that week. Mr. Good then lets the Welfare Office know that the payment can be made. The
mother is told that this is her last chance to retain custody of the daughter, seeing that the
medical care is essential to the childs physical welfare. The mother is upset and rants about
this vicious blackmail. Every Friday she makes a scene, yet the scheme seems to be working:
She takes her daughter to the pediatrician regularly and promptly delivers the confirmation
to the authorities. Every time she comes, a short conversation ensues that is used to acknowl-
edge that the mother is acting very responsibly. After 6 months, the arrangement works even
without any external pressure. The mother has even thanked the social worker for his rigor
without which she would not have woken up. After all, she really does want her daughter
to get well and is proud of the fact that she is the one who is seeing to it.
4.1.7 A Method for Resolving the Mandate Matter: The Carousel
Anyone who is a little dizzy at the many possible types of mandates should take
a closer look at the carousel method. As always, whenever complexity becomes
overwhelming, it is helpful to imagine things figuratively, or spatially. The man-
date carousel was invented by Arist von Schlippe and Jrgen Kriz (1996), origi-
nally as one of several means of self-supervision. We use the method especially
with female clients in complex situations. The mandates of these clients as well
as other interested parties are written on separate pieces of paper and put on
chairs in the room. This provides a sort of mandate sculpture that allows us to
organize them and to decide which to pursue and which to politely refuse. Walk-
ing around the room furthers communication about the mandates; the movement
brings a sort of plasticity to things, and the feeling of being overwhelmed recedes
into the background to the benefit of an overview and understanding. Finally, the
playful atmosphere lends the entire exercise a light-hearted feeling. Other variants
are implicit, presumed, secret, inner mandates symbolized by figures spread out
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in the room or placed on the table (see Chapter 5.1, where we discuss spatial-vi-
sualizing methods at length).
4.1.8 Does the Mandate Match the Offer?
Despite our concentrating on the needs of the clients, there are sometimes man-
dates that we must reject. When concluding a contract, the helper must critically
check whether the mandate can be meaningfully fulfilled or not. There may be
objective or subjective reasons for rejecting a mandate. The subjective ones lie in
the nature of the helper here are some examples:
The helper may feel overwhelmed by the professional necessities of the case or
doubt his or her own experience.
The case may reflect the helpers own biography, which would mean investing
considerable time and energy, and limiting his or her sovereignty.
The client may stem from the helpers own circles; working on the case would
disturb that context and perhaps even block proper support efforts because of
the social affinity.
In such cases we recommend not taking the risk. If possible, do not even make an
offer and instead point out alternative routes.
The objective reasons for rejecting a mandate can stem from professional as-
pects or from the helpers own institutional or social context. Every helper is
simultaneously part of one or more systems that in turn is bound by terms and
rules. Also a factor is the individual helpers own benevolence or narcissism:
When the hardship of a client touches the helpers heart, when the client seduces
the helper by claiming only you can help one is sorely tempted to take on a
mandate one cannot, in fact, fulfill with a good conscience. In the following, we
look at this aspect of contracting from a cognitive point of view, although we
know that helpers foolishly take on some mandates not because of ignorance or
carelessness, but because helpers are seducible like everyone else.
The Impossible Mandate!
The helper must always be aware of his or her own professional limits.
Case example: A woman asks a counselor about getting couples therapy. She reports that
her husband wants to get a divorce and would be willing to go to counseling to talk about
matters pertaining to the children. During the initial interview it becomes clear that this is
indeed the case. But it also becomes clear that the woman is absolutely not in favor of
getting a divorce. First secretly then more openly during the session she wants to talk only
about the husbands reasons for wanting the divorce; he should be motivated to think it
over, and the counselor should confront the husband with the ruthless and thoughtless
nature of his desire.
Professional experience should tell us that we cannot and should not assume
some of the womans mandates: Doing so would definitively run contrary to the
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common reason for the counseling, namely, the welfare of the children. We know,
too, that systemic counseling possesses no magic potion to convince the husband
to stay in the relationship, particularly if that is not his mandate.
Case example: A family is having major problems with their 16-year-old daughter. Family
counseling is arranged. What the parents want is clear: The counselor should see to it that
the daughter stops running around and is back home by her curfew time, does her home-
work, etc.
Here, too, we are dealing more with the wish for a magic potion than with realistic
and professionally feasible concerns. Professionally, we know that the counselor
cannot take over raising the daughter in lieu of the parents and that a few hours
of counseling certainly cannot bring about real change. We must be honest with
the parents, though we can still offer to work with them to learn how to better
set boundaries for the daughter.
Often, if a mandate is professionally unrealistic, an open and clear conversation
with the client can produce new and different and perhaps feasible and suc-
cessful mandates. The proper know-how and an open and honest style may put
the clients in the position to actually find a realistic path to solving their problems.
Sometimes it is only a matter of making clear to them what part they have to
fulfill in order to bring solutions within reach. Professionalism also means wisely
estimating the power of ones own resources and the resources of the clients, in
order to judge whether these are sufficient to meet the bill. A realistic and sensible
confrontation is by many lengths better than an undeliberated acceptance of man-
dates that, besides producing a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, cannot
really be carried through successfully.
Our institution says: That doesnt fit our concept!
We recommend informing clients about our own organizations terms and condi-
tions for interventions. The helper should, of course, check before commencing
with an intervention that the contract truly matches the organizations concept.
Case example: In family counseling centers, in child guidance offices, in debt counseling and
in retirement homes, one cannot treat extreme drug problems as a sideline. A kindergarten
will have bitten off more than it can chew by attempting to help a child with massive behav-
ioral problems. Social services cannot be responsible for tending to a familys financial chaos.
In such cases, the solution lies in the following:
Clearly delineate all fields of work and abandon the goal of trying to solve every-
Know which institution is responsible for which emergency situations.
Establish good cooperations and referral contacts with other agencies.
One of the greatest difficulties in dissociating oneself lies in the clients over-
whelming need for personal contact.
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Case examples: (1) In a nursery school a mother repeatedly says that she needs to talk to
someone. She has no one else to turn to. (2) A client at a womens counseling service
conveys that she is looking for a friend and not a counselor. She doesnt really want to
change things in her life, she just wants to be able to come once in a while and have contact
with a counselor. (3) A mentally ill man refuses to leave his apartment except to buy the
absolute necessities; the counselor is the only person he will talk to. And when they talk,
he only complains about how awful his life is.
In such situations we must set a long-term limit, since ones employer will hardly
be able to offer such services. Yet, setting such limits can be a very difficult ex-
ercise indeed, the only consolation being that avoiding setting limits makes thing
even more difficult in the long run: We sacrifice our professional role and identity
and slip into a unclear, inconsistent relationship that in the end does not serve
the client well.
Our institution says: We need the work!
This aspect of working for an institutional employer demands much circumspec-
tion and ethical involvement. The question is:
Can I afford to say yes?
Can I afford to say no?
Institutions have a legitimate interest to survive. When we take on a mandate,
this institutional self-interest can play a major role.
Case example: A family counseling center or a residential home for the mentally ill is not
working to full capacity. The financial plan assumes a certain occupancy rate, and if that is
not fulfilled, then jobs, or even the entire facility, will be at risk. When negotiating contracts,
public sponsors today will often base their calculations of the per diem or hourly rates for
care or counseling on a high capacity utilization. To get the absolute best rates, they allow
little or no financial buffers in an institutions prices. For an employee of such services this
can cause a dilemma when negotiating contracts with the clients: There may be little or no
professional necessity for the intervention (or no prospect for success), but the contract
must be carried out nevertheless.
This demands a value analysis:
Would an intervention in any way endanger the clients, e.g., causing someone to
miss work or to become dependent on others for longer than necessary?
Would soliciting internal or external feedback be expedient?
On what level can the dilemma be constructively solved in the long run? Which
interventions in ones own institution or with respect to the state as the contract-
ing entity can facilitate long-term positive development?
Ethical considerations, or when society says: No-go!
Even when our work means supporting the mentally ill, we cant just stand by and
watch their children be mentally or physically neglected or abused. Here, both as
professionals and as citizens, we have the obligation to report such situations to
the authorities. Although we are primarily responsible for stabilizing the mentally
unstable patients in our care, under certain circumstances we must do something
that might, in fact, destabilize them.
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Case example: A client in the process of separating from his girlfriend desires outpatient
counseling. There is a clear and serious danger that the client will commit suicide, which
may demand preventing his harming himself by reporting it to the police or having him
committed to an inpatient facility.
These are situations in which people are acting, or threatening to act, in ways
that might endanger their own lives. And sometimes we experience situations in
which we become witnesses or at least privy to crimes against others (mistreat-
ment and abuse). Here, the law clearly demands we act not as professionals but
as citizens who have the duty to prevent criminal offences or harm to both self
and others. Once we alert the authorities to danger, our contact with the system
in question may have to be discontinued. 4.2 GeneratingHypothesesandSummarizingaWorkingHypothesis
4.2 Generating Hypotheses and Summarizing a Working
Selvini-Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin and Prata (1981) wrote an article entitled
Hypothesizing Circularity Neutrality, in which they defined the term hy-
pothesizing for use in systemic family therapy. This, in turn, had a major influ-
ence in shaping the further development of systemic theory and practice. First,
they commented on the derivation of the word from the Greek original: what
lies below or better yet: the plan on which a theoretical construction is based.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, hypothesis means a supposition or pro-
posed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for
further investigation. This definition describes the use of the word in the exper-
imental sciences. In systemic theory, the termhypothesis is useful because it refers
to a preliminary and experimental, process-oriented procedure: We observe, we
generate hypotheses and we then intervene on the basis of such hypotheses, learn
from the reactions and then expand, supplement, discard or correct our original
Thus, hypotheses have two primary functions (see von Schlippe & Schweizer,
2007, p. 117):
They organize the many observations and datasets we have accumulated while
working with the clients. They condense individual pieces of information to a
single image and differentiate between important and unimportant information.
Many authors carry out this process only in writing, which misses the target:
Visualizations, like the ones we looked at in the previous chapter (family-helper
maps or timelines), actually represent hypotheses or at least help to trigger the
process of forming hypotheses. In addition, one can use metaphors, images and
symbols while preparing hypotheses our brains are capable of more than just
summarizing written notes into if-then clauses.
They stimulate us to perceive new and alternative perspectives; they are like
signposts pointing toward new information and are particularly useful when
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situations in families or systems have become gridlocked and we need a fresh
and unconventional approach.
Material for hypotheses may be derived from two sources:
From our own knowledge, which we have excised from our own research and
experience about specific systems (e.g., co-alcoholic dynamics in addiction sys-
tems, acting out by children in structurally weak families);
From our observations of the respective family, person or group whether
through direct contact, through (observed) contact with others or through their
interaction with suggested or prescribed tasks and rituals.
Employing the first of these two sources in systemic work is a controversial mat-
ter. Some solution-oriented therapists suggest always beginning at the point of
ignorance and proceeding fromthere in order to study with fresh eyes the patterns
of the system. The trick to forming hypotheses is not to impose ones professional
opinions and conclusions onto a client problem, but rather to always remember
that every system is unique, and that we must determine the proper solution from
scratch every time (see Background Text in Chapter 4.2.3).
Case example: A teacher of dyslexic children in a counseling center solved this dilemma by
initially requesting only the name, age and school of the children in his care resolutely
refusing to study in advance any files describing the children or previous treatments. Only
after a few weeks time, after having formed his own impression of the child, did he meet
with colleagues and exchange information about the childs background and previous ther-
apy attempts. This method proved to have a positive effect on the child-therapist relation-
ship and on the results of the therapy itself.
Background Text: Why Do Systems Theorists Prefer to Speak of Hypothe-
ses and Not of Diagnoses?
The systemic-constructivistic tradition says that we cannot assume that we
are making objective statements about humans or systems. Heinz von Foer-
ster (2002, p. 154) put it like this: Objectivity is the illusion that observa-
tions can be made without an observer. Appealing to objectivity means re-
fusing to accept responsibility thats why it is so popular! (see Background
Text in Chapter 2 on the notion of facts). Objective statements provide us
with a sense of security that is a splendid basis for arguing with others about
the truth. We, however, assume that every statement, such as one about
another human being, stems from a human observer.
For example, the statement John is lazy or Mary is psychotic assumes
the following:
that we have observed certain behaviors in a social context,
that these behaviors have attracted our attention by somehow deviating
form our idea of normal behavior,
that we can evaluate these behaviors according to our own criteria.
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Figure 22: Juxtaposition of a procedure based on objective diagnoses and on systemic
hypotheses. The arrows show the direction information flow.
All of this is canceled out in the seemingly objective statement, which has
certain consequences as we will see below. First, let us compare (in a rather
polarizing way) the treatment and counseling possibilities from the objecti-
vizing and systemic perspective (see Figure 22).
According to traditional treatment methods for the problem areas we have
been dealing with, the helper (physician, therapist, social worker) is the expert
for the problemand for its solution. He or she prescribes or suggests something,
and the client does it. The diagnosis represents the objective truth and thus
requires great effort; the results have long-termvalidity. If, for example, schizo-
phrenia is diagnosed, then everyone knows what the next years will bring. If the
treatment fails to showsuccess, this will be termed opposition by psychother-
apeutic circles, ascribed, as such, to the client and his or her mental dynamics.
Or one reverts to the diagnosis of resistance to therapy.
The systemic counselor, on the other hand, looks at the situation from an
experimental vantage point, learning by trial and error which of the interven-
tions is helpful and productive, always refining and fine-tuning the hypothe-
ses. Hypotheses are thus always something preliminary, with a short half-life:
short-term procedures in a long-term process. They are used for orientation,
and they always remain open to correction. Thus, systemic work is always
process-oriented, i.e., solutions arise in a collective effort between counselor
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and client of seeking and learning. The client is always the expert on his or
her own life; the counselor adjusts the treatment and care to the uniqueness
of the client. Milton Erickson repeatedly emphasized that, in principle, one
would have to invent a new school of therapy for every individual client
(quoted after G. Schmidt, 1993, personal communication). The psychother-
apy researcher Klaus Grawe made similar conclusions based on his metastud-
ies on the efficacy of psychotherapy: Why should the human soul be divided
up like the many strains of psychotherapy? For this reason it would be better
if a therapist were to look at a patient and say: What is the best possible
approach for this person? Howcan I best bring about changes in this persons
life? (Grawe, 2000, p. 305).
We can expand these statements to cover social and pedagogical themes
as well. If something fails to function, stagnation ensues; we experience the
client as rebellious. From a systemic point of view, this is important informa-
tion and a stimulus we can use in shaping the further relationship and inter-
vention. We assume that we simply have not yet found the proper and ade-
quate intervention, that we have proceeded too quickly or too slowly, that we
have not yet determine the right subject matter and need to concern ourselves
with gaining better access. Resistance (if there is such a thing) is an interac-
tion variable not a client variable.
Case example: A child therapist remarks in a contribution to a congress that her meth-
od of group therapy has a success rate of 70%, with about 20% of the children show-
ing no effect. Her explanation is that these children evidently have pronounced per-
sonality disorders and should be seen as resistant to therapy. Following this view, failure
originates within the children and is reinforced by objective data and diagnoses. Such
a statement, however, blocks out major aspects of the context: The more reasonable
statement would be: 20% of the children do not profit from the setting of my non-
directive, bi-weekly, 2-hour therapy over a period of 6 months. When asking why
something doesnt work, we must always contemplate the entire context including
In summary, we may draw two conclusions:
Hypotheses should not be judged on whether or not they are true, but
whether they are useful in effecting change. Eckhard Sperling, a family
therapist and psychoanalyst fromGttingen, Germany, said it very radical-
ly: I do not believe in a theory, I use a theory. And of that theory I use
only that part that helps me further . . . and only for as long as it helps me
(after Hosemann et al., 1998, p. 127).
We should always be willing to part with our hypothesis if we notice that
no changes are taking place. It is better to switch hypotheses than switch
clients! Jochen Schweitzer once suggested adopting a postmodern attitude
toward hypotheses: You can fall in love with a hypothesis, even enjoy a
candle-light dinner with one, but theres no need to marry one.
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4.2.1 The Sources and Themes of Hypotheses
All information, insights and impressions flow together to generate a hypothesis;
how one best gathers and documents that information was shown in the previous
Chapters 2 and 3.
It is a good idea to practice regarding a situation from all angles trying on
glasses with different-colored lenses, so to speak, and using them to reorganize
ones impressions. Some important questions are as follows:
How does a particular symptom or problem make sense from this perspective?
How does the attempt reflect the solution, the answer to a real challenge?
Where can (must) we presume good intentions with negative results?
Clo Madanes (1989, personal communication) suggests regarding symptoms
as metaphors for important themes in a system. This perspective asks what
themes are symbolically expressed through problematic behavior.
Here a few examples taken from these perspectives (Figure 23):
The socioeconomic context, the clients environment: What problems are the
clients confronted with that stem from their environment? Might their difficult
behaviors be their way of dealing with such surroundings?
For example, are a mothers absurd expenditures her futile attempt at rebelling
against the constant lack of funds the desire to, at least once in a while, have
something to offer her children? What do the conflicts among the siblings
have to do with their living arrangement?
Adaptation demands: When death, sickness, war or relocation strikes when
clients have to deal with major life disruptions how does their reactive behav-
ior help them to cope?
For example, an adolescents withdrawal, his distrust of others, may be connect-
ed with the constant relocations his parents exposed him to and with his own
ensuing lack of long-term relationships.
Temporal processes: How do life events, a difficult past or failed attempts at
Figure 23: Ways of looking at hypotheses
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finding a solution affect each other? What does this say about the present situ-
ation? Compare the example of Sonja given in Chapter 3.4.2.
Life cycle: For example, a childs entry into school or leaving of the home:
Is the system presently stressed by such transitions? How does it react? What
steps were successful and which ones are avoided?
For example, because of on-going problems, an adolescent delays moving out
and effectively holds the family together. He uses the parents to set limits and
care for him, while at the same time demanding more independence.
Biographical processes and multigenerational perspectives: What is the story
behind the clients previous life and learning history? What behavioral patterns
have emerged? What baggage full of unsolved problems do they carry around
with them?
For example, the sadistic father stems from a long family tradition of violence:
His behavior expresses multigenerational themes of abuse, irresponsibility and
Interaction and behavioral patterns: Which behavioral patterns have sprouted
up around the symptoms or problems? How are they being nourished by the
For example, two counselors in a group of adolescents contradict each other in
their rules and everyday activities. What one of them allows, the other forbids,
in part within earshot of the youths. Soon the kids dont obey any rules at all; the
pressure on everyone rises and the two counselors resort even more adamantly
to their controversial methods.
Structures such as boundaries, subsystems and control: How is the family struc-
tured? How are the boundaries, the subsystems, the leadership defined?
For example, a small child discovers how to break all rules and still rely on
support from the grandmother. Apparently, the boundaries between the genera-
tions and authority of the parents must be clarified.
Moods, impressions, emotional and somatic reactions: What do I, as a counsel-
or, experience in my dealings with the clients?
For example, does the coolness that reigns within the group have anything to do
with the child having run away? The sadness a counselor experiences in a family
with high aspirations may be a signal of unresolved grief and suppressed needs
for relaxation.
4.2.2 How to Construct Hypotheses
Forming systemic hypotheses means making assumptions about:
the relationships within the client system,
the interactions between symptoms and relationships,
the connections between the client and the helper system,
the connections between the symptom and the history of the system,
the connections between internalized patterns from earlier systems being repro-
duced by the clients in the present system.
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Systemic thought does not assume linear cause-and-effect associations, but rather
presumes circular reciprocities this aspect, too, must be reflected in our hypoth-
Case example: In a school there are problems between teachers and students. The students
say they are not motivated because they have such frustrated teachers who fail to get in-
volved. The teachers say they are frustrated because their pupils are so unmotivated. The
circular hypothesis would be: Pupils and teachers mutually frustrate and demotivate each
In Table 6 we present a comparison of objectifying and systemic strategies in a
rather polarizing manner in order to accentuate the differences. Analogously we
can differentiate the two basic construction principles for the generation of hy-
potheses (after P. Gester, personal communication).
Case example: Markus, a 17-year-old, comes to counseling with his parents. He regularly
wakes up at night, sees the devil in his room (literally, not as part of a dream) and comes
running to his parents full of panic. The family has solved the problem by letting the son
Table 6: Construction principles for hypotheses
Objectivizing, objectifying Systemic, fluidifying
Hypotheses refer to traits that lie within
the person
Hypotheses are statements about the relation-
ships and interactions of those involved and
their context
Hypotheses provide explanations for the
causes (under the assumption of linear
cause-and-effect associations)
Hypotheses refer to the meaning and function
of the symptoms or behaviors within the re-
spective system
Hypotheses illuminate the past
Present and future
Hypotheses refer to the present network in
systems as well as to the future
Stable over time
Hypotheses are on the lookout for stable,
unchanging traits and explanations
Hypotheses dilute traits into behavioral pat-
terns that vary according to time and space
Negative connotation
Hypotheses refer to deficits and the ab-
sence of something
Positive connotation
Hypotheses presume positive intentions and
functions, and always include resources
Removed from context
Hypotheses about traits are not bound to
the contexts (time, space, others) in
which the person acts
Hypotheses connect the actions with the exter-
nal circumstances and assign a new meaning
to them
Hypotheses are stuck in traditional psy-
chological or sociological thought pat-
terns or conventions
Hypotheses differ from traditional thought
patterns, and through the use of creative, un-
usual and bold assumptions they carry an ele-
ment of surprise, opening up new perspectives
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sleep in the parents bedroom, the mother having moved to his room. She would like to
solve the problem as quickly as possible, whereas the father pleads for patience: The devil
apparently avoids the parental bedroom, the son sleeps well there, and it is important that
the son get a good nights sleep to get through his job training. During the initial interview,
when working with exploration and creating a sculpture, we learn that the boys older
brother moved out of the house 3 years ago amid massive conflicts and that no one knows
where he currently lives! While difficult for everyone, the situation seems to be especially
hard to bear for the father. Up until now, the family has lived quietly and happily in modest
surroundings. All family members report having experienced a nice family life with little
contact to others. Of the many possible hypotheses, we choose the following: A new de-
parture is impending, and viewed against the background of a self-sufficient family and the
painful detachment of the elder son, this move is dangerous and anxiety-provoking for all.
The devil symbolizes this danger. The son is signaling to his father that he wont be leaving
all too soon, which binds the father and son together.
We told the family only the first part of the hypothesis testing the second part by giving
the family a task to fulfill: We described the problem as one of detachment and asked the
father to go with the son once a week either on a walk or to a bar or pub and tell him about
how he himself had left his parents home when he was young. This task aimed at getting
the theme of detachment out into the open, while also strengthening the father-son rela-
tionship. The mother gave her approval for this exclusive contact between the two. At the
next meeting, the two men reported that their talks had been very good for them. In two
further meetings we followed up on the theme of detachment, also touching on the sadness
they felt at the elder sons leaving.
We also emphasized the hypothesis that the son may be worried about the parents: What
will they do all alone, with no friends, when he leaves? We spoke with the parents and with
the son separately about ways of making contact and howto shape ones life. After 5 sessions
the son, without any therapeutic planning, moved back into his own room. The devil still
popped up once in a while, but the son was able to take it. In about 6 weeks time he
suggested the solution himself: One night the idea came to him to just ignore the devils
presence and to do push-ups. Then, to his own surprise and delight, the devil was gone! A
few training units later and the entire problem had been solved: The devil didnt want to
meet up with such a strong and well-trained boy, so he apparently quit coming and the son
slept safe and sound once again.
We congratulated him on this very novel solution. In the following weeks we held further
sessions with him alone and a final session with the whole family. A further symbolic
background to the devil figure emerged: the sons fear of going out. He lived in a part of
town where adolescents were often victims of violent attacks. The close-knit family had,
up until then, offered him a way to avoid this problem. In the end, he solved it by joining
a martial arts group at a local club, where he found friends who supported him and with
whom he could go out in the evening. His parents, too, activated earlier friendships and
took some first steps toward accepting his detachment. The symptom did not return (at
least not in the first 18 months). Still, contact with the eldest son remained tenuous, and
it was unclear whether or not this would ever change.
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4.2.3 Three Practical Tips
1. When forming hypotheses, include the thoughts of others. The constructivistic
approach teaches humility and that we do not have command of all truth; rath-
er, only the combination of several perspectives can provide a well-rounded
picture. This insight was methodologically adapted in approaches envisioning
the reflecting team (Andersen, 1991). During team meetings this means that
we must refrain from playing the whos-right-and-whos-wrong game and rath-
er listen to each other, with respect for our different approaches. Differing
views are placed side-by-side and not inserted into a hierarchy. Sometimes its
the odd hypothesis that turns out to be the most valuable one.
2. The process of generating hypotheses means oscillating between closeness (trust,
recognition, empathy, feeling) and distance (new points of view, change). To this
end, the pioneers of systemic thought introduced one-way mirrors or timeouts
during sessions. While one-way mirrors or the presence of more than one coun-
selor during a session is normally an unknown luxury, the introduction of time-
outs, or short breaks, should be rather easy. They help to air out ones head, to
extract oneself from the pull of the events which our brains usually reward us
for by producing new and hopefully productive insights. Physical activity and a
few minutes of doing something completely different can help: leave the room,
walk a while, stretch, drink a cup of coffee, look out the window, go to the bath-
room. Such interruptions help create distance to old thoughts, which can then
perhaps yield a new and better look at things.
3. Beware of deep hypotheses. What I see and what I offer to the clients results
from the problem. However, the true problem (emerging from the clients
childhood or character) lies in a deeper region. As an expert and counselor, of
course, I can see the problem, though the client cannot (yet). But thats where
we have to go: My role is to lead the client in that direction. This attitude leads
to long and difficult therapy and counseling. It is better to build hypotheses
that closely refer to manageable and self-evident matters.
Background Text: In Praise of Hypotheses and the Demonizing of
Hypotheses by the Followers of Not-knowing
The Milan Team(Selvini-Palazzoli et al., 1981, see above) describes howthey
formulate the initial hypotheses even before the first session has taken place
on the basis of information they have received over the telephone. They al-
ready try to determine who in the family they will best ask about what mat-
ters. The questions they pose and the way they design the initial contact serve
the purpose of checking their hypotheses. In this manner, hypotheses become
the central element of the session and give it structure.
If however the therapist is passive, only an observer and not an actor, then the family
will be the one to guide things, by propagating their own linear hypothesis, which only
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serves to indicate who is crazyand who is guilty. But this doesnt provide the therapist
with any valuable information at all. The therapists hypotheses, on the other hand, do
provide the family system with strong impulses by introducing the unexpected and the
improbable; they limit disinhibition and disorder. . . . Without support for our activities
in the form of a hypothesis the sessions would end in chaos and complete anarchy and
be discouraging to everyone (Selvini-Palazzoli et al., 1981, p. 127).
Putting hypotheses together is a lot of work and involves intensive prepara-
tion and discussions with colleagues. The hypotheses must yield a strategy
for the coming discussions, the development of which also takes time. It is
comforting to knowthat even the maestros fromMilano could not do without
such intensive prepping. It is not ingenious intuition which results in success-
ful and smooth querying, but thorough preparation of the session.
The advantage of the hypothesis-oriented dialog lies not only in the way it
structures and organizes the sessions; rather, the longer one asks questions
with the sole purpose of creating a hypothesis, the more the system concerns
itself with the content of the hypothesis without its having to be formulated
precisely by the counselor. Once a hypothesis-oriented counselor has finished
a session, anyone present will develop newideas and perspectives about what
is true about the hypothesis: The hypothesis quite naturally becomes the cen-
terpoint of the exchange with the client system.
Yet other authors soon judge this circumstance in a very different way and
formulated an opposing view. According to them, the counselor should not
formulate hypotheses at all, but rather only lead the discussion from the po-
sition of not-knowing. Anderson and Goolishan (1992, p. 29) describe this
position as follows:
The position of not-knowing is accompanied by the overall position or standpoint
whereby the therapists posture radiates a rich and sincere curiosity. That is, the actions
and the attitudes of the therapist express the need to know more about what was said
than the opinions and expectations of the therapist concerning the client, the problem
or what needs to be changed. The therapist assumes a position that allows him or her
to be informed by the client . . .
Most of us find it extremely difficult to disregard our own frame of reference and to
listen to the clients story from the perspective of that client. We are used to filtering
everything others tell us through our own experiences and beliefs. We believe that
training in the helping professions even tends to exacerbate this problem by concen-
trating our focus on gaining information while listening to clients in order to better
assess the situation (De Jong & Kim Berg, 2012, p. 47 f.).
But it is exactly these sorts of problems and difficulties of the helping profes-
sions that distinguish the hypothetizing approach of the Milan school. In the
narrative approach described above, hypothetizing does not play a central
role in the dialog with the system; in the narrative approach, the counselor
is interested exclusively in the tale the client tells, the clients view of the
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world and of course the clients solutions. The work object is the clients nar-
rative. Change can happen by changing the narrative, by changing the clients
view of things. This approach always stays at the level of the narration one
of the basic epistemological differences fromthe Milan model. The latter uses
the clients narratives to recognize the structures that lie behind the story and
to develop hypotheses about these systemic structures. For the Milan Team,
narration is a way to get inside the structure, whereas the narrative approach
does not even assume the presence of such a structure.
We do not deal with what is hidden, since everything is wide-open . . . We do not
need a penetrating, but a clear look at things. It is true that, in a certain sense, there
is something hidden but not because it lies under the surface, rather because it lies
at the surface, directly in front of everyones eyes (Wittgenstein, 1971, quoted in de
Shazer, 1994).
The solution-oriented narrative approach completely concentrates on the
ideas for solving the problem present in the clients story; this imparts the
counseling interview with both structure and order.
In the Background Text of Chapter 3 on the controversy between norma-
tive and neutral approaches to working with a system, we noted the agree-
ment between the Milan approach and Minuchins solution-oriented ap-
proach toward the normative theory, quoting Palazzoli and de Shazer. The
epistemological agreement between the position of Milan and that of Minu-
chin may be seen in two important points: (1) A structure lies behind the
observations and descriptions. (2) Recognizing and depicting the structure
of the system in the form of hypotheses is a meaningful and necessary act in
the process of getting rid of the symptoms. The Milan school tries to recog-
nize the familys game in order to break up the homeostasis and thus induce
new developments; Minuchin seeks to find the structures present in the sys-
tem and to change those structures. Both approaches are structuralistic. De
Shazer, on the other hand, may rather be seen as poststructuralist he doesnt
even look for structures behind the clients story.
Epistemologically speaking, it would seem to us that perception and cog-
nition are not possible from a position of not-knowing if seen radically
and in its final consequence. According to Schulz von Thun (1998, p. 61 ff.),
from a communication-theoretical standpoint the recipient of a message is
responsible for its content. Recipients must decode the message and give it
meaning, for which purpose they use their experiences, their opinions and
their mental models: These determine what recipients understand. The recip-
ients of a message cannot absorb a message that goes beyond their own cog-
nitive and interpretative abilities.
Maturana and Varela (1992) arrive at similar conclusions. They describe
the connection between two systems as a structural interconnection. Within
such a conglomeration, matter or information can pass back and forth be-
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tween the systems, whereby the structure of the receiving system determines
the meaning of what is transferred. If a cell absorbs matter, then the construc-
tion and structure of that cell determines whether the matter is, finally, nu-
tritional, incompatible or perhaps even toxic.
Information absorption from the position of not-knowing is, in the end,
impossible. It can only serve as an attempt to understand the other person in
his or her own world (inasmuch as at all possible), putting aside as much as
possible ones own views and experiences, ones own knowledge about sys-
tems, communication and relationship structures. We see the advantages of
not-knowing in the following points:
One encounters the clients with respect; one is open and curious about
their specific way of living and about their own authentic solutions. This
means, too, that we create room for solutions that are not present in our
own mental models.
Playing the role of an inquisitive, well-meaning researcher who joyfully
ponders and reacts to the ideas of the clients can be very pleasing indeed.
It creates a foundation of trust that can become the basis for successful
change (see the comments on the generic principles and overall functional
factors of psychotherapy at the beginning of Chapter 5).
This position raises the self-esteem of the clients and inspires their creativ-
ity, both of which are helpful in overcoming difficult junctures in life.
As executed by de Shazer, a hypothesis underlies the position of not-know-
ing, albeit a hypothesis that is the same for all client systems and all types
of problems:
One concentrates on the solutions suggested by the client system. One
consistently pushes the client system toward the development of and ever-
increasing realization of solutions. The result is true development and
This basic assumption has nothing to do with the radical position of not-
knowing and the conscious foregoing of clinical concepts. It consists in-
deed of a clinical concept and a hypothesis, which in turn very clearly
structure and order the dialog with the client system. In our opinion, the
inherent dangers of the not-knowing position arise when we assume that
we are very well able to carry on conversations in an unbiased, uncondi-
tional and value-free manner.
Under these conditions, we repudiate our interpretive powers and act as
if we do not compare what we hear with our own mental models our
own cognitive schemata. In a sense, we are actually increasing the danger
of suggesting to the client the value of these schemata via completely un-
conscious, paraverbal means, without having to explain the circumstances
to ourselves, let alone to the clients. In video sequences we can observe
how therapists control the attention of clients through very subtle nonver-
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4.3 PreparingHypotheseswhenWorkingwithForeigners
4.3 Preparing Hypotheses when Working with Foreigners
In the complex helper systems of other cultures we often discover very contra-
dictory standpoints about what is causing the problems and how best to solve
them. Intercultural teams are well acquainted with situations in which heated
debates take place about whether the foreign family should be supported or rather
confronted about how much assimilation can be expected of them. Much par-
tisanship and identification is found here, with creeds taking the place of sober
professional judgment. The many and contradictory hypotheses proffered for the
counseling of migrant families represent not only an opportunity but also a source
of many questions and problems:
Which of the many hypotheses shall be our working hypothesis?
Why do we decide for or against a hypothesis?
Which of our implicit assumptions about migration and mental health are deci-
sive here?
In such cases it is best to have a model available for organizing and classifying our
hypotheses, to ensure that the discussion returns to methodological terrain. We
like the model developed by Norbert Kunze, head of an intercultural team in
Reutlingen, Germany (Kunze, 1998). According to this model, hypotheses may
be classified in three categories:
bal means even if they consider themselves to be nondirective and neu-
Our professional knowledge is valuable empirical knowledge. It would be
irresponsible and very inefficient if we were to restrain ourselves from im-
parting this knowledge on later clients. Yet we must introduce it with hu-
mility and respect for the self-regulating nature of a system and not force
it upon the clients.
Our own position toward this disaccord within the systemic camp supports
one side as well as the other. The idea of not-knowing can be very helpful
when exploring extensively the way the system sees things, recounts things
and interprets things. From what we hear, we develop hypotheses if neces-
sary, even structuralistic hypotheses. We consider this important for explicat-
ing our inner conclusions and making them available to revision: by our-
selves, by the clients, by other colleagues or by the results of actions based
on these conclusions. We are well aware that hypotheses tend to constrain
the possible options; but they do that no matter whether we are conscious of
and express them or not or whether we act as though they didnt even exist.
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a) Psychological hypotheses: Problems are explained exclusively via psychologi-
cal theories. Depending on the respective school the counselor belongs to,
there is an emphasis on psychoanalytic, behavioral, humanistic or systemic ex-
planations. The fact that one is dealing with an immigrant family is of little
relevance here.
b) Culture-specific hypotheses: The context of a strange or different culture
is viewed as relevant to the problem, or rather: the relationship of the help-
seeking immigrant family to its own background explains the problem. Thus,
the source of the problem lies in the clients culture, even though the behavior
may not be a problem within the clients cultural context and only becomes
one because the family is no longer in its native cultural environment. The
difference between, or incompatibility of, the two cultures is seen as the true
reason for the problem.
c) Migration-specific hypotheses: Here the immigration situation, the status of
being a minority, the history of migration in general, racism, xenophobia, dis-
criminatory institutions as well as the reactions of the immigrants to life in
another society, their experiences as minority figures and the consequences
thereof all of these are seen as the reasons behind the problems.
To illustrate this model, let us look at some hypotheses drawn from a supervision
session that took place as part of a conference (Conference on Migration of the
National Catholic Counseling Association BAG) in 1998 in Freiburg, Germany.
Case example: The supervision group consisted of counselors from various cultures as well
as the ethnologist Tirmiziou Diallo fromFrankfurt and Norbert Kunze. A(female) colleague
introduced her work with a binational couple that had several children and now lived in
Germany; the father was from the Ivory Coast, the mother was German. The counselor
mentioned that the father consistently spoke of my children when speaking of the couples
children. During the supervision the following hypotheses were offered (Figure 24):
Psychological hypothesis: The husband wants to say to the counselor and to his wife that
he sees the children more as his and belonging to his sphere of responsibility and that
in the end his custodial powers are greater than those of his wife. This is an implicit
threat that he will assert his rights in the case of separation.
Culture-specific hypothesis: The use of the possessive pronoun my or our is much
more differentiated in West African tribes than in European or Anglo-American society.
In West Africa, there are two different expressions for our: One is inclusive and ex-
presses that the object in question belongs to both the speaker and his group and thus
also to the listener; another is exclusive and is used when the speaker wants to express
that the object belongs to his own group but not to that of the listener. As a member of
such a cultural and semantic background, he may be uncomfortable having to express
himself in this matter in a less-differentiated (European) way than he is used to. If he
uses our in the first sense, he might have the feeling of attributing his and his wifes
children to the counselor and making her part of the family (or at least being ambiguous
about it). His solution is to use the phrase my children to express the fact that they are
not the counselors children, and that she carries no responsibility for them, only he and
his wife do.
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Migration-specific hypothesis: As a Black man in a white European society he has surely
experienced some discrimination. Indeed, he considers himself part of a discriminated
minority. Yet he would like to show the counselor and his wife as well that they are his
children, that they belong to him, have his skin color, that he sees them as part of his
people, that he would someday like them to come to Africa and that he would defend
them as members of a minority against the German majority society.
With this model we can assign the hypotheses to the three categories. The follow-
ing requirements seem to be reasonable:
One should establish hypotheses for each of the three categories.
These hypotheses should be tested together with the clients.
The relationship of the counselor to the working hypotheses should remain easy-
going (see Background Text on hypothetizing above).
But why should counselors be so careful and so self-critical of their own assump-
tions and working hypotheses when dealing with migrants? When working with
migrants, the danger lies in identifying with ones own nationality, even idealizing
it, or ideologizing the known and the unknown. This is true for both native and
foreign-born counselors. A further argument for employing the three types of
Figure 24: The three categories for the classification of hypotheses and assumptions
when working with migrants (after Kunze, 1998)
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hypotheses is that families themselves often have a trifold way of thinking about
themselves and their problems. They, too, frame their problems in a culture-spe-
cific, in a migration-specific, and in a psychological manner. Often there are even
different fractions within a family regarding this question.
Using the three working hypotheses allows us to switch between the hypothe-
ses from time to time and to make each of the three hypotheses the object of
study. One will quickly notice which of the three is met with the strongest re-
sponse within the family and can develop it further. For the family it is advanta-
geous to be mindful of all three aspects of their situation. The reaction to such a
broadly based approach is often positive.
Reducing the three categories to a single one, on the other hand, has a number
of inherent dangers:
Using only the psychological perspective leads a psychologization and neglects
all cultural, sociological, political and social aspects.
Using only a culturally oriented approach means ethnizing the client while ne-
glecting the clients individual psychological biography, indeed that of the entire
family. Further, sociological, political and social connections tend to slip out of
Reducing ones view solely to a migration-specific one results in the politiciza-
tion of the client. One neglects the individual psychological development and the
development of the entire family as well as the clients specific cultural back-
ground and the differences found among cultures. 4.4 DefiningGoodGoals
4.4 Defining Good Goals
Having lost sight of our goals, we redouble our efforts (Mark Twain). This
saying describes what happens in everyday life all the time whether in politics,
in corporate life, in social and educational situations, or in our own daily routines.
Setting goals can help us to organize our activities and separate the necessary
from the irrelevant. However, Twains statement stands in contrast with constru-
tivistic concepts: Heinz von Foerster (1988, quoted by von Schlippe & Schweit-
zer, 2007, p. 210) warned against a purely goal-oriented therapy, which in his
opinion would hamper the developmental possibilities of the family. Von Schlippe
and Schweitzer (2007, p. 210) thus recommend setting only short-term goals,
such as asking the question What has to happen today that you can say at the
end of the session: That was a good session. Of course, it is equally important
to inquire about the visions of possible solutions in systems needing counseling,
although such ideas should be viewed only as temporarily valid statements about
present developmental perspectives.
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Background Text: Goal-Oriented Approaches or: Does Perturbation
Stimulate Open Processes?
This question touches on both aspects of epistemology and humanity. Matu-
ranas concept of perturbation is usually interpreted as meaning to de-
stroy. Ludewig (1999, pp. 78 ff.) describes the therapeutic intervention as a
significant destruction of family coherence within a therapeutic system.
The term refers to the fact that both families and systems are not control-
lable, and that interventions that intend to induce change should concentrate
on destroying old and crusty thought and behavioral patterns trusting that
the system will react to this destruction by forming other, perhaps even more
functional forms of organization. This idea also includes the belief that com-
plex social systems are effectively unsteerable: No one can say in advance
which effect an intervention will ultimately have. But any intervention, this
we do know, will upset the existing equilibrium of the system (homeostasis)
so much that the systemhas to change in order to return to (perhaps another)
equilibrium. In this sense, of course, long discussions about goals are coun-
terproductive as they hinder the open-ended developmental process. Discuss-
ing goals may be used, however, to import new ideas into the system.
In our own experience, these concepts may be hard to swallow in struc-
turally weak systems from marginal social groups, in community projects, in
groups of violence-prone adolescents, with mistreated or abused persons. In-
stead, we start with three premises:
In many contexts we are forced to set goals because of institutional man-
dates or our own value orientation.
The ability to embark in truly new directions by first tearing down the old
is not equally pronounced in all clients. Some systems that have a consid-
erable supply thereof can proceed in this way. Others that have already
been confronted with much destruction, aberrations and confusion in the
past may benefit more if we supply support, orientation and concrete di-
rections. If change means introducing something new into a system, then
sometimes a firm structure is what is new to families with structural weak-
Even if we try to remain value-neutral and expectation-neutral, implicitly
we often turn to our own value system, which does have certain goals. Our
debate about hypnotherapeutic techniques clearly showed that we always
influence others in our communication with them. Especially when we are
attempting to approach things nondirectively, without firm goals, do these
influences become all the more subterranean, expressed only through sub-
tle, nonverbal interventions. This phenomenon is another reason to always
shift to working with goals on a completely conscious and transparent lev-
el. Analogous to Watzlawicks communication axiom one could say: One
cannot not manipulate as long as one is communicating.
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Of course, on the other hand, we do recognize that systems dont like to be
dictated to; they dont like to be told to go some straight path, but rather tend
to decide on their own what to do with the interventions offered by the helper.
Perhaps the two poles Goals are useful and Systems cannot be in-
structed can be dialectically conjoined:
Depending on the system, we vary the degree to which we work with goals
that provide orientation. We assume that they will be continually reviewed,
and we are open to all corrections, changes or substitutions similar to
our description on generating hypotheses.
We proceed in a narrowor wide corridor of goals: The paths to a particular
goal can be very different, and we do not presume to know in advance
what will turn out to be best path for the respective clients, but rather
strive to find that out by working with them.
Working with goals has a number of other useful effects:
Goals focus behavior on a reference point.
Dealing with goals distracts the clients from their problems. Thinking
about the future activates their resources. Thinking, Sigmund Freud
said, is test-run action.
Good goals support and appeal to ones motivation to put an effort into
changing things in the foreseen direction.
Goals serve as a sort of lighthouse when the going gets rough; they light
the way and encourage one to perseverance: Its worth it and you can
make it!
Pursuing goals helps to determine exactly what clients want, whats impor-
tant to them, what they wish for and what in turn is not so important.
Carefully sifting through priorities also helps to avoid excessive demand
on their own resources.
Goals are good for the self-esteem of both the clients and practitioners:
Their own behavior is put to the test. Although this may sometimes also
cause anxiety, everyone rejoices at success and can celebrate it.
The latter point is something we noticed particularly with our American col-
leagues. They possess a very distinctive and high level of professional confi-
dence, which by far tops that of their European colleagues. The latter tend to
philosophize more about how human development is an open process and
very, very difficult, and how impossible it is to describe results let alone to
promise or contract for success. American counselors, however, lecture open-
ly about the newest Dont-Worry-Be-Happy Program with 17 steps or the
Five Guiding Principles or the Six Outcomes of this method or that meth-
od. To us Europeans this sometimes seems a bit superficial but, if we are
honest, it also leaves us more than a little envious of their clear and self-as-
sured attitude. The two standpoints seem to have converged somewhat by
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4.4.1 Criteria for Formulating Goals
Many existing measures, however, arent all too useful for determining clear goals.
Vague declarations of intent are unsuitable and cannot truly provide a plan of
action (see Berg & Kelly, 2000, pp. 270 ff.). There is always room for improving
parenting skills no matter how hard one tries. Just as better communication
in the team remains a noble and desirable goal even after years of supervision.
The prerequisite for knowing when one has actually arrived at ones goal is to
formulate a precise description of what things will look like once one has indeed
arrived. Only then do helpers and clients have sufficient clues to recognize their
success and appreciate it.
Seiwert (2000), in his many publications on the topic of time- and self-man-
agement, pointed again and again to the importance of clear goals. He speaks of
smart goals and summarizes in the acronym SMART his five criteria for good
Walter and Peller (1992) add to this definition of goals two further aspects: use
processual language (i.e., more verbs and less nouns) and use the language of the
now, which is surely owed in part to being courageous enough to talk about
The contradiction discussed here between the two meaningful perspectives
Intervention as open-ended disturbance and Intervention to reach goals
cannot be completely resolved. Both are reasonable approaches, and we can
only decide which to apply depending on the situation: Which offers the
greatest advantage in the respective situation? Yet both positions are and
remain constructions, not truths. Theories should be followed only for as long
as they provide good results.
It is helpful to keep the principle mentioned above in mind: Every question
is already an intervention. Working with goals, therefore, is not merely the
preparation of interventions, but rather a source of new impulses for change.
Attractive images appear before the inner eye, internal search processes are
activated, issues are resolved and sorted out, the relationship between prac-
titioner and client is consolidated, questions signal interest and commitment.
This alone suffices to kick things off and make further work easier.
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Specific goals
It is helpful to describe the situation as though one had, in fact, already reached
the goal (no conjunctive moods here: should, could, would). Unspecific goals in
some distant future feel tentative and nonbinding and lack the pull to get people
excited. They also fail to show concretely how the goals can be reached.
Case example: I will revise my daily schedule so that I have the time to eat in peace and
quiet. I will make a meal plan every Sunday along with a matching grocery list. I will be
mindful of eating more fruit and vegetables. At least one meal a day should be a salad or
vegetable dish. Every day I will do 30 minutes of physical exercise. Not: I want to lose
20 pounds.
Helpful questions on the path to the goal:
What, exactly, will that look like, once youve reached your goal? What will you
be doing differently? I would like to understand what you mean. Can you put it
into concrete terms?
What can we do now to start you on the path to that goal?
How, precisely, will you proceed with this?
What could we do if . . .?
Measurable goals
The more concrete the goals are defined, the better one can verify whether they
have, in fact, been fulfilled.
Case example: I would like us to listen to each other more calmly, withholding our com-
ments for a while. I would like to learn to put my criticism into words earlier instead of
waiting and letting it eat away at me. I could check that by thinking about my day when
Im lying in bed in the evening, checking whether I have really told my husband everything
I wanted to say or chosen a time to do that. I also want to talk more about things that I
like. . . . How often? . . . (pauses to think) Well, you surely have the opportunity to
compliment someone at least once a day, I would think. Not: My husband and I need to
better understand each other.
Questions about the level of standard are important. Many clients have unrea-
sonably high expectations when they go to counseling they think all their prob-
lems will just disappear entirely. Scaled questions help to establish realistic ex-
pectations and are a good way to come to better definitions of behaviors
otherwise difficult to define.
Case example: A young man says that his goal is to find a partner (very good: a concrete,
verifiable goal!). During counseling he tries to define his horizon for that goal. In the following
we present a fewof the questions and snippets of conversation during that session. Counselor:
That then would be the 100%solution. Howquickly do you think you could reach that goal?
How much of that would we have to attain here in counseling for you to say, OK, thats
good enough, I can do the rest by myself? So, 75%you say. And what, exactly, would you
have reached at the 75% mark? What would be different from the way it is today?
(Later on, after the client described the 75% mark as being able to approach girls in a more
relaxed way.) What does that mean to you, relaxed? Where in your body do you most notice
what it means to be relaxed? Any other places? If I have understood you correctly, that
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means that instead of having a knot in your stomach and frantically searching for some topic
to talk about you would develop a sort of easiness about you and could talk about things that
interest you. How would you recognize that this is the case? In which situations have you
experienced this feeling? The conversation is thus oriented toward a precise but realistic goal
of (more or less) easygoing conversations with young women.
Action-oriented, positive goals
Formulating goals is meant to be a motivation for action. One describes exactly
what one wants to instead of merely demanding that the problematic behavior
end. This results in an internal image of the desired final state, which, in turn, can
help to jump-start the intended change.
Case example: When someone gets on my nerves, I try to control my anger. I go away or
take a timeout. I try to work it off by doing something strenuous, like hitting a punching
bag. When Im more or less back to normal I can say what was bothering me.
Not: I shouldnt hit back any more.
Goals that have been expressed should govern the clients activities. The goal of
an intervention is to expand the clients self-responsible behavior. Thus, goals
must be attainable only with the means available to the client. And they have to
be formulated such that they expand the areas of responsibility and experiences
of competence.
Case example: I will take a more active role in school, even though the teacher prefers
others. Not: Only if the teacher involves me more will I take part in the lessons.
Helpful questions on the way to the goal:
What will you do instead?
What can you do differently?
How can others and how can I, myself recognize that my goal has been
How would you act (feel, think) if . . . (you were more self-assured, could con-
trol your anger, were more attentive to your child, your depressive thoughts
disappeared tomorrow, etc.)?
Realistic goals
The idea of optimal frustration stems fromthe developmental theory of psycho-
analysis. This term means that goals create movement (change) if they are, for
one, far enough away to create a certain level of frustration, and a certain effort
is necessary to overcome that frustration. Additionally, there needs to be a realis-
tic chance of actually reaching the goal on ones own if one tries hard enough.
Case example: No one does that for me. Mama wont get the toy for me, so Ill have
to crawl over there myself.
Time-limited goals
Determining a point in time by when the goal should be reached creates a certain
pressure to act. Dealing with the question of how much time will be necessary to
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reach the goal serves the additional purpose of reducing excessive expectations of
success to a more realistic level.
Processual language
Behavior is best described not in terms of nouns (e.g., smoking) but more as a
process as a series of feelings, thoughts and actions (I smoke when I am
stressed and think I cant afford any other type of relaxation). How-questions
facilitate the development of an entire behavioral sequence, from the moment of
triggering to the reactions and consequences in ones environment.
Case example: I will first listen to what my child has to say before telling him what I think
he should do.
Helpful questions on the way to the goal:
How will you do that?
How will you proceed?
Using the language of the client
The goal must be meaningful to the client and emotionally close to home; like-
wise, the way it is worded and its value content must fit the clients frame of
reference and life experiences. When formulating the goal, it has proved more
effective to use the clients choice of vocabulary instead of some abstract lingo.
Case example: So, instead of smashing his face in when he looks at you stupidly, you think
to yourself: Hey, asshole, you can kiss my ass if you think Ill get into trouble with the cops
again because of you and then you turn away and say to your bro Come on, lets get
out of here! Will that work? How can we help you do just that?
In this example, the male competition that leads the client to lash out has been
redirected to a challenge: If I let myself be provoked, am I the dumb one? Can I
stay cool and let the other bounce off me? The formulation takes up an impor-
tant motif of the young man and attempts to use it to reach the desired goal.
4.4.2 Goals for Placing Children in Foster Homes
Placing children in foster homes involves a number of very specific challenges to
everyone: Children are separated from their parents, which can be experienced
by some as a relief, by most, however, as traumatic. The parents are confronted
with their own failure they are incapable of offering their children a proper
upbringing, which is nowa public matter. This results in many impossible, hidden
and ambivalent mandates: Can you please set our child straight? combined with
Please fail then we wont feel so bad about having failed ourselves since not
even the pros can get our kid back on the right track.
Michael Durrant (1993) wrote a book on this subject with the fitting title You
Can Count onthe Strengths. In it, he suggests defining inpatient treatments or place-
ments as transition rituals and staging them as such. Transition rituals are all about
providing the space for new behavior that can be practiced and tested with the
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support of others. Durrant (p. 61) makes some suggestions about how to frame
foster placements differently, and how to circumscribe the themes and goals:
The theme must be clear to the family and make sense.
The theme makes a different description of the situation possible, bestows a new
meaning on things, thus countering the feeling of hopelessness and defeat.
The theme signals to the family that their fate lies in their own hands, and that
they can be transformed from victims to problem-solvers.
The theme is goal-oriented and not problem-oriented.
The theme offers parents and their relatives a way to partake in the process of
Case example: 12-year-old Sven is described by his single mother as violence-prone: He
hits her, his siblings and his schoolmates at the slightest provocation. From the childs
anamnesis we know that his father, who lived with the family until the boy was about 6,
as well as the mothers later partners were all prone to violent acts. After being admitted
to an inpatient ward, Sven talks about how his anger overcomes him and that he doesnt
like himself in such moments. For him it is an exception to have good days. Sven listens
carefully, is attentive and agrees to our framing of his aggressiveness: Youre right to have
so much anger in you: Your father and all other men in the family hit you and eventually
left the family. That would make anyone angry. But you dont have the control over your
anger; rather, it would appear that the anger has taken control over you. The theme and
goal we define as follows: While on the ward, Sven should practice keeping his anger under
his control. He should try to have as many good days as possible. The mother is exonerated
and can learn to once again see Svens good sides, which of course is impossible when hes
hitting her. Everyone can practice living together without violence when Sven returns home.
Case example: A young woman began hearing voices and doing strange things, which led
to her being ostracized in her own family and in the neighborhood. She was committed to
an inpatient psychiatric ward to keep her out of trouble and to give her the chance to
recuperate. This description reflects her own statement of being completely stressed out
and exhausted by all of this. In the course of treatment, she will be taught to learn to live
with her voices such that she can have a normal life, go to work and meet with friends.
Together with the therapist she can learn which medicines could help her do this. And she
is to learn to recognize early on the mounting stress, which is causing her to hear voices
and to neutralize that stress before it affects her.
4.4.3 Describing and Using Goals: Two Instruments
We would like to introduce two instruments we use to describe goals concretely
and to make them binding. The two checklists have overlapping functions and
should be adapted to the case at hand.
Behavioral therapists have developed a number of sophisticated goal-interven-
tion systems (Table 7). Weve adapted one example for our purposes (Table 8);
it is suitable for ones own planning and reflection on the most important aspects,
but in many circumstances can be worked out together with the clients (Table 7,
see Boelicke, 2004).
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The first row of the table focuses on a classical analysis of resources and prob-
lems; the second on the forcefields as well as the positive and negative factors in
the clients environment; the third on successful coping experiences and the pre-
requisites for reaching the goal. All of which offers a realistic basis for contem-
plating concrete steps.
Berger and Spanjaard (1996, p. 41 ff.), in their handbook on their families
first approach
, introduced an instrument that, in a somewhat altered form, can
be useful in addressing concrete goals and the means to realize them.
Table 7: Developing goals for an intervention (after Boelicke, 2004).
My goal:
Competences, resources Problems
What do I have/can I do already? What do I still have to learn?
Who supports me and who can help me? What hinders me?
Exceptions: Which situations have already gone well? What do I need?
Table 8: Case example of a young mother (adapted from Boelicke, 2004)
My goal: Training in food service industry
Competences, resources Problems
What do I have/can I do already?
Graduated from middle school.
I can cook well, I am friendly.
What do I still have to learn?
Persistence, hanging on when the
road gets rough
Who supports me and who can help me?
My two girlfriends encourage me.
My mother takes my daughter now and then.
What hinders me?
Fear of losing my daughter. My boy-
friend is so jealous. I give in too easily.
Exceptions: Which situations have already gone
Completing my degree was not easy, but I did it. Be-
cause I wanted to succeed, and because my friends
pushed me on.
What do I need?
Daycare for my girls. Information on
getting training. Maintaining bound-
aries between myself and my boy-
Methods, first steps: What can I do, how do I pro-
Get information from the job agency and from em-
ployers with training positions. Going to Youth Ser-
Starting an internship to try out what its like to go
away and leave my daughter for a few hours.
Taking a course on Self-assertion for women.
By when?
Within 2 weeks
In 6 weeks time
Sign up next week
4.4 Defining Good Goals 145
1 This approach is meant to be an intensive, structured, time-limited way to work with
crisis-shaken families, so that they can learn from ordinary situations how to manage
crises as well as to build up and expand important competences for use in everyday
life. The approach harks back to the Homebuilder Model (Kinney et al., 1991), a form
of domestic crisis help developed in Seattle which was adapted by a Dutch group for
European standards of youth counseling.
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Case example: Table 9 shows a case example from the family counseling of a single mother
with an aggressive son. The goals formulated there were set up together with the mother
during many weeks of contract negotiations. The first steps meant providing her with sup-
port regarding the organization of her household and taking care of her son. The initial
small successes gave the mother the confidence to take on more difficult matters and to do
The example given in Table 9 shows how to put the principle of self-reliance into
action: The goals set a behavioral framework for the mother although she sees
the sons behavior as the main problem.We had to do some persuading to get her
involved in becoming a part of the solution and to formulate specific goals. The
most important factors were the quick, hands-on results achieved at the begin-
ning of counseling.
4.4.4 Planning and Evaluating Interventions
In organizational psychology there is a well-known two-part strategy which is
used when crises arise in the business world: Quick, decisive steps produce short-
term results (quick wins), and the long-term planning of remediation strategies
is attacked simultaneously to ensure that radical reorganization takes place and
the company remains stable over time and can continue to prosper. The quick
initial measures have the following functions:
Table 9: The development of goals in family counseling with single mothers.
Situation Goals Order/priority
Sometimes Sven fails to do what is
asked of him: to come to the dinner
table, to go to bed, to help clean
up, to pack his things for school.
Give Sven clear orders (so that he
can learn to listen); keep at it even
if he doesnt listen the first time.
Sven becomes aggressive when he is
angry with me. He berates me and
calls me a dumb cow, whore,
I set strict boundaries for Sven
and can calm him down. He has
to learn to say things in a calm
voice even when hes angry.
Sven is bored if he cant go outside.
At home he cant occupy himself ex-
cept by watching TV.
I take the time to figure out what
Sven could do when hes at home.
The daily routine is chaotic. In par-
ticular, there are no regular meals.
I learn to see to it that there are
regular meals at home. I learn to
plan the meals in advance, buy the
necessary groceries and cook them
on time. I set up a schedule with
Sven when he can help me.
I cant keep track of my finances. I make a list for noting expendi-
tures and income. I put all the
bank receipts in one file.
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To plug the largest holes and to quickly attack the greatest problems in order to
mitigate the situation and create the conditions in which working on long-term
goals is still possible.
To use the quick results to build up confidence, courage and self-assurance for
the coming changes.
These principles can be equally helpful for counseling and therapy. Especially in
systems with a number of difficult problems (multiproblem families) does the
dilemma arise which of the many problems to attack first. Classically, when solv-
ing problems, one considers three criteria:
1. Significance: Which matter is the most important for the system?
2. Urgency: Which fire needs to be put out first?
3. Feasibility: Which problems can best be solved?
Froma systemic point of viewthere are no clear guidelines since every systemhas
its own unique organization; where to begin can be determined only through an
experimental process, though sometimes past experiences can supply hints about
which of the three points one best focuses on.
Building up relationships and trust
One major factor in the success of any intervention is the establishment of a
trustful relationship (see Grawe 2000, 2005; see in more detail in Chapter 5 be-
low). In the initial phases one should thus first tackle those themes and problems
that allow a good relationship to be established above all where the clients gain
trust and confidence in the counselors abilities. To the client, the counselor
should be someone who is supportive, validating and respectful.
Case example: In an assisted-living facility for the mentally ill the counselor learned of the
resistance a female client was exhibiting toward all therapeutic offers. It turned out that
she had experienced a great number of psychotherapeutic interventions over her long psy-
chiatric career mostly with little success. She knew all the jargon and was extremely
skeptical, even defiant. The counselor respected this stance and showed great respect for
it; he agreed with the client that he would offer her help only in surmounting her daily
problems, such as moving, furnishing her apartment, shopping, daily planning, etc. He went
along with this, but always took care that it did not turn into a sort of partnership. After
6 months the level of trust had risen such that the client began to confide in him about her
life and career problems. Apparently, the most important thing to her was that she retained
the initiative and the control.
Quick successes
This is an adjunct to the one above: Nothing furthers trust more quickly and
reliably than a successful cooperation. Here, too, the research done by Grawe
(1999) on the functional factors in psychotherapy clearly shows that trust in the
competence of the therapist plays a major role. Quick successes translate into
experiences of competence on the part of the client, which in turn means confi-
dence in the ability to tackle difficult tasks. Whether in business negotiations or
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in politics, the basic principle has proved true: first take care of things that can be
quickly realized or agreed upon. This helps to build up steam for tackling the
more difficult problems.
Vehicle development
This is a concept I (R. S.) owe to the family therapy teacher Carol Grammer (per-
sonal communication, 1982). Despite its somewhat cumbersome title, it has
proved effective again and again. According to this principle, topics are suggested
during the early phases of an intervention which can later used as vehicles for the
introduction of broader themes.
Case example: In a family with very divergent approaches to child-rearing and some rather
extreme disciplinary problems I might suggest as a start-off that the most urgent thing is to
solve an everyday problem, for example, how long the child is allowed to watch TV in the
evening and when and howthe child should go to bed. I dramatize the problemsomewhat and
explain that the child has become so strong that the problem can only be solved if the parents
work on it together. I use the (really quite small) problemas a vehicle to teach the parents very
pragmatically how to cooperate. The background problem the parental conflict is not even
explicitly mentioned. Rather, I try to invite the parents to take on a task-oriented position which
simultaneously allows them to work on their relationship. Often, after two or three such
successful vehicle themes, their overall relationship improves considerably.
Case example: In the example quoted above concerning Markus, who saw the devil in his
room, the hypothesis was that the background problem behind the young mans failure to
leave home was the poor relationship between Markus and his father and the fear both
parties had that the relationship could break apart completely (as it had with the older son).
Accordingly, I made the suggestion that they spend one evening a week together talking
about the family and how the father himself had left home. The focus on the theme of
detachment became a vehicle for establishing a good relationship between father and son.
And it did, in fact, have the paradoxical effect of allowing the son to orient himself more
to the outside world over the next few weeks.
The clearer goals are formulated and agreed upon, the better we can register
progress. This is not some formalistic pretense; it has immense effects on the
self-esteem and especially the damaged self-image of our clients. It helps us to
find out how our behavior is coming across, which we desperately need in order
to formulate further hypotheses and plan interventions. For this reason, systemic
counselors should always take the time for evaluation.
This can take place informally at the beginning of each session via change-ori-
ented questions: Have you succeeded in anything since our last meeting, and if
so, in which regard even if only very small changes?
Scaling questions are also well-suited: If at the beginning you said that you have
a 20% grip on your eating habits during conflicts, and that it would be a good
goal to have an 80% grip on them, how would you judge the present situation?
What do you do now, what have you discovered helps you raise your level by 30%?
Finally, one can also use form sheets (see Table 10).
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This grid was developed for project management in companies to allow ongoing
planning and other arrangements to be gauged for their effectiveness. But it can
also be used to good end in systemic work if we remember that we are always
dealing with living systems that may take surprising turns. Otherwise, using such
instruments can be frustrating. 4.5 TheGroupasaSystem:ConstructingHypotheses
4.5 The Group as a System: Constructing Hypotheses
In Chapter 2.5.3 we provided some suggestions on how to observe interactions
in groups. In Chapter 3.5 we suggested a method for describing the social dy-
namics of groups and for subsequently preparing hypotheses about those dynam-
ics. In this chapter we turn to the topic of constructing working hypotheses and
planning interventions in groups. First we describe the contexts we postulate.
4.5.1 Different Group Contexts, Different Demands on Counselors
We differentiate here between two contexts and contracts of group work, each of
which demands a different procedure. In the first case, the head of the group has
the task of working on the relationships, the sensitivities and the overall psycho-
logical situation of the individual group members for example, in therapy
groups, in work teams that have come together to work on their team structure
and cooperation, or in groups situated in inpatient or outpatient facilities. The
work there is very similar to that found in counseling or therapy work with fam-
ilies: The counselor forms hypotheses concerning the relationship structures and
the communication processes in the group. He then checks them by means of
circular questioning or sculptures together with the group, exploring solution fan-
Table 10: Evaluating goals (0: no progress, +1, +2, +3: little, good, very good progress,
1: regression)
Goal 1 0 +1 +2 +3 Achieved how? Why not? Consequences
Get information
from job agency
and from employ-
ers with training
x Once I had started it was a lot of fun and in-
teresting. I noticed that people like it when
you approach them on your own and ask. Im
proud of myself that I could do that.
Go to Youth
x Didnt have the time and didnt have the
courage. I was afraid they would ask whether
I would be neglecting my daughter by getting
some training. The guardian doesnt have to
come along, but it would be helpful to talk
with them on the phone beforehand so that I
know where to go and whom to talk to.
4.5 The Group as a System: Constructing Hypotheses 149
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tasies and focusing on available resources. One can also use the interventions
described in Chapter 5.
In the second case, the goals and tasks are not concerned directly with rela-
tionships and sensibilities. This is particularly the case with groups of children
and adolescents:
who share common learning and developmental tasks within an educational
who live together in assisted-living facilities and need to overcome deficits,
who spend leisure time together and want to have fun together, make some new
experiences and build competencies.
But it can also be with groups of adults, such as
long-term teams carrying out common tasks,
work and project groups that must produce a certain output within a set time-
groups that want to develop new professional, cognitive, social or emotional
In these contexts, too, group members may want to temporarily concern them-
selves with the relationships and sensibilities present in the group. A contract is
made accordingly, with the group using the tools described in Chapter 5. In the
following, we describe how one can help such groups to solve the tasks at hand
or produce the performance desired without such a contract but using our sys-
temic perspective. When searching for appropriate working hypotheses, the lead-
er of such a group should keep the most important criterion in mind: What can I
do to put the group in the position to reach their goal?
A number of hypotheses and interventions will lie within the specific context
and discipline. We concentrate here on aspects that lie beyond such special con-
text circumstances:
What social and psychological dynamics are necessary for such a group to reach
certain learning, performance and developmental goals?
Which relationship structures might prevent the group from actually reaching
its goals?
Which interventions can the counselor offer to support the conditions and struc-
tures conducive to success?
In the following, we introduce some working hypotheses and possible interven-
tions that have proved advantageous in practice.
4.5.2 Hypothesis: Too Little or Too Much Cohesion
It is difficult for groups to reach their goals when there is little cohesion, i.e.,
when the interconnections between the individual group members or between
subgroups are insufficient.
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Case example: The group is lifeless few members spontaneously take part in the discus-
sions. Some seem to be very reserved or even anxious. Many look expectantly at the leader
whenever the conversation falters or difficulties arise. The leader has the feeling that ev-
erything depends on her, that she must carry the entire responsibility for the quality of group
This situation is characteristic for the outset of a new group. The leader must
ensure that enough interventions are being offered to allow the members to warm
up to the group and to each other. There must be sufficient interaction among
the members to lead to a complete network of relationships. It is worth ones
while as a leader to take the time to create a strong network. In the future, this
will positively influence the actual group work, its results and the overall satis-
faction of the individual members.
Within groups that have been together longer, too, the cohesion i.e., the sol-
idarity among the individual members and the resulting network may be suf-
fering. Here, it is paramount to offer methods that lead to more positive interac-
tions in the group. Depending on the situation, this could mean
furthering the interactions of all members among themselves,
ensuring stronger interconnections between the subgroups,
better integrating the rejected or unseen members with existing subgroups,
intervening with more adequate moderation techniques to forge connections
between the participants and thus to support the overall group structure.
Of course, the opposite can also happen: that there are too many or too close
network connections in the group. Here, the members are concerned more with
the personal contacts emerging from the group and neglect the true task at hand:
The relationship level dominates over the work or objective level.
Case example: In a group of trainees the breaks keep getting longer. The group leader always
has to prod them to get working again. The members stand around in small groups, talking
and laughing, apparently getting along quite well, but the overall work results are meager.
Presentations of their work results are accompanied by blas remarks: Well, we had a
weak start and it went downhill from there! The group is amused and doesnt seem to be
bothered by the situation. The mood is upbeat, and the group fails to notice the poor state
of affairs.
In this case, the moderation structures must be changed in order to
re-center the group to the task,
allow the individual members to return to their original attitude toward the
confront members with their respective performance level,
enable a debate within the group about the group situation.
The goals may have to be recontracted with the group as a whole.
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4.5.3 Hypothesis: Destructive Group Dynamics
The group is continually caught up in negative communication:
The same deprecative comments, actions and behaviors are repeated over and
again, both between the subgroups and between individual members.
These disparaging remarks lead to individuals or subgroups failing to work
properly or even considering leaving the group altogether.
Insults and attacks are observed and must be addressed.
Case example: In a group of children the verbal insults and put-downs cause one boy to
withdraw completely; he doesnt even want to be in the group anymore. The group leader
repeatedly has to intervene and clarify what happened and why and set new limits.
Case example: In teamconferences, two fractions repeatedly exchange derogatory remarks.
Whenever the tasks are handed out, the two fractions never mix but stay among themselves.
They work out in painstaking detail whether one fraction has worked than the other, who
is responsible for mistakes, who didnt clean up the kitchen again, etc.
Social systems are not teachable; we cannot pick and choose the dynamics of
a particular group! And yet we have to work with each and every group. In the
group situations described, it makes sense to use interventions that are capable
of providing solutions and clarification on the metalevel, i.e., that address the
relationships in the group and any conflicts present. To this end, however, an
agreement with the group members is necessary which is not always possible.
Another type of intervention in situations of destructive group dynamics lies in
stronger and stricter group leadership with a more definitive structure. Experi-
ence tells us that in groups with little structure, spontaneous group dynamics tend
to dominate and override everything else; in groups with greater structure, on the
other hand, there is little room for spontaneous group dynamics.
Such groups
can be supported by
pointing out that drawing lines is sensible and justified,
emphasizing the importance of the objective level and the results of group work,
making sure formal rules are adhered to,
formulating the contracts as binding and attending to their strict fulfillment.
152 4 Making Decisions: Preparing a Contract, Setting Goals, Planning Interventions
2 Here again we can learn from research on group dynamics: In the 1950s, Bradford et
al. (1964) conducted studies in group-dynamics laboratories, provoking a high level
of group dynamics by having the group leaders be completely passive. They then ob-
served the resulting situations with their sometimes extreme spontaneous group dy-
namics. This approach was later used in Europe, too, where such situations were used
within group-dynamics seminars as learning arenas for personal growth and for work-
ing through ones personal history and problems. Today, these methods have become
outdated and are seldom used.
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4.5.4 Hypothesis: Too Few or Too Many External Limitations
As in families, groups, too, can have too few external limitations, which hinders
their overall functioning.
Case example: A team has the task of preparing an assisted-living program within a larger
organization. The team has to cooperate with other units both within the responsible or-
ganization (management, home for the mentally ill, daycare facility for the mentally ill) and
with external partners (psychiatrists in private practice, state authorities, local psychosocial
groups). The team members maintain these external contacts autonomously and quite in-
tensively, whereas the internal contacts tend to be neglected. Cases are preferably discussed
with the responsible physician and other helpers (such as legal guardians) rather than
directly within the team. The team leader thus often learns about the activities of the col-
leagues when their applications have already been approved by management. The team
members in turn wonder about their team leader who is so poorly informed about what is
going on in the group.
Case example: In a childrens home, there is often great turmoil among a group of 8 children
aged 6 to 16 years. Children from other groups wander in and out. Some children in the
group prefer being in other groups in the home; its nicer there, they say. The group doesnt
do much together. More and more often, children say they dont want to take part in the
groups activities because they prefer other programs. In the past, this has always led to
discussions and the caretakers ended up giving in to such requests because they didnt want
to force the children to take part in activities against their will. Quarrels also arise between
the guests and the group members. The caretakers tend not to intervene because they
want the children to learn to solve their conflicts on their own. The children complain about
this and say they cant assert themselves toward the guests.
In these situations defining and setting limits and establishing rules as well as
controlling their fulfillment would help the group. Yet separating the group from
its surroundings is not an easy task since not all members accept such boundaries.
The absence of such boundaries carried with it great freedomfor the group mem-
bers despite all the disadvantages. A clearer delimitation of the group is bound
to be met with resistance, at least in the beginning.
In the first example of the team in the assisted-living facility, it is recommended that clear
rules about internal information processing be set up before information goes out even
against internal group resistance. One could, for example, agree that case reports first be
presented in the group and further action be agreed upon there, before the case is discussed
with anyone outside the group.
In the childrens group it may be necessary to limit the bringing of guests into the group.
Or one could set up a rule that a guest who causes problems with other children in the
group has to leave the group.
Another sort of intervention in such systems is to work on rebuilding the identity
of the system such that the members regain a positive attitude toward the system.
Of course, this cannot be dictated. One can, however, encourage activities that
foster and cultivate a sense of belonging.
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In the assisted-living team these might consist of regular case meetings that convey the
importance of the work the group is doing. One could have advanced training together,
have two colleagues work on a case together, praise successful work or go on excursions
together. Sometimes, the best thing is simply to work together and develop common pro-
fessional practices.
Boundaries that are too rigid or impermeable can have a similarly paralyzing ef-
fect. In Chapter 2.2 (What Is a System?, see Background Text) we talked about
the idea of a half-open system as a model for social systems. Social systems need
sufficient exchange with their environment to ensure functionality.
Case example: A self-help group of former alcoholics has been meeting for years. At one
time, the group was very important to everyone. They engaged in an intense exchange of
ideas and feelings. Group members provided each other with mutual support for many
years, seeing each other through many difficult personal and substance abuse-related crises.
The group members bonded, and some were even spending their free time together. Over
the years new members were added, but they never stayed in the group for very long: The
chemistry just wasnt right. It was fun being together and all, but the conversations werent
all that exciting. Exchanging the same old stories in the same old ways was no longer solving
any problems.
Case example: The local brass band is a truly traditional club. The director and the musi-
cians have all been there for a long time. The listeners at the spring, summer and Christmas
concerts also seem to always be the same people. A few new pieces are worked in now and
then, but the style and atmosphere remain the same. The musical development seems to
have reached its pinnacle a long time ago. A friendly, committed group but without a real
future since there are no new recruits.
When the boundaries of a social system lose their permeability, there can be no
more confrontation with the environment, inevitably ending in paralysis. The ef-
ficiency and the potential of any social system will always suffer after a certain
period of time. If there is to be more traffic at the border, so to speak, then the
leadership should be prepared to be met with resistance. Actions provoking more
exchanges with the surroundings introducing new things and new people are
absolutely necessary. They may, however, be sabotaged from within, since they
also mean a loss of protection, security and intimacy for the group members. Fear
of everything new and foreign, however, inevitably leads to seclusion.
4.5.5 Hypothesis: Different, Contradictory Values and Interests
This is not another case of entirely negative dynamics within a group. There are
some functioning subgroups whose members still like each other and get along
quite well. Yet, between these subgroups and other members (who tend to be
unseen or excluded) much rejection and disparagement is going on. A look at the
social and psychological dynamics shows that the values and interests are very
different, in part even diametrically so.
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Case example: In a group of long-term unemployed persons training to reenter the work
force (at a catering company), two subgroups have emerged. One group consists of four
women, the other of three men. A further man remains an outsider to both groups. The
members of the subgroups all have histories of failed personal relationships. Some of the
women have been abused in the past, and male macho behavior puts themoff and provokes
them. The men tend to be very macho and feel cheated and financially exploited by the
women in their lives, most of whom they no longer see. The one excluded man is younger
than the others, is homosexual and a member of the alternative scene. Hes a red flag for
everyone else, whether male or female. The mood in the subgroups is irritable. There is
much bickering and aggressive exchanges of words.
With this kind of working hypothesis, the group leader has a number of possible
interventions that would support these groups:
Within the group as a whole, the leader could loudly and firmly declare that
differences must not be met with a go/no-go stance but rather be accepted as
existing side by side. In this vein, the leader must provide positive feedback for
the value systems of both the subgroups and the outsider.
It is recommended that the structure-free sequences of group work be kept very
short. Otherwise, too much space is left for spontaneous group dynamics, which
may lead to escalations which endanger the fragile group cohesion.
The leader uses forms of moderation that provide each subgroup with the op-
portunity to develop activities that reflect their respective interests and values in
order to stabilize the group. The group as a whole can then once again come
together after such phases.
The leader makes theme-based offers, requests or work tasks that are not clearly
oriented toward any specific interests, competences and value systems of any
one of the subgroups or outsiders. This provides a way to nurture new social
The leader can positively address the interests and value systems of any outsiders
as long as it remains authentic.
4.5.6 Hypothesis: Alpha Stands for the Wrong Values and
The following group situation exemplifies a further form of impediment to group
functioning. It is best explained using the model by Raoul Schindler (1957; see
also Background Text on Chapter 3.5, Figure 19). In this model, the rank position
of the leader (Alpha) has a special meaning to the group. This person is best
able to organize and transform, into word and action, the needs that are present
in the tag-alongs (Gamma). Those in the Gamma position are followers who
support and sustain Alphas actions since they correspond to their own needs.
Yet sometimes Alphas norms, values and actions contradict and thus impede the
true objectives and tasks of the group. Having a person with this degree of impact
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and such important function in a group system can thus endanger the success of
the whole group.
Case example: In a group at a home for adolescents there are problems with Peter (15 years
old), who is liked and esteemed by the others and who sets the tone of the entire group.
His suggestions are usually quickly agreed to by the others. Unfortunately, however, he also
has a knack for deviant behavior (stealing, small-time extortion, violent reactions). Yet he
vehemently defends his behavior as being cool and bold. This includes listening to the
right music and wearing the right clothes. The younger boys in the group imitate him. A
few other boys, who are not so cool, become outsiders: Their way of dressing and acting
is put down. Peter also puts down the counselor by loudly making it clear that his friends
on the outside who drive good cars and have more money are simply cooler.
Reaching the set goals in such as group means first resolving the conflicts with
the Alpha member. The group leader has to stick this conflict out; and not let the
values and opinions of the Alpha member triumph. Here are some possible in-
Support the outsiders and check whether their strengths and values might some-
day be good alternatives to the direction the group is presently taking.
Create situations and chances for those members in the Beta and Gamma posi-
tions to bring their interests to the forefront even if they do not correspond
with those of the Alpha member. Also, strengthen and support such aspects.
Avoid situations and structures where the Alpha member can take center stage.
Do not avoid direct confrontations with the Alpha member and demand that
respect be paid to your position as group leader.
Insist on apologies when insults and put-downs are expressed.
Excluding the Alpha member from the group, even if the conflicts have not been
completely resolved, is the action of last resort. Nonetheless, this solution is pref-
erable to one where the group leader offers the group support while having to deal
with destructive impulses that threaten to torpedo the group goals. Such a situa-
tion can be a tremendous trial for any group leader and demands complete com-
mitment to the group and the task.
4.5.7 Why Develop Such Normative Hypotheses?
In the Background Text in Chapter 3.2 we were concerned with normative sys-
temic approaches. Common to all normative approaches is that they describe the
conditions in a social system that lead to successful communication as well as to
positive development in children and families.
Our working hypotheses for groups that have learning and work goals and no
contract for relationship tasks are normative in a similar sense. They presume
groups to be social systems that have their own social and value-oriented struc-
tures that can be implemented for productive or destructive purposes. As group
leader, it is worth ones while to construct hypotheses about the structures which
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impede or further the success of the group. Our experiences with groups permit
us to differentiate between functional and dysfunctional structures in families,
Leading a group means having the authority and the possibility to aspire to
desirable structures. Clearly, complex social systems such as groups are not teach-
able. A certain type of intervention does not necessarily lead to a certain state of
affairs regardless of how diligently and carefully one prepares it. There are al-
ways persons in such a group who decide differently. Thus, when working with
normative hypotheses we should beware of becoming annoyed at the system
when our wonderful intervention ideas fail to catch on in a group. Rather, treat
this as an indication that one has yet to find the proper gateway and needs to
rethink the hypotheses.
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5 Acting: Intervention and Accompanying Processes
The various traditions of systemic therapy and counseling, have led to a multitude
of different methodological approaches. There have been heated conference debates
over whichmethodbest fits systemic-constructivistic concepts, for example, whether
directive interventions could be combined with the necessary respect for autopoiesis
(the self-organization qualities of a system). One aspect is usually overlooked here.
It is that whichone wouldactuallyexpect systemic practitioners tohave a particularly
good eye for: the context in which a method was developed. That is, the clients, the
culture, the institutional background and, of course, the therapist with his or her
own history and preferences. Which variations are useful depends greatly on the
context: When working with a well-structured, more or less stable family it may be
appropriate to shake loose some of the stalemated opinions and behavioral patterns,
to interrupt the normal run of events, trusting that the family will autopoietically
grow new legs to walk on. In a family from a marginalized social group or a
slum-dwelling family that has been upset by many other factors, one may first have
to provide support, protection and structure which means introducing a more
directive intervention. That, by the way, was the backgroundtoMinuchins structural
concepts (see Families of the Slums, 1967, and the discussion above).
Of course, a critical discussion of methods is always appropriate. Yet we sug-
gest applying empirically pragmatic and ethical criteria first, before turning to
more theoretical and esthetic criteria when weighing the options: What works in
what context? Which methods correspond with ones professional ethics and are
defensible against the background of social and cultural ethics (of a particular
country, religion, region or family)?
These are short and somewhat simplifying comments, to be sure, but the concep-
tual framework of this volume forbids a discussion at greater length. We thought it
important to elucidate where we are coming fromwhen we choose and evaluate our
intervention methods. Milton Ericksons suggestion has provided us with important
insight: One would theoretically have to invent a new school of therapy for every
individual client, since every client is unique (Gunther Schmidt, personal commu-
nication, 1991). This perspective is shared by Klaus Grawe (2000) and forms the
basis of his studies on the functional factors of psychotherapy.
Being open toward the interventional practices of various schools does not,
however, mean picking ones method of intervention arbitrarily or randomly. First
off: what works is good. We can continually learn from our clients and our expe-
riences with them how to reach them best and which of our suggestions lead to
constructive changes. Second, we have developed six criteria for choosing inter-
ventions which any systemic therapist would be able to apply:
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Always act so as to increase the number of options: We have extended this
moral imperative of constructivism (von Foerster, 1988, quoted after von
Schlippe & Schweitzer, 2007, p. 116) in terms of organizational development
(Glasl, 1983): Always act so as to increase the self-organizing capabilities of
the system. That is, when intervening ensure that the clients (and the coun-
selors) become more capable of acting and more open to options through
their work. This also means intervening only when necessary to provide truly
relevant support and to avoid creating dependencies and blocking self-help
Contextualize problems and solutions: We should never look only at the in-
dividual, but also keep the context in mind the individuals living environ-
ment. Try to view problems in their present or past context. Regard them in
a positive light as attempts at solving current problems, and as coherent im-
plications of earlier life experiences (see Chapter 5.4.3: reframing). When
considering interventions, try to weigh what effects they would have on the
clients surroundings.
Resource orientation: We should assume that our clients have resources at
their disposal, albeit sometimes forgotten or deeply buried, the victims of
hypnotic amnesia so to speak (problem hypnosis). Recovering these resources
may in itself prove to be an important perturbance of the worldview of per-
sons afflicted by problem hypnosis. Study previous reports and actions for
signs of these resources and point them out to the clients.
Solution orientation instead of (or in addition to) problem orientation: In-
stead of the normal focus on problems and deficits found in person-centered
therapies, work to find solutions. Anyone who can describe the problem ac-
curately also knows the solution, at least implicitly: It is impossible to per-
ceive a problem without at least having an inkling of how it could get better.
Vice versa is also true: If we speak about what we are striving for, we are
implicitly addressing the problems wed like to leave behind.
Respect the autopoiesis of the client system: As counselors we are always
dealing with living systems, not with machines (sensu von Foerster, 1984)
that react to pushing a simple button. That means being curious and open to
how the clients react to the interventions even if we already have years or
decades of experience and think we know how an intervention works. We can
learn from the reactions of the clients, whether they are surprising or even
unpleasant to us. Consequently, we view the practice of intervention as a pro-
cess that occurs in cooperation with the client. The clients are the experts on
their life and decide which path is best for them but must also bear the
responsibility (see Chapter 4.2).
Induce the new: Our interventions are aimed at change. To this end, we
should introduce new ways of seeing things (perception), of interpreting
things (cognition, mental models), of evaluating things (emotion) and of be-
having (action).
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Background Text: Inducing the New Where Does Change Begin?
This criterion marks the differences in the convictions of systemic practition-
ers: What is the ideal path to inducing change? At which of the four corners
of the circle shown in Figure 25 do we begin if we want to create the greatest
and strongest impulse?
The way these stages are depicted in the model suggests a clarity that in fact
is not present in actual behavior, where the processes lie much closer togeth-
er. What we perceive and the meaning we ascribe to our perception, how we
feel about and then act upon it all of these factors depend on our mental
models, which represent the essence of all our previous experiences. And
these mental models, in turn are formed, changed and adapted by our expe-
riences with our environment.
We are advocates of being capable of acting in all four areas: be it via
language games, via surprising reinterpretations, by working on our concrete
behavior or by investigating emotional values. Systemic work also comprises
interventions in everyday practical areas, the direct restructuring of behav-
ioral patterns and modeling of behavior in real situations. We can introduce
something newand different on the action level and be certain that the mean-
ing we give it our appraisals and our perceptions will change along with
our changing experiences. In the same way, we can induce change in actions
by influencing interpretations.
Recognizing system patterns, absorbing information, introducing differ-
ences or inducing change in a system can all occur on different levels:
virtually, by using querying techniques and the resulting descriptions,
metaphorically, by using sculptures and other forms of symbolic interac-
directly, by using interaction and working with existing scenes,
Figure 25: Action regulation
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indirectly, by supplying the clients with tasks and listening to the reports of
their experiences.
Where we begin ultimately depends on the parameters present and the pref-
erences of the client system and on our own mental and action models with
which we feel at ease and with which we were successful in the past.
Background Text: Solutions Are Important and so Are Problems
Solution-oriented approaches according to de Shazer (1985) often propagate
blocking out any mention of problems altogether. They point out that prob-
lems are inherently present every time one mentions the solutions, and that
strictly focusing on the solutions allows one to achieve changes faster and
more elegantly than by constantly contemplating the problems. We can sup-
port this view in many ways, although we think one should continue to name
problems and deal with them as part of the systemic approach. It is our ob-
servation that in therapeutic and particularly in corporate contexts, there is
sometimes a potent fear of discussing problems outright. Many participants
avoid the word like the plague and instead prefer to speak of challenges or
that they are facing a major learning opportunity. Such talk can seemfunny,
or ludicrous at times and it is quite doubtful that the mere renaming of a
situation will really lead to rethinking. Often, this avoidance approach leads
one away from normal, colloquial language, sounds strange and foreign, and
above all creates an ironic distance from yet another set of rules of terminol-
Rather, we think it is more important that clients who are experiencing
problems be recognized and accepted as such. A woman who has been
abused in her family and was never allowed to talk about it must first get
some space to speak the unspeakable, to tell it like it is, and to experience
her perception of events as valid. For us counselors and therapists this means
talking about problems that burden and upset the life of the clients and val-
idating them in order to then focus on how to alleviate them.
A further aspect: Clients who have lived with, and suffered from, their prob-
lems for a long time should develop an understanding of the meaning of their
anguish and a sort of self-appreciative. This is especially important in cases
where a long-standing problem was resolved in a relatively short timespan
through therapy or counseling. What effect did this have on the self-esteem of
the client? How is the client coming to terms with the fact that, for a long time,
he or she was unable to solve the problem and then suddenly it was solved so
quickly? We find it important to honor the problems, as it were, by naming them
and if appropriate by giving thema positive spin. We work together with the
clients to determine what role the problematic behavior had in their lives and
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to understand why it was important. In this context, Antonovskys (1987) stud-
ies on salutogenesis are useful, and a source of inspiration. A medical sociolo-
gist, Antonovsky studied how women of various ethnic groups living in Israel
adapted to menopause by collecting extensive data on their mental and physical
well-being. He also asked whether the women had been in a German concen-
tration camp: It turned out that 29%of the former camp inmates in his sample
reported a good mental and physical status.
Having survived the unimaginable horrors of the camp, having been a displaced per-
son for many years thereafter, and having then started a new life in another country
that itself experienced three wars . . . and still be relatively healthy! That for me was
the most dramatic experience that consciously showed me the path to formulate what
I later called the salutogenetic model and which I published in Health, Stress and
Coping (Antonovsky, 1987, p. 15).
In this and further studies Antonovsky asked whether there are patterns, be-
havioral tendencies and attitudes that could explain why some people can
live a healthy and stable life following extreme traumata. The studies resulted
in three factors that were repeatedly found more in traumatized but healthy
and stable persons than in traumatized persons suffering fromvarious mental
and physical problems.
Comprehensibility: This means the ability to integrate events into their life, to
find explanations for what has happened to them. People who can incorpo-
rate the events into the context of their life can cope with traumatic experi-
ences better than those who fail to see their life in this way.
Manageability: People who have discovered in themselves the resources to
act under difficult circumstances can better cope with traumatic events than
those who see themselves as helpless victims. Examples are camp residents
who played music with others, gave art courses to the children, helped their
fellow sufferers or organized the resistance movement. They were all search-
ing for some tiny way to act and react under unimaginably horrible circum-
stances and to use them to the best advantage.
Significance: The factor that is perhaps the most difficult to understand with
respect to the Holocaust is the ability to give meaning to what happened, to
lend it a personally meaningful interpretation. This concerns the emotional-
motivational side of human experience: Anchoring ones life within a mean-
ingful context seems to contribute to peoples overcoming their traumatiza-
tions. There were apparently a number of people who were able to gain mean-
ing and strength from their religion, their political convictions or their
humanistic values even under the worst of all possible circumstances.
Antonovsky worked these insights into a comprehensive concept of how
health develops and is maintained (literally: salutogenesis). If we attach great
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Two approaches from the past few years include seminal concepts which provide
systemic actions with better orientation: synergetics and the generic principles of
systemic therapy derived from synergetics (see Schiepek et al., 2001; Haken &
Schiepek, 2010).
During a DGSF congress in 2005 in Oldenburg, Germany, Gnter Schiepek
presented his vision of future theoretical and methodological developments in the
therapeutic and social fields. He started from a systemic metatheory that de-
scribes theoretically the development of systems and thus also deals with how
problems (and their solutions) arise in systems. In his other publications (see
Haken & Schiepek, 2010) he suggests using synergetics as the theoretical basis
for this metatheory. The theoretical model of synergetics is one of self-organiza-
tion, created to explain the structural and change processes in systems.
The inventory of methods available for concrete interventions is large and
draws on all existing traditions of change induction in human systems. Drawing
on the results of past and future research, we will be able to narrow down the
choices to those methods that are the most successful. The main criteria for this
selection will be efficacy and compatibility (with the client system and the coun-
selors predilections).
An action theory supplies process models that can inform us how and in what
order the various methods can be applied to construct change.
For this purpose, we can apply the generic principles from synergetics to
guide our actions. They can be viewed as checklists and quality criteria which
guide the design of concrete processes and the application of methods. The de-
scribe the prerequisites of successful change processes in self-organizing sys-
Creating the conditions for stability: Creating emotional security and trust, set-
ting up structures and frameworks, supporting self-esteem.
Identifying the patterns in the relevant system: Identifying the relevant system
for the intended change; observation, description of system patterns.
Establishing and increasing connotation and synergism: Determining and sup-
porting the meaningful evaluation of the change process by the clients; relevance
to lifestyle, personal development tasks, lifecycle, etc.
Finding control parameters and enabling energetization: Creating conditions
that further motivation such as relevance to the goals and concerns of the clients;
discovering what themes are most important to the clients and incite the greatest
motivation for change. This, in turn, means: activating resources and making
them available for the task at hand.
importance to these lessons, then we must also take seriously the clients view
of his problems. It would, however, be wrong to dwell on it. Rather, the ex-
periences gathered with solution-oriented approaches provide much evi-
dence that they can, above all, serve to trigger change.
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Destabilization, strengthening fluctuation: Identifying existing fluctuation and
incipient change within the system and using it; experiments, breaking up pat-
terns, introducing differentiation; emphasizing exceptions and existing sugges-
tions for solutions.
Resonance/synchronization: Coordinating therapeutic action with the mental
and social processes/rhythms of the clients; paying attention to time concerns.
Enabling direct interruption of symmetry: The donkey that cant choose which
of the two piles of hay he should eat first lives in a symmetric balance but still
dies of starvation. If he wants to eat, he has to first make a move and forfeit
balance and symmetry (to quote Satir: You cant move a boat without rocking
it). This means orienting oneself to goals, anticipating and realizing new things
and motivating clients not to sit still.
Restabilizing: Welcoming newbehavior means practicing it, seeing to it that new
cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns can become stable.
These eight prerequisites can be put in relation to the studies conducted by Klaus
Grawe (1999). His metastudies on the courses of various forms of psychotherapy
were aimed at determining which factors of the different schools of psychothera-
py correlate with successful outcomes. The functional factors he found can easily
be extrapolated to other psychosocial fields that deal with the development and
modification of human behavior and human systems. According to Grawe, the
following factors must be present to ensure good psychotherapeutic results:
Relationship and cooperation: This refers to the counselors commitment and
efforts to establish contact and trust with the client, the counselors joining
(see Chapter 2.4.2). It includes perceived competency (do clients feel they are
in good hands?) and the clients cooperation.
Resource activation: Positive goals are named and promoted, existing skills are
recognized and used, new ways to cope are latched onto and tried out. The
clients feel validated, their personal strengths are discussed and incorporated
into the counseling process.
Actualization of problems: Problems are not only named, but also activated and
worked on extensively within the therapeutic process. This factor underscores
the importance of enactment or in-vivo-work and the stimulation of emotion.
Orientation to change: The focus is on change, and confidence emerges; for
solution-oriented systemic therapists this is a clear confirmation of their method.
The experience of clarification: Relationships become clearer during the discus-
sions, the clients outline a consistent picture of their strengths and their prob-
lems. Sometimes just sorting out the situation and developing new ways to look
at it can provide great relief, allowing clients to find their own solutions with the
help of the counselor.
The experience of coping: The client has a sense of success and achievement in
counseling. The client can now autonomously and successfully shape areas of
life that were previously experienced as problematic or adverse and receives
proper feedback on these efforts. This emphasizes the importance of prudently
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topic selection (see Chapter 4.4.4): What theme promises quick initial successes
and thus can provide energy for the next steps? Which problem can serve as a
vehicle for further learning experiences that can then be applied in other areas
of life?
This list illustrates the close relationship between the various factors derived from
different schools of psychotherapy and the action concepts of systemic theory. In
the following, we present different forms of intervention that have been devel-
oped in the systemic and other traditions. We consider themuseful in our practice
for a broad selection of psychosocial and pedagogic fields.
The interventions presented above all share more or less the same goal: chang-
ing relationships in systems. Yet we must voice a warning: These interventions
should not be applied without the respective mandate and contract from the cli-
ents! Such a contract may be present in many cases, but in others this is not
automatically the case. Because of our training and competence we can spot any
problem in the system. Or we are part of the system and notice that it is not
running as smoothly as we thought, yet dont have an explicit mandate to inter-
vene. In such situations self-restraint is the best method of intervention! Inter-
vening without a contract produces nothing but trouble and rejection, no matter
how good our intentions were.
Case example: As the leader or a member of a team, you notice that things are not moving
forward. Nevertheless, do not begin asking circular questions without first having made
the suggestion and having received everyones consent.
Case example: In a rehabilitation group for alcoholics a massive conflict between two
members is blocking progress. But without consent and mandate, one should not prepare
a sculpture of this conflict.
Case example: In a parent-teacher meeting at a nursery school a conflict breaks out between
the two parents. One is convinced of being able to help them with just a few circular
questions. Still, one should first get their permission to work with them on this problem.
5.1 Sculptures:Three-DimensionalMetaphors
5.1 Sculptures: Three-Dimensional Metaphors
Working with sculptures means describing the perspective of individual clients
not with words, but rather physically and spatially. The termsculpture is fitting,
since it describes how the counselor, like a sculptor, symbolically depicts to some-
one their relationships in three-dimensional space. This can be done statically,
with movement, as a pantomime, or with words and sentences. The different
methods also include such terms as formation, family lineup or choreography.
The differences lie in the way they are executed:
When we use strong, expressive means (gestures, facial expressions, sentences,
differences in height/distance) we speak of sculpture.
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Formations or family lineups are based on the dimensions of proximity and
distance, affection or aversion.
Aseries of movements used to symbolize experienced relationships (relationship
dances) is called choreography.
Sculptures have a long tradition in systemic theory. Many of the early, eminent
pioneers, teachers and authors broke important ground on this matter (e.g., Duhl
et al., 1973; Papp, 1977, 1996). Especially Virginia Satir shaped this method of
body- and movement-oriented work and made it popular. We can draw on her
experiences and do so all the time! Sculptures are sometimes more effective
than working with language: They are valuable diagnostic tools for both counsel-
ors and clients, and represent efficient methods of intervention as well.
This chapter has two goals: First, we want to provide anyone learning (about)
systemic methods with concrete directions on how to use them in practice. Sec-
ond, we want to encourage readers to leave the security of their armchairs and
their verbal skills and to enter into another field of action. Our practice shows
that sculptures are often used but all too often only very statically. This tool has
many more untapped possibilities. Thus, we present some additional creative an-
gles that lead to a greater breadth of experience. We also wish to demonstrate the
connection between language-based images and scenes.
A sculpture can depict many things:
external relationships in systems,
developments of systems over time,
clients internal scenarios.
In this chapter we discuss the first two possibilities. We exclude sculptures that
represent clients internal scenarios because we want to stick to tools that may be
used in social systems. Examples for presenting internal scenarios via sculptures
are Virginia Satirs Parts Party (1988) and Gunter Schmitts inner team
(2010, p. 195).
5.1.1 Sculpture as a Metaphor for Relationships
Every sculpture needs a sculptor who reproduces his or her own take on things.
We differentiate between three different ways of working with systems, each of
which confers a special meaning upon the sculpture in spe.
Inside-out sculpture
In this variation a member of the system is asked to give his or her view of the
existing relationships. The counselor decides which member to choose for this
task. He should aim for someone who seems highly motivated and possesses the
greatest creative potential or ability of expression. Often, adolescents are a good
choice, or system members who are not so closely involved in the dance about
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the holy symptom. Then again there may be situations in which the actual symp-
tom carrier can best assume this role. There is no set rule. Once a sculpture has
been created, creating another one becomes easier: The first sculpture breaks the
ice for a new and unfamiliar medium.
An inside-out sculpture encourages the system members to accept, understand
and feel the experience of one of their own. Such a depiction can be intensified
by offering the individual members the opportunity to assume different positions,
to change their perspective and thus to understand the feelings expressed. Some
members may want to correct the sculpture since it does not correspond with
their own experience. This should be addressed in order to induce discussions
about differing points of view.
Again, we must emphasize that there is no correct or incorrect way of looking
at a systems relationships, and thus no right or wrong sculpture. Here, too, it is
always a matter of views existing side by side, rather than being mutually exclu-
sive. Moreover, it is exciting to look at the various images one next to the other.
Too many images, however, can overtax the group. It is our experience that one
need not stage multiple, and certainly not all, positions.
Outside-in sculpture
Here, the counselor shows the system his or her view of the relationships in the
form of a sculpture. Virginia Satir liked to use this method to make clear to fam-
ilies how she saw their communication patterns. She often introduced the cre-
ation of such sculptures with the sentence: I want to show you something.
Satir says that the sculpture clearly represents her take on what is happening
in the system. She invites everyone to contradict her if they dont agree with her
way of seeing things (Satir & Baldwin, 2008, p. 48).
Within the scope of the structural approach, such outside-in sculptures can be
used to demonstrate dysfunctional structures. For example, coalitions between a
parent and a child, unsolved hierarchy boundaries or split parent subsystems dis-
covered by the counselor can be depicted realistically and impressively.
Case example: A family living in separation with two daughters (13 and 8 years) comes to
counseling because the older daughter is increasingly having conflicts with the mother and
her new partner. She is having trouble sleeping, withdraws socially and neglects her athletic
interests. The parents split up about 4 years earlier. The children spend ca. 60% of their
time with the mother and 40% with the father. The topic of the second session is the
childrens visits with the fathers parents. The mother criticizes the formand frequency with
which the father takes the children with him to his parents house. The parents include the
children in the discussion. The older daughter says she thinks the mothers position is wrong
and exaggerated. The younger daughter says she doesnt really care; sometimes its too much
for her, but she does like seeing her grandparents . . . The fathers eyes light up and he smiles
slightly when the older daughter confronts the mother. He himself says little, however, and
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reacts calmly to the mothers accusations. The mother becomes more and more helpless
and aggressive and increases her attacks. The counselor offers to create a sculpture to
represent how he sees the family. He puts the mother and the father at a distance of about
4 meters from each other. The father has his arms crossed. The mother takes one foot
toward the father and shakes her fist at him. The older daughter stands near the father, in
front of him, protecting him halfway from the mother, both hands provocatively put on her
hips, looking toward the mother. The father and the older daughter are so close that their
bodies touch slightly. The younger daughter is sitting about 1 meter from the mother on
the floor, slightly off the axis between father, mother and the older sister, so that she can
look back and forth between them.
After the family stands in this sculpture position for a while, the parents agree that this
is a typical depiction of many interactions between them. The mothers new partner always
stands behind her and supports her. It is also typical that there is no real argument between
the parents, but rather between the older daughter and the mother. The sculpture brings
into visible form some of the interactional patterns for all to see:
the dysfunctional coalition between the father and the older daughter,
the diversion of the parents conflicts to the conflict between daughter and mother,
the surrendering of sufficient solidarity of the parental subsystem.
The clients experience the patterns staged in the sculpture very intensely and are
subsequently able to recognize them in everyday life. This, in turn, increases the
chance that they will indeed try to interrupt the patterns.
Simultaneous sculpture
In a simultaneous sculpture there is no single designated sculptor, but rather all
members of the systemhave the job of finding a place in the roomthat symbolizes
their position in the system. One can use gestures, facial expressions and line of
gaze as signals. All system members move slowly, at the same time, reacting to
the other members and their positions, gestures and facial expressions. Changes
in one persons position lead to changes in the others and vice versa. It takes
some time until the system arrives at equilibrium. This entire exercise unfolds as
a very exciting and meaningful dance by the whole system. The dance in itself
usually contains a wealth of inspiration for exchanges about the members rela-
Case example: A team supervision session focuses on cooperative relationships. The topic
was brought up due to the uncertainty some members feel regarding their position within
the group as well as the nature of the expectations directed toward them. A very lively
discussion ensues, but again and again statements are modified, qualified or accompanied
by lengthy explanations. No clear picture of the overall situation emerges, and the discussion
threatens simply to peter out without any results. The members also show a certain weari-
ness and strain in reaction to the wealth of statements. The counselor suggests forming a
simultaneous sculpture. This switch from word to pantomime brings about new tension.
But its realization takes some time since there is much fine-tuning to be done. One witnesses
a silent negotiation process, whereby the positioning going on reveals more than the all the
words previously spoken. The sculpture forms a good basis for the resulting exchange about
what the positions mean for cooperation within the team.
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Classification questions are also suitable for simultaneous sculptures, by spatially
arranging within the room the responses to a particular question (see the simul-
taneous sculpture in Chapter 5.3.1).
Setting up a sculpture step by step
We suggest a sequence of steps for setting up an inside-out sculpture. This may seem
rather mechanistic and rigid, and it is certainly not the only way to arrive at an
excellent sculpture. But our intention is to offer the readers a framework for creating
their own sculptures and to urge them to put this knowledge to practice.
1. First we must sort out with the sculptor what is to be the content of the sculp-
ture. Besides those persons present, other relevant persons can be symbolized
by chairs or other objects. Sometimes even areas of life or institutions can be-
come part of the sculpture.
Case example: During the counseling of a family, the 12-year-old son posi-
tioned his father as standing somewhat off to the side, gazing into the distance.
Asked what he thought the father was looking at, he said his father was looking
at his work. The desk in the room was then incorporated as a symbol for the
fathers work. The sculpture thereupon took on a sort of tension stemming
from the axis father-work, which apparently was a major part of family life for
everyone present.
2. The sculptor can also specify the distance between figures to symbolize the
closeness of relationships. In the same step, the sculptor can specify the line of
sight between the figures. To support the sculptor in this work, we suggest
stepping back from time to time to look at the sculpture as a whole. Sculptors
who themselves are part of the sculpture can temporarily use a chair to repre-
sent their position.
3. Now we introduce the dimension up-down as a symbol for differences in
influence. Figures from the sculpture stand or sit on chairs, others kneel or
squat down, or sit on the floor. Now, at the latest, anyone present in the sculp-
ture should be asked to note their position and posture so that they can relax
every once in a while and avoid having to hold out in uncomfortable positions
for long periods of time.
4. The next step adds facial expressions, gestures and posture as expressions of
the quality of relationships. Some participants may need some encouragement
not to be afraid to act out some tabooed aspect of the relationship. As coun-
selors we should repeatedly emphasize that we are experimenting, testing per-
ceptions not depicting reality. Nevertheless, we should ask the actors par-
ticularly when they have assumed a critical gesture or body position whether
it is OK for them to take this position for the sake of the experiment. We must
also keep in mind that is is our duty to protect the actors and to keep pointing
out the symbolic, playful nature of such a sculpture to avoid someone being
Case example: While setting up a sculpture to depict the relationships in a
team, the sculptor (a woman) had a (male) colleague stand on a chair to rep-
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resent the considerable informal power he enjoyed. She perceived another (fe-
male) colleague to admire the male colleague professionally and personally and
to be oriented toward as well as dependent on him. Thus, she positioned her
on her knees to his side. The counselor thought it important to interrupt at this
juncture to point out the subjectivity of the viewpoint and the symbolic char-
acter of the sculpture. He asked the (female) colleague if it was OK for her to
take this position for a moment to see what sort of image resulted and what
feelings and changes would then be important to her.
5. If we want to further increase the emotional qualities of the sculpture, we can ask
those populating the sculpture to raise the level of their gestures, position and
expressions to exaggerate. Another possibility lies in asking the sculptor to as-
sign to each figure a sentence that spontaneously appears pertinent. The sentences
for the various figures need not be coordinated, rather the sculptor goes from
figure to figure and says the sentence considered to be relevant to that person.
6. Once the structure has been completely set up, the players are given a certain
amount of time to get a feel for the sculpture and their own respective position
in the sculpture. Those involved should stand still for a couple of minutes and
concentrate on their own experiences and perceptions. When working with
sentences (see above), the players should repeat them aloud in the room over
and over. This is most effective when the sentences are spoken one after an-
other and not all at the same time. In this phase, which can be one of great
tension, stress and emotionality in the group, clients have the tendency to talk
a lot, laugh or make jokes to relieve the pressure. This, however, causes the
emotional and physical effects to dissipate so that the counselor may have to
intervene and reestablish everyones concentration.
When accompanying sculptors it is important to discover how much support or
freedom they need to release their own creativity. The counselor should remain
close to the sculptor during the sculpting process and then leave the scene once
in a while to stand off and observe the sculptors actions. This gives the counselor
a feeling for how much guidance and structure the sculptor needs in order to
express his or her viewpoints by means of the sculpture.
As a rule adults tend to introduce their point of view less by manipulating
distances, lines of sight and facial expressions and more by the use of verbal
descriptions. One should ask them to refrain from using words to describe their
viewpoint but rather to create a picture, to lead the individuals to their respective
spots without the use of language and to form them directly or, if that is awk-
ward, by posing to show them how to stand. After all, a real sculptor doesnt
write an essay but creates a sculpture.
Follow-up after sculpting
Once the sculpture is finished and everyone has had enough time to look at and
understand what was created, the next step is to evaluate it verbally and nonver-
bally. Here are some suggestions on possible ways to follow-up.
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Taking in the whole sculpture from different perspectives
Members of the system each get the chance to look at the sculpture from the
outside to walk around it and take different perspectives. They should con-
sciously regard it from the outside and slip out of their own position within the
system. Another person or a chair can take their place in the sculpture during
this time. Ask the external observer to imagine seeing this sculpture in a museum
of modern art. Members of the system can also assume the position of others,
exchanging roles in order to realistically experience others perspective. This
change of perspective provides new ways of seeing and experiencing things, and
it supports clients in finding new solutions.
The actors in the sculpture can slowly carry out any movements they are feeling
in their current position. The others are requested to react to these movements,
but only slowly. Thus, a sort of pantomime or dance occurs. Its nonverbal nature
can lead to clear and poignant images. Connections and interactions become bet-
ter distinguishable since expressing such processes verbally can be too complex
or difficult because of their unconscious or semiconscious nature.
Slow-motion morphing to a favored position
One member of the system can also express her own desires by changing her
position. She can do this by moving in slow motion to the desired position and
perceiving the change this brings about. Everyone else is requested to react in
slow motion and without words. This makes clear what the solution is for an
individual member and what forces act against this solution.
Taking a step toward ones favored position: What I need to do differently
If members change their positions in the sculpture toward some other, more de-
sired positions, the counselor should ask them to call out what else needs to
change in order for their wish to become reality. A variation thereof is having the
other members suggest what that person should do when taking a step toward a
desired position.
The systems ideal sculpture
All members of the system move slowly to their respective desired position and
react to the movements of the others, as described in the simultaneous sculpture.
A change for the future and what will happen
Here, too, as with circular questioning concerning future changes (see Chapter
5.3.2), the counselor points out future events or developments. As in a simulta-
neous sculpture, the counselor asks everyone to change their respective positions
so as to represent how future relationships would look. Or, in the sense of an
inside-out sculpture, the counselor asks one member of the system to depict the
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future situation and how the event might change the relationships by reshaping
the sculpture.
Case example: Afamily with a 16-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter seeks counseling
because of the frequent quarrels with the children, which in turn leads to quarrels between
the parents. In the daughters sculpture the children stand close together and look both
toward the parents and toward each other. The father and the mother stand on different
sides of the sibling subsystem; both are looking toward the children. The father has one
hand on his hip and makes a threatening gesture with the other hand. The mother offers
the children one hand and waves a warning finger with the other. The father and mother
stand far apart and do not look at each other. The counselor asks the children to slowly
withdraw from the line of sight between the parents. With every step the children take the
parents should offer the children something. After a fewsteps the parents become uncertain
about their positions and say they feel unsure about what things will be like for the two of
them. They move toward each other but fail to find a suitable position. Eventually they give
up, and it remains unclear how things can proceed. The sculpture changed the focus of the
session. It was no longer about the disputes with the children and between the parents but
instead about letting go of the children, how the children can leave the family and take on
responsibilities of their own. In the subsequent conversation the parents discover that they
are in agreement about many points. The gap and uncertainty in their togetherness has also
been perceived and labeled.
This method can also be applied when working with families seeking to take on
a foster child. After setting up the present situation of the family, the counselor
asks the prospective parents to position a chair (with a doll/stuffed animal on it)
to represent the new child in the family. Where is the childs position? Who has
to change positions to accommodate the child? Who has to change more, who
less? What do the individuals think about this?
One can also give the sculpture verbal form by asking each individual to express
what he or she saw in the sculpture (thoughts, images, feelings, bodily sensa-
how closely the sculpture corresponds with everyday life,
whether or not any new ideas emerged while looking at the sculpture,
what the consequences of working with the sculpture might be.
Sometimes it is important for the clients to sort out verbally what they intuitively
experienced. The counselors own observations can be important comments on
certain details (respiration, delayed movement, physical tension) that escaped the
notice of the system members. Once these are mirrored, they often make sense to
the clients and inspire self-exploration.
During verbal evaluation the counselor should decide how much of the results
and processes to translate into rational, analytic thinking expressed in words (see
the Background Text below). Some counselors prefer to allow considerable space
for such verbal translation, others waive this possibility altogether onthe assumption
that what happens in such a session will have consequences for the clients viewpoint
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and behavior no matter what the counselor has to say about it. It is our position that
both paths can be true and meaningful, depending on the situation, the system, the
problem at hand and the way the counselor prefers to proceed.
Background Text: The Value of a Sculpture
The linear logic of language: Circular descriptions via metaphors
Schweitzer and Weber (1982) describe this aspect of working with sculptures
as follows:
Researchers developed the theory that there are two types of knowledge and two
types of mental processes leading to knowledge: left- and right-hemispheric knowledge
(Ortenstein, 1972; Samples, 1966). The left half of our brain is responsible for the
anatomic correlate of linguistic-logical thought, which divides up reality into its indi-
vidual parts, puts linguistic labels on them, and then puts them back together accord-
ing to the rules of syntax and grammar. Right-hemispheric thinking, on the other hand,
happens in whole images, in metaphors, on a more intuitive level, without separating
the elements of these images into details and cause and effect chains. Family therapists
are usually people who, over the long course of their formal training, have intensively
learned to use logical, analytic processes rooted in the medium of language. When they
begin to work with families, however, they are confronted with a dilemma: Family
processes, like all processes in life, occur simultaneously, holistically and circularly.
That is, many processes in the family occur at the same time and side-by-side within
the family. Every single event has a meaning only within the context of other, synchro-
nous events. There are no isolated cause and effect relationships; rather, one process
is at once the cause and the effect of other parallel-running processes. When the family
therapist puts what he has observed into language, he necessarily must punctuate his
narrative, dismantle the relationships and later reorder them once again. This is not
amenable to the nature of a living system. But instead of describing these processes
serially, he can capture them in a sculpture, in a film or even in a dance in all their
simultaneity and circularity.
Senses and feeling
Another advantage of a sculpture is the complete involvement of all our sens-
es and feelings. The impression we get of, and the persuasiveness inherent
in, what we experience on a sensual level is more powerful than any cognitive
conclusions we might make about relationship structures on the verbal level.
The relationship structure helps us to visualize what is going on inside the
system members. This is furthered when the participants are given some time
to concentrate their perception within the sculpture. Sentences repeatedly
spoken by the figures in the sculpture serve to increase the feelings of the
The sensual perception of the relationship patterns and the connection of
this experience with emotions results in a holistic understanding of the pro-
cesses going on in the system. Holistic, in this context, means feelings are
present in addition to cognitive components.
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Using the bodys wisdom
A further dimension of the sculpture is the somatic experience the actors
have. If we direct their attention to their bodily perceptions by asking them
to close their eyes and listening to their inner self, many report such sensa-
Case example (this is taken from a family reconstruction in which the family members
were played by other group members): Bettinas family of origin consists of her father,
her mother and herself. She puts herself and her mother close together. The mother
touches her arm and looks her in the eye. Bettina looks at her father, who is sitting off
at some distance in a chair looking out the window, with her back turned to both of
them. Bettina had first dealt with her relationship with her father, who worked abroad
a lot and was not often at home with the family. The sculpture showed that her father,
presumably because of a trauma suffered during the war, was unable to be empathic
toward his family, unable to show feelings and unable to receive them as well. Bettinas
mother was the main person in her life. The mother was disappointed in her marriage,
but she took care of her daughter quite well. Bettina felt her mother dragged her into
her conflicts with her father. She was also aware of her mothers dreams working as
a scientist, which she had given up in order to be a housewife. The counselor asks
Bettina to start up a conversation with her mother. After a few tears her voice becomes
steady and she berates her mother. The counselor asks her to feel what is going on in
her body. She closes her eyes and after a short while says she feels a lump in her
throat. The counselor asks her to put her hand on the spot and to feel what it is like.
Bettina again has a feeling of a lump in her throat and connects the feeling with the
anger she has toward the mother. It occurs to her that she is being treated for an
enlarged thyroid gland. Later, in the debriefing, she talks about everyday situations
where she feels anger but has difficulty expressing it, co-occurring with the feeling that
occurs in her throat. Her somatic sensations and the interaction patterns fit together.
The counselor should try to discover and use such connections between phys-
ical sensations and interaction patterns: They intensify the clients process of
increasing awareness. Social interaction patterns, emotional experiences and
bodily sensations are mutually dependent. The counselor can also anchor
them by touching the client lightly and pointing out the connection with the
interaction pattern. This helps the client to later use the bodily sensation he
remembers and recognizes in order to become aware of interaction patterns.
The counselor can also use bodily awareness to establish alternative interac-
tion patterns.
Case example: Mr. M. (55 years old) and Mrs. M. (50 years old) have come to couples
counseling because of mounting conflicts. Both children are out of the house. Mr. M.
has been in early retirement for 6 months. His wife does not work. In the years leading
up to his early retirement, they had simply learned to avoid each other, but now, with
his being home all the time, the quarrels are increasing. Mrs. M. is considering moving
out of their apartment. In a simultaneous sculpture intended to depict a typical situa-
tion leading up to a fight, the counselor notices that Mrs. M. holds her head down
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somewhat and doesnt look directly at her husband, rather gazing at a spot slightly
below his face. The counselor asks her to take a moment to concentrate on her posture
and to notice the position shes in. Mrs. M. realizes that she always avoids looking
directly into her husbands face. She says that, for a long time now, she hasnt had to
deal with him and his concerns. Shes afraid of giving in, doesnt want to see him and
she is worried that her anger might break through. Asked how sure she was of her
feelings, she replies that she actually did want to continue to have contact to him. The
counselor suggests that she raise her head a little, that she simply change by a few
degrees the angle at which her vertebrae are holding her neck. Mrs. M. tries this small
change out. She is now looking directly into her husbands face. She reports that this
changes the way she can relate to him considerably. Now she is seeing him as he really
is and has the feeling of being his equal. She can face him and represent her own views
more openly and more seriously. The counselor asks her to reverse the change and to
reassume the original position with her head tilted down and to take note once again
on the familiar pattern of interaction with her husband. The counselor leaves Mrs. M.
in this position for a moment and then anchors her by touching her slightly, saying she
should remember this position and what it feels like and then go back to the new
position. Again she concentrates on feeling what it is like, is anchored and fixes the
moment in her mind.
Mrs. M. can now use the newly learned and anchored bodily position in ev-
eryday life. She can shift herself at will into the learned inner posture by
virtue of a small change in her head position and gaze. This will hopefully
enable her to better listen to her husband and rediscover his needs as well
as more clearly representing her own wishes toward him. The bodys bearing
becomes a metaphor for inner bearing in ones interaction with someone else.
And it becomes an instrument to diagnose ones inner status, to recognize it
and change it even outside the walls of the counselors office.
Disrupting patterns: Listening, not fighting
Every participant is listened to while he is explaining his view of the relation-
ships in a sculpture. That tenet alone serves to break up the existing pattern
of interaction. When systems are in trouble, there is usually a rush to express
the right description of the relationships. What then happens is clear: ex-
planation, rebuttal, counterstatement, rebuttal all in rapid succession. The
nonverbal, creative and experimental nature of the sculpture lends itself to
disrupting this pattern and creating a new, unfamiliar, productive space for
listening to others and exchanging views on different experiences. Sculptures
are effective not only due to the creative atmosphere they produce, but also
because they represent a foreign, new medium.
Disrupting patterns: In a gathering of victims circularity comes alive
I cant be any different than Ive always been. Im forced to be that way
because of the way other people act toward me. If they were to act differently,
then I could, too. Actually, Id prefer that and Id be better off, for sure, but
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Which relationship pattern should the sculpture depict?
One need not always depict the entire relationship structure. Depending on the
goal and the situation at hand we can work with partial contexts, subsystems,
special questions and changes to the system.
Relationships in subsystems: Often sculptures are employed to model the rela-
tionship structure of the entire system. But we can also focus on just one relation-
ship, say, between two people in the system.
Case example: In a family counseling session there is a problem in the way the parents deal
with their children (two boys of 5 and 7 years). The oldest son has major problems with
his social behavior and may even have to leave the regular school. During the session it
becomes clear that the husband keeps providing his wife with newsuggestions on how they
can successfully rear the boys and be good parents. The wife, however, continually rejects
all his suggestions. This pattern is repeated many times. The counselor decides to use this
pattern as feedback for them by depicting it in an outside-in sculpture. He asks the husband
to stand facing his wife, to look at her, to put one foot forward, extending his hand to her.
The wife stands facing away from him, looking in another direction, her arms crossed in
front of her, her shoulders slightly raised. Then the counselor asks the two to them to test
whether this pose fits their own experience . . . Alternatively, he could have asked one of
the two protagonists to create an inside-out sculpture of the last interactions of the session
or allowed them to find the positions they deem typical for their relationship in the last
session (simultaneous sculpture).
unfortunately . . . Many clients describe themselves as victims as only re-
acting and not acting. If they all belong to a single system, then we have a
confederacy of victims, as it were. The culprits, it seems, are missing in
action. A sculpture interrupts this attitude, which occurs particularly in the
verbal descriptions of relationship patterns. The metaphoric depiction of re-
lationships in the sculpture, on the other hand, allows a direct experience of
the circular nature of relationships. The linear configuration of perpetrator-
victim dissipates, and the reciprocity of positions becomes clear.
Even if not everything is solved, everyone can learn something
A further advantage of working with sculptures is that the participants of a
sculpture usually have the subjective feeling of having learned something in
the process much in contrast to purely verbal sessions. Oftentimes, these
discoveries surprises even the counselor and are not at all intended or even
understandable from the context. But the metaphoric form allows such indi-
vidual insights. Its like looking at a painting: The intense focus causes every
observer to develop an individual story that to him appears clear and true
and is chalked up as a new piece of knowledge. That is what happens with
sculptures, too. The advantage is obvious: Everyone has new experiences
with the relationship structure of the system. And new information always
means a chance at new behavior.
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Scalings as sculptures: Sculptures can easily be combined with scalings. In Chapter
5.3.1 we discuss this combination of sculpturing and questioning in more detail.
Typical relationship patterns in the system: The object of a sculpture can also be
a typical relationship pattern found in the system.
Case example: A prompt for the sculptor in team counseling could be: Please arrange your
colleagues as you experience them. Of course, from time to time you will experience inter-
actions in the teamthat are different. But for the time being lets look at the typical situation.
Please begin by putting everyone in his or her position in the room so that the distances
and lines of sight are, in your opinion, fitting.
Relationships changed by events: We would like to introduce some of the possible
ways of implementing this technique and to show how to study the effects of
a) Before and after a special event: This form consists of two sculptures: one to
depict the relationships before an event, the other after an event.
Case example: An outpatient rehabilitation group of alcoholics at an addiction center meets
weekly. The relationships within the group have now become the groups central theme.
For a couple of sessions there have been tensions within the group that have hindered some
members from bringing up their problems and questions. During one session it becomes
clear that a change in the group leadership due to the former group leaders pregnancy leave
has caused considerable changes in the relationships within the group. The (new) group
leader suggests depicting these changes in a sculpture. She asks a particularly committed
and well-accepted participant to set up her view of the group, particularly how she experi-
ences the attitude of the individual group members toward the group, toward each other
and toward the change in leadership. Then the sculptor is asked to prepare a second sculp-
ture representing the time after the change in leadership. After a few minor changes every-
one is basically in agreement about her two visions. The group leader now asks all group
members to take up their position in the first sculpture; they remain in these positions for
about a minute. Then the group leader asks themto slowly move to their respective positions
in the second sculpture. This sequence is repeated a few times as a sort of pantomime,
whereby the leader requests that everyone try to feel exactly what has changed in their
respective role. They then discuss what they have experienced.
b) Appreciating the emotional quality of an event: The emotional consequences
of an event can be studied by means of a sculpture. Sculptures make tangible even
those feelings of which one was unaware while experiencing the situation, which
were only barely felt and thus could not be consciously communicated to the
system. The goal is to (retroactively) experience within the counseling situation
what could not be experienced in the first place. This method tries to shape and
organize both the present and the future without undue encumberment. Here a
quote fromSchweitzer and Weber (1982, p. 119): It was impressive and moving
for both the family and the counselor to experience how a young woman, the
middle sister of 5, who at the age of 3 was sent to live with her aunt because of
lack of room, depicted her family at the time of her leaving; how she instructed
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them to slowly go hand in hand with the older sister who brought her to the aunt
in the direction of the aunts apartment in the other corner of the therapy room.
How painful this separation had been was apparent to everyone in the room
through the hesitant nature of the process. This cleared the way for a dialog about
the familys situation at the time of the womans move.
c) Anticipating a future event: An upcoming event can be anticipated by building
a sculpture. This allows the participants to adapt to the thought in advance. Es-
pecially with events that are accompanied by fears or misgivings, preparation by
means of a sculpture can help reduce flight or avoidance behavior.
Case example: During couples therapy, the counselor guesses that the husbands retirement
in a years time is causing some anxiety in both husband and wife. The husband is very
engaged in his profession and spends many hours in his office. But the two have been talking
very little about the situation, only joking about it from time to time. The counselor asks
each of them to set up a sculpture, one after the other, depicting how their relationship will
look a year after the husbands retirement. Then they are asked to describe their impressions
and feelings toward the other persons sculpture.
Favorite sculpture: Here we are searching for solutions. The main questions are:
What do the relationships have to look like so that the sculptor or the individuals in
the sculpture are happy with it? What is the ideal distance between the different
persons? Who must catch whose gaze? What gestures are appropriate? If necessary,
this can be extended: What sentences could the individuals say to each other?
This type of sculpture has the same goals as the questions we introduce in
Chapter 5.3.2 (Problem and Resource Contexts: Using Circular Questions) and
the Miracle Question.
The counselors position in the system: A sculpture can even be used to highlight
the position of the counselor in the system, if the system has brought this matter
to the forefront on its own, or if the counselor has the feeling that there is some
sort of problem with his relationships to the members of the system.
Case example: In a family counseling setting major quarrels erupt between the 15-year-old
son and his parents. This is why they have come to counseling. They have also brought
along their 12-year-old daughter. The son expresses both verbally and nonverbally his feeling
of being isolated in both the family and the counseling situation that everyone is against
him. The counselor requests that he portray his feelings in a sculpture and include the
counselor in his depiction as well. The boy proceeds to place the counselor close to the
family, lining them up in a row, not too far away, but still clearly as a front directed toward
him. In a second sculpture, the counselor tries to clarify where he thinks the counselor
should rather be placed so that counseling can be successful. This sculpture reveals that
the boy wants the counselor to be closer to him than to his parents. He then describes what
the counselor would have to say to correspond to this desired position: The son wants more
distance and support from his parents. Next, the counselor and the son discuss what is
realistic, what can be expected of the counselor and what is not possible or realistic. It turns
out that the desires at least some more effort at listening on the part of the parents. He
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expects the counselor to create room for this. As for the practical side of living under one
roof, especially the matters of household chores, curfews and monthly allowance, the boy
needs some help (as do the parents) in determining normal modern guidelines. The coun-
selor is willing to do that for them but does not want to become the sons lawyer. In the
end, the son is willing to accept this (though he would have preferred it differently).
5.1.2 Verbal Metaphors as Sculptures
Up to now we have used sculptures to give emotions and hierarchical relation-
ships a spatial form. Another way to represent the relationships in a system is to
use verbal metaphors that are then turned into sculptures. The starting points for
such a process can be as follows:
The counselor asks the clients to come up with a metaphor to describe their
A verbal metaphor is taken spontaneously from the conversation.
The counselor suggests to the clients a particular scene.
The counselor asks the clients to develop a verbal metaphor
Peggy Papp sometimes asks the members of a system to come up with verbal
images that describe how they experience the relationship. She then asks the cli-
ents to translate this picture into movements. The result is a sort of dance; she
consequently calls the process choreography. Here is a case example of hers
(1967, p. 353 f.) which nicely demonstrates her approach:
Case example: A woman describes her husband as King Kong and herself as being trapped
by his power over her. Her attempts to break out of this captivity, to attack him, to throw
dishes at him, to fight with him and swear at him they all lead to his grip getting ever
more tighter. The husband also describes himself as a monkey a helpless monkey. If the
monkey wants to help her up off the ground, she rebukes him. If he tries to save her, she
flees. The more he tries to help her, the more she tries to flee. The more she flees from him,
the harder he tries to hold on to her. The therapist asks that the two attempt to depict these
patterns by setting up a scene but doing everything in slow motion. This sort of distortion
toward the absurd gives them some room and clearly demonstrates to them the circular
nature of their actions. Now the therapist asks that they try to choreograph possible solu-
tions. Some very interesting ideas crop up. The may be truly helpful, but to a large part
remain caught up in the usual patterns, which also says something about the couples coping
strategies. The husband tries to establish his idea of looking eye-to-eye and on equal grounds
by seating himself directly next to his wife. He thus relinquishes his King-Kong position,
but still tries to save his wife by giving her good advice on how she can better organize her
life. His wife rejects this outright and becomes angry with him. From the choreographed
depiction of these interaction sequences the therapist discovers new tasks or rituals (see
Chapter 5.10) that distorts their previous problematic behavior to the absurd and exagger-
ate it greatly (Papp, 1976, p. 352). Or the therapist directly suggests behavior complemen-
tary to previous behavior, for example, by suggesting they do exactly the opposite of what
is normal say, for a while the husband should give up his goal of wanting to save the wife.
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Every time he has the urge to give her some advice, he should instead ask her for advice.
Although this seems absurd to him, he agrees. The therapist then asks the wife to do her
part by writing down everything that occurs to her that she could do to tame King Kong.
These actions shift the interaction of the couple and skewtheir mutually applied roles. Now
the wife advises her husband, while also showing him that she trusts that he will make the
proper decision. This, in turn, influences the husband to change his rescue-and-counsel
behavior over time.
In this example we can see how intensively Peggy Papp uses the pictures that
develop in the course of couples therapy to work with the couple concretely
through variations on the theme of strong man saves helpless wife. The impor-
tant thing is to use the language, metaphors and images from the clients own
world since their familiarity creates understanding and acceptance. By graphically
imagining these pictures and by turning their problematic behavior into a chore-
ography the couple can learn to recognize their own role in the unfolding drama
that has landed them in therapy. And after going through this process, it becomes
harder to simply repeat these patterns without thinking of the scene they created;
the exaggeration increases the exercises effectiveness. Fromthe pictures and met-
aphors the clients have generated they can also derive new ideas for the tasks.
Any resulting progress and successes can then be translated choreographically in
the next session, thus leading to new patterns.
A verbal metaphor is spontaneously adapted
Clients often employ metaphors in their normal everyday language. Such images
express, sometimes rather precisely in fact, their way of experiencing things, mak-
ing it worthwhile to work on such visions.
Case example: Afamily comes to counseling because the mother (45 years old) has repeatedly
been plagued by psychosomatic states of complete exhaustion. Her two children, Susanne (12
years old) and Paul (14 years old), are very burdened by the whole situation. They fight over
what time they have to go to bed, who does which chores in the household, etc. The father
has, for the most part, withdrawn fromfamily life. There is considerable tension between the
husband and his wife. Tending to the household, raising the kids and earning a living have
led to much bickering, mutual accusations and withdrawal. In the following sequence, taken
fromthe familys third session, the family is talking about the turmoil and stress in the family
caused by visitors and the telephone constantly ringing. The father expresses his dissatisfac-
tion and says that sometimes he feels like hes living in a castle under siege. The counselor
picks up on this image and asks him to depict the castle in the room, to which he agrees after
some persuasion. He puts himself in the middle, surrounded by a close ring of chairs: a lord
taking refuge in his tower. He has to fend off the attacks of his wife and children from the
outside. Only his son can pass the barriers. And yet he doesnt really feel like hes lord of the
castle: The other inhabitants are besieging his castle, and hes stuck in his tower, his final
refuge, which has to be defended against the invaders fromoutside and the other inhabitants.
But the castles walls are weak. He assigns the children the task of being gatekeepers. They,
however, more or less let anyone pass, even those besieging the castle, rather than seeing to
it that they are kept out. The wife is appointed administrator of the castle who runs back and
forth in the castle courtyard rather confusedly, wailing loudly. The family members agree that
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this image mirrors a number of aspects of their family life. Asked individually, they each have
their reasons for acting the way they do in the fathers scenario. The father says he needs his
peace and quiet. If he were to come down from the tower and try to create order, his children
would fight back and his wife would intervene. He feels isolated from the castles other
inhabitants and is happy to be out in the forest during the day. The children say that they are
happy they have contacts on the outside since its hard to tolerate castle life: a disgruntled
lord, a bossy and nervous administrator. Otherwise, though, its OK in the castle. They have
free reign for the most part. The administrator feels helpless, abandoned by her lord and
constantly angry at him. Shes the administrator, to be sure, but no one listens to her: The
inhabitants just do whatever they want. She doesnt like entering the tower. Shes afraid of
the quarrels that inevitably ensue with the lord. She feels torn between the two worlds and
lives without any goals, full of sadness and resignation. The counselor asks the lord and his
administrator to reorganize castle life. As a sort of game, they begin to regroup the chairs,
establishing first and foremost a stronger external wall. They decide to set up times at
which the gate should be completely closed. From7 to 8 pmas well as from9.30 pmto 7 am
the castle is closed to outsiders; no visitors and no calls are allowed. The gatekeepers protest
against the new rules, and the following conversation is devoted to how the administrator
and castle lord can assert their wishes toward the personnel.
The metaphor and the depiction of this scene provide everyone with a new look
at some old patterns. Shifting the context (from family life to castle life) distorts
things enough that the existing patterns become visible and can be worked on
and solutions sought in a game-like, creative way. Of course, no solution will be
implemented without modification; rather, it is important that the patterns be
recognized and lead to new solutions.
The counselor suggests to the clients a particular scene and lets them stage it
Here, the counselor provides the entire framework for a scene and invites the
clients to use it to stage their relationships.
Case example: The following scene is taken from the first session of a family consisting of the
father, the mother and two daughters, Clara (8 years old) and Lisa (4 years old). They have
come to counseling because of Claras persistent soiling of her pants (encopresis) for which
doctors have no medical explanation. Also, the parents want to talk about their own relation-
ship, since it has been strained recently with respect to raising their children. After agreeing
with the family on a contract, the counselor suggests playing a game together and asks Clara
to imagine the family as animals stage it psychodramatically and what animals she thinks they
would all be. (This method is taken fromthe projective test Family as Animals, Brem-Grser,
2011.) She is to put the different animals in their place as she imagines them. The result is the
scene shown in Figure 26, whereby the arrows depict the lines of sight.
Figure 26: Family sculpture with animals
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The counselor then interviews each family member and asks how they feel about their
position. Clara finds her position very tiring because she cant move her head. She always
has to look toward the elephant and sees the monkey and the cat out of the corner
of her eye. She doesnt like that at all. The mother, too, thinks her position is rather un-
comfortable because she always has to look up to the elephant and she cant see the
monkey at all. She misses seeing the monkey. But she likes being a cat. The father feels
too far removed from everyone. It bothers him that he cant see the cat. And he feels too
insecure standing on just one foot all the time. Lisa, however, is very happy being an ele-
phant: Everyone is looking at her. She would also like to set up an animal scene. The parents
have their own ideas of how the family should be and depict their own scenarios. Then its
Lisas turn, and she drafts the sculpture shown in Figure 27.
Clara is the first to speak and says she doesnt like this picture at all. The mouse should
come down from the chair. The counselor suggests they all play a game together, and the
family agrees. The zebra tries to talk the mouse down from the chair, but the mouse
refuses to do so. Shes the queen mouse and thats her throne! The rooster and the pig
also try to persuade and entice the mouse to come down. After a while the zebra seems
rather helpless. The counselor says to the zebra it would appear that the mouse is not
going to come down from the chair on her own. The zebra then goes over to the mouse
and tries to push her off with its nose. The zebra and the mouse jostle for a while, but
then the zebra just stays put on the chair next to the mouse and says she likes it there
and wants to stay. The rooster and the pig are ok with this solution. The mouse,
however, is not so happy.
Theres only time for a short discussion. Clara says it was fun what they did, especially
the fight with Lisa as mouse, and that she could sit next to her. Lisa thought it was fun,
too, though she did not enjoy the ending. A discussion ensues between the adults while the
children play on the floor. The parents are very moved by the experience of seeing how
helpless and weak their older daughter is and how strong and dominant their younger
daughter is. It has become clear to them just how difficult Claras position in the family is.
Claras open fight with her sister was something new and unusual for them to see. The first
scene, in which Clara stood between the two of them and tried to keep a watch over
everything, brings to their mind a number of similar situations from past family life. Clara
has always assumed a lot of responsibility for what happens in the family, especially in
situations in which the family disagrees about something. It is also true that Lisa receives
much more attention. The parents both come to the conclusion that they should see to it
that there is more of a balance between the siblings, and that they arent wooed by the
Figure 27: Lisas family sculpture with animals
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youngest daughters charms. They intend to work on how to better shape their roles as
This method is especially good if there are younger children present in the session.
This way, parents can see how their children view the situation, and the children
get the chance to participate without having to explain themselves verbally.
Their natural way of expressing what they experience and how they work through
it correspond to the symbolic representation and game-like atmosphere of this
method. In the case history above, Clara suggested a solution: She wants to sit
next to her younger sister and is ready to fight for that position. The intensity
with which clients experience such games allows the most important patterns to
be dealt with in the conversations that ensue.
5.1.3 Sculpture as a Metaphor for Time: Memory Lane
How a system develops can be shown in a series of distinctive events (milestones,
stumbling blocks, turning points, etc.). In families, for instance, these might be
marriage, the first child, moving into a new house, the birth of a second child,
the mothers going back to work, the mothers professional advancement, death
of the fathers parents, bouts of depression in the father. In an organization, these
could be the founding of the company, the first generation of employees, the com-
ing and going of employees, changes in the financial situation, market changes,
new managers, the takeover of another company, reorganization, etc.
Such developments within a system can be drawn up with the help of a line
on the floor (thread, chalk, tape) representing time, along which the important
moments in the development of the systemare added fromthe participants mem-
ory. A kind of memory lane is formed between the founding and the present
day. The events can be depicted as follows:
The effects of the major events on the relationships in the system are depicted
by sculptures. Present systemmembers take up their positions; former members
are represented by symbols.
The events themselves are represented along the timeline by a symbol and a year.
This complements the method discussed above.
With little figures like those found in most childrens rooms we can depict all
types of events along the timeline.
This type of sculpting can be used to portray an entire system (a family, a cou-
ple, a team in supervision, an entire organization), whether in counseling, in su-
pervision or in personal coaching.
184 5 Acting: Intervention and Accompanying Processes
2 This designation was coined by Antony Williams, who used the technique from his
book The Passionate Technique (1989) in couples therapy. Later he also used this
form for working with whole organizations. He demonstrated the method in the sum-
mer of 2002 in a seminar in Heppenheim, Germany.
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The participants then walk along the timeline and do some configuring. They look
back from the present point in time over the entire history, they gather impres-
sions and suggest new ideas. The interconnections between present and past
within the system are discussed and the consequences spelled out. One can also
venture a look at the future:
What will happen in the future? What is foreseeable and within what time-
What are our goals? How do we want to shape probable events in the future?
The timeline can also be extended beyond the present. Antony Williams
retracing the steps with the sculptor at the end of the allotted time and revising
the stations with the knowledge won during the discussion. This cements ones
personal connections to the development and to the course of time. The possible
ways of interpreting past decisions become clearer.
Case example: A team within a large organization has the job of organizing advanced
training seminars, advising managers, accompanying structural developments and support-
ing new trainees. The problem is that its collective identity has been lost over time: Now
everyone just does their job. The work itself is carried inconsistently, which outsiders have
begun to notice. This poses a danger to the very existence of the team. A uniform style and
a uniform political stance have not been effective because of the lack of a common identity.
The counselor suggests an identity-fostering intervention in the form of an in-depth look
at the teams past and present. To avoid long discussions and intellectual debates, this is to
be done as a timeline drawn in the counseling room. The counselor asks the team to pick
out a point in the room to designate as the founding state and another for the present state
of the team. The counselor takes up position at the founding point together with the only
team member who experienced the beginning personally, who describes what was going on
back then. Earlier team members, the head manager at that time and the head of the
personnel department are represented by symbols and put on the right-hand side of the line
in a little sculpture of their own. Each one of these figures fromthe past is assigned a phrase
that begins with: This team is important because . . . and is completed by something
befitting that figure. The enthusiasmof the teams pioneers can be felt in their sayings: This
team is important because everyone depends on it to make the company fit for the future.
At the managerial level, one hears very different statements: This team is important be-
cause the department heads, the team leaders and some employees can finally get their way
and stop whining about how theyre so stressed by having to suffer through quality man-
agement, reorganization, personnel problems, etc. This team is important because I can
send anyone to take part in it whos bellyaching and complaining about conflicts.
Bit by bit, newemployees are added to the teamalong the timeline. They join the counselor
and are put on the side of those team members already present on the left side of the
timeline. When the pioneer members leave the group, they are depicted by symbols at the
respective points in time on the right side of the timeline. Upon leaving, they are assigned
a typical phrase by those team members who remain standing to the left of the rope. Many
5.1 Sculptures: Three-Dimensional Metaphors 185
3 The author (A. F.) visited several seminars of Antony Williams between 1998 and 2005
and gained many insights and impulses concerning this work method.
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of the pioneers left the team because they were unable to realize their ideas. They leave
behind sayings such as, There used to be more drive here. Today, theres only roadblocks.
I need new possibilities. Nothings happening here anymore. Sculptures are set up at
certain timepoints along the way. The founding team had great solidarity and was very
self-confident. The new guys failed to be integrated into this old guys team, resulting
in two groups. The tasks the groups worked on became ever more mundane: organizing
individual coachings, team-development seminars, counseling for personnel problems. The
tasks used to be concerned with the organization and moderation of quality circles or
control groups for reorganization processes. Nevertheless, the team retained its original
spirit of being a spearhead for innovation and renewal. The new members dealt with this
issue by drifting toward ever more individualization which is clearly depicted in the
sculptures. Upon arriving at the point marked now, one is confronted by an almost entirely
new team. Although the teams former images for the in- and out-group still exist, the
present team no longer identifies with them.
The counselor asks the team to take a few steps into the future, beginning at the point
marked now, and to brainstorm on the following questions:
What will the future bring and what will be expected of us?
What must happen in order for us to fit into such a future?
The cards with future events and demands are spread out across the section marked fu-
ture. Now the counselor and the team go backward in time along the timeline. At each
station the respective changes are noted. Present team members wander along the points
in time at which they entered the picture, from left to right. Team members who had left
the team come from right to left. Finally, the team is asked to use whatever they find in the
room to create a sculpture that depicts how the team must look in one years time if it is
to survive.
This example demonstrates how to develop ones own creative style. Memory
lanes can be set up in many different ways. Here are a few pragmatic tips:
Deciding where the beginning and where the end of the timeline is should be left
to the clients, who are better in the position to lay down the timeline for the
developmental history.
The present tense should always be used at the various stations along the time-
line. That reinforces the feeling of reliving the events.
One can also mark the point in time with a piece of paper with the respective
year and a keyword to describe the particular event. That makes it easier to keep
track of the stations of memory lane.
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5.2 Extensions:SculpturesinDifferentSettings
5.2 Extensions: Sculptures in Different Settings
The previous chapter clearly demonstrated the many ways sculptures can be em-
ployed in systemic counseling. The inherent creative potential present in this
method begs for the development of ever more variations for use in diverse set-
tings. We would like to introduce a few in the following sections.
5.2.1 In Individual Therapy: Social Atom and Chair Sculptures
Sculptures can be used when working with individual clients to point out the
clients system and the context of the problem.
The social atom method depicts the clients entire relationship network. The
term was coined by J. L. Moreno (2008), who felt early on that human beings
mustnt be viewed without also considering their respective context. Within the
social atom he places the individual at the middle, at the core or nucleus of
things. Social relationships differ in their intensity. The most intense ones are the
electrons that circle the core in very close orbits, whereas less intense relation-
ships are the electrons in the midlevel orbits, and more distant relationships are
similar to electrons in the farthest orbits (see Chapter 5.7 below). One can vis-
ualize and symbolize such a social atom with very different means:
imaginative figures (animals, cowboys and Indians, knights, peasants, Disney
figures, Smurfs, dinosaurs, monsters, aliens),
natural materials (rocks, crystals, shells, marbles, twigs, chestnuts, acorns),
stylized abstract wooden human figures without specific characteristics.
Depending on ones own preferences, one can have various sets that also corre-
spond to a clients various preferences. Young girls, for example, often react pos-
itively to exquisite natural materials in a pretty box laid out with a silk cloth. This
method is particularly helpful when working with individual children or adoles-
cents, who are not necessarily used to or amenable to a verbal approach and may
feel uncomfortable in a direct one-on-one situation with an adult. To ease the
tension, place some sort of material object between counselor and client to sym-
bolize the playful nature of the interaction something both sides can look at and
enjoy (and thus avoid always looking at each other). This is especially useful for
the in-between ages, where a childrens game is no longer appealing and adult
conversation is not yet appropriate.
The social atom provides an overview of the clients social network with all
its resources and relationships. It can also outline what positions the individual
members of the social environment hold with regard to the clients most impor-
tant questions: How should the client live? How should the client decide a vital
matter? What do the other people in the social sphere think about what should
change through counseling? What do others think the core problem is? What
could be the solution? Who can change things?
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Case example: Catherine (16 years old) lives in a residential group where she is cared for
by social workers around the clock. For the past 3 months she has had a boyfriend (John),
who is 17. A couple of days ago she discovered she is pregnant with his child and now has
to decide whether or not to have the child. The caretakers, the other girls in her group, her
best girlfriend, the whole clique, her boyfriends clique, too, and a few members of her
family are aware of the situation. Her teachers, her father (separated from her mother) and
a few other adults, however, know nothing of her dilemma. She talks to a number of those
in the know. These conversations often proceed according to a certain pattern: What do
you think I should do? The other person answers and she reacts: Yeah, thats true, but
for me on the other hand . . . Finally, she sighs a heavy sigh and laments: Now I know
even less what I should do! Catherine and her main caretaker want to work on this matter,
and Catherine is very interested in what her caretaker has to say. The caretaker suggests
her setting up a social atom with toy figures to represent all those people who presently
play an important role in her life. Then, later, shell say what she thinks. Catherine agrees
to this plan.
Catherine looks at the figures and decides which ones should symbolize which persons.
For herself, she chooses a very pretty white stone. The caretaker lays a sheet from the
flipchart on the table and asks Catherine to put her white stone in the middle. She is now
requested to position the other figures around her, at varying distance, depending on the
intensity of their relationship to her. Persons who belong together form a group, which
helps one to recognize which groups are important to her. The caretaker writes the names
of the persons next to their figures. Once Catherine has set up all the figures in her sculpture,
the caretaker asks her whether there are any other people who have had an influence on
her other than those in her network. Those could be idols, persons she has met, her late
grandmother, a former teacher, Mother Mary whatever. After the sculpture has been
completed, the caretaker asks Catherine whether she is pleased with the image or whether
she would like to change anything. After a few minor corrections the image is complete
(Figure 28).
Now the caretaker asks Catherine whose opinion she counts on, out of all those repre-
sented in her sculpture. She chooses her late grandmother, so the caretaker asks the grand-
mother: Mrs. Thomson, you have been dead for a few years now. You are surely looking
down from above at whats been happening in your family. So you also know that Catherine
has been having a hard time making a decision. What do you think Catherine should do?
Catherine answers as her grandmother in the first person: Yes, yes, Im very sorry about
that. The child is still so young, much too young to have a child of her own. It will ruin her
whole life if she gives birth to a child! And it cant be good for the child either! Why
would you think that? Was that your experience in life? Again, Catherine answers as
Grandma Thomson: Yes, Ive told Catherine many times that she should be careful. I told
her how awful it was for me, when I had my first son at the age of 19. His father left us
even before the child was born, and the child eventually ended up in an orphanage at 6
months. I just couldnt take care of him, and later, when I did see him, I felt so sorry for
him. That was the biggest mistake of my life!
The next person Catherine is interested in is John, her boyfriend. The caretaker interviews
him just like the grandmother, and Catherine touches Johns figure and answers for him in
the first person. And so it goes on, one figure after another. At the end of the session, the
caretaker asks Catherine to put the figures on a scale between the two points denoting
definitely have the child and absolutely dont have the child. Catherine arranges her
whole social network along this scale. She includes the caretaker, too, or at least what she
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presumes the caretakers opinion to be. Catherine also puts her own white stone on the
scale at the point that reflects her present tendency.
In this case example, the social atom of the client was complemented by impor-
tant people from her past. In Chapter 5.5 we go into more detail on working with
witnesses. In the end, the social atom helped to sort out the opinions that
existed in the clients life. The example illustrates how dealing with different po-
sitions in the social network forms the basis for making decisions on ones own.
What do these important people in my life think about my problem and why do
they see things that way? Which of all these opinions are most important to the
client? What does the entire spectrumof opinions look like on such a continuum?
And where on the scale does the client place herself? For the caretaker/counselor
this method has the advantage of preventing his or her own opinion fromstanding
alone and taking on too much weight, since many other opinions have bubbled
up through the cosmos of perspectives and viewpoints induced by working with
the social atom. The plurality of perspectives to be considered provides the client
with a special form of freedom toward the opinion of the helper.
Here are some of the effective methods employed by the caretaker toward Catherine:
Putting the flipchart sheet down and writing the names of the persons portrayed
by the figures is a great help.
Touching the figures whose role is being discussed supports the representation
of the respective role, as does the use of the first person when answering. This
allows for an intense, realistic change of perspective.
The helper provides a clear structure and plays the role of interviewer to give the
client a sense of security and to help the client stay within the given structure.
5.2.2 The Family Board
The Family Board was originally designed for use in the diagnosis and portrayal
of family relationships (e.g., in matters of custody), but was soon adapted for use
in the presentation and development of supportive family relationships and inner
dialogs. It is also used to describe desired future scenarios in extended family
systems (see Ludewig & Wilken, 2000). The Family Board is a 50 50 cm board
containing square and round figures (male and female) in various sizes (parents
and children). Three extra figures (white, brown and black) do not represent
persons, but rather features, intentions and so forth. Once the goal of the session
has been mutually agreed upon, the Family Board is introduced in order to work
on a solution. Similar to the way it is done with sculptures, the figures are set up
to represent real persons in real-life networks, using the criteria closeness/dis-
190 5 Acting: Intervention and Accompanying Processes
4 These remarks on the family board stem from our colleague Hans-Werner Eggemann-
Dann (see Egemann-Dann, 2004, 2005, too), who wrote them as part of our course
materials, which we modified and extended for this book.
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tance, like/dislike. The resulting images are used to develop hypotheses, to dis-
cuss impressions with the clients directly and to try out solutions in this three-di-
mensional space.
Using the Family Board slows the pace, tempers aggression, adds a playful note
to the session and directs the clients attention to another level of communication
and symbolization. Its a little like staging a puppet theater performance. It is
suitable for children of school age and older, since younger children tend to knock
the figures off the board. One can put little notes on the individual figures with
keywords concerning problems or solutions. The use of finger puppets and other
accessories allows further symbolization.
The Family Board, like other forms of sculpturing, can be employed in many
different ways when working with families, individuals, couples and groups,
whether in counseling, therapy, coaching or supervision:
Individual clients can depict their original family, their present constellation or
situations that crop up at various times in therapy.
Partners in couples therapy can demonstrate how they see things and comment
on the other persons portrayal or what they presume the other person is trying
to say.
Changes and future scenarios can be anticipated.
Children can sketch their way of seeing things and develop change scenarios.
One can catalog resources in the clients context and experiment with their im-
Constructions can be given various names, borrowed, for example, from films,
novels, newspaper articles or songs whatever creates distance and can be
played out on a symbolic-playful level.
A family member can work with the board while the other members comment
on the result, in the sense of a reflecting team.
One can use two boards simultaneously to compare two scenarios.
Case example: After being introduced to the method, a young female client depicts her
(extended) family with the figures. On this basis we ask about her resources:
Concerning her mother and father: What are the positive sides to the relationship? What
did they pass along to you? How has it helped you? What and whom can you depend
Concerning her siblings: What do you like to do together? What are your survival rules?
What are your differences and similarities and how do you deal with them?
Then we ask about the clients desire for change, which is given a physical form using the
board: In which areas would you like for things to change? How can that be done? When
youve finally reached that point, where would the figures be and what would the scene
look like? How much of this change has already been realized? How would you notice that
progress is being made? What do you expect from others? Are they aware of your wishes?
What is your part in making it all come true?
One could also focus on the themes of patience and perseverance, dealing with defeat
and other ways of receiving support. One can take a picture of the scene with a camera
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and look at it later. One can note resources on different colored cards and use Post-its to
write the traits of family members on the blocks.
Clearly, the Family Board can be used in a number of ways similar to the social
atom, the most important difference being the materials.
If the counselor wants to introduce elements of family reconstruction into in-
dividual therapy, then the Family Board can also be used as a methodological tool
when searching for clues and memories (Neumann, 2004): The client stages past
events, and one then uses the symbolizations to work through ensuing questions.
5.2.3 Symbol Sculptures
Since its inception, the materials and formal aspects of the Family Board have been
well described and its use has been standardized (Ludewig & Wilken, 2000). As
with the social atom, one can use other objects, such as coins, stones, cups, build-
ing blocks, animal figures, paperclips, notepads or any other object that happens to
be lying around instead of human figurines. Symbol sculptures can be spontaneously
set up by the counselor, too, to sketch out a particular situation.
Case example: The counselor uses the cups and glasses sitting on the table during a session
with managers to demonstrate a difficult relationship between an employee and two man-
agers. She asks the participants to use the objects to show her how the structure could be
improved. In the end, the group transfers what is learned to everyday life by agreeing on
how communication can be better structured in the future.
Symbols are more likely to lead to projections and magical-playful interpretations
than any neutral wooden figures would (Schmitt, 2004), and the effect can be
increased if the counselor presents well-prepared materials. Here are two exam-
Animal figures: Especially when working with children one can use little plastic
or wooden animal figures instead of wooden figures. This method is derived
fromthe projective test Family as Animals or Magical Family (Brem-Grser,
2011; Kos &Biermann, 2002). In sculptures, a third dimension is added, which
brings with it the advantage that one can try out a series of different assemblies.
The family session described in Chapter 5.1.2 above, which included a family
sculpture based on Family of Animals, is a more physical form of the same
Finger puppets:
Finger puppets can be put on corks, with little magnets at-
tached, and placed on a metal board. The puppets can represent most anything
princes, queens, witches, knights, ghosts, villains, animals, etc. This not only
awakens childlike imagination in all of us, but also brings out whatever we pos-
192 5 Acting: Intervention and Accompanying Processes
5 Our thanks to Inge Liebel-Fryszer for this idea. These materials are well suited for
both children and managers.
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sess in terms of creativity, curiosity and humor and can lead to some very good
Working with such methods follows a similar pattern to working with sculptures:
Determine the mandate, set the theme, get permission to use symbolic materials.
Set up the system, describing it from the vantage point of the individual mem-
Let the image sink in, query participants about their impressions and feelings,
make corrections if necessary.
As in a fly-over inspection, take up different viewing positions, verbalize the
views of those involved (similar to walking around and through a sculpture).
Sound out any changes and ask: What changes can be made? What do the new
images look like? Which reactions and evaluations are to be expected?
Transfer to reality: What does this all mean for the future? How can we take the
first step toward implementing these insights?
Merl and Korosa (1981) describe so-called chair sculptures that can also help to
depict relationships in a system. This formof sculpturing is useful especially when
working with individuals. Chairs can represent social systems that are not present
at that moment. The distance between the chairs corresponds to the emotional
nearness or distance between the members of a system, while the position
(front/back) indicates the line of sight. Once the sculpture has been finished, the
counselor and the client can try out taking a seat on the various chairs. This lets
them feel the effect of that position and perspective (Merl & Korosa, 1981,
pp. 147 f.).
5.2.4 Working with Sculptures in Case Reviews
Case reviews are held in teams, workgroups, supervision or training groups in
order to take a closer look at relationship patterns. The members of such a group
assume the roles found in the system, and the counselor introducing the case
describes the system from his or her point of view. The various perspectives with-
in the system are then experienced and felt by all. During this process, system
patterns can be both seen and relived through the observation of the actors and
their feedback. This helps to understand the needs and standpoints of the indi-
vidual system members. One also gets a feeling for whether the version proffered
by the responsible counselor is indeed plausible or not: Does the group as a whole
experience the presented vision of the system as something coherent and consis-
Case example: In a youth welfare institution with both inpatient and outpatient facilities,
one problem that regularly crops is that an exploration is carried out by someone from the
inpatient section who later becomes responsible for the child and the childs family. This
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person is then in possession of a lot of information and can easily create hypotheses about
how counseling should continue. The other colleagues in the group, however, tend to have
less and sometimes other information and have difficulty promoting their own hypoth-
eses. The same problem of coordinating information and hypotheses in a particular case
occurs when a case is handed over from one section to another, for example, when youths
are moved from the emergency ward
to an external residential group, or when Social
Services take over a case from an external residential group. Many questions arise in such
situations: How can one best pass on information about the client system? How can those
giving and those receiving such information best exchange their working hypotheses con-
cerning the respective case?
The solution lies in creating a ritualized moderation of such sessions, during which the
current colleagues present a sculpture, assuming the roles of the family members, the help-
ers and institutions involved. The counselor who conducted the exploration or who is
passing the case on goes first in setting up a sculpture. He stands behind each figure in turn
and describes his take on how the respective person was involved in the problem, what
solutions were suggested, and what the institution can do to help. Everyone present can
step out of the assigned role and add to what has been said about that figure. Later, one
should plan for time to ask any questions the participants may have about the figures in
the sculpture. Anyone with a suggestion of what that figure (or institution) might answer
can come out of the sculpture, stand behind the figure and answer the question correspond-
ingly. Thus, the participants often have two roles in this phase of the discussion: that of the
helping employee and that of a figure in the sculpture. Once those present feel they have
gotten to know enough about the system, the sculpture is declared finished. In the next
phase, the hypotheses are compiled, and the group decides what emphasis to place, which
topics to focus on and, of course, who will do what.
Of course, the various forms of symbol sculptures described above and the Family
Board can also be used in case reviews or when forwarding cases to new teams.
5.2.5 Sculptures in Family Reconstructions
In family reconstructions, sculptures can often serve as starting points for
recognizing relationship patterns in the original family,
experiencing the solidarity present in earlier systems,
discovering what roles the other family members were forced to play.
Besides the protagonists family of origin (and sometimes the present family) one
can depict the parents families of origin as well, which creates understanding for
the patterns the parents have imported from their respective families. This, in
turn, allows one to viewrelationships as far back as three or even four generations
which can be a source of deep insight. Such reconstructions also allow the
194 5 Acting: Intervention and Accompanying Processes
6 The emergency group admits children and adolescents from acute situations. Such
actions, often initiated by Youth Services or the police, can take place at any time of
the day.
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protagonists to change relationships in existing contexts and to gain clarity or find
reconciliation with respect to the families of origin.
Our childhood experiences and interpretations form the basis of family con-
structions that include our father and mother. By reconstructing important scenes
from the family of origin in the form of sculptures we rejuvenate, as it were, old
experiences. When we swap roles with other persons in our family, when others
provide feedback on the sculpture, and when the reconstruction provides insight
into the relationship patterns of our parents original families, we have the chance
to expand the childhood points of view considerably. What we failed to see as a
child can now be re-seen and experienced more completely in the expanded re-
ality of the reconstructed families. Reconstructing the contexts of ones parents
and grandparents allows us to encounter and understand the interaction of the
forces active in the original family as well as the natural limits of the parents. This
makes possible new interpretations, deconstructions of previous viewpoints and
new approaches to ones original family. Feeling, understanding and accepting
past disappointments, unfulfilled expectations and deep-seated rage permits old
relationships to be resolved. This leads to changes in ones attitude toward ones
own parents, but also injects new elements into the relationships toward ones
present partner, children or colleagues.
Case example: Paula wants to work on her relationship to her 8-year-old daughter by par-
ticipating in a family reconstruction within a training group. She has the feeling that much
is positive about their relationship, but that some things such as a smooth transition from
closeness to autonomy just dont work: She has difficulty letting go and allowing her daugh-
ter to find her own way.
Paula sets up a sculpture of her family of origin with other participants from the group.
Her father and her older sister stand about 2 meters (6 feet) apart, the father looking
toward the older sister, who then takes a step away from the family and says to Paula: See,
it works! Paulas mother and Paula are standing about 4 m (13 ft) apart from each other,
the mother is holding Paula in her arm and saying: Youre just like me! The mother looks
at Paula, Paula looks at her father and then takes a step away from the family and says:
Ive gotta get out of here! The person playing Paula in the sculpture has the impulse to
walk out of the sculpture. Now Paula takes over the role of her mother and feels sad and
lonely, she starts to cry. She just cant let go of the daughter. In the role of the mother, she
is unable to take Paula into her arms, but cannot let go of her, either: She has so little in
life to comfort her. Paula, as the mother, wants to be held and supported herself. A member
of the group gets behind Paula, braces her up and holds her in her arm. Paula feels that
only by being held herself can her mother provide the necessary support for her daughter
and let go. Asked whether the mother had that support in her marriage or her family of
origin, Paula answers no. The mother received little attention and comfort from her own
mother (Paulas grandmother).
The group leader now asks Paula to enact the relationship of the mother to her own
parents (Paulas grandparents) for the time when she was a child herself. Paula puts the
grandfather on a chair. The grandmother stands in front of the chair and looks up to him
with great reverence. Paula assumes the position of the grandmother for a while and expe-
riences how the grandmother is fixated on her husband and how she is unable to even turn
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toward their daughter (Paulas mother). The grandfather provides a footing in life, the
protection and security that the grandmother did not enjoy as a child, her own mother
having died during the birth of her younger brother. The fathers new wife demanded from
him that the children be sent to another family, and so Paulas grandmother left her fathers
home at age 5, shortly after the death of her mother, not to return until 6 years later. The
new family did not show much love and had apparently taken on the children primarily
because of the money involved. Later, the relationship with the stepmother, too, became
strained. Paulas grandmother gained a sense of security only through her relationship with
her husband. She felt insecure toward her children and could provide them with little
After this reconstruction Paula says that stepping into the roles as she did had allowed
her to experience intensely how well the pattern of insufficient attention had been passed
on from one generation to another, from mother to daughter. At the same time, she had
felt that things could, in fact, be different, and that she had the desire not to pass on this
pattern to her own daughter. It isnt easy for her to be near her own daughter, but she still
wants it to try it. Her goal is to give her daughter closeness including physical closeness
as well as autonomy and to see to it that she as mother still has a life.
Background Text: Systemics and History
From a systemic perspective, existing relationship patterns are often used to
explain behavior. One first asks whether what is happening right now in the
family makes sense when seen from within the system interactions: How do
the behaviors in the system stabilize each other, how do they interact with
each other, how do they affect the systems problem? In systemic therapy, the
problem is understood from within the context not from within the person-
ality of one or more system members. In systemics, one is usually concerned
with the present and future. The past plays less of a role, but does occur as
part of the developmental process of a system.
In the above discussion on timelines and memory lanes and on taking a
family history, problem history and history of previous solutions we saw
that problems can be contextualized through the history of the system. The
background of a system today may be found in how it developed. In family
reconstructions, we deal with a pattern of explanation that presumes that the
context for problems lies in the past of the individuals involved. Certain be-
haviors and experiences used to be meaningful and important in the system,
and within that context they were seen by the individuals as solutions. In a
family reconstruction it is often assumed that the father and mother learned
certain patterns of shaping relationships and communication in their own
families of origin, and that these internalized patterns are influencing events
today. We may also arrive at this assumption when trying to explain the be-
havior of children in a childrens home or at school. This sort of explanation
is very tempting and often helpful. Strictly speaking, this is how one effects
a decontextualization and an individualization of the problem. The assump-
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5.2.6 Systemic Structural Constellations
As with the Family Board or sculptures, figures can also represent abstract as-
pects and not just persons: goals, tasks, diseases, feelings, decision options, the
inner team (various opinions in inner conflicts), views on a particular matter,
inner voices, etc. The grandmothers anxiety can be given a physical form, al-
coholism can be depicted by a bottle, the stinky monster (from encopresis
problems, see below Chapter 5.8) can be visualized with a puppet, internal
drives and convictions (Give it your all, Dont show weakness, Business
before pleasure) can be symbolized. These extensions of the sculpture concept
were developed early on by Matthias Varga von Kibd and Insa Sparrer (2011),
who combined the various methods into the concept of systemic structural con-
stellations and then went on to develop their ideas against a new theoretical
and methodological background. Their work goes back to four origins: the re-
construction and sculpture work of Virginia Satir, the hypnotherapy of Erik
Erickson, the various previous family constellations (of Thea Schnfelder, Ruth
McClendon, Les Kadis, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and Bert Hellinger) as well as
the solution-oriented methods and positions of Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim
Berg. These structural constellations were consciously conceived as systemic-
constructivistic procedures: The group leaders generally refrain from providing
interpretations, provocations or prognoses. The following are a few examples
of how this is implemented:
Making decisions: Setting up the various options in the room, according to the
criterion of how conceivable they actually are for the client. If necessary, the
protagonist can provide the individual options with phrases. The protagonist
then wanders around within the set-up, looking for a good place to situate him-
self, sometimes even debating with the options.
tion, however, presumes that at some point in the past there was a context
in which the behavior would have made sense. This behavior, so one assumes,
has now become grounded in the individual as a pattern.
Another common way of explaining things in a reconstruction is to pre-
sume that our images were constructions of our families of origin from the
perspective of children and thus suffer from the very limited processing
capacity of a childs brain. These images are additionally colored by the per-
spective of the observer, who has a certain role and position within the fa-
milial relationship structure. Attempting family reconstruction in a group,
and thus having the group correct childlike perceptions from an adult per-
spective, allows one to readjust old family portraits. This can make them
more functional and one should hope wiser. In this regard, too, we trust
that deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction will expand our behav-
ioral range in the here and now.
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Tetralemma work (acc. to Varga von Kibd & Sparrer, 2011): When the client
has to choose between two alternatives, four different positions are set up in the
room (symbolizing the possibility of choosing the one, the other, both or
neither). The protagonist goes from position to position and tries to discern
what they have to say by gauging own feelings or moods, and what that alterna-
tive would mean if indeed realized. Especially the two positions both and nei-
ther trigger interesting processes.
Finding ones role as manager in the midst of many demands: The dilemma of
being confronted with the demands of many different persons at once (similar
to 360-degree feedback: superiors, coworkers, colleagues, customers, the gener-
al public) is set up in the room. The protagonist supplies each position with
phrases for their explicit and implicit demands. The protagonist debates with
them and decides which demands to give in to, which to reject and which need
modification (see also the Mandate Carousel, Chapter 4.1.7).
Values and models (acc. to A. Williams, 2001, personal communication): De-
termining the fundamental values, tenets and principles of an organization and
personalizing them with the help of representatives and the protagonist, who
then discuss them with each other and with relevant external entities (custom-
ers, suppliers, public, sponsors, users, etc.).
Problemconstellation (Varga von Kibd &Sparrer, 2011): Setting up a problem
with all its different aspects: goal(s), obstacles, resources, potential gain if the
goal is reached, implicit gain if everything stays as it is.
Forcefield analysis: Setting up the supportive and obstructive forces in a current
or planned project. 5.3 CircularQuestioning
5.3 Circular Questioning
In addition to action-based interventions, asking questions is one of the most
basic tools we have in systemic therapy. In the following section, we provide some
suggestions on how best to illuminate systems and how to trigger change by ask-
ing questions. Taking a look at the various methods, constructions and possible
courses through inquiry allows us to develop our own repertoire of standard ques-
tions to ask our clients.
Yet, we are on very thin ice when we speak of circular questioning, since it
is a term for which there is no official definition. For this reason, we begin by
presenting some background information and then turn to suggestions for clas-
sification and examples of questions taken fromthe literature and trainings. Next,
we combine these with our own ideas concerning classification gathered through
our own experience. We will not always be able to name the exact origin of the
classification or example questions and do not claim that all examples are our
own original ideas. Our main goal is to impart information regarding this tool
and not to recount the history of circular questioning.
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5.3.1 How to Construct Circular Questions
Below, we list three characteristics used to construct circular questions. We invite
the reader to take a closer look at how such questions are formed.
Circular questioning is aimed at the interactions within a system, especially the
interactions between a problem/symptom and the context in which that problem
occurs, i.e.:
the relationships of a systems members and their differences,
their points of view toward and thoughts about the past, the present and the
events in the past and present,
reactions to events and differences in those reactions.
In systemic therapy we contextualize problems and thus purposefully disturb the
viewpoints of the system members, who tend to see their problems or symptoms
on an individual level. Circular questions are perfect for this task. That is why
they can rightfully be considered the core tenet of systemic work.
Case example: Lets take a closer look at the example introduced in Chapter 3.1.2 Pauls
family in connection with his laziness. There, we explained how to contextualize this
problem and how to decontextualize it. Table 11 lists some of the questions one could ask.
Table 11: Contextualizing and decontextualizing questions.
Example questions concerning Paul is lazy
Decontextualizing the problem Contextualizing the problem
To the parents: Can Paul concentrate on
something for longer period of time? How
long can he do that?
To Paul: Paul, who in your family gets up-
set the most when you get a note from
school saying you havent done your home-
work? Who the least?
To the parents: Is Paul restless? Can he sit
still for a longer period of time? How long,
To the mother: What do you think how
does your husband view Pauls schoolwork?
To Paul: Why do you do so little school
To Paul: What would happen between your
mother and your father if you were to come
home with an F on your report card?
To the father: If you ask Paul to bring four
things from the kitchen, how many does he
actually bring?
To Paul: What would you have to do to
really get into deep trouble at home because
of your homework and schoolwork?
To the family: Has an intelligence test ever
been done with Paul?
To Paul: Lets assume you suddenly got
good grades in school. Who would be the
happiest at home about that?
To the parents: What did the teachers in
kindergarten say about Pauls abilities and
his development?
To Paul: How would you have to spend
your free time in order to make your moth-
er happy?
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This is not to say that the questions in the left column are not fitting or poor. Rather,
they tend to decontextualize and emphasize Pauls characteristics and skills. However, if we
want to contextualize Pauls laziness, then such questions achieve the opposite of what
were actually striving for. To that end, we should stick to the questions in the right-hand
column of the table (see Chapter 5.3.2 for a list of circular questions according to content).
Background Text: Whats So Circular About Circular Questioning?
Circularity is an attitude or an approach to looking at things that reciprocally
affect each other. A has an effect on B, B then influences A at which point
everything starts from the beginning. Where the process began can no longer
be determined. Graphically, we are dealing with a circular process with nei-
ther beginning nor end. What happens is the result of reciprocity (interac-
tion) between those persons or events concerned. An action is the conse-
quence of previous processes and simultaneously the cause of further actions.
Any attempt by an observer or participant of the system to define a starting
point is purely arbitrary (Watzlawick et al., 2011a, p. 57 ff.). We can experi-
ence this when working with systems in many different situations: The quar-
rel in the schoolyard and the unavoidable question Who started the fight?
is one example. Or the couple that has drifted apart and asks How did it all
start? What came first, the husbands withdrawal or the wifes nagging?
Circularity is the opposite of what we call linear, where it is clear that A is
the cause and B is the result: First, the wife nagged, then her husband with-
drew (or the other way around?)! Graphically, this may be depicted as a line
with clear cause and effect marking the two poles, on which the events are
all lined up like pearls on a necklace.
Within the circular approach, we study reciprocities interactions: The
wifes discontent and the husbands withdrawal condition and reinforce
each other. The circular approach allows us to view the events in their
context and not removed from their context. The circular approach con-
textualizes events: The husbands withdrawal is not a result of his character
as such, but has to do with his life situation (his marriage, his job, his
family of origin). Similarly, his wifes discontent is not founded in her char-
acter but in her life context.
In its original work (Selvini Palazzoli et al., 1981, pp. 132 f.), the Milan
team notes that, by asking circular questions, a counselor dives straight into
the systems reciprocity. The counselors question is the result of his or her
previous perception of that system and the hypotheses drawn from that per-
ception. At the same time, the question effects new processes both within the
system and in the interaction between counselor and client, thus leading to
new insights. The counselor then either drops an assumption, changes it or
feels it confirmed, before proceeding to develop new questions. The process
occurring between counselor and system is itself circular. What came first
the information about the system or the counselors intervention/question?
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Gossiping about present company
A further way to construct circular questioning is to ask family members to say
what another family member would say or do in a particular situation. The an-
swers to such questions describe the interactions between two family members
at a certain juncture or they speculate about the thoughts and feelings of others.
Since such questions often concern three people, they can be referred to as triadic
questions. Sometimes they are called gossiping about present company (von
Perhaps some behavior on the part of the counselor led the client to react in
a certain way which caused the counselor to form a hypothesis.
But there is another reason these questions are called circular. Circular
questions are interesting with regard to
the relationships of the system members and their interactions,
the differences in the members mutual relationships and the results there-
the differences in their reactions to each other,
the differences in their reactions to the problem,
the differences in their points of view,
possible connections between earlier events in the systemand the problem,
and, above all, again and again: the mutual reciprocities of all these factors
taken together.
A problem is insolubly connected to the context. Its causes lie within the
system context, which itself contributes to the the systems current form. The
context, too, is part of the systems cycles. According to Tomm(1988, quoted
after Palmowski & Thne, 1995), a question is not a circular question be-
cause of its semantic content or syntactical structure, but rather because of
the therapeutic intention of employing it. This means asking questions to
explore the interactions both within the system as well as between the prob-
lem and the interactions in the system, and making them available to both
counselor and client. Another aspect of the same thought is that such ques-
tions implicitly point toward the connection between an event, a problemand
their respective context.
Neither suggestion on how to define circularity enables us to make a de-
finitive decision as to whether a particular question is circular or not if the
question is viewed independent of the context in which it was posed. A lone
question does not reveal, for example, whether the asker
was in a reciprocal relationship with the system the moment it was being
asked (Milan group), or whether he
had the intention of elucidating the reciprocities present (Tomm).
Taken together, these two positions provide a pragmatic description of circu-
lar questioning.
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Schlippe & Schweitzer, 2007, p. 142). Table 12 juxtaposes some circular ques-
tions and their direct counterparts. If we recall the definitions given above for
circular questioning, then the questions in the two columns of Table 12 become
clear: They all contextualize the problem Paul is lazy. Why must it be as com-
plicated as on the right-hand side of the table if things could be much easier and
more direct, as the left-hand side suggests?
In the Background Text of Chapter 2.3.2, under the title Differences Are
Information Information Makes Change Possible, we dealt with the systemic
tenet that systems only change through information. By introducing gossip about
present company, we generate much more information than we would with di-
rect questions.
An example: If we ask the father about his opinion on Pauls schoolwork, we
probably get the official version of the problem, well-known to all family mem-
bers from past discussions. No one except the counselor learns anything new
Table 12: Gossiping about present company and direct questions
Direct questions Gossip about present company
To all: Here we have a line running
through the room. This stands for a scale:
One end means 10 = I get really upset at
Paul when he doesnt do his homework. Im
mad as hell. The other end means 1 = It
doesnt really bother me if he doesnt do his
homework. Actually, Im completely un-
fazed. Please mark on the scale where your
position is regarding this matter.
To Paul: Paul, who in your family gets up-
set the most when you get a note from
school saying you havent done your home-
work? Who the least? Please put your par-
ents on this line, which represents a scale
from 10 = I get really upset at Paul when
he doesnt do his homework. Im mad as
hell to 1 = It doesnt really bother me if he
doesnt do his homework. Actually, Im com-
pletely unfazed.
To the father: How do you see Pauls
To the mother: What do you think how
does your husband see Pauls schoolwork?
To the father: How do your react toward
your wife when Paul comes home with an
To the mother: How do your react toward
your husband when Paul comes home with
an F?
To Paul: What would happen between your
mother and your father if you were to come
home with an F?
To Paul: What would you have to do to
cause your mother and father to really quar-
rel with each other?
To the father: What would Paul have to do
to cause you to get into a quarrel with your
To the mother: What would Paul have to
do to cause you to get into a quarrel with
your husband?
To all: Who of you believe that he or she
would be the happiest if Paul suddenly were
to do well in school?
To Paul: Lets assume you suddenly got
good grades in school. Who would be the
happiest at home about that?
To the mother: How could Paul make you
To Paul: What would you have to do to
make your mother happy?
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from the fathers answer. But only new pieces of information can trigger change.
On the other hand, if we ask the mother what she thinks the husbands position
on the problem is, then
she has to deal with whether or not she should simply repeat the official ver-
she has to ask herself whether or not she should report other things shes ob-
served in her husbands behavior as well as how she interprets his entire behav-
ior toward the problem;
she has to ask herself whether or not her own position toward the problem and
that of her husband are identical and where the differences lie;
her husband may wonder how she will answer, i.e., he is concerned with how
she sees him;
her husband may have to deal with her speaking her mind and howshe will treat
such critical matters, how loyal she will be toward him during counseling;
Paul may also wonder how loyal his mother will be toward him during counsel-
the father can, on the basis of the mothers answer, check how correct his ap-
praisal of her loyalty was;
the father will be particularly interested in whether what she thinks about him
is in line with what he had previously assumed she thought about him;
Paul will gain some insight into the relationship between his parents and deter-
mine whether that information agrees with what he had previously known;
everyone will start thinking about how the problem is related to the parents
Gossip about present company unleashes a flood of information into a system.
And remember: How should a system that is in counseling change if not through
new information? This is why systemic counselors so often ask clients or other
participants such complicated and irritating questions.
But there is another aspect of these questions that irritates clients: Clients are
not used to, and sometimes shy away from, speaking about people present in the
room, about their presumed thoughts and their relationships.
This type of question initially causes a dilemma in the persons who are sup-
posed to answer. Sometimes they dont understand the question, sometimes they
think the question is strange, sometimes theyre unsure what is being demanded
of them. The counselor should give them time to process the question or, if nec-
5.3 Circular Questioning 203
7 R. Laing dealt extensively with what people think other people think about them. Or
what they imagine that others think that they think about themselves . . . He described
this approach poetically in a volume entitled Knots (1972) and later as a complete
scientific thesis in Laing et al. (1966).
8 Selvini Palazzoli et al. (1981) hint that they think this taboo is found only, or at least
prevalently, in families that have developed problems. It is our observation that the
reticence to talk about people in the room is present in all types of social systems.
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essary, explain the question in more detail. But we, as counselors, should not
consider the question strange or think the clients too dumb to answer our won-
derful circular questions. Usually, it just takes some time and patience to allow
the clients to become accustomed to voicing such gossip.
This method has a number of different forms. Here are some examples along
with suggestions of purposes they are best suited for.
Reading someone elses mind
This type of question is posed to a system member to discover what that person
thinks about another system member:
If I were to pose this question to your wife, what do you think she would
answer? Tell me, Karen, why is your mother crying?
If I were to ask your colleague how the relationship between you and her has
been since our last session, what do you think she would tell me?
If your husband were here now, what do you think he would say?
Robert, what do you think your teachers explanation of your problematic be-
havior is? Addressed to the teacher: Why do you think Robert comes to class
late? What do you think Robert would say to this answer?
If these questions are asked in the presence of the person in question, we can be
sure that everyone is paying attention. At the same time, we can assess and further
develop the members capacity for empathy. We slow down the dynamics of the
conversation with such questions. The clients are reintroduced to the experience
of their enemy listening to them and at least trying to understand them. Misun-
derstandings are cleared up, allowing curiosity to develop about what the others
are thinking and how they see the world.
Turning characteristics into behavioral differences
These questions look at behavior, not traits:
How does your colleague manage to turn everything into chaos in the team?
What do the grandparents do that makes them so crabby?
What does he do so little of? instead of When is he so lazy?
In what situations does Susie upset her family with her strange stories? instead
of When does Susie lie?
Traits or characteristics are something you either have or dont have. They are
embedded in your personality, and it is questionable whether they can ever be
changed and if so, only after long and hard work! Thus, progress lies not in
dealing with traits, but with behavior, for behavior can be changed. Behavior is
something that happens between people; everyone present is involved. And we
can study how this behavior arose or what must happen to cause different be-
If we treat behavior as a trait, we invite a multitude of different interpretations
as well as many unverified assumptions. It can be helpful to reverse this process.
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In doing so, we allows people who have been assigned certain traits to understand
what the others mean when they say, He is . . . The problem becomes more
concrete and free of interpretations and implicit assumptions.
Comparative Questions
This means asking about any changes that have occurred in the relationships or
behavior patterns within the system, or about any connections between the prob-
lem and recent situations or events:
When did problem concerning cooperation in the team get worse? When was
it better? Id like to hear several different opinions.
When is the father so depressive? When is he less depressive?
In which situations are you happier?
Nowadays, does your husband support you more or less than he did in the
These questions make clients aware of differences that they may not have regis-
tered on their own. As such, they resemble questions concerning exceptions: They
contextualize the problem by triggering ideas about how the problem may be
related to other events.
Classification and scaling questions
These questions look at the differences between system members and typical
changes in the family constellation:
Who gets along best with mother? Who second best? And then?
Who is best at cheering up father when hes depressed?
Who was happiest with the earlier therapy? Who was second happiest? And
With this method, we can ask a member of the system to present his or her per-
ceptions. These questions can also be staged by drawing a line in the room repre-
senting a scale.
Case example: Taken fromwork with the family of a depressive father. The counselor marks
off two points in the room with two objects about 10 feet apart. This side of the scale
stands for Is best at cheering up father. He gets really happy and can forget his depression
for a while. That would represent a ten on our scale. The other end stands for Fathers
depression gets worse, turns into a real mental illness. That would represent a one on our
scale. Bettina, could you please put your family on this scale. Physically place them directly
on the scale. And will the others please join in. After Bettina has set the stage or arranged
a sculpture, the counselor says to the other family members: What do you think of Bettinas
view? What would you do differently?
Classification questions can be implemented when working on decisions or posi-
tions, the goal being to classify viewpoints according to their position on a scale:
Case example: Mr. Miller, lets try and visualize in a three-dimensional form your position
regarding a possible job change. This line on the ground represents a scale, the one end of
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which means: Ill quit. Better that I go earlier than later. Well assign it the value of ten.
The other end stands for: No, I wont quit. The risk is too high, I cant do that. Have to
bite my lip and suffer through it. That would be one on the scale. What value did you have
this morning when you woke up? How did you notice that you had that value? What
thoughts were part of the assessment? When was the last time you thoughts were a one on
our scale? How did you notice this? What was the situation? What thoughts were you
having? When were you last at a ten on the scale? Howdid you notice it? In what situation
was this? What would have to happen to stay at a five on the scale?
These questions classify inner states and connect them with various contexts.
which makes such inner processes more concrete and contextualized a great
relief to some. Another variation is to ask for judgments and classifications in
Case example: Mr. Miller, I know you cant make your decision right now. It just isnt ripe
yet. Thats why youre here at couples therapy. But, this morning, what percentage of you
was in favor of separation and what percentage of you was for staying together? What was
the situation yesterday? And the day before that? Lets try to come to an average for the
entire past week. Mrs. Miller, what do you think, how did your percentages look on the
days of the past week?
Questions of agreement and disagreement
Such questions are useful for elucidating the situation within a system for all to
see: What interests, parties, coalitions and alliances are present concerning the
individual themes?
When Mr. Miller voices his opinion, who from the teamsupports himand who
is against him? Who sees things his way, who sees things differently?
Who in the family is of the opinion that your mother and your brother are closer
to each other than all others?
Who is of the opinion that Pattys borderline disorder is congenital and who
thinks that it has more to do with her development and upbringing? Carl, what
do you think? Are your thoughts more in line with . . .?
During a team counseling session: I notice most of you agree. Many are appar-
ently of the same opinion as the boss! Are there any dissenters?
In a family counseling session: Some of the opinions expressed here seemto say
that the father is not consistent enough. What do the others think about this
One could, of course, simply proceed by setting up a sculptured staging and ask-
ing a member of the system to put everyone in groups, thus creating a very clear
picture of the subsystems and fractions. The next step would be having the usual
interactions, accusations, reproaches and statements exchanged between the var-
ious parties in this constellation.
These questions can turn up hidden but vaguely known power plays. Everyone
can see which ritualized interactions are holding the system back and how a
change in the political equilibrium could help the system.
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Comparison of subsystems
Here, the focus is on differences in the functions of various system members:
From conflict counseling at a workplace: When Ms. Smith has had a fight with
her boss, who among the colleagues does she go to? What is the meaning of
this group? Howdoes this group support Ms. Smith? Howdoes the boss
deal with the situation and with this subgroup? Who else intervenes if things
get out of hand?
From family counseling: If your brother wants more allowance, who would he
ask, your mother or your father? What would your mother (father) do if your
father (mother) agreed to a higher allowance? And what would you do?
From couples counseling: If you are having a fight, what are the children doing
during this time? How do they react?
From family counseling: Who worries more about the grandparents, the par-
ents, the children? How do you notice that? What do the worriers usu-
ally do when they are worrying? How do the others react to the worriers?
This, too, brings the subsystems to the surface, similar to the questions of agree-
ment and disagreement. The political aspect is not the main point, but rather the
functions of the subgroups and how their combination causes change and typical
interaction patterns in the system.
What if . . .
Another group of questions concerns what might be possible: chances, rough
drafts, the hypothetical. Examples of such questions can be found in Chapter
5.3.2 below. Basically, they ask what life would be like if
a solution were available,
an improvement were present,
the problem had gotten worse,
something else had occurred.
These scenarios should be worked out on a concrete level in order to bring the
clients to concern themselves with them. Here, too, we are dealing primarily with
the context of a problem, the temporal context of the future in light of some sort
of change and its repercussions. The change can be realistic or not imagination
is whats required here in order to learn more about the system, the contexts and
possible solutions.
Clients may become a little irritated at these questions and consider them a
waste of time. Some think working on a problem means dealing at long length
with the suffering. Any method that proceeds without this sort of examination is
thus immediately suspicious its too easy, too playful almost. Some may feel they
and their problems are not being taken seriously when the counselor suggests
that they daydream and speculate about a brave new world. Their comments
show what they think about such nonsense: If I were the king of the forest . . .
Of course, there are also counselors who are not especially attuned to such
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approaches. Havent we learned that all medicine must be bitter? Doesnt healing
happen through suffering, salvation through sacrifice?
Once again: The most important thing is ones own conviction that the path
one is taking can be effective. And it is necessary to be critical toward ones own
preconceptions of how healing, deliverance and salvation can occur. One has to
be steadfast and not be irritated by the clients irritation. Invite the clients to come
along and motivate them to go down this new path. It might be helpful to explain
how and why a particular path can lead to solutions. Yet there are also contexts
and situations in which problems are simply problems and have to be recognized
as such (see the Background Text Solutions Are Important and so Are Prob-
lems at the beginning of Chapter 5).
Background Text: How Circular Questioning Works
What do systemic counselors think circular questioning actually achieves?
First, we can point to two effects already mentioned in the previous chapter:
Circular questioning produces a cascade of new information on the relation-
ships among the clients. This information, in turn, changes the perceptions
of all those involved: Some old perceptions are deconstructed so that new
ones can be constructed. Changed perception enables changed behavior.
Circular questioning contextualizes the problem. The cause of the problem
is no longer thought to be located within any one system member. This
motivates everyone to concern themselves with the relationships that exist
and, if possible, to do something about them.
There are, of course, other ways to effect change that also involve circular
Circular questions are also reframings!
Perspective changing is also furthered when a question indirectly injects new
ideas for everyone to ponder. Every question contains assumptions that flow
into the conversation. Questions can even be used pointedly to introduce new
ideas. They change the frame of reference of the system they reframe the
system (see Chapter 5.4.3). In the following, we present some examples of
reframing that are indirectly contained in circular questioning.
The contextualized framing of the problem: Circular questioning is based on
the assumption that every problem is connected to the context rather than
individual traits. If we ask circular questions, the system members will auto-
matically adopt these implicit assumptions and discover other hints that point
in that direction. The counselor must not openly introduce a new thesis.
Rather, after a longer circular conversation most clients will have discovered
the connection on their own and are convinced of the thesis based on the
previous discussion.
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The good in the bad: A problem is often observed only from the troublesome
vantage point, ignoring the value and advantages it may offer to some or all
individuals involved.
Case example: Old construction: The mother repeatedly comes down with a psycho-
vegetative fatigue syndrome. She and her entire family suffer during these times. She
is irritable, short-fused, has nervous breakdowns, cries and screams a lot. Clearly,
something has to change. Reframing: Who first notices that mother is getting irritable
because she takes such good care of her family? Who is relieved the most when
she takes too much care of her family? When mother is taking such good care of
her family, who is she helping most even though we all know that she shouldnt be
doing so much for the family because it makes her so irritable and exhausted?
Case example: Old construction: Paul is lazy at school, which is a bad thing and has to
be changed. Reframing: Who in the family wouldbenefit fromrebelling like Paul against
the pressure to excel and become overworked? Lets assume your parents no longer
had any reason to fight about Pauls laziness. What would they fight about then?
Turning victims into culprits
Case example: Old construction: Father suffers from depression. Reframing: When
does father decide to become depressive? What would he have to do to be depres-
sive tomorrow?
Case example: Old construction: Everyone in the family is always upset about Peter.
He makes mistakes, cant concentrate, loses things. Reframing: What else could Peter
do to get this much attention? Lets assume it was a contest of who the family
worries about most. What place would Peter win with his behavior?
Turning traits or things into behavior or action
Case example: Old construction: Paul is lazy. Reframing: How does Paul do his lazi-
ness thing? What does he do when hes being lazy? Reframing: Lets assume he
wanted to act as though hes being lazy. What would he have to do in order for his
mother to notice and get upset with him, just like she usually does? What would be
the quickest way for him to achieve this?
Case example: Old construction: One of the colleagues, Mr. Miller, is such an insensitive
person. His behavior puts a strain on the overall cooperation in the workgroup. Refram-
ing: Please list some of the little things Mr. Miller did within the past 3 days that made
you notice how insensitive he really is? In these situations, what would he have had
to do to make you think: Hes not as insensitive as we thought he was! Are there also
things that he does that make you notice that he does have a sensitive side?
All of these questions imply new ideas that, at least in part, contradict the
previous constructions of the system. Every question transports some implicit
assumption. The decontextualized questions in Table 11 carry with them the
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assumption that the problem lies within the nature of the person and not in
the context. By addressing the system with such questions, we direct the at-
tention in this direction and automatically stabilize this way of seeing things.
When we, as experts, ask the systemquestions with implicit assumptions, this
position gains weight and truth within the system because of our status as
experts. Of course, we are manipulating the system in this manner some-
thing that can hardly be avoided. This is why we should use this method both
consciously and responsibly.
Circular questioning gently tests the counselors hypotheses
Fromthe systems reactions the counselor can judge howhis or her assumptions
and hypotheses fit the system. A sequence of questions usually serves to test a
hypothesis. Such hypothesis-generated questions have the advantage of causing
the members of the system to also start deal with the counselors hypothesis.
They think along the same lines and become interested in whether the implica-
tions of the hypothesis are, indeed, true. The clients can decide for themselves
what conclusions to draw, without having to take a public stand on matters. This
saves the counselor from confronting the system directly with the hypotheses,
and it saves the clients from having to openly take a stand. Often it suffices to
end the sessions by asking what the individuals take-home message is.
The utility of what-if questions
This type of question makes counseling easier and more creative, and it al-
lows us to determine the interactions between the problem and the context.
It can be traced back to solution-oriented short therapy as propagated by
Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and others in the 1970s and 1980s. It is
based on the conviction that
a conversation about problems causes more problems, whereas a conver-
sation about solutions brings forth solutions;
solutions do not necessarily have anything to do with the problems at hand,
and a lengthy and detailed analysis of the problem does not necessarily
produce a lot of suggestions for a possible solution;
it is easy to lose your way in the complexity of the problem without ever
finding the exit, whereas solutions are often relatively easy to find.
Whether one pushes the problem aside or devotes much time and effort to the
problem in systemic counseling, what-if questions are always useful because
they actively help to construct solution scenarios. Ideas for solution at least in
the minds of the clients become more probable and more conscious. Dealing
intensively with a problemcan, of course, lead to a fixation on the troubles. The
problem can suck us in without our ever coming closer to solving it. A more
relaxed and creative atmosphere is helpful in finding solutions. Above all: The
solution must first be thought of before it can be executed.
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5.3.2 Problem and Resource Contexts: Using Circular Questions
How does one best use the above-mentioned forms of questioning when working
on problems and systemresources? The following classification of discussion top-
ics also contains some suggestions for organizing conversations. However, one
need not work through the individual discussion topics in a certain order. Rather,
they can be addressed depending on the situation and the counselors hypothesis.
Some of the listed question categories may fit the exploration. We also provide
some comments concerning how to best construct circular questions.
Description of the problem and the participants
It is worth taking time at the beginning to investigate exactly what the problem
is and who is concerned with it. We ask the participants how the problem arose,
from what or from whose behavior. And we ask what other people would say the
problem is.
When, how often and where does the problem occur?
When and where does it not occur?
Who is more and who is less affected by it?
In whose presence does the problem occur?
In whose presence does the problem not occur?
Who is affected or involved?
Who would deny that there even is a problem?
Questions such as those discussed in the section above, Turning characteristics
into behavioral differences, are very useful here. Further, we can pose agree-
ment/disagreement questions as well as questions comparing subsystems and
gossiping about present company.
Case example: Claudia, could you please set up your family members in a row. At the one
end, put the person from your family toward whom your brother Peter is most hurtful,
angry and quick-tempered. At the other end, put the person toward whom he shows this
behavior the least. Thank you, Claudia. Can you now please tell me why you chose
them as you did? That is, give me some examples of how Peter acts toward your father and
why you think that is especially hurtful, angry or quick-tempered.
Case example: In conflict counseling of a team: So that I have a better understanding of
the situation, Mr. Mason, could you please reveal once again who from the team would say
the following: Karen sees to it that she isnt overworked, andthat is a problemfor everyone.
And who would say: The way she does things is OK its fair toward others, and I can
live with that.
Case example: Or on another topic: You say that the information flow is not functioning
properly, and that this is a problem. Lets look at that more closely. Ms. Clear, can you please
set up a rank order of teamcolleague pairs that represent the perfect data gravesites. Choose
pairs of colleagues between whom information even the important stuff is quite likely
to get lost. For the other end of the scale, pick out those pairs that rarely allow information
to get lost between them. Of course, some colleagues may be present in more than one
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The miracle question, which we discuss in detail below, can also be posed to make
the problem more concrete:
If a miracle were to occur within the next fewweeks, howwould you notice that
the problem had been?
The dance around the golden symptom
Symptoms and the symptomatic persons in a system tend to create typical, recur-
ring interaction rituals that give the symptom a special meaning. That is what we
mean by dance around the golden symptom. In a real dance, the dance steps
are well-known to the dancers who have to keep up the proper rhythm. The same
is true for symptoms. Sometimes the image of a theatrical play is also helpful:
The counselor discusses with the participants what makes up the first act, the
second act, etc., as well as how to structure the beginning, the climax and the
course of the play. To investigate such dances, or plays, the following questions
have proved useful:
Who reacts most to the problem? Who reacts the least? (comparative/classifi-
cation and scaling questions)
How do the others react to the problem? (agreement/disagreement questions)
How does the affected person react to the reactions of the others? (can we iden-
tify a cycle, an interaction pattern?)
How do the others behave toward each other when the problem occurs? (What
type of dance do we find?)
Case example: From family therapy: Ms. Mayer, we now have an idea of how your son
Peter has been acting, so hurtful, angry and quick-tempered. Your daughter Claudia placed
as opposite ends of a scale the person he treats this way the most and the person he treats
this way the least. Everyone agrees that Peter acts this way most toward his father. How
does your husband generally react to Peters behavior? And Peter what does Peter do
then? Claudia, do you see things the way your mother does or would you describe the
situation differently? Peter, what have you noticed about the way Claudia and your
mother act while youre busy with your father? Mr. Mayer, do you agree with Peter or
do you observe something different about your wife and Claudia when you and Peter are
so intensely occupied with each other?
Case example: From conflict counseling of a team: Mr. Thomson, if a part of the team is
of the opinion that your colleague Karen is too easy on herself and successfully avoids doing
more work, how do these colleagues react? How could one notice that they are of this
opinion that something is askew, as often is the case? What does Karen do then?
And how do the colleagues of that fraction react? And Karen, what does she do next?
The other colleagues, those who do not think that Karen is unfairly avoiding work, what
do they do in such situations? And what do you observe what effect does that have
on Karen and the other colleagues? Do they react or not? And how do they react?
One way to continue working on the dance around the golden symptom is to
look at all the exceptions to the way things normally go including gossiping
about present company:
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Do things always develop that way or are there exceptions?
What do these exceptions look like?
Which exception is more positive and which more negative than the usual
What does the person affected by the problem do differently than usual? Does
anyone have any hunches about when and why that person does things differ-
What do the dance partners do differently? Do they have any hunches about
when and why they do things differently?
Case example: From couples therapy: Ms. B., we have now discovered how arguments
with your husband continue to escalate until you once again reach the point at which you
want to get a divorce and he leaves the apartment for a few hours to cool off. But do things
sometimes go differently? This rare course, as you say, is more agreeable to you. What
does your husband do differently in these situations? Why do you think he is able or
wants to act differently in such situations? Mr. B., what does your wife do differently
in these rare situations? Under what conditions does she act that way? What have
you both learned from our discussion about the exceptions to the usual dance you both
take part in? I would like each of you to answer for him- or herself.
Part of working on the normal (and sometimes awful) dance around the golden
problem may be asking the partners what would have to happen for them to
stop their usual dance and try some new steps. Then we employ a well-known
Case example: From family therapy: Claudia, we have now learned that your father some-
times reacts less intensely to Peters provocations and that this leads to a better result.
What do you think your fathers needs from your mother, from Peter or from you to be
able to react that way? Do the others agree or do you have any other ideas on this?
Mr. Mayer, is what Claudias saying correct? And Peter, do you also think that way?
Ms. Mayer, we have now learned that Peter does not always have to provoke your
husband and counter your husbands reaction so fiercely. What could your husband and
you, Claudia, do to help Peter decide not to react so strongly? Peter, what do you,
yourself, think would help you? And what, on the other hand, would cause you to react
We use this variation very conventionally to eliminate symptoms, though there
may be good reasons for things to stay the way they are. This is why one should
not repeatedly head down this path if previous attempts have failed. Here, as so
often in life, we should think of Watzlawicks words: More of the same usually
leads nowhere if previous attempts were unsuccessful.
The past: Problem history
Asking about the history of the problem tells us something about both the origin
and the course of the problem and gives us numerous hints about the best and
worst contextual conditions. Thus, we ask various members of the system the
following questions to obtain a variety of descriptions:
How and when did the behavior first appear?
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Who was the first to call it a problem? Who was next? And then?
Was anything special going on at the time (strained life situation or relation-
Did something happen shortly before or during the development of the prob-
Were the reactions to the problem back then different than they are now?
For this purpose we use special classification, scaling and comparison questions.
Case examples: How did your wife react when your child first was so afraid that she
couldnt sleep alone in her own room? And your husband, how did he react at that
point? Was your reaction to your daughters refusal to stay in her own room alone
different back then than it is today? What and why did you begin to react as you do
today? Do you think your wife was the reason for reacting differently to the situation?
What did your husband do back then when you changed your reaction to your daughters
Here, too, as in most systemic work, we are interested in the exceptions to the
rule, in order to learn together with the client how the problem can best be
In which phases (how long and when) did the problem recede or cease to exist
What were you and others doing differently during such phases?
How did you manage not to let the problem occur at certain times?
Howdo other things in your life change when the problemrecedes or disappears
during such phases?
The goal of such questioning is to connect the absence of symptoms and success-
ful coping with certain contextual circumstances. This allows us to take a closer
look at how certain contexts positively impact the problem. Here, too, one can
close the conversation with the question of what those concerned can learn from
the past.
Exploring previous problem-solving attempts
We consider this avenue to be especially important with chronified problems
since many different professional helpers must usually be brought into the picture
(see Chapter 3.3.3). But there are other situations in which it can be equally
helpful to explore with the system which steps have already been taken in the
past and what the results of these efforts were.
What have you tried on your own to solve the problem? What attempts were
made and what did you learn from them (both negative and positive)?
What did others in your environment do to solve the problem? Describe the
attempts and what you learned from the attempts of others?
What professional helpers have been involved to date?
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Who invited the helpers? When? Why?
What was the result?
What did the other helpers have to say about the problem? What did you learn
from previous helpers?
How and by whom were these previous contacts ended?
When problems have chronified, it is our experience that those involved do not
have a clear picture of everyone who has attempted to intervene, who initiated the
intervention, who broke it off and why, and what the helpers thought about the
problem. For that reason, we recommended in Chapter 2 and 3 to get to the
bottom of this matter and put it into a timeline. To this end, gossiping about
present company, reading thoughts and scaling questions are very well-suited
types of questions.
Case example: Once again, the example of the Mayer family with Peter as the problem
child. So you were at a counseling center about a year ago to address this problem and
had a fewsessions with a social worker. The father, mother and Peter were present. Claudia,
do you remember who thought it was important to go to counseling? Why was that
the case and why was it not very important to your father? How did the whole thing
end, Claudia? What did your mother and Peter say when your father voiced his desire
to end the counseling? Mrs. Mayer, why didnt your husband want to continue coun-
seling back then? What would I have to do, Mrs. Mayer, to make your husband want
to quit coming to me as well? What do you think I would have to do in order for Peter
to want to quit coming here? Mr. Mayer, what could I do that would make your wife
want to stop coming here? I would like to know from Peter, his mother and his father,
what my colleague said back then about the origin of the problem and what others thought
about this. What did you, including Claudia, learn from my colleagues attempt at
intervening both positive and negative? What can I, as the new helper, learn from
how my colleague reacted and do better today?
Studying other professional helpers attempts at solving the problem can help us
learn more about previous interaction patterns between the system and helpers
and avoid such pitfalls ourselves. It is worth investigating this point thoroughly
to avoid clients simply consuming one form of professional help after the other.
Differences in explanations and solutions to the problems
The way one looks at a problemalso determines howone approaches the solution.
Explanations steer our attempts at helping in a particular direction. Anyone who
thinks depression is a contagious disease will be reluctant to speak at length about
relationships. But this is precisely where systemic therapy steps in and deter-
mines, together with the client, why the person is not open to other explanations
why that person is susceptible at some times and not at others. To this end, it
is often best to find out what these views really mean:
What do you believe the people in your immediate surroundings think about the
background and causes of the problem? What do you yourself think? Does any-
one in the family share your position?
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What do you think the persons in your immediate surroundings believe would
be a good solution? And who would have to do what to make the problem
disappear or at least to invoke positive changes?
This is exactly the point at which mind-reading questions come in handy. Once
you have gained some orientation, you can continue with questions concerning
agreement and disagreement. The various approaches to what caused the prob-
lem and how it can be solved are very important to the counseling situation. Who
does the counselor support and who will be proved right in the course of coun-
seling? For this reason, it is advantageous to work on clearing up the political
situation in the system.
After exploring the issues of agreement and disagreement and establishing the
different positions concerning cause and solution, we can continue counseling by
looking at the functions and interactions of the various subgroups. How do the
different groups and their interactions affect the system? What effect do they have
on the expectations toward the counselor? Depending on the case at hand, the
next step could be to continue with a dance around the golden symptom.
Asking the system about resources
This line of questioning is extremely important, yet counselors are often tempted
to limit the amount of time for this step since everyone, especially the clients, are
eager to work on the problem itself in light of the level of general suffering. Still,
this is an important task because systems that have been burdened by problems
they are unable to solve on their own, may have sustained damage to their self-
esteem, as it were, leading to self-deprecation:
Case example: Both partners consider their marriage to be rather useless and more a hin-
drance than a blessing. It is a marriage in which sex has played a minor role for a long time
now, and the entire relationship just doesnt seem to be working out. Still, they are able to
organize daily life quite well and agree on many important things such as money and pos-
sessions, childrearing and housekeeping. Awareness of the fact that they can continue to
live together peacefully, however, is lost or disregarded.
Case example: The problem is that the leadership fails to support the team, fails to ac-
knowledge its achievements and, on top of it all, makes new demands while also cutting
their salaries. One colleague finds her job to be uninteresting and stressful, especially since
shes now involved in a dispute with her superior. She may get fired. What she fails to see
is that the job offers her a broad range of freedom and autonomy in howshe does her work.
In fact, the deteriorating working conditions are not limited to this particular company, but
rather concern the entire industry. In fact, in her company, they are relatively moderate.
Also, the atmosphere among her and her immediate colleagues is still pretty good.
The positive things are simply being overlooked. The system is being devalued,
and the depiction doesnt tell the whole story. This can easily lead to false deci-
sions that are quickly regretted. Belonging to a devalued system (even if I am the
one doing the devaluing) harms my own sense of value (see Chapter 5.4.2). It is
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easier and more productive to work with clients whose self-esteem is still intact!
This is why the counselor should work on emphasizing the systems resources.
However, there are clients who come to counseling and are unhappy when one
launches off in this direction:
They are under extreme pressure for things to get better quickly. And how do
things get better (at least according to most people)? By talking and working
through the problems intensively and at great length not by starting off stress-
ing everything thats fine in the system. Thats all been said before!
In their inner dialog, and in conversations with others, they have grown used to
griping profusely about their marriage, their job, their boss, their colleagues. Its
become so easy by now. Questions about their resources catch them off-guard.
What a nuisance!
The commonly held viewthat modesty is a virtue and one should not emphasize
ones own strengths and successes sometimes forbids this endeavor. For some, it
is unfamiliar, for others taboo.
But here, too, it is important that the counselor tolerate the client systems resis-
tance. Usually the mood changes once the clients have gotten through the first few
points: Talking about strengths actually can be quite fun. Of course, the counselor
has to learn to embrace this procedure as well.
The following questions, similar in style to gossiping about present company
and mind-reading, can be of help:
What are the strengths and capabilities of those concerned?
What is successful in your family life?
What should stay the way it is and not be changed?
What were the happy and successful times in the life of the family, team or
organization? What were the highlights of the past 2 years?
What has helped you to go on despite the problems?
What support did the system get from family and friends?
What ideas and beliefs empower the family/team?
If the problem were suddenly to disappear
This type of question, taken from solution-oriented short therapy, is classically
called the miracle question. Since then, magicians, fairies and other wonderful
creatures regularly pop up in systemic counseling. Whenever this is the case,
pleasant and creative conversations ensue. Or it causes irritation. The idea is to
lead clients away from their problems and down a path of imaginary solutions.
This is possible with any number of questions that, depending on the client, more
or less address the possibility of miracles happening. Through this sort of ques-
tioning, we invite the clients to imagine the problem had disappeared and were
no more. Supplementary questions by the counselor help the client to develop
very concrete and detailed ideas about what life might look like then. The follow-
ing questions have proved useful:
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Suppose tonight a miracle were to happen and the problem were to disappear
(because you were kissed by a fairy, had an operation, Gods intervention, what-
Howwould you notice, upon waking, that the problemhad disappeared? Exact-
ly what would have changed to make you notice? Would your thoughts be dif-
ferent, would your physical feelings? What would you do first on such a morn-
ing? What next?
Who would be first to notice that the problem was gone? Who next? (classifi-
cation/scaling questions)
What would you miss most in your new life if the problem were gone?
If counseling is successful and you have solved most of your problems, what
would your life look like? What would you do differently than today?
Supposing you were to succeed at doing less of one thing or more of another,
what would be different in your life?
In this process, it is sometimes good to ask the clients which physical sensations
would reveal that the problem had, in fact, disappeared. The most important
thing is that the clients imagine the situation concretely and graphically.
Case example: Taken from couples therapy: In our therapy sessions, we have discovered
that you spend about an hour a day in your own inner room, watching your husband with
great skepticism, angry at him, feeling hurt and jealous. There are pictures on the walls of
this room, showing him together with other women, during real or presumed affairs. Your
husband immediately notices when youve entered the room, since you reject him, become
aggressive toward him and all the fun goes out of your relationship. Let us suppose that
this room were to disappear tonight, say, through a miracle. Gone. Untraceably gone.
Whether you wanted to go in or were forced to enter, it would be impossible because the
room is just not there any longer. When you wake up the morning, what would cause you
to notice that the room no longer exists? When would you first notice it? At what juncture?
How would you notice it? The client was able to pick up on this idea and develop in her
imagination a life without the room. At the end of the session, however, she decided that
she didnt want to live without her room since it offered her a certain sense of security in
life something she wanted to have. Still, her relationship toward the room had changed:
She no longer felt the pressure to be in the room and no longer suffered because of the
room. She was also no longer angry with her husband because he had contributed to the
existence of the room. Rather, the room simply held a protective function for her. Never-
theless, she found herself going to the room less and less and experiencing it less intensely.
The interaction with her husband became less destructive and more bearable for him. He
learned to deal with it better.
One can take things to a higher level by displaying interest in further consequenc-
es of the disappearance of the problem:
How would others notice that things had gotten better or the problem had been
Who would be the most surprised? (scaling question)
Who would react how and why if the problem were to disappear?
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Who has a vested interest in such an event? Who doesnt? Who would be faced
with more disadvantages than advantages if the problem were solved? (agree-
ment, disagreement, comparison of subsystems)
Who gains, who loses, who doesnt react at all to the disappearance of the prob-
lem? (classification and scaling)
Sometimes it is worth ones while to employ these questions at the very beginning
of therapy to clear things up. The miracle question need not always be treated as
a major intervention.
Case example: Taken from the beginning of a case review session involving a very difficult
course of events: Imagine, if you would, that our case review were over and had been
extremely successful. It had taught you a lot, but now its over. What would be different at
that moment? When would you notice the effect of the session? Immediately? During the
next meeting with the client? How would you notice that the session had, in fact, been such
a great success? So you felt less pressure during the next session with the client? How
did you notice that the pressure had receded? Physically? What felt different? What
thoughts had disappeared, what new ones had arrived instead? What do we now have
to do in order for the pleasant feeling to return quickly? What do you want from us to ease
the pressure?
Speculating about changed contexts
Such what-if questions allow us to play out any number of scenarios in which
the counselor and the clients together regard the effects of certain changes. One
can also take a trial run of possible future drafts. Or one assumes that something
was different in the past that would have certain consequences for the future.
Such methods provide the clients with experience and insight into how problems
and contexts are interconnected, how exactly one specific problems fits the
present context, and what the effects of any changes to that context would be.
Even the positive sides of ones problems can be discovered and emphasized!
Case example: Taken from team supervision: You complain about the leadership of the
team and your department. There are too few commitments, too little structure in the
meetings, no agenda, no minutes, no evaluation of results. One day something is of grand
importance, the next its been forgotten completely. Let us assume you were to refuse to
play along, you ask again and again about the meetings agenda, ask why something so
important one day can be minor the very next. Everyone here would act that way, not just
one person. You simply wouldnt go along with it, you would disturb things and cause
complete disarray. What would happen? How could you do this in such a way that youd
get the biggest reaction, that youd destroy the old order so that it no longer worked? Later
it turns out that there are, and always were, alternatives, ways to change the game from
the employee position. The cost, however, may be that a conflictual atmosphere had been
created in which most privileges and perks afforded by management were absent. Also, it
was found that there was little practical solidarity within the team in concrete situations.
If one colleague demands a commitment from management, the others do not back him
up: Some keep still, some say they fail to understand whats going on or know too little
about the situation, whereas others claim rather to sympathize with the managements
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position. So the one who voicing dissatisfaction is left out in the rain although after the
meeting he gets support from his colleagues that he was right about what he said and how
brave it was of him to have said it. Many new ideas and approaches to the formation of a
common opinion and a new position became possible because of these different perspec-
Case example: Taken from family counseling: You are convinced that your husband is not
assuming enough responsibility for the family, the children, the household chores, but rather
leaves it all to you. Let us all imagine for a moment that you go to live in Australia for 9
months you have to pick up and move. Your husband stays back and has to fend for
himself, no way out. I would like to hear from you and the children what would likely
happen at home during this time. What would life look like? What would go well, what
would go poorly? How would their life look in, say, the 8th month of your absence?
Those are very interesting ideas, but let us go a step further. I would now like to ask the
children to join the father in this session and think about how things would go at home
during this period of time in which your mother is in Australia. Try to imagine very con-
cretely your everyday life. Could you do that for me? Your mother and I will take a seat
over here and just listen to you.
Case example: Taken from family counseling: Ms. B., you said that it just wasnt working
out with Bill at home, and apparently Youth Services agree. What if your son Bill were to
be put in a home. How would things change for the rest of the family?
Questions about future changes can also extrapolate the problem into the future:
Case example: If I were to say to you that the problem is unsolvable, how would you
react? Or: If nothing were to change and the problem were to continue to exist, what
would family life look like in, say, 5 years time?
We can also propose hypothetical changes that concern basic, existential elements
of the clients lives, even if they are completely unrealistic:
Case example: A family is in counseling with their 22-year-old daughter who, since the age
of 16, has kept the family (father, mother, 20-year-old sister) occupied with many rounds
of interventions by Youth Services and stays in psychiatric hospitals (the mother, too, was
in therapy for a long time). The following question is posed to the 20-year-old sister: Let
us assume that your sister had not been born. What do you think would have happened in
the family? Would family life have been different than today? To the elder sister: Let us
assume you were an only child. How do you think that would have affected the family
history and your history in particular?
Case example: Taken fromcouples therapy, addressing the wife: What you say often sounds
to me as though youve still got a lot of living to do. Let us assume you had not met your
husband, had not met any man at all or had taken an oath not to enter into a partnership
of any kind where would you be today? How would your life have progressed? What
would you have done over the past 15 years?
Such interventions demand a clear target on the part of the counselor. The coun-
selor must suggest what would be different and give the system a limited time to
flesh out the new scenario. If that succeeds, clients can develop a number of new
viewpoints toward their own system, toward the positive role their problemplays,
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toward their own responsibility, toward decisions that one unconsciously makes
to adopt a certain behavior and toward alternatives. Such interventions stimulate
ones imagination and raise ones level of creativity toward solving ones own
Exacerbation questions
But of course one can always find something that would make things worse! To
pose such questions may appear unseemly, and in some cases it may indeed be
unfitting or disrespectful. However, if the counselor feels comfortable with posing
provocative and bold questions, such questions may, in fact, further our knowl-
edge about the problem at hand:
What would you have to do to keep the problem alive, to cement it forever, to
make things worse than ever? What would others have to do to make things
even worse?
What could you do so that others act a way that makes things worse?
How could you make yourself completely unhappy if thats what you wanted?
How could others help you to realize your plan?
How could you invite others to help you to make your life miserable?
After an initial moment of irritation, clients usually experience a relaxed, creative
atmosphere which in and of itself is a valuable tool. The necessity for changing,
for bettering oneself, for working hard at finding a solution all this self-coercion
into just being reasonable takes the back burner. Instead, the conversation be-
comes markedly light (sometimes with a hint of the macabre) a change that
produces new insights.
The most important facet of reframing inherent in such questions is the as-
sumption that the client can, in fact, influence his or her problem/symptom and
is not only a victim thereof. This implicit vantage point is anchored with such
questions. And what can flowin one direction can likely flow in the other as well.
In such discussions of their problems, clients experience themselves as active, not
What is the problem good for?
Some of the questioning methods introduced above channel the dialog to the
point that the utility of the problem/symptombecomes visible. The counselor can
then seize the matter directly and take it even further. However, the type of ques-
tioning discussed in the following cannot be cold started. It needs a certain
measure of preparation by means the previously introduced methods to function
properly. It is important that a certain level of contextualization has been reached
and the dance around the golden system is apparent to all. Otherwise, the whole
matter can become artificial and useless if it is not intimately connected to the
clients inner state of being. With the following questions one can elicit the utility
of symptoms:
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Who would profit if the problem were to stay around a while longer? Or from
having it just flare up once in a while?
What would be worse if it were completely gone?
Here are some examples from previously mentioned counseling situations show-
ing how to delve more deeply into the question of the utility of a problem:
Case example: Taken from couples therapy (see above): Via the miracle questions the wife
has discovered what it would be like to escape her unhappy situation but also that she is,
in fact, unwilling to dispense completely with all aspects of the situation. Here, the question
was why she didnt feel that it was the right time to get rid of her inner room. She saw
the rationale: It provided her with a sense of security toward her husband. It helped her
feel less at his mercy and less dependent on him. Within this inner room, the idea of
separating from him and living alone with the children appeared acceptable. It motivated
her to seek out and further develop her own social contacts. It helped her to do more for
herself and to stand on her own two feet economically. And in the last few years, it had
increasingly provided her with her own lifestyle. In the first years of her marriage, she had
attuned her life and organized family life completely around her husband. Now she wants
to be informed and participate in all decisions. She fears losing all of this if she were to
give up her inner room completely.
Case example: Continuing from Chapter 5.3.2: Here we were dealing with a team that was
suffering under its leadership. The what-if question clearly showed the benefits the prob-
lem has for the team. A back-scratching culture developed. The existing criticism of the
lack of commitment on the part of management and its poor planning remains unspoken.
On the other hand, management provides the employees with considerable space, does not
demand commitment and gives the employees numerous perks. This would all be lost if
the bemoaned stagnation were to come to an end (and with it, the teams dissatisfaction).
It is a very important element of systemic counseling to determine together with
the client system the meaning and utility of the symptom. The symptom is an
integral part of the system. It is not possible to change part of the system without
triggering changes in other areas as well. One begins this approach through the
use of such questions.
Asking about the utility of the symptom or about how best to exacerbate the
symptom is especially well-suited to keeping the counseling process from drifting
off in the sole direction of changing or eradicating the symptom. That would serve
only to strengthen the persistence inherent in the system and to sustain the sys-
tems previous state of equilibrium. These forces would then very effectively sab-
otage any changes brought about by counseling.
There is a variation in this questioning method, namely, asking how long the
client thinks the problem will be needed or remain useful:
How long do you reckon you can provide space for the problem in your sur-
When will you give it notice to move out?
If you do nothing, would the problem disappear of its own accord?
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Future plans for the problem and the rest of life
These questions concern predictions about ones own life and invite us to ponder
the meaning of possible developments and to anticipate the effects of certain
events. In contrast to questions posed by the counselor relating to hypothetical
changes, these questions deal with real and foreseeable occurrences, for example,
children moving out of the house, moving to another city, retirement, death of
the grandparents, or changes in ones economic situation.
Case example: You seem to be having a lot of arguments about the children who still live
at home. Which child do you think will be the first to move out and when? Whos next in
line? When will it be just the two of you at home, and how do you think it will be, living
without the kids in the house?
Case example: There is presently considerable insecurity in your business due to the re-
structuring process going on. That I have understood. Lets suppose this phase has passed
according to your calculations sometime next year. When everything is finished and a
routine has returned, how do you think things will be? Who will be doing what? Who will
be conversing with whom? What will the work situation look like? Lets use your life and
business experience to predict whats to come.
One can look at very different timespans, depending on the person in question.
During crises one usually shies away from even pondering anything in the future
something that creates a certain distance from what is presently happening.
Asking about a conscious or faked relapse
Here are some example questions of this nature:
If you have said goodbye to your problem ages ago, but then wanted to recall
it, how would you go about doing that?
If you want others to think that your problem has returned, even though this is
not the case, how would you do it?
Would other people recognize that your problemhas returned or whether youre
If you were to be rid of your problem once and for all, what are some situations
in which it would be practical to have it reappear?
This type of what-if questioning frames the persons active relationship with the
problem, which one willfully controls. But another more implicit message is also
transmitted by such questions: The symptomhas its own inherent usefulness. You
only invite people into your home who somehow belong to you, who have at least
a few redeeming sides to them. The symptom is part of the system.
Such questioning is not always easy for clients to handle. Some beliefs work
against these constructions: Its not right to feign suffering and problems! Thats
not acceptable! You dont invite suffering and problems into your life! Quite the
contrary, youre usually happy when they disappear! There is also the supersti-
tious variation: If you say something out loud, then it will happen and come back
to haunt you. Here, too, the task is to take the time to explain and invite the client
to talk about these matters.
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5.3.3 Two Suggestions for Dealing with Circular Questions
Prepare the questions carefully
Proper use of circular questions requires much practice and good preparation.
This is true especially when using the method for the first time. Based on our
experience as trainers one should assume that, at the beginning, preparing for a
session may even take longer than the actual session itself lasts. Why is that?
Above we explained that with this type of therapy the counselor translates his or
her own observations (and the resulting hypotheses) into questions that serve to
test the hypotheses. Thus, preparing for a session means
reviewing all the relevant information one has gathered in previous contacts
about the system, such as expressed facts, observations, or ones own feelings;
reviewing ones own assumptions about the system (however vague they may
deciding which assumptions to test in the upcoming sessions;
checking whether the hypotheses chosen are included in the contract;
pondering who will exhibit the greatest resistance when the chosen hypotheses
are tested (political aspect of the system) and developing a plan to deal with such
developments or how to make the situation acceptable to all members of the
deciding which questions to ask and whom to ask them.
We emphasize a thorough preparation so much because beginners, especially,
tend to underestimate how much time this takes and how difficult it is to deal
spontaneously with the results of such questioning during the actual session. In
this context we would like to mention again the article by the Milan team(Selvini
Palazzoli et al., 1981), which describes how intensely the team discussed and
evaluated an application given over the phone. Despite the lack of hard and fast
information, they generated hypotheses, planned the session down to the last de-
tail, discussed which types of questions were to be used and who would be ques-
tioned. They agreed that two of themwould conduct the interview, with the others
standing behind a two-way mirror. During the sessions, the counselors even left
the room to discuss among themselves and with the observers how to best pro-
ceed with the session.
These standards differ greatly from the way systemic therapy is done today.
Our intention is not to propagate the Milan method, but rather to plead for the
extensive and proper preparation of a session, especially when it is to be planned
or carried out together with another colleague. Even if it is not always possible
in all situations, implementing this method to expand ones own competence is
recommended for selected sessions.
Recommended: A self-experiment
The effect of such questions can also be tested on oneself, by applying them to
an important area of ones own life. For example, one can hold such a session in
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ones own family or workteam. It is our experience that being on the receiving
end of such questions creates a certain stress level that is neither completely pleas-
ant nor unpleasant. As a rule, one is wide awake, attentive and interested. When
questioned, one has to think for a moment since the questions are indeed not
everyday ones. There are no standard answers available for ones reply. If others
in the family/teamare queried, one usually listens very attentively and is surprised
to hear them describe something one experienced directly and yet would portray
differently. One oscillates between being curious and interested in the discoveries
and a certain embarrassment and the fear that ones own games and those of
others will be revealed mercilessly. One notices how irritating it can be to have
listen how others describe how everyone behaved during some event;
notice how foreseeable and ingrained ones interactions and behavioral mecha-
nisms truly are;
realize how caught up we all are in the things we are experiencing.
Such an interview means walking a fine line between pleasure and pain. The
desire to discover new things makes one stick to it, even if it sometimes is rather
awkward. 5.4 Comments
Every experience has its verbal representation. That is why the words we choose
to address our clients descriptions of their situation and problems is such an
important aspect of any systemic intervention. Our comments work on several
levels to provide clients with meaning and evaluation. They can also invite clients
to assume new perspectives or provide impulses for change. We should not judge
our comments based on their truth or falsehood, but rather on their utility for
effecting change.
Manfred Prior (2012) collected some of the most important aspects of verbal-
In the past or To date: Clients often describe their problems as expansive,
long-lasting characteristics of their personality or life: I cant stand . . . or Im
always so shy . . . Such descriptions imply firm, inflexible traits that cannot
(easily) be changed. We as counselors can soften themup a bit perhaps even
completely dissolve them by attaching them verbally to the past: Up to now,
you couldnt stand it if . . . or In the past, you experienced yourself as shy. This
type of comment implies that change is possible: They can help establish confi-
dence in change.
Similarly, the phrase not yet can be inserted into our descriptions of problems.
The statement: I cant concentrate is seized and converted into: You have yet
to discover how you can better concentrate on this matter or that.
How . . . what . . . which instead of whether: The conjunctive whether
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suggests either-or-decisions. I dont know whether I can come tomorrow. In
the description of problems, whether always reflects a black/white duality: I
dont know whether I will ever be able to finish my training, whether this coun-
seling will work out. The conjunctive is best replaced by other question words,
which move the statement in a completely different direction: So youre won-
dering how you can get your degree and what you have to do to complete it.
Youre skeptical about what this therapy can do for you.
Rather and instead: Clients often employ negative terms to describe the
absence of phenomena, which in turn negates everything that was before. Re-
acting to this is especially important in the initial stages of progress, since allows
us to direct our clients attention to developing alternative behaviors: Last week
we didnt fight as often as usual. What did you do instead? I wish I werent
so bashful. What would you rather be?
Great! Fantastic! Amazing! or a bit, sometimes, somewhat: People often
couch their experiences in exaggerated-dramatic or understated-minimizing
ways. Sometimes it can be useful to differentiate between these two sorts of
descriptions, taking up a clients expressions in the sense of joining only to play
with them later on. This means mixing in more dramatic language with those
who tend toward understatement and toning down comments with persons who
tend to exaggerate. In doing to, we can loosen up the clients descriptions and
point out alternative cognitions.
5.4.1 Normalizing
Even the simplest of comments can defuse a situation. For instance, a counselor
can begin family therapy by stating, I often work with families with similar prob-
lems. People often feel so alone with their unique problems. They keep their
problems to themselves due to a combination of shame, guilt and fear of being
judged. This private inner world can be consumed by the myth that they are the
only ones on the planet with their problems. Only they keep making the same
dumb mistakes, mistakes that do nothing than make matters worse. Such self-ac-
cusations are certainly not an easy starting point for bold and constructive
change. If such an inner monolog is firmly anchored and leads to a downward
spiral of negative devaluation, it can prevent change entirely. In these cases, nor-
malizing comments can be helpful, i.e., using words that depict the problems at
hand as solvable and normal vicissitudes of life. By using normalizing comments
we introduce evaluative criteria and create a way for clients to see the description
as normal.
Family background: In your family, joy and happiness seems to have been
frowned upon. Its no wonder that you never learned to be happy and instead
took a depressive stance toward the world. The task you now have is to learn
what your family failed to teach you and remember, no family can teach every-
thing that is important in life.
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Family life-cycle: The youngest childs growing up and eventually leaving the nest
can be quite a challenge for any family and for some, it turns into a major strain.
Type of task or challenge: Its damn hard to continue to write applications when
youve been rejected 20 times or more. Many people would rather give up, and
most need some support.
Such comments are types of reframings, more or less. They describe the problem
as something that is reasonable, understandable, normal. The adjective normal,
however, is better not used since it implies a judgment on some level, and in the
light of the discussions surrounding the use of labels to classify diagnoses it
should be distributed only with great care. The clients, on the other hand, do use
the term normal quite freely, albeit in self-descriptions or in their thoughts and
fears: Am I normal? This is an important question for many people and indeed
demands an answer. In these cases, therefore, it is ok for the therapist to use the
word normal to respond to such a question.
Normalizing comments also signal that we have the competence to answer the
questions at hand (see the performance factors according to Grawe, 1999, espe-
cially establishment of trust and experience of competence). In addition, such
comments help to remove the self-imposed (internal and external) isolation and
point out that many other people are also confronted with such problems. The
effect is similar to that found in interest or self-help groups: meeting people with
similar problems, failures, and concerns lightens our own load and gives us new
energy to continue on. This phenomenon may also be observed in organizational
counseling: Sometimes all it takes is an open discussion on what employees will
be faced with and how they can deal with it, in order to resolve blockages and
provide a new energy kick.
But there are exceptions, too situations in which such comments are not
fitting. For example, attacks and violence of all types clearly do not deserve to get
the label of normal.
Normalizing comments should also not be used with clients whose problems
have previously not been seen or properly acknowledged by others, if very diffi-
cult problems have been brushed aside by the clients environment, or if clients
are in desperate need of affirmation of their situation. Here, normalizing could
cause clients to feel like they are not truly being understood or taken seriously.
5.4.2 Paying Compliments and Activating Resources
Paying a compliment expresses ones appreciation and creates a positive atmo-
sphere, inasmuch as the person we are paying the compliment to is aware of and
can appreciate it. For clients who are not used to receiving positive feedback,
compliments serve as a sort of reinterpretation or reframing since they invite re-
cipients to viewtheir own experiences froma different angle. By focusing on what
is going well, we direct attention to the existing strengths and resources and call
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them by name. Resilience research (e.g., Werner & Smith, 2001; Lsel & Bender
2008; Laucht et al., 2000) opened our eyes to how children can develop a rela-
tively positive, healthy look at things despite grave life circumstances (chronic
poverty, ghettoization, being raised in a difficult family) and what particular
strengths are prerequisite to their doing so. Together with the results of saluto-
genesis research (Antonovsky, 1987; see Background Text Solutions Are Impor-
tant And So Are Problems at the beginning of this chapter) these provide clear
proof that in our work with such clients we must concentrate on emphasizing
their strengths and increasing their ability to survive.
Case example: To a single mother who is drowning in chaos (the words of the teacher
who initiated the counseling) one could say: Despite all the difficulties you have with your
three children, youve done great, providing them with the basics food, getting them to
bed on time and getting up in the morning on time. You worry about each of them indi-
vidually and try to give them what they need. I can imagine its not easy having this much
responsibility for three little children.
Case example: We ask the parents of an adolescent who has school problems and major
conflicts at home what their son can do well. They shrug their shoulders and say: Right
now, not much. We request that they try a little harder at pinpointing his strengths. After
a while, they mutter something about computer and soccer, and further questioning re-
veals that he does really make an effort in these areas and that he has, in fact, shown
considerable perseverance. And that their son also has some friends whom he helps out
when asked to. At this juncture, the otherwise rather shy and reticent boy listens up at what
theyre saying: He hasnt heard such things out of his parents mouths for quite some time.
Such resource questions can defuse a charged situation, open doors for constructive con-
versations, and build up the self-esteem of both parents and child. The message is: If there
are even just a few positive aspects, then all cannot have gone wrong!
When working with difficult change processes, we need to muster all the courage
and confidence we can, along with stable self-esteemtoward our partners. Howelse
can we take on the risks of change? Part of what we do is to make clients aware of
every little particle of successful coping in their lives, especially in moments when
they are consumed by their problems or feel surrounded by monster-like adversities.
We redirect their gaze toward what has been overcome, toward capabilities that may
be slumbering in them, toward the little victories in life. We must develop a radar
for existing resources and help our clients to regain this lost territory.
Compliments, of course, should not be simple niceties, verbal charity handed
out out of friendliness or for strategical reasons. Rather, compliments must refer
to what the client is describing or showing and refer to concrete behavior. Plati-
tudes are of little help here. This assumes that the counselor can see both sides
of the coin and can properly filter the stream of problem descriptions for that
which is worthy of being retained, aspects that are likable, original, unusual. This
perspective should not be contained in the summary remarks, but should also
become an integral part of the entire counseling process. In modern Western cul-
ture with its ever-greater tendency toward critical inspection, a view of the posi-
tive aspects can play an important role.
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Compliments are particularly important (or especially inappropriate, depend-
ing on who you ask) when we are controlling clients or confronting them with
unpleasant information. Many practitioners think they have to be particularly
steadfast in such situations, worrying that they might cloud their otherwise clear
statements too much by garnishing them with approving remarks. We would like
to suggest a different route: It is at such junctures, when we are delivering a hard
truth, that compliments and supportive comments can be particularly successful
in establishing a good balanced message. They help the other person to save face.
And they set up a bridge of communication at a time when every is at risk of
crashing down into outright hostility.
Case example: I see how youre trying to get your life back in order and be good parents.
Youre putting a lot of thought into it and want to offer your children a good life. That I
can really appreciate. On the other hand, youve been sending them to school in the winter
cold without proper clothing and you havent been providing themwith regular warmmeals.
Your children are in poor health and may become really sick if you dont watch out. I know
you dont want that, and Id like to to support you in making some changes. However, I
cannot and will not simply sit by and watch things go on the way they are.
In many circumstances where the counselor visits the client at home or in open
inpatient wards, compliments should refer to concrete behavior. It is helpful if
counselors are adept at observing others and quickly use any initiative, change
or constructive attempt by the client in order to distribute compliments as nec-
Case example: I noticed that you were listening very attentively to your wife without, as
used to be the case, having to justify yourself or mentioning how you thought it really was.
I think thats a very important change.
Case example: Thats great you got up, went over to Yvonne and told her in no uncertain
terms that she should be quiet for a second and not throw the blocks all around the room
while were trying to talk. And you noticed that it worked! I think Yvonne understands that
better than if you were to call out to her from the sofa to just be quiet. Thats very good.
Now, what do you think will happen if you always do that?
Compliments help you to dock yourself to the more productive sides of a client,
to activate those parts and then later introduce new processes of change (even if
they are rejected for the time being).
5.4.3 Reframing: Changing Your Reality by Changing Your
Case example: An Oriental king once had a very unsettling dream: He dreamed that all his
teeth fell out, one after the other. Full of worry he called for his dream interpreter, who told
the king with great anxiety: I must pass on the sad news that you will lose all of your
relatives, one after another, like the teeth that fell out in your dream. This made the king
very angry, and he threwthe man in a dungeon. Asecond dreaminterpreter was summoned,
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who listened to the dream and said: I am pleased to pass on the happy news that you will
outlive all of your relatives. The king was very happy at this announcement and rewarded
the man plentifully (source: Oriental Stories as told by Nossrat Peseschkian, personal com-
Here we see that the same piece of information told from a different perspective
can elicit very different reactions. Reframing has a long tradition in literature,
theology and mysticism. Today, we need only to pay good attention to political
statements to understand how modern reframing works (spin). Reframing
means attaching a new meaning to something said or experienced, putting it into
a new frame and thus providing new ways of seeing or approaching something.
The terms positive reinterpretation or positive connotation mean more or less
the same thing. There are many jokes that play with this effect of finding different
interpretations or contexts for an event or behavior.
Case example: A man fromTexas, where everything is of course bigger, faster and better,
is traveling through Europe to visit the homeland of his family. Upon entering the Black
Forest in southern Germany he meets up with a farmer on his farm who is very proud of
his few acres of forest, his animals and his pastures. The Texan, himself a farmer, begins
to tell his story: Back at home, on my farm, I get into my Range Rover in the morning,
take my trusty shotgun and my family along and we go out for a picnic. We go west, always
straight ahead in the same direction. In the evening we stop and rest and the next morning
we start off real early and continue traveling west. And sometime in the afternoon, we reach
the border of our ranch. See what I mean? Thats Texas, my boy! The Black Forest farmer
nods his head knowingly and says: Oh, I know what you mean, sir, I once had such a dud
of a tractor myself.
Its no surprise that reframings are often coupled with humor, which helps to put
a certain distance between yourself and the matter at hand and which gives
everything a slightly playful feeling, even very difficult concerns. Besides empathy,
reframing demands of the practitioner the ability to viewthings fromwithout and
to change perspectives. With some practice, one can learn to adopt this approach
to seeing other, new frames for what has been said or seen and presenting them
to the clients as viable alternatives.
Case example: I always give my children too much and give in too quickly, says a mother.
The counselor is of the same opinion, but is happy that the client can recognize it herself.
She answers on a very different level: And Im sure youd like to find other ways of making
it clear to your children how much you love them (Stindl-Nemec, 2001, p. 93).
Such comments can astound clients since they serve to put a new spin on the
situation (You love your children, which is why you let them get away with so
many things. But you can also learn to use other ways of showing your love for
them that dont preclude settings limits) alongside the clients own words (here:
I somehow cant set boundaries for my children Im such a bad mother!). The
important thing is not the plausibility of the new interpretation, but rather its
utility: Does the client understand the comment correctly and feel invited to view
things in a new light and, in the end, to take first steps toward change?
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This is where our values as therapists, as counselors and as educators come into
play. If truth is not the obvious objective yardstick for evaluating matters, we must
become accountable for the values on which we base our own behavior and our
definition of utility. Many systemic authors (e.g., Stindl-Nemec, 2001, p. 93; von
Schlippe &Schweitzer, 2007, pp. 180 f.) viewreframing as disturbing the previous
viewof things. But we do not think that there can be any disturbance of this nature
without implications for values and goals. Reframings always implicitly contain sug-
gestions for the route to be taken, and these become more or less apparent to the
clients. Reframing anorexia as the role of an adolescent victimwho has attracted the
vexations of the entire family (thus exonerating them) conveys the message that the
family should find better and healthier ways of dealing with its problems and con-
flicts. How such a suggestion is received surely depends on the way it is presented
and the tone andnonverbal signals projectedby the counselor. Every communication
is simultaneously a manipulation and an appeal to the recipient (Schulz von Thun,
2010a, 2010b, 2010c). The reframing mentioned in the example above concerning
a mothers tendency to be too lenient directs the mothers attention to discovering
alternative ways of expressing her love for her children.
But let us now turn to the nitty-gritty: What contexts, and which circumstanc-
es, can we use for reframing?
Reframing to express good intentions
Behavior is often felt to be the expression of good intentions. To this end, one
must discern the clients needs, wishes and motives and associate them with the
disruptive or inappropriate behavior. The case of the lenient mother presented
above is a good example. Three further ones are provided below.
Case example: To the adolescent who clowns around in class and bothers the others you
can say: You put a lot of energy into clowning around and making your friends laugh. You
seem to be very good at it. In the meantime, however . . .
Case example: To the father who yells at his children a lot: It is important to you that your
children have clear boundaries and respect for your authority so they wont get away with
everything. You want to be a good father. At the same time it seems to me that its important
to you to enjoy your childrens love, and that it hurts you when they withdraw from you.
Sometimes you dont know what else to do but scream at them. What if we were to search
for a way for you to set clear boundaries for your children and still retain their love.
Case example: To the very ambitious female manager and mother who demands a lot of
herself and sometimes suffers fromstress-induced headaches: It seems that your headaches
are pointing to something for which you have no words: Youre signaling that youre over-
stressed and need to relax. Whenever you have a headache, this is the only time you can
allow yourself to slow your pace and demand help from your husband and children. You
go easy on your employees and just let things go for a while. Perhaps we could view your
headaches as signals of something else, like signposts.
Reframings applied to family contexts
Behavior can be meaningful and functional within the family context, by main-
taining a delicate equilibrium or by protecting other persons.
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Case example: To the oldest daughter of a single mother: I think you understand how
stressed your mother really is, and for that reason you dont always go to school, in order
to be at home and help out in the family. It is very kind of you to be so considerate of your
Case example: To a 30-year-old man who has a diagnosis of recurring schizophrenia and
who is living with his parents but is afraid of a nearby stream because it might engulf him.
His behavior has become so strange that he repeatedly has to be put in a psychiatric hospital.
His parents are caught up in an escalating conflict and keep including him in their quarrels,
demanding that he take sides: You know how bad off your parents are and dont want to
leave them alone, even to the extent of sacrificing your own future: job training, your own
apartment, etc. And then you tend to overdo it and it gets to be too much for you, which
is understandable. Your organism knows exactly what to do: It tells you that youre getting
too much information and are confronted with too many unsolvable tasks, which causes
you to do whatever is necessary to get put in the clinic where you can enjoy a timeout from
your family, where no one makes any demands of you, where you can recharge your batteries
and prepare again for the difficulties at home.
Reframings applied to family history
Case example: To a woman who has put her two children into foster care because of stress
and massive neglect. Her own mother, the childrens grandmother, assumed the foster care
in both cases and is now raising them. The mother herself grew up with her own grand-
mother. Now she is pregnant with her third child and is afraid that she wont make it
again, yet she would like to keep the child this time: In your family, there appears to be a
pattern that the children always grow up with their grandmother. Now youre remaining
true to the pattern and are repeating it yourself. Youve mentioned that your mother some-
times feels guilty that she put you with your grandmother and didnt take care of you herself.
Sometimes I wonder whether youre trying to tell your own mother that youre no better
than she was so she doesnt feel so bad. Imagine how she would feel if she had been able
to raise her three children properly. You are a very loyal daughter: Mama, I cant make it
either, now you can take care of my children. The client nods rather disconcertedly: Do
you think that shes done her duty by raising the two children or should she also have to
raise the third one? What if youve now been loyal enough and could make your mother
proud of you by raising the third child on your own. Why dont we invite your mother to
join us so that we can talk about how she can best help you.
Reframings applied to someones life
In some phases of life, flashy, mysterious or strange behavior can fulfill an impor-
tant function, while at other times it appears inappropriate and disturbing or
arouses fear and shame.
Case example: To the abused woman who repeatedly relapses into a dull speechlessness,
incapable of a clear thought and thinks shes failed all around: I have the impression that
whenever something touches you, you recede into your cocoon. You call that speechless-
ness and it bothers you and you are ashamed. At the same time, that is the only thing that
allowed you to survive: Whenever he grabbed you, the only way out was to turn off all your
feelings and all your thoughts and pull back to your own inner world, far far away. How
else could you have gotten through what happened to you? So what is now bothering you
is a very important and smart reaction by your body to protect its own life. Your body is
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very hurt and careful and says: Better safe than sorry. Id rather retreat once too often
without a good reason than be hurt again. The question is how you can slowly learn to tell
your body when things are OK, that it doesnt have to react that way all the time, and that
you can now take good care of yourself.
Case example: To a woman diagnosed with psychosis who after many stays on an inpatient
ward is now in the assisted-living home of a social-psychiatric institution: She already has a
number of attempts at psychotherapy behind her, some of which lasted longer, some of which
she quickly broke off. In the first phase, she rejects the offers of the social worker vehemently
and abusively, only to later apologize profusely for repelling someone who wants to help her.
Her explanation is that her disorder causes such reactions. The social worker reframes her
behavior: You know, Im not so sure whether your disorder has all that much to do with it.
I offered you what I offer everyone: an open ear. But you probably have had so many sessions
with so many therapists, doctors, caretakers or whatever, maybe youre just fed up with all
that. It doesnt seem to have helped that much either, does it? Lets just forget about the
therapy for a while and let me see how I can help you get adjusted into a daily routine. If you
want to talk to me about something then just let me know. The client was thus reassured
that the offers she accepted within in the first 6 months pertained solely to everyday matters.
With time, however, her trust grew and conversations about other matters became possible.
Competences in disruptive behavior
A behavior that is disruptive in one situation may be a valuable resource in another.
Case example: To an adolescent who continually provokes his teachers, picks fights withthem
and bears the brunt of their disciplinary actions: Im fascinated by the courage you have to
throwyourself into the battle again and again. You are apparently not afraid of danger. Youre
capable of doing things I, and many others, would be wary of. And youre quick-witted,
unerring in your remarks. You always figure out very quickly howyou can provoke others so
that they flip out. Its only too bad that you cant use your abilities better, that they always get
you into trouble. Imagine what you could do with your intelligence, your instincts, your
courage, your openness to risk, your quick wit, your willingness to take a punch or two! I can
name off the top of my head at least 20 people I wish were more like you.
Symptom as metaphor
Clo Madanes (2002) developed the idea that symptoms and problems can be
seen on a symbolic level as metaphors. Symptoms can represent the needs and
impulses of other family members.
Case example: To a mother whose daughter runs away in order to express the implicit needs
of her mother: I think your daughter is sending out an important signal when she runs
away, namely, that something in your life together is so difficult that she prefers to flee it.
Many families find it difficult to attack such problems. They think the situation is so hopeless
and so difficult, or they find some other good reason to simply look away. Only when things
get really bad do they decide to do something about it. Its like going to the dentist: Most
people only go when a tooth really hurts.
Case example: An adolescent girl attacks her defenseless mother, while the father stands
by and doesnt react: Youd like to give your daughter all the freedoms she demands and
many others things as well because you love her. But all children have the inclination to
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test the limits and to push the envelope wherever possible. That is their prerogative, of
course. But by going so far beyond reason, your daughter is, in effect, telling you that she
is desperate to find some sort of footing, some sort of limit. Shes searching for something
in you to fight back. And I believe shes looking for such strength of character because she
really does want to respect you. Shes been challenging you tremendously. And I think its
time you stood up to this challenge.
Case example: A very achievement-oriented family has four teenage and young adult sons,
the youngest of whom (12 years old) wets the bed. The family history reveals that the
bedwetting began with a setback in the fathers career. The father failed to discuss the
emotional ramifications thereof (shame, guilt, feelings of failure) with the rest of the family.
The symptom is a metaphor for the fathers hidden issues and the many regressive desires
that are not being discussed in the family: Now, since the question of a physical origin has
been cleared up and the temporal connection is so obvious, please allow me to speculate
in this direction: You are all very intelligent and quickwitted, I sometimes cant keep up.
Sven is a very sensitive child, and maybe he notices more than others in the family that
aside from all the intellectual enthusiasm, the quickwittedness, the joy of being good at
something, there is an aspect that is being neglected. He demonstrates this by wetting the
bed. Sometimes it is said that the bladder is crying too. (At this the mother is wet-eyed,
the father looks away in consternation, the older brothers look skeptical, even hostile.) You
seem to be doing OK, so do you have any idea what might be coming up short? A con-
versation nowensues about howdifficult it can be to always be on top of things, to always
keep up such a high level. The family plays with this metaphor: that its sometimes nice just
to let things go, to give in to the desire for care, warmth and help.
Reframing does not mean, as it did in the early days of family therapy, that the
therapist team reinterprets everything from behind a two-way mirror, supplying the
family with a magic spell in the hopes that important autopoietic reorganization
will then occur on its own. The many descriptions of such reinterpretations found
in the literature of that day evoked the notion of a sort of magical touch and led to
extreme pressure or even self-doubt among the therapists who felt like losers when
nothing of the sort occurred to them. In the various therapeutic settings that abound
in social and psychosocial work, the most important thing is to slowly and steadily
introduce alternative ways of looking at a problem. This canbe done by mere hinting,
with humor, through passionate appeals, sometimes with delicacy, sometimes with
complete exaggeration. All of which can take time, time to secure the contact with
the clients, to reduce or add to, adapt or reject previous approaches. The way this is
presented to the clients depends on the situation, the client and the type of contact:
This is called joining. Here are some variations.
Maybe we could try, just for the fun of it, to look at the whole matter from a
different vantage point.
Not too long ago I was involved with a family that had a similar problem. With
them it turned out that . . . although Im not sure whether that fits your situa-
Acrazy idea just occurred to me, youll probably think Imsmad and get up and
run away at the notion, but hey, can I try it out on you? You know we psychol-
ogists (social workers . . .), were a crazy bunch.
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Reframings are meant to dislodge clients and practitioners fromtheir rigid behav-
ioral patterns and ways of explaining that behavior and to invite them to put a
more playful or creative spin on things. Thats why a measure of humor, a wink,
a histrionic edge serve as good ingredients to make reframings actually work. And
last but not least: The best reframings are often those that clients themselves have
imagined, that they have at some point thrown out and are then taken up and
reinforced by the counselor.
The following five steps have proved useful when practicing this method, get-
ting ones frame of mind adjusted to such a procedure and becoming proficient
at it. It has proved wise to go through these five steps together with other col-
leagues. If you are very determined and courageous, you can use them in your
own practice.
The five steps of reframing
1. What is it that is so disruptive?
Describe this behavior as concretely as possible but without evaluating it.
2. Under what circumstances does this behavior occur?
Where and in which situations was it once meaningful or could still possibly
be meaningful?
3. What skills are displayed in this behavior?
What must the client do to display these skills?
How could the client apply these skills in a different or more meaningful way?
4. What does the client want to achieve with the behavior, both on a conscious
and an unconscious level?
What is the positive goal inherent in this behavior?
5. Which alternative behaviors could lead the client to the same goal?
What could the client learn by doing so?
5.4.4 Ambivalent Comments (Paradoxical Intention)
Paradoxical prescriptions or comments are often described in professional circles
(less so informal publications, rather in informal settings) as follows: If all else fails,
then use paradoxical intention as though this method were some sort of magic
bullet to cure all reluctant or resistant client systems (which at least theoretically are
not foreseen in systemic thought). In any case, it shows little respect for the client
and the counselor. In our experience, paradoxical comments arising from such a
sentiment are not very effective and may in fact endanger rather than further coop-
eration. For this reason, we prefer the term working with ambivalence.
When confronted by a contradictory constellation containing desires for
change and for nonchange, the counselor runs the danger of seeing only the man-
date of change and disregarding that of perseverance. This can lead to a breach
in the help system: The counselor takes up the cause of change and pursues this
goal, whereas the clients come down on the side of nonchange which presents
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Background Text: On Paradoxical Mandates and Paradoxical Interven-
Two very contradictory tendencies are often observed simultaneously in a
client system: the desire to change and the hope that everything will stay just
the way it is. This is then framed as a paradoxical mandate. Help us to
change. And: Wed like everything to stay as it is!
The mandate not to change things is usually only implicitly present when
counseling begins and is not expressed explicitly. Sometimes one can feel
it, however, when working with the client. The situation for the helper is
indeed paradoxical: He or she should strive for change while at the same time
ensuring that nothing changes. In their volume Paradox and Antiparadox
(2013), Selvini Palazzoli and her colleagues in Milan dealt with this phenom-
enon and developed methods of helping counselors react to such a paradox.
Their solution was that the helper should not come down on the side of
change, but rather also respect the systems desire for nonchange. In this way,
one delivers the message that nonchange is equally legitimate and acceptable.
The helper confronts the system with a new paradox, an antiparadox, so to
speak. He, too, delivers conflicting messages:
Case example: Im sitting here with you in order to change things. That is my job,
and thats the reason you came to me. And simultaneously: I would recommend your
not changing anything, keep all your problems, symptoms, and difficulties just as they
are for a while. Changing things now would be dangerous.
This is effectively the mirroring of the paradox the client system has present-
ed to the helper. The Milan group developed this so-called paradoxical inter-
vention, according to which nonchange the retention of all symptoms and
problems is prescribed or at least suggested, in order to escape from the
paradox trap that occurs when counselors take up the position of change
and clients think up ever more elaborate ways of convincing themselves and
the counselor that change is not possible.
Developing such an antiparadox would seem to be an easy matter: Suggest
to the clients that they should just retain their problems and symptoms. But
thats not the way it works. The Milan group assumed that one should first
understand the rules that regulate a client system and only then adapt the
paradoxical intervention to these rules. The rules of a system are, for exam-
ple, the basic tendency not to change, persisting in not moving, keeping ones
inner balance as a way of preserving ones existing life pattern. Whatever is
wrong, whatever problems and symptoms exist, they are all part of the pre-
sent state of homeostasis, since all states of being and all processes within a
system, including all symptoms and problems, together form the entity and
mutually determine each other. If you change one element, then that has re-
percussions for many other aspects and processes within the system.
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as resistance. Or the counselor presumes that the system is not really motivated
and in fact cannot move beyond its present standstill. The therapy falters, the
counselor becomes frustrated, there seems to be no progress or benefit from the
We can skirt this danger by properly acknowledging the ambivalence present
in the system and by recognizing the significance of nonchange. This assumes
that, first of all, we are aware of the meaning of nonchange for the system and
have indeed accepted it as such. It is important that we experience the two con-
tradictory sides as equally valid. Otherwise, applying ambivalence is nothing
more than a cheap trick that may irritate more than it helps. Truly appreciating
both change and nonchange also means being able to accept and communicate
For example, a symptom may be a meaningful form of dealing with earlier
situations that have, in fact, enabled survival and the continued functioning
of the system. As helpers and agents of change, we must still respect the fact
that symptoms, however dysfunctional they may appear, cannot simply be
eradicated without consequences for the entity.
The basic idea of the persistence of symptoms and of their utility as well
as the inherent dangers posed to equilibrium when symptoms are quickly
excised was not discovered by systemic theory. In earlier psychoanalysis, this
was described as the so-called secondary gain of illness, which refers to any
advantages that may arise for the sick person by way of the symptoms (e.g.,
special consideration and attention by others, absence of demands). And in
behavioral therapy, factors supporting the retention of a problem are diag-
nosed and included in the therapy plan.
We decided to use the termambivalent comments instead of paradoxical
intervention because we think this term better emphasizes the fact that the
system oscillates between change and nonchange, going back and forth at
will. It reminds us of a teeter-totter that needs to be held in equilibrium. This
is advantageous when the helper takes up the part of persistence and non-
change and allows the system to swing to the side of change. Gunther
Schmidt (2010, p. 129) uses the term ambivalence coaching to describe
such situations.
The terms paradox and antiparadox suggest that only the cognitive side
the playing with contradictions and opposites and the technical nature
thereof are important. That ignores the fact that such situations are deeply
anchored in unconscious ambivalence about whether change is worth it,
whether one should really even make the attempt or whether even greater
dangers and losses lurk around the corner of change. Nevertheless, these
ideas played an important role in the history of systemic thought, as they
provided a better understanding of the processes that go on between client
systems and helpers.
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the systems decision not to change, which in turn means discussing any and all
negative consequences of such a decision (e.g., sanctions brought on by author-
ities or even legal consequences) with the clients in a open and honest manner
and giving them the responsibility for choosing which side they prefer.
Case example: In a addiction-counseling center a counselor had spent muchtime persuading
an alcohol-addicted man to participate in an inpatient program. First, he had calmly, later
with increasing irritation, listened while the client gave ever more reasons why it wouldnt
work out in this clinic or that clinic. But the counselor kept up the pressure, pleading for
participation. Following a supervision session he changed his strategy and admitted to the
client that the previous course of counseling showed that the timing was apparently not right
for attacking the problem. He said he felt the reason lay in the mans decision to remain true
to his alcohol consumption even if it meant losing his family and his job. This risk as well
as the advantages of his continuing to drink were discussed in great detail. The man repeat-
edly assured him, however, that he really did want to quit drinking. The counselor expressed
his doubts, withdrewfromthe active role and limited himself to asking exactly howthe man
wanted to go about doing that repeatedly throwing in that he was skeptical that the client
would be able to achieve that goal at the moment. The background of this strategy was the
rivalry between the counselor and the client the object of discussion during supervision
which the counselor now modified by letting the client prove in many small steps that the
counselor was wrong. And, indeed, he eventually began to take concrete steps, garnering
both the support of the counselor and his continued skeptical comments. This may sound
paradoxical, but change became possible only because the counselor had gone through his
own painful and drawn-out process of letting go of his preferred strategy: He had to agree
to let the client decide against the counselors best knowledge by continuing to drink. And
he had to convey convincingly that he would respect the clients possible decision.
Case example: Here, the client was a working mother of three nearly grown children who
suffered from extreme depression. During the sessions she recounted several different
events and biographical reasons for her symptoms, to which she remained true by only
coming to counseling sporadically. In the course of therapy, she revealed her very high
expectations of herself both professionally and as a mother. She had repeatedly failed to
demand help from both her husband and her children, and tended to maneuver herself into
situations that taxed her considerably to which she reacted with depression. Only then
would the other family members pitch in and help her out. After a few futile attempts to
move her to reduce her expectations and demand more of her family, the counselor excused
himself for having put her under even more pressure by demanding so much of her. He
told her how much he admired her for resisting his suggestions. Perhaps, he remarked, this
could be the beginning of her refusing to follow every demand made of her. As for her
family, well, maybe they just werent ready to change so radically. Maybe it would be better
for her to just stay depressed for a while to elicit their help. Maybe that was the language
both she and the rest of her family best understood. The woman reacted with anger to this
suggestion and assumed the counselor was terminating his offer of help, which the coun-
selor denied was the case. Rather, he said, it was a matter of finding the right moment.
Nevertheless, she went away angry and annoyed and spent the next four days in deep
depression and got into a major conflict with her children about their attitude at home.
Later, however, out of her anger and vexation she developed a direct and demanding way
of addressing her family, so that overall the demands and her depressive reactions lessened.
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In accordance with Boeckhorst (1988, pp. 24 ff.) we can make out four perspec-
tives from which problems can be viewed as expedient. Besides the other aspects
mentioned in the chapter on reframing, they can be helpful for ambivalence com-
Problems can be important ways to try out solutions to other problems;
Problems can sometimes have a protective function by stabilizing difficult rela-
tionships that detract our attention from problematic themes or interrupt the
course of conflicts;
Symptoms can increase power and influence (My depression and I can do
things together that I would never have accomplished alone.)
Symptoms can point metaphorically to other important problems in the system.
If they disappear too quickly, we may miss their message before it can properly
be assessed.
Ambivalence comments curb the desire for change. We can suggest to our clients
that they first just think about the projected solution, incorporate it into their
dreams, instead of implementing it too quickly. We propose that they retain their
difficulties, symptoms, problems or whatever for the time being. Or that they
simply take the time to contemplate what is to be changed. The advantages of the
current situation as well as the disadvantages and dangers of change are pondered
or even brought into greater focus. Of course, all of this should occur, with great
respect. It has proved effective to recall Priors (2012) suggestion that such com-
ments always have a timestamp on them, and that change should always be de-
picted as an option: It would seemthat, at the moment, you are still very depend-
ent on the help of your symptom, and that it would be too early right now to
change anything.
Ambivalent interventions acknowledge the ambivalent (or sometimes polyval-
ent) forces present within the systemand slowdown movement and change. They
acknowledge the motives that lie behind the symptom as meaningful, dignified
reasons, while at the same time emphasizing the responsibility of the client and
the need to come to a decision. Clearly, we are not propagating a dose of won-
derworking or some special leverage for untangling a counseling knot. If such
methods are effective, it is only because the counselor learns to extract him- or
herself from unproductive games of circling around the theme of change/non-
change and thus puts a monkey wrench in the system that cries for help to change
and at the same time circumvents such advice. An ambivalence intervention ac-
tually increases the pressure to make a decision and therefore often causes true
Nevertheless, this method should be employed only after careful consideration.
Such comments can effectively strengthen the avoidance tendencies in some peo-
ple with little motivation to change, or when the desire to change in the respective
system is weak. It can even lead to the counseling being abruptly aborted and
thus all chance for change being lost.
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Case example: Awoman living with her children and a very dominating husband is unhappy
that her husband has come to counseling only after putting up great resistance. He is very
much set against counseling, which is difficult for any counselor to deal with. Using an
ambivalence comment during the first session might cause a backfire with such clients and
would be of little help to the woman: Her husband will certainly not be persuaded to come
a second time (See what I mean, the counselor also thinks that everything should stay the
In such cases it may be better to take care of the husband, to push more for
conversations and change since the husband will not necessarily already be aware
of how much he can profit from a change. Such wooing is necessary and often
a prerequisite in settings in which one or more clients have been more or less
coerced to even come to the initial session. The same is true for other forms of
helping, such as in family-help centers where such motivational phases can last
for many months. Practice has often shown that despite initial resistance per-
severance in such situations can pay off in the end with good therapeutic results.
Similarly, this method can be used with very anxious children who need to be
encouraged and perhaps even pushed toward trying out and venturing new
things. These are only some of the many examples where other, more direct and
directive methods can lead to success. 5.5 Witnessing
5.5 Witnessing
Witnessing (coined by Williams, 1997, personal communication) means includ-
ing additional perspectives in the process, especially perspectives and vantage
points that are of importance to the inner process of the persons involved. This
includes messages, evaluations or perspectives culled from the people in ones
own life history or life context, or inner voices and opinions that represent parts
of ones personality or inner authorities. This concept is similar to the ideas of
the inner team propagated especially by Gunther Schmidt, which he developed
from a combination of hypnotherapy and systemic approaches (Schmidt, 2010,
pp. 194, 279; see also Schulz von Thun, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c), and the ap-
proaches of the inner stimulators and scripts taken from transactional analysis
(Steiner, 2009).
These various opinions or voices can be attached to persons or figures called
witnesses. They represent all the possible life approaches, ideas and philoso-
phies. Working with them increases personal creativity and inventiveness and
allows the clients to introduce relevant persons or values into the discussion of
a particular topic. This is not limited to living or real people; rather, witnesses
can be persons from the past, figures from novels or fairy tales, movie stars,
heroes, saints whatever moves you. The only limits are those of ones own
We first describe the general approach and then present a few examples.
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The counselor develops a hypothesis implying that working with outside views
would further the therapeutic framework.
Either someone is present in the stories of the client system who can deliver
these outside perspectives or the counselor asks directly who could contribute
something relevant. The counselor can also suggest a particular person from
whom important impulses may be expected. This person can then be chosen as
the witness.
The members of the client system are asked to assume the role of the witness
and to be interviewed by the counselor about events that went on within the
A counselor who deems it meaningful to qualify (or who outright doubts) the
importance or claim of this description can ask the witness how such a view
arose in the life of that witness and why it turned out to be so important to judge
events according to this principle.
When considering witnessing as tool, the most crucial question is whether a new
perspective will help the client systemmake progress, while the choice of this type
of intervention can be prompted by a wide variety of initial hypotheses. The ex-
amples given are organized according to the initial hypothesis of the counselor.
5.5.1 Expanding the Perspective of the Client System
It can sometimes be helpful for clients to take on the point of view of other per-
sons in their environment in order to gain a new perspective on different ways of
describing their reality. This provides them with the chance to get away from a
solely internal view and use external resources to their own advantage.
Case example: Above we had the example of the 16-year-old pregnant girl Catherine (Chap-
ter 5.2.1), who had to decide whether or not to have her child. Catherines decision was
caught up in the midst of many different opinions that served to influence her one way or
the other. It would seem that the main focus would be on deciding What do I want? but
sometimes that perspective can actually obstruct the decision-making process. Figuring out
what others around us want can be very important at first. In Catherines case, it shows
her the multitude of various approaches and can make it clear to her where her opinion is
located in the sea of opinions. Also, it can further her insight into how one can generally
approach such decisions, and that there are indeed many different possible ways of looking
at things. Of course, in the end Catherine will have to make and live with her decision. But
the presence of various different perspectives can provide her with good andsober guidance.
If Catherine were to assume the different witness roles, she could experience howthe world
looks from the perspective of others, how they viewthe decision and she could be queried
in that role as to why the respective witness would come to that opinion based on that
persons own biography. All of which qualifies her own perspective. It may be a sensible
way to act or react, but not necessarily for everyone. In the background text we describe
this process as deconstruction.
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Clients sometimes tend to give their own perspectives too much weight. Often
one is better capable of acting when having walked 100 steps in the moccasins
of another (an Indian saying). This is true for families, but also for teams.
Case example: Family S. consists of the father, mother, Johanna (14 years old), and Marcus
(10 years old). The school has sent the family to counseling because of Johannas behavior:
She doesnt listen to the teachers and displays more than the usual provocative and sexual-
izing behavior in school, dressing and acting like someone fromthe punk scene. Her teacher
is upset about this, the parents apparently less so. They make it clear that they themselves
do not think highly of good, bourgeois behavior and attitudes. On the other hand, they do
have their differences with their daughter, who is very difficult to get along with and is
getting out of their control. Nevertheless, they are ambivalent about whether they really
want things to change. The counselor suggests they name a series of positive character
witnesses of Johanna from recent years, whereupon they mention two earlier teachers, one
of her grandmothers, a grandfather, an old friend of Johannas, some of her present friends
and her mothers best (girl)friend. They are interviewed one after the other: An empty chair
is put in the middle of a circle, and the counselor asks questions of the respective witness:
Should we be worried about Johanna? If so, in what way? When did you begin to
worry about her? What could the family do differently? What has been good about her
development? What are her strengths? Whichever family member thinks he or she
knows the answer to the question sits down in the chair and answers, beginning with I
think . . . It is acceptable if several family members provide their respective answers to a
single question. The witnessing from several different positive angles helps the family to
look at the matter in question from a more relaxed vantage point without being defensive
or worrying all the time. Finally, the family sets up a ranking order of the witnesses on a
scale ranging from Im not worried about Johanna at all to Johanna is in acute danger
it may even be too late! The witnesses are symbolized by objects, and the family members
take up their respective positions among the witnesses on the above-mentioned scale.
Case example: In the course of a radical revision of the concept of a team entitled Flexible
The team meets after a years time to discuss how things are going. The team
members all want to recount their own experiences during the past year. The counselor has
the feeling that it would be good for the team to add some relevant external opinions when
judging the situation and evaluating the changes that have taken place over the course of
the year. To this end, the counselor asks the team to say who were the most important
partners, helpers and influential others in this period. A number of suggestions are made:
clients, members of the institutional management, the local social services division of the
two sections of the city, the head of Youth Services, the head of all social services in the
city, other teams and providers in the city with similar services. For all of these actors chairs
are placed around the team and labeled as such. Anyone from the team who has an idea
what the witness would have to say about the past year takes a seat on that chair and reports
242 5 Acting: Intervention and Accompanying Processes
9 This team works with youths who live alone in a supervised living arrangement. It
provides counseling services on an individual basis and supports the families with
offers of family care. After 6 weeks time (exploratory phase) the team meets to con-
sider the working hypotheses and goals for the individual cases, which are then pre-
sented to the respective contracting institution. There are two further subteams that
are responsible for the two major parts of the city.
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from a first-person perspective. The counselor at times inquires about uncertain items. In
this manner a very clear picture emerges for both the team and the counselor about what
the partners think what they like, what they dislike and what they failed to notice at all.
5.5.2 Inner Authorities, Role Models and Critics
How we approach various life situations depends greatly on our assumptions
about what is good or bad, howone should live, what it means to be a good father,
mother, son or boss or a systemic counselor. This concerns the ethical questions
in life, the values that determine our decisions and our lifestyle. The notions that
reign within a system about how best to do something can be explored quite
efficiently using witnesses and thus laid open to be viewed by all involved. Often
these notions are helpful in discerning what we think is proper, but sometimes
they can actually block both our own solutions and those of others. And occa-
sionally, in problematic situations, they can even be the source of great stress since
they demand something of us that we cannot fulfill or does not fit us. Such views
are generally connected to specific persons, be they real persons from our past or
present, such as parents, teachers, mentors, trainers, friends, role models or lead-
ers who have impressed us; be they ideas, figures fromnovels, filmstars or vision-
aries we have read about and whom we have put on a pedestal. In this way they
accompany us for a while in life, whether as negative or positive influences.
Case example: We recall the example mentioned in the previous section of 16-year-old
Catherine who mentioned especially her late grandmother and a teacher as inner authorities
who were also powerful inner critics when she didnt act or decide as they wanted or felt
proper. That is why is so important that she deal with their views just as it is important
to qualify the perspectives of these witnesses against the background of the whole story
and the witnesses respective viewpoints. But for Catherine, having to deal with her grand-
mother and her grandmothers opinions and feelings of guilt toward her own children made
her own path in life more clear.
Case example: A female participant in a training group for systemic theory says that she is
having difficulty implementing what she has learned. When she works with families and
other systems, she has plenty of ideas, but somehow she cant use them properly: She just
doesnt feel good enough. After the many encouragements of her colleagues fail to help her,
the group leader asks what exactly happens in her head when she has an idea but fails to
put it into action in a clear and self-confident manner. She reports a number of very different
trains of thought. She is then invited to give expression to her various thoughts fromvarious
positions in the room and to associate them with specific persons. Then the group has joint
meeting: Minuchin suggests to her that she convince the parents to finally show some
authority and assume their roles as parents. Steve de Shazer, on the other hand, thinks that
is completely wrong and suggests looking for solutions within the family constellation. Her
father is also present and reminds her that she comes from a modest family and should not
be so presumptuous as to tell others how they should live. Above all, she shouldnt imagine
being able to help others with such difficult and complicated matters. A former professor
of hers joins in and thinks she should see the whole thing as a sociopolitical problem and
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rejects her attempts to individualize and depoliticize the situation. Behind the professor
stand her partner and other former fellow students who worked together with her in a
political group. All of these witnesses are played by other group members according to the
descriptions and positions she gives them. The members of the circle just described are
very soon caught up in internal discussions and hotly debates the situation among them-
selves. Now she can lean back, rather amused at the whole sight, and reports that such a
debate seems typical for the pluralism inherent in such situations. Its good for her to view
things from the outside for once. This lightens her mood considerably and frees her from
her burden. And above all, she begins to notice which opinions correspond to her own and
which do not.
Case example: A small religious group, consisting of a parish team that lives together
according to the rules of Saint Francis of Assisi, wants to receive coaching because of
concerns about the parish leadership, practical matters of living together and the best way
to realize their original ideals in everyday life. During the coaching sessions, it turns out to
be valuable to let their saint voice his opinions directly on all matters at hand. Each member
of the team stands behind the saints chair and announces in the first-person what he would
have replied to the particular question. Since everyone present (except for the counselor)
is well aware of the life and doings of the saint, it quickly becomes clear how great the
distance is between what the saint preaches and what he practiced and how important it
is to see these levels when contemplating his answers. The discussion grows ever less dog-
matic, and the authority of the saint reveals itself in very pragmatic ways and in pragmatic
Some clients, however, look for answers in places other than counseling. There
may have been previous counselors at work, or they have consulted the one of
the many available psychological self-help books. These, too, can assume the role
of witnesses if they play an authoritative role in the clients lives.
Case example: What would the author of the volume youre now reading, A Long and
Happy Life, have recommended for you to do? Assume the role of the author for a while
and comment on your own life situation from that vantage point. What would the Indian
guru of the meditation teacher you are so fond of have to say about the problem? Take on
his role for a moment and Ill ask the guru a couple of questions. Let the highest authority
of the client, whoever that may be, speak his mind. That is usually a more sensual and more
effective experience. Your best bet would be to let a number of such witnesses make a
testimony, a method used in courts the world over.
Case example: In couples therapy one could say to the wife: I would like to include in our
conversation the therapist treating your husband in the clinic, whom he holds in high
esteem. Toward the husband: Could you please assume for a couple of minutes the role
of your therapist in the clinic? And to the wife: And then we should also invite someone
from your life who is very important to you, a person you highly respect. Who could that
be? Could you please assume that role yourself, so that I can then talk to the two most
important people in your lives concerning the problem at hand.
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5.5.3 Sympathetic Companions
Important witnesses need not necessarily be internal authorities. Sometimes it is
helpful to invite companions, who are actual witnesses of the systems actions.
Particularly sympathetic companions that have experienced and can describe suc-
cessful behavior shown by the client system are welcome as cheerleaders (see
Chapter 5.11.2 below). Here, too, we ask the members of the system to assume
the respective roles of the witnesses so that we can query them.
Case example: In couples therapy: You said that last Sunday the two of you were able to
successfully go on a picnic. Could your mutual friend Karen perhaps say some more about
that? About how you managed to do it and why she thinks it worked out so well? The two
of you can alternately take her role on this chair. Whoever comes up with an answer Karen
might give can take a seat there and answer as she would.
Case example: During coaching: Last week a number of things went well at work for you.
Who of your colleagues was there to witness them and can he or she tell us a little more
about what happened? I would like to ask your colleague a couple of things in order
to get a better idea of what happened and how you did it. Could you please assume the
role of your colleague?
5.5.4 Cultural Perspectives in Intercultural Counseling
Working with people from other cultures sometimes brings us to the limits of our
possibilities. We sense that belief systems and ethical values what is right and
what is wrong, how things are done or never should be done take on an impor-
tant role in the counseling setting. And yet we dont know exactly what our client
systems the culture demands or rejects. Such counseling takes place between the
two cultures, so to speak. This can be the confrontation of two cultures that differ
greatly, such as the Western and Islamic cultures, or instances when our main-
stream culture is faced with a certain subculture (e.g., if the counselor is a mid-
dle-class city-dweller trying to talk to a punk, or a family from traditional rural
structures or a representatives of the bourgeois upper class). Here, too, we cannot
always be sure what cultural principles are valid for our client.
Case example: How should I raise my adolescent son/daughter? How much freedom and
independence should I allow? Howfar should my sense of responsibility for my sick parents
go? Should I get a job? Which sort of job would be appropriate? Howdoes a good husband
act in such a situation nowadays? A modern woman? What makes someone a good father?
A good mother? How much do you have to adapt to hold onto your job? How big of a role
should work play in my life? When is it just too much? How much should I invest in my
The answers to these questions demand not only individual solutions, but also
culturally adapted ones. In intercultural interactions one can work with witnesses
as a way of introducing such components even if we counselors do not know
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these witnesses. We should, however, have a good deal of interest and curiosity
about them.
Case example: A family from Morocco is trying to deal with their 15-year-old son, who has
repeatedly failed to come home at night, been caught after various typically juvenile delin-
quencies and been thrown out of school. It quickly becomes clear that Western child-rearing
standards are irrelevant in such a situation. At the same time, the traditional Moroccan
cultural standards are just as unacceptable. So what exactly are the Moroccan ideas about
what a good father or mother does with such a child in such a situation? During the session
a number of very competent persons from the family environment emerge as witnesses:
The mothers grandfather, who still lives in Morocco;
The fathers father, who also lives in Morocco, but has left the country home to live in
the city;
The fathers brother, who is slightly older and lives in Belgium;
A nephew, the son of the fathers brother a good boy, whom everyone in the family
is proud of and who wants to become an engineer.
The counselor asks the family to play the roles of these witnesses in order to discover
together what they would suggest doing. The witnesses are first asked about some specifics,
such as their age, then what they would do with such a son, what would be most successful
and what would not, how a good father/mother should behave in such a situation, etc. The
father and the mother then discuss which of the many positions best fits their own thoughts.
Case example: In the case of an Italian family whose daughter requested that Youth Services
take custody of her because she felt her family was being unreasonably strict with her, there
are clearly cultural factors at work. The parents cannot understand how the German au-
thorities can react as they did, taking the daughters complaints so seriously. They are certain
they have done everything right to make a good and honorable young woman out of her.
What to do? Should they go to court to get her back or cooperate with Youth Services,
which is requesting that they sign the papers allowing the girl live in a supervised accom-
modation? What does the rest of family in Italy, France and Germany think about what
should be done? What do the older family members and the youngest members of the
second generation think (that is, the children of the immigrant family, who were born in
the guest country or socialized there for the most part)? Whose opinion do the parents
respect the most?
And what do others from the girls peer group think is it better to begin voca-
tional training somewhere or just leave school and wing it? Maybe take a timeout
and just wait a while? Whose opinion in the peer group carries the most weight
and what does that person suggest?
In the examples given above a number of witnesses were queried. This procedure
is advisable because people living inmigrationcanbe very uncertain bothabout their
original cultural practices as well as those of their newhomeland. One can also view
this collection of opinions as a sort of scale, for example, with the one end standing
for the rural Moroccan approach of some 30 years ago and the other end for that of
the modern, successful second-generation immigrants in Western society. We also
recommend offering several different models of way of interacting with the new
culture. This is especially important when working with the younger generations of
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immigrants who are trying to find their own way between the two cultures. Often
the family or circle of friends has at least a few adolescents who have tried out
different paths to maneuver their way through the cultural currents and who can be
invited as witnesses. At the other end of the scale lies the pure culture of the old
country usually grandparents, village elders, clan chiefs or religious leaders who
can also serve as witnesses. It can be of particular value to identify those members
of the extended family who possess a certain ethical authority.
Families often have someone in their midst who is viewed by the others as
reliable and competent. If you do what he or she considers correct, you will be
successful both in your own eyes and in those of the family. If, however, you
decide differently, then it is more difficult to defend your actions within the fa-
milial sphere. It is often easier for migrants to find the proper solution to their
problems once they have had the chance of hearing, and exploring for themselves,
the opinion of the family authority figure, regardless of whether they adhere to it
or not in the end. If possible, and if the client system agrees to it, the family
authority figure can be invited to a therapy session.
Background Text: Studying, Creating and Deconstructing Constructions
In their role as witnesses, clients sometimes provide descriptions of them-
selves. They relate their own situation from a different perspective, depend-
ing on the respective witness. This creates a multitude of different descrip-
tions of the same situation. These various versions of the same reality are
placed side-by-side in therapy (on constructions, see the Background Text on
the idea of systemin Chapter 2). Indeed, that is a central idea behind working
with witnesses. Aside from the previously held, dominant version of things,
one gets a variety of alternative narratives. Remember: It was the previous
gridlocked interpretation that led to the dearth of solutions. Through this
intervention, the power and exclusivity of the old narrative are constrained
in favor of more diversity that will hopefully create not only new vantage
points, but also new opportunities for action. Our advice once again is there-
fore to work with several witnesses, encouraging clients to invite the more
unusual ones who have experienced and can describe the situation from a
fresh perspective.
Another way in which this method can provide impetus for change is it
makes the tales of the internal authorities tangible. In our own biogra-
5.5 Witnessing 247
10 Andreas Fryszer learned this from Don Giovanni de Florian, the long-time Italian
missionary from Frankfurt, who liked to discuss such questions first-hand with large
families. It was his observation that eventually most family members would stop talk-
ing during such discussions, and the last person to keep up the conversation was
usually the main authority in ethical and cultural matters the conciliaris of the family.
If the deciders then did what that person had suggested, they remained on the familys
good side.
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phies, imitation and identification are important sources of discovering and
learning new things. We internalize our master persons whom we imitate
or identify with as well as their views and sometimes their very words.
These persons thoughts eventually become our own. For clients it can be
helpful to experience how their own thoughts go back to being those of
the original source. The process is turned on its head: The internalized
view becomes externalized.
The downside to internalized views of earlier masters, idols and models
is that they can turn into inner critics who make negative comments about
our actions and thoughts whenever we fail to live up to their standards.
They are great at steering us in a certain, rigid direction. This means they
are, in fact, no longer a source of support, but rather a considerable burden
or at the very least constant source of irritation. For this reason, we think
it is best to strip away a bit of the claim to universal validity these inter-
nalized views tend to have. We do so by working together with the client
system at understanding these views in the respective context of the biog-
raphy and thought patterns of the original master (the witness). For wit-
ness testimonies, the oft-repeated statement of Maturana and Varela is still
true: Everything is said by an observer . This reduces and qualifies the
general validity of this construction: It is deconstructed.
Deconstruction, as Goolishan defined it, means disassembling the as-
sumptions behind the interpretation of the original meaning system and
challenging the interpretation system to the extent that all suppositions on
which the model is based become clear for everyone to see. And while they
are being exposed, space is created for other, alternative explanations (An-
derson and Goolishan, quoted after de Shazer, 1994, p. 70).
That is exactly what we are doing when we use the descriptions provided
by witnesses to get at their background, their views, their assumptions and
their biography. Previous constructions that only led to dead-ends lose their
power. A similar line of thought is conveyed in the Buddhist saying: If
you meet Buddha on the road, kill him. Of course, not every inner au-
thority needs to be disposed of immediately. The important part is discov-
ering the various inner authorities, dealing with them and evaluating their
statements in order to allow new paths and actions to arise.
Situations discussed during counseling always exist within a certain cul-
ture and social context. Sometimes we tend to ignore this point and see
things too individually or too psychologically. This is true limited to work
with foreigners, but it is there that it becomes most apparent. By working
with witnesses we learn to appreciate the impact cultural demands have
on everyday life and can use that knowledge in counseling.
Certainly, the cultural dimension carries more weight in our work with
people from more traditional cultures than in counseling people fromWest-
ern, postmodern societies. Lvi-Strauss (1966, 2012) pointed out the dif-
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ferences between cultures and spoke of hot and cold cultures: The
hot culture, in his opinion, is a more traditional one that takes the fact
for granted that children will live as the generations before them have lived
a culture in which life is seen as a circle, where the past and tradition
provide orientation for proper behavior. People living in such a culture do
not question norms, for that would mean breaking a taboo and stepping
outside cultural norms. This is not meant to dramatize the situation, but
to point out the practical relevance of, for example, second-generation mi-
grant adolescents becoming outcasts of their own families by not adhering
to the traditions of the country of origin. Such family members may be
ostracized, leading in some extreme cases to killings or suicides.
Our Western culture, on the other hand, is a cold culture by Lvi-
Strauss terms, because we assume that our children will live a life very
different from our own. Life is less of a circle and more of a developmental
line leading to the future. Within our culture, there is generally no taboo
regarding acting differently than ones parents. We have the right to define
ourselves differently than our tradition had envisaged without extracting
ourselves from our native culture. Yet it is important for us, too, to have
some sort of orientation only that most of us have but many systems of
orientation at our disposal rather than just a single one. When counseling
Westerners, the challenge is to uncover the various orientation possibilities
and to work with them.
Exploring the values represented by the cultural context of the respective
client system and this is true for all clients regardless of their heritage
is a meaningful step, albeit against very different backgrounds. Working
with witnesses can be a very important tool in this regard.
A rudimentary form of with witnesses can also found within the tech-
nique of circular questioning, when we explore the external view of per-
sons who are not participating in counseling. True work with witnesses,
however, is a more direct way of addressing these external descriptions
since it moves them into the focal point of counseling and demands a con-
crete switch of roles not just a cognitive change of perspective. The result
is a much more intense and vivid confrontation with alternative perspec-
tives and narrations than could possibly be achieved through individual
circular questions. Also, the next step of working with witnesses, i.e., the
deconstruction of these perspectives, is also not possible with circular
questioning alone.
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5.6 ModelingBehavior:Behavior-OrientedInterventions
5.6 Modeling Behavior: Behavior-Oriented Interventions
The title of this section may sound strange to many systemic counselors. For those
equipped with knowledge of second-order cybernetics and the impossibility of
instructing a system, it may sound rather heretical to include methods in the sys-
temic toolbox that require the counselor to instruct the clients on what to do or
not to do.
We plead for expanding the systemic toolbox to contain direct, behavior-ori-
ented and experience-evoking methods. We advocate rehabilitating some of the
earlier methods, looking at them in a new light and modifying them by the mod-
ern paradigms of systemic theory in order for them to become valuable members
of the family of systemic approaches.
Background Text: Helping in Word and Deed: Is That Still Systemic?
From the established systemic textbooks it would seem that systemic meth-
odology consists mainly of well-constructed questioning techniques, com-
ments, metaphorical word games, and various forms of sculpturing/forma-
tion. The goal of such interventions is to destroy the previous system
balance, accompanied (at most) by certain suggestions or invitations
to change to which the system reacts by autopoietically reorganizing itself
(or not).
But that was not always the case: Minuchin (2012, p. 106 ff.) spoke rather
freely of restructuring the family, by which he meant interventions that
challenge a family in the attempt to force a therapeutic change. (. . .) Ther-
apy cannot be performed without joining, but it will not be successful without
restructuring. Haley and Madanes taught their pupils to give instructions.
For example, Haley (2007, p. 54 ff.) titled the second chapter of his volume
Giving Directives and said the main goal of therapy was to get the clients
to behave differently and in this way to achieve different subjective experi-
With the development of constructivist and narrative approaches in sys-
temic circles, such ideas were forced out of the limelight. Speech, conver-
sation, and dialog came to be seen as the result and catalyst of human
reality, and, as a logical consequence, interventions became increasingly
focused on verbal descriptions. Yet this was more a process of replacing
than complementing systemic methodology. Behavior-oriented interven-
tions sacrificed their libidinous nature, and among systemic experts it was
no longer considered proper or state of the art to boast about telling par-
ents in family therapy to set boundaries for their children. It is our impres-
sion, however, that this rigid stance has now begun to soften somewhat,
initiated by various developments. On the one hand, systemic approaches
are being accepted in many different social disciplines. At first, this result-
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ed from an inflated idea of therapy, but lately it may be traced more to the
increasing self-confidence of social work in general which has come to
define its own need for systemic approaches. In these disciplines, it is often
futile to suggest initiating processes and then stand off with therapeutic
abstinence and wait to see what happens. Rather, immediate action is often
necessary to assert social norms, and helpers and clients regularly share
the same space in daily life (such as on a closed or open ward). Even with
helpers who go to their clients there is considerable direct contact to the
clients daily processes. Experience also shows that a purely verbal ap-
proach to therapy fails to rouse many clients. Margarete Hecker and Verena
Krhenbhl (from Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences) did pioneer-
ing work in the early 1980s and established and explained many systemic
methods for social work. Recently, numerous publications have dealt with
this theme (Conen, 2011; Herwig-Lempp, 2001, 2002; Hollstein-Brink-
mann, 1993; Hollstein-Brinkmann & Staub-Bernasconi, 2005; Hosemann
& Geiling, 2005; Ritscher, 2005, 2012).
A further influencing factor may be found in concepts for working with
very difficult constellations that require very direct interventions. The suc-
cesses achieved here subsequently caught the attention of the systemic
community. Two approaches, in particular, deserve mention: The Dutch
researcher Maria Aarts developed a method she called Marte Meo, which
has been successful in supporting the development of severely impaired
children and has since been transferred to other areas (Aarts, 2009; Ha-
wellek & von Schlippe, 2011). Haim Omer from Israel presented what he
called parental presence a very helpful method for families involved in
explosive conflicts with their children (Omer & von Schlippe, 2011,
Unrelated to these approaches, Grawe (1999) remarked that continually
updating a problem is an effective factor in successful therapeutic methods,
a principle that manifests itself in many different therapeutic traditions:
Psychoanalytic therapies emphasize that the emotional reliving of ones in-
ner conflicts can lead to healing; in psychodrama problematic situations
are enacted and new solutions are sought through experience; behavioral
therapy has numerous methods that put the client directly in the middle
of fear-producing situations or encourage the client to try out new behav-
iors directly. All of the above serves to point out that the chances for suc-
cess increase if we dont just talk about problems from a safe distance, but
actually try to attack them in an appropriate but direct manner by de-
tailed descriptions that recreate the emotional participation or by working
on the scenes deemed difficult, be it directly or by enactment (see Back-
ground Text in Chapter 2.5).
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5.6.1 Personnel: Who Gets Invited?
Sometimes our respect for a systems autopoiesis goes so far that during the initial
conversation the counselor leaves it completely to the client systemto decide who
attends and who doesnt. In early family therapy there were so-called convening
strategies ways of getting as many family members as possible to come to the
initial session. Of course, by using circular questioning and empty chairs it is
possible to work missing people into the picture, but their physical presence pro-
vides many more (and usually better) possibilities. The counselor must therefore
consider carefully which persons need to be there and act accordingly. This pro-
cedure is clearly not based on what one knows (Who belongs to the problem
system?), but on assumptions and hypotheses (It could be advantageous if I
were to talk with the parents, the children and the grandparents at once.).
Case example: A mother called because of her bedwetting son (see the case example in
Chapter 5.4.3). The counselor requested that the older siblings and the womans hus-
band also come to the initial session, which the woman thought strange. First of all,
they had nothing to do with the problem at hand, and second, it would be embarrassing
for her son to talk about the problem in their presence. The counselor agreed, but stuck
by her request, as she thought it helpful to get an impression of the entire family. She
had often had the experience that particularly those members of the family who werent
directly involved with the problem offered the most interesting suggestions for solutions.
After a few minutes the mother agreed to this request, and so the whole family came
to the first session. It was a very friendly, achievement-oriented family with quick, elo-
quent communication. This initial impression, together with the fact that the bedwetting
had started when the boy entered secondary school, led to the hypothesis that there was
some connection between the symptom and the performance demands made of the boy.
As if he were expressing the need to slow down, to be taken care of, to relax and let
go. Two of his siblings could relate to this framing, which served to exonerate the boy.
This hypothesis, which would not have been possible without the presence of all family
members at the session, proved to be very useful in the course of therapy. Of course, it
was embarrassing to the boy that everyone was there listening, though all had surely
been aware of his bedwetting and knew that he felt ashamed. Talking about it in the
open and under different circumstances was a great relief to him.
Deciding who to invite is a clear intervention in the client system. It can lead to
irritations as well as curiosity. During the initial contact one should respectfully
inquire about who belongs to the immediate family, who else is important to the
family system, and what the others think about the problem. Respectfully
means not forcing this on the clients as standard procedure, but garnering the
cooperativeness of ones partner(s). Alternatively, one can get to know the other
system members at a later point of the counseling process.
Case example: Have you spoken with your husband about the planned therapy? What
does he think about it? And how about your daughter what does she think about your
getting some help?
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It can be helpful to put the problem, the desires for change, the need for care and
responsibility in the foreground and design ones offer around it, if necessary of-
fering only a limited contract. The message is: Everyone is important.
Case example: So youve tried a few things already, and nowyou really want to make some
changes. Well, for that I would need the other family members. Whenever problems
occur in one family member, usually everyone is involved. In order to better help you,
Id like to talk to everyone during the first meeting. Sometimes the other family members,
though apparently uninvolved, have thought a lot about the problem and have good ideas
about what to do to solve it. I can help your child better if I work with both parents.
You are both important, you know the situation best, and especially if you see things dif-
ferently it would be a great help to me to have you both here.
For those of you who think it might be very demanding to work with large families
or systems and thus would rather avoid situations in which everyone is present,
here are two valuable pieces of advice:
Take sides: Taking sides induces the fear in everyone else involved of being con-
fronted their own weaknesses. (Dont you agree that my husband should be
there he always avoids things. Yes, that is common among men. But of
course youre right this time hell have to come. After all, its his son, too,
please tell him that.)
Allude to deeper family problems or even marriage problems: Often there
may be other reasons for a childs problem.
5.6.2 Initial Encounter: The First Few Minutes
How the clients shape the first meeting tells us a lot about the way they are or-
ganized and about the patterns present in the client system (see Chapter 2.5;
Lorenzer, 1983). It also provides us with many opportunities to intervene and to
lay the foundation for working together with the family. There are two generic
principles: create an atmosphere emoting stability (establish emotional security
and trust, clear up structures and framework, support self-esteem) and identify
patterns in the respective system (observation, description of systempatterns and
processes; see Haken & Schiepek, 2010; Schiepek et al., 2001). An open, appre-
ciative approach enables successful counseling and forms corresponding behav-
Take time for every individual member and let themspeak their mind. The mes-
sage is: Everyone is important.
The counselor should listen actively, slowing down the conversation, repeating
what has been said. This conveys the message that everyone has the right to be
understood and to make a valuable contribution. This can revive blocked chan-
nels of communication and, in time, strengthen the interactions in the family
more pointedly than any other direct attempt could.
Note who sits next to whom and develop hypotheses, always checking them by
observing the subsequent interactions.
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The counselor asks the family members about individual resources and invites
them to look at the matter from an alternative viewpoint. This anchors the idea
that even people with very major problems can be the competent authors of their
own life history.
We discussed this topic at length in Chapter 2 (see the section on Initial Inter-
view). The point we want to make here is that the initial encounter already is an
opportunity for intervention, for influence, and paves the way for all future solu-
5.6.3 Using Vehicles: Working Directly on the Scene
When working directly with clients behavior we recommend using the problem
at hand to modify behavior found within the context of the problem. This can
refer to spontaneous scenes observed in the client system, to everyday actions or
to concrete tasks that lie at the transition between client and helper system. Carole
Gammer (see Chapter 4.4.4) coined the term vehicles to describe this interven-
tion: working on a specific theme that metaphorically represents some other sys-
tem pattern and like a vehicle transports messages into the system. That is,
we use the work on one area of behavior because, according to our hypotheses
about the system, it can induce reorganizational and learning processes for other
important system patterns. In hypnotherapy according to Milton Erickson this
method is called utilizing the symptom and goes back to the conviction that
every symptom carries in it the key to the solution.
Case example: A single mother comes to counseling with her 5-year-old daughter and her
10-year-old son. The daughter has begun playing with fire and nearly caused a serious fire
in the apartment. The situation is particularly difficult because the mother has to leave the
children alone in the apartment for a couple of hours every day to go to work. The older
brother has assumed the parent-child role. The mother tries to solve the problem by for-
bidding her daughter from using matches and asking the son to watch out for her. That in
turn leads to heated arguments among the siblings. The counselor gives the girl great credit
for her being so curious and for trying out newthings. During a session she asks the mother
to make a fire with the girl on the balcony and to show her how to deal with it. The son
watches all this with great impatience, always at the ready to jump in and help out. The
counselor speaks to the mother and the boy about what he could do in the meantime and
gives him a task: to draw the family as animals, so that they could all talk about it later.
The counselor frames this task as something that will help her to better understand the
family. The boy agrees, and the mother and daughter have fun making their fire. In the end,
everyone agrees on situations in which the daughter would be allowed to experiment with
matches (beginning with supervised play with the mother). The son would be relieved of
his duty of having to watch out for his sister, particularly with regard to the subject of
matches and fire. While the daughter is on the balcony playing with the matches, the
counselor talks to the mother about how to give her daughter support, to provide her with
the necessary space, and to provide her with gentle guidance. The idea behind this method
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is the counselors hypothesis that playing with fire is a symbol for the excessive amount of
responsibility being shouldered by the brother as well as a cry for attention fromthe mother,
who has little time left to play with her children. This symbol is used directly to encourage
playful behavior in the family and to free the son from his usual parenting role. The coun-
seling session continued with the question of how the family could reserve more time for
play and relaxation. Here, and in the discussion of the sons drawing of the family as animals,
the young boy is integrated and his impulses are adapted to other areas.
In counseling situations many spontaneous scenes can be used to offer clients
direct coaching, to give them the chance to try out alternative behaviors and to
discover what these behaviors feel like in real life.
Case example: During counseling sessions we can request that parents instruct their child
to play silently in the corner and that they set limits when the child keeps interrupting the
conversation. This is especially true when it it is our suspicion that absent or inconsistent
rules are part of the problem at hand, in which case working on setting limits can then take
up the entire time. We also ask the parents what it is like for them to set such limits. We
talk about their worries of upsetting the child, the possible arguments that could ensue
between the parents, about their experiences with these newrules. Newbehavioral patterns
experienced and described by the parents as fitting are reinforced by new tasks.
Case example: During conflict therapy with a group of adolescents we listen to both groups
tell their sides of the story, validate their positions, summarize them, and clarify by asking
precise questions. We ask the other youths to do the same. In particular, we ask the unin-
volved youths to recount their view of things and to help us out. This makes it clear that
there is no either-or, but rather a solution that is valid for all. During the negotiations, once
the initial steam has been blown, we note which statements were hurtful and which added
fuel to the fire and suggest alternatives. We ask the youths to test these alternatives by
saying them out loud. Meanwhile we ask the others to observe the effect of this change of
wording. We also ask whether the individual speaking feels his interests are sufficiently
represent by this nonviolent approach.
Case examples: We ask a couple to decide on the topics to be discussed. This process alone
can be employed as a vehicle for changing communication patterns. A mother and her
son immediately discuss what time the boy should be home at night, and the counselor can
mold their behavior: He suggests that they listen carefully and seriously to what the other
one has to say, validate it, and then express their own position, wishes, desires, and limits.
He encourages them to negotiate rather than slip into the game of launching mutual accu-
In many types of helping situations such as socioeducational family assistance
(see Buggenthin, 2005), family group therapy (Conen, 2011) or Marte Meo ther-
apy (Aarts, 2009; Bnder, 1998; Bnder et al., 2005; Sirringhaus-Bnder, 2011),
the practitioners go to the clients and experience the issues in realtime. They sit
in their living rooms, drink their coffee and get a live performance of everyday
life. Here it can be helpful to address what is happening while its still going on,
and to on it right then and there.
Case example: Buggenthin (2005) and Girolstein (2005) describe how to coach parents
directly to set limits for their adolescent son who has been exhibiting violent behavior
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(toward the parents, too). The counselor works on the parents insecurities and provides
them with concrete suggestions and support. The counselor takes up the parents previous
strategies for attacking the problem, points out where these strategies have been successful
and have proved useful. If fitting, the counselor also discusses topics from the parents
family of origin. This validating approach provides new experiences and gives the parents
impulses for a number of areas: cooperating in other daily tasks; having the courage to set
limits for oneself; experiencing that success sometimes is possible only after a long and hard
struggle. Encouragement is provided to overcome defeat and not to give up: Not everything
works out at the first go.
Case example: In an assisted living institution for the mentally ill some clients have a
messiness problem. Working with such clients can mean giving them reasons to clean up
tackling the problem hands-on and inviting others in their social network to help out.
During this process one can talk about the possible background to this behavior, what the
client sacrifices by putting things in order. And one works on the clients decision of how
he wants the living quarters to look in the future. For example, one could tidy up one room
and leave another as is and then ask the client to get a feel for these two different rooms.
This can serve as preparation for client to make a conscious decision about what life should
literally look like in the future, how to furnish future existence. This method induces
many new thoughts on many different levels: Cleaning up together with the counselor
provides situations for modeling and for the helper to understand why the client is so
attached to such junk. Experiencing the different rooms side by side helps to change ones
perspective and to expand ones action radius. Doing something together also strengthens
the trust between client and counselor, and provides impetus to continue in this direction.
Case example: In socioeducational family assistance we can broach the topic of setting
limits, when we experience how friends, neighbors, relatives, the dog, the chickens or
whatever continually interrupt the conversation. We can acknowledge the lively, animated
atmosphere and the hospitality and follow by inquiring why the parents choose to live this
way. Then we can work out which types of situations are enriched by this open-house feeling
and whether there have been times when the parents themselves have felt that there may
be too many visitors, or whether ther children have signaled that its too much for them.
The next step is to work with them to control such situations. The conversations with the
family helper can serve as trial runs for explaining to drop-in guests that theyve come at a
bad time. The family helper can experience the guests reactions, and those of the parents,
can compliment themon their actions, ask themwhat was difficult and what was easy, what
feelings they had while doing it and then take a closer look at what had happened. (Some-
times people are worried that their friends will reject them or consider them petty or arro-
gant.) This includes connecting their emotional reactions to earlier experiences and inviting
them to learn from them: Back then you needed to be liked and could not set limits. So
lets take a newlook at whether that is still the case today whether your friends will indeed
withdrawfromyou or whether theyll simply adjust. Howcan we go about finding that out?
Case example: In the Marte Meo approach, short videos of everyday events are used to
provide parents with personal coaching in order to register their childrens actions and to
take constructive steps to deal with them. Such coaching is directed toward teaching parents
to read, understand and confirm nonverbal signals and, above all, to provide validation.
Parents are supported in providing their children with guidance, orientation and security,
one step at a time. To the extent that the training is successful in encouraging new parent-
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child interactions, new perspective and feelings of competence arise through behavioral
modification. This effect is particularly valuable in work with children with developmental
disorders or tremendous behavioral problems. Anyone who has seen the videos of Maria
Aarts (EFTA Congress in Berlin, 2004) or Annegret Sirringhaus-Bnder and Peter Bnder
(EFTA Congress 2004, DGSF Congress in Oldenburg, 2005) has experienced quite impres-
sively how these behavioral inputs create room for mutual joy and happiness in previously
stressed relationships. These interventions strengthen fragile relationships, and let love flow
again between the individuals. This approach has also proved fruitful in other contexts, for
example, when working with residents with severe dementia in nursing homes.
Case example: An example of both vehicle development and joining, i.e., the temporary
coupling of the counselor and the client system, was provided by Maria Aarts during a
seminar (2005, personal communication). She related a contract she had received to carry
out a communication training with a group of socially incompetent male adolescents. The
adolescents motivation was not completely clear or indeed always present. Maria Aarts
took the time to informally come into contact with them. While smoking a cigarette in the
cafeteria they chatted about number of different topics, and Maria Aarts learned that the
main issue of interest in their lives was how to get a girlfriend and how to keep her. She
suggested training them in exactly this skill: How do I win over a girl? And how can I keep
her as my girlfriend? She then proceeded to train basic communication skills using this
vehicle: picking up on and pursuing the interests of the other person; listening, asking
questions, showing interest; expressing ones own feelings, showing displeasure in such a
way that the other person can relate to the feeling; sharing joy with another person, etc.
This method had the side effect of improving their overall communication skills for use in
other situations, increasing their self-worth and confidence, and making way for alternative
means of coping with difficult encounters.
This aspect of the Marte Meo training acknowledging and labeling the initiatives
of children can also be implemented in counseling families with small children,
who react intensely to changes in the overall family atmosphere.
Case example: During family counseling the discussion turned to the burden and sadness
of the fathers losses. He showed little emotional response, which was also an issue in the
relationship between him and his wife and their children and had been addressed before.
In the fathers family of origin, sadness and other feelings had been strictly taboo. In coun-
seling, a pattern became apparent: When the situation became emotional and the father
was showing clear signs of being moved (flushed face, watery eyes, body position), his
2-year-old daughter would go over to him with her stuffed animal in hand and ask him to
pet it. We used these signals by pointing out to the father how clearly the daughter was
registering his feelings and how much she wanted to console him. He was able to accept
her physical attempts at giving consolation, but refused any words of comfort. Still it got
him thinking. He began to share more emotions through his behavior and was increasingly
better able to verbalize and share them with his wife. Had these short scenes not taken
place had we not invited the 2-year-old to attend the session everything would have
been considerably more complicated and tedious, and perhaps some aspects never would
have been discovered.
Any systemic counselor knows that interventions can only work if they fit the
clients values, wishes and goals if they tie in with their behavioral patterns and
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address relevant matters in their lives. What we discussed above can be coupled
with further exploration of resources, with questions about exceptions and pos-
sible future solutions (miracle question, etc.). If we know what the clients can do
or used to do and what they dream of doing, we can perhaps come up with better
suggestions for modeling their behavior. In this way, we introduce suggestions
into the system which the clients would not have come up with on their own.
Constructivistic humility, of course, has taught us that in the end clients them-
selves decide what is fitting and what is successful. That can also mean sacrificing
an idea, even if it has been successful in numerous other situations.
5.6.4 Changing Spatial Constellations Working with Limits
As we have already described in the chapter on sculpturing above, the seating
arrangement the spatial constellation can symbolize relationships. This, then,
is not a symbolization induced by the counselor, but rather something we might
call a spontaneous sculpture.
Case example: The 3-year-old little girl clings desperately to her mother. The father sits
apart, near the door, seemingly uninvolved but tense. The 15-year-old son has turned his
chair around and is sitting on it like a knight on his horse. The 11-year-old daughter studies
the rock collection in the dish on a small cabinet in the room. The mother yells at her son
to sit up straight. The father glances at his watch nervously. The mother attacks the father.
The daughter complains of stomach pains (which was the reason the family was there).
Why shouldnt we view this as a sculpture, as a choreography of relationships,
and work with it? The first five minutes of the session have delivered so many
impressions that can serve as material for hypotheses. Especially Minuchin (2012,
p. 174 ff.) and Minuchin and Fishman (1981, p. 189 ff.) suggested working with
spatial constellations and seating arrangements in order to break up habitual in-
teraction patterns and introduce new information into the system.
Case example (continued from above): The therapist emphasizes that everyone was clearly
somewhat nervous and tense at the beginning of this family therapy. He had (through
resource-oriented joining) determined that the 15-year-old, besides the normal grouchiness
of puberty, had many positive sides, for example, that he liked to play with his 3-year-old
sister. The therapist asks him how he thinks his sister is doing and how one could help her
to relax. After a short conversation on this topic, the therapist pays the boy a big compliment
about how much he can empathize with his little sister and asks him to sit down at a small
table with her so that she can do some drawing and relax. The boy agrees, and the therapist
now changes the scene by discussing the stomach pains with the 11-year-old daughter and
her parents. He notices that shes always peering at her siblings out of the corner of her
eye. He asks her how strong the pain is right now, on a scale from 1 to 10. She answers
with 6. He then asks her to go over to her siblings, to play with them or read a book.
After talking to the parents for 5 minutes he asks her again how the stomach pains are
doing. She now says 3. The parents look at each other full of guilt and ask whether it has
something to do with them. This remark is removed from the guilt context and put in the
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help context: I see youre wondering whether youre responsible for your daughters stom-
ach pains. However, it is my observation that everyone in the family is very attuned to his
or her feelings and clearly notes what is going on around them. Everyone expresses this
differently by clinging to the mother, by having stomach pains, by blocking everyone out
and being grouchy. Imagine if someone were here who could translate everyones expres-
sions what would he say this all means? The boy in the corner calls out: Too much
trouble! The mother says: Its all too much for me. For the remainder of the session we
talk about stress in the family. The two older children are now back in the circle, and the
3-year-old continues to draw at her table. Toward the end of the session the therapist
emphasizes how clearly the 3-year-old can expresses herself: When the family talks about
its problems without raising their voices, she can get on with her play without worry.
By changing the seating arrangement and the spatial constellation, we catapult cer-
tain topics to the frontlines and work with them in the sense of challenging the
habitual behavior (Minuchin &Fishman, 1981, p. 190) or, put differently, we have
unsettled things. The change created through this modification leads to changed
experiences and changed behavior. Playing with these aspects implicitly invites the
actors to take on a playful-experimental attitude toward their own problems and
behavior patterns. Such a method has a better chance of succeeding if the counselor
does not remain dead serious, but introduces it with humor and a certain facility:
Case example: Hey, Ive got a crazy idea. I warned you I sometimes have crazy ideas, so
nows your last chance to leave! No one wants to go? OK, lets give it a try.
Similar to the way circular questions lead to toying with ideas and possibilities, this
method can lead clients to play with various constellations and thus increase their
choices. And similar to our work with sculptures, this approach addresses several
different dimensions of experience: cognitive, affective, kinesthetic, actional.
Playing with limits (a classic from Minuchin, 2012)
The counselor asks the parents to sit down next to each other and takes the child
out of the position between them. She can seat children next to herself and ask them
to observe how their mother and father discuss an issue. Or the counselor can ask
a child sitting next to her to give her a nudge when a topic comes up that was not
supposed to be discussed. She can ask parents to observe how siblings negotiate a
dispute. She can invite a father and his son to sit off to the side and observe howthe
mother and sister plan an excursion. She can ask the children to go to a room next
door for 20 minutes while she talks to the parents about a certain topic. She can
leave the room herself and give the clients a task. All of these interventions dem-
onstrate how the counselor changes the setting and plays with the limits: between
the parents and children, between men and women, between generations. This en-
ables new experiences, and the counselor learns from the participants reactions
about their ability to change and where the system is headed.
Nearness-distance regulation
From research on nonverbal behavior we have learned much about how people
regulate their personal territory and what stress reactions are shown when these
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limits are violated. This more or less unconscious regulation of behavior plays a
major role in conversations: Changing the seating arrangement alone (distance,
angle, placement in room: is someone sitting with their back against the wall,
is the escape route cut off, etc.) changes both inner states and behavioral pat-
terns. This often comes as a surprise to clients. For many clients this game takes
on another, completely different meaning: The invitation to take care of oneself
first (Take your time, try to find out where and how you would like to sit, where
you feel best). For many, that is unusual and can strengthen their self-esteemand
Case example: In the nonverbal behavioral patterns the counselor registers a clear uneasi-
ness in the air during a dispute between two adolescent girls. One clearly wants to approach
the other, but the other squirms, remains silent, turns away. So the counselor asks both of
them to place their chairs in away that somehow seems right to them. The two girls shift
their chairs back and forth one wants to come closer, the other wants more distance. After
about 5 minutes they finally find a position acceptable to both. To their surprise, the rest
of the conversation is much more relaxed.
Body position, breathing, movement, gestures
When dealing with matters of contention, one can observe these physical charac-
teristics and invite clients to make small adjustments. Is someone sitting on the
edge of their chair, how fast is their breathing, do their gestures seem menacing?
One can suggest that the parties carry out their dispute while standing or while
taking a walk, whatever works best for them.
Case example: During the counseling of a mother and her 20-year-old adopted daughter it
becomes clear that major conflicts tend to be approached with great fear and caution and
are expressed in terms of moral accusations, particularly by the mother toward the daughter.
Following such censures, the daughter slumps down in her chair, looks at the floor, her
breathing is shallow, she look uncomfortable. Both are sitting facing the counselor. At the
beginning of the second session, he asks them to sit directly opposite each other. During
the conversation he uses a technique known from psychodrama (doubling), whereby the
counselor stands next to the clients and with their consent formulates what he has heard
in their statements. In doing so he pushes the conversation away from the moral questions
and toward the underlying anger. Mother: I think youre just so unthankful. Im so disap-
pointed that you never come home in time for dinner. Therapist: For me it sounds like
and correct me here if Im wrong: It makes me mad when you say youre coming home
for dinner and then you show up an hour late. I look forward to it, go through all that
work, get everything ready, and then I just sit around and wait for you. I dont like that.
More and more, the mother concedes that sometimes she does get a little bit angry about
it. The daughter sits up at these rephrasings, the conversation gains newmomentum. When
the mothers states that shes been addressing issues the wrong way and that she wants to
learn how to do it right, the therapist says, its not his role to show her whats right or
wrong, hes only repeating the undertones he hears in her voice.
Symbolization of people absent
The method used in circular questioning to represent absent system members
(What would X say if he were here?) can be supported by using symbolic repre-
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sentation. Empty chairs can be set up to represent people not present at the session.
This creates an almost playful atmosphere (pretending as if), which can be used
in many different ways. While setting up the chairs one can ask: Where would they
want to sit, would they feel comfortable being here? In certain situations, we can
ask those present what they would like to ask those absent or what they would say
to them. We create a whole new level of experience by asking them to speak to the
empty chair and imagine that a person was sitting there. The effect becomes even
stronger if stuffed animals are used to symbolize absent persons. Especially younger
children are amenable to acting out these playful-metaphorical games.
Setting limits
This can be very direct and sometimes desperately needed. When working with
clients who have a tendency toward violent behavior, we often observe situations
that demand strict spatial limitations.
Case example: A trainee working as a social educational worker describes a conversation
in a family. The problem was that the mother always presented herself as weak and helpless,
and that her 12-year-old son kept on threatening her and sometimes even hit her even
when the social worker was present! When he became frustrated at something his mother
had said he started hitting her. The social worker intervened and put an end to the matter
with physical force: She stepped between the mother and the son and grabbed the son,
holding him back. That was quite risky but worked, since she had known the boy for a
while and had developed a good relationship with him. She sent him to his room and then
spoke with the two separately and then, again, with both at once. The mother viewed this
as a valuable model. But a more important aspect of the experience was that her son could
in fact survive having limits set and that, afterward, he was calmer and more friendly.
Throughout the rest of the counseling they often discussed which of the counselors actions
the mother could adopt.
5.6.5 Presenting the Situation: Staging and Enactment
These methods are well-known from psychodrama (Fryszer, 2005, 2006). The
clients are asked to depict a particular situation. Everyday scenes, but even more
so the main conflict situation itself, are relatively easy to enact with those in-
volved. When working with families, one can usually count on children four years
and older to show considerable interest in this method unlike other more ver-
bose approaches. Any ensuing differences about how a particular scene unfolded
as well as differences in howthe situation was experienced can provide important
stimuli for complementing ones own views.
Case example: Family A. consists of the mother, the father, the daughter Claudia (4 years
old) and the son Peter (7 years old). They have come to counseling because the parents are
worried about Peter, who is very anxious, especially in school, where is afraid of some of
the boys in his class. As early as in nursery school he was wary of the wilder, more aggressive
boys, but recently hes been having nightmares and sometimes even refuses to go to school.
He wakes up at night and cries out so loud that the whole family wakes up. During the
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first session the counselor asks howsuch a scene develops during the night and then requests
that the family reconstruct the scene in the therapy room. The childrens and parents
bedrooms including their respective beds are set up using chairs and blankets. The family
members lie in their beds and act as if they were sleeping. When Peter cries out, the mother
get up from her bed in the parents bedroom and runs to his bed in the childrens bedroom.
She sits on the edge of his bed and takes Peter in her arms, holding him tightly. Claudia
looks on from her bed, the father lies awake in the parents bed. In this scene the counselor
interviews each participant separately (see below). Claudia is upset that she has to lie alone
in her bed while her mother comforts Peter and takes him in her arms. Peter feels comfort-
able and safe and can no longer remember what he dreamt. In his mothers arms his fear
subsides. On the one hand, Mrs. A. likes holding Peter in her arms and feeling that she is
able to comfort him. On the other hand, sometimes its just too much for her and shed
like to go back to her own bed. Mr. A. is happy that his wife takes care of Peter, although
hed also like to know what is going on in the bedroom next door: He feels left out of the
whole thing. Mr. A. accepts the counselors suggestion and does something he doesnt do
in reality: He goes into the childrens bedroom to see whats going on. While standing in
the door and observing his wife and son, Peter throws him a nasty look, and when the
father actually enters the room Peter begins to cry out: No, I dont want you to come! Go
away! Peters voice is clearer, firmer and louder than usual. The father and mother are
surprised at this reaction. The father stops in his tracks, uncertain what to do. The counselor
interviews the father once again, who expresses his insecurity of whether he should continue
and whose feelings of being excluded have now been confirmed. Hed like to be part of the
action, but also has the feeling he should pull back. Claudia, asked by the counselor about
her feelings, says she likes it that her father has come he should come over to her bed.
At this juncture the scene is stopped.
In the ensuing discussion the children are asked what they liked about the scene and what
they didnt like. Peter says he enjoyed being in his mothers arms and that he liked yelling
at his father. Claudia says she was glad her father entered the scene. The subsequent con-
versation takes place mostly between Mrs. A. and Mr. A. and the counselor. Both parents
are surprised, and to a certain extent glad as well, at Peters unusual behavior and his sudden
change from anxious and whiny to being rather aggressive. During the scene they clearly
noticed that Peter is not as weak as he sometimes appears to be, and that he sometimes
has a big influence on family life. The father, who must spend days at a time away from
home, says that the scene has provided a number of interesting clues to his diffuse feelings
of not belonging in this family. Also, his desire to become part of the action has also become
clear to him. But he also felt his normal tendency to withdraw in order to avoid doing
anything wrong. Claudias jealousy was newto both parents. At the end of the session, Mrs.
A. is unclear about whether she wants to continue to respond to Peters wishes as she used to.
Mr. A. decides he should become more involved in the situation between Peter and his wife.
It became clear to both the family and the counselor that Peters symptom was having a
major effect on family life. Both parents were encouraged to deal with the question of how
they wanted to shape their roles as mother and father and where they sawa need for change.
This prompted a basic willingness in the family to continue working on the matter together
rather than viewing it as Peters problem alone. Thus, in the sense of the systemic ap-
proach, a major goal of the initial contact had clearly been met.
A counselors so-called aside interview and the enactment of a possible future
scene are intervention techniques taken frompsychodrama. During such an inter-
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view, the counselor questions the clients and asks them to speak indirectly, i.e.,
away from the scene (aside), about what they are now feeling but would other-
wise keep to themselves. This method helps clients to address the situation, and
it also helps the counselor to understand what is going on in the individual actors.
It supports open communication by introducing things into the scene which the
family members had previously not communicated of their own accord. The mo-
ment something has been said as an aside, i.e., without looking at the others, it
becomes part of the family members communication. This method enables the
individual family members to gain a better understanding of their feelings, needs,
points of view with regard to the experience and the way these differ from those
of the other members of the family.
The aside interview described in this case example led the counselor to employ
a further method from psychodrama, namely, the enactment of a fictitious future
scene in which a family member tries out something new. Here, the father gives in
to his need to come to the others in the childrens bedroom and to see whats going
on. Such a method is especially fruitful when working with families, as it gives them
the chance to explore how the others would experience it and react when one actor
behaves differently than usual. Afurther application lies in anticipating major future
changes and their potential effects on family life, for example, when a child moves
out or when a new child is about to be born into the family. This method can some-
times help the family to better evaluate situations and to make the right decision,
say, whether a child should be put in a foster home or boarding school. Sometimes
family members need to develop new approaches to their roles and try them out in
a dry run, so to speak. Imagining and enacting drastic changes in the family can often
bring clarity with regard to the familys resources and limits before the actual event
has even happened. If the entire systemis present, then such testing of future events
can be very realistic. Through the enactment of these future scenes, the counselor
helps the family to seek solutions oriented toward the future and to experiment with
the possible consequences in a playful fashion.
This approach requires careful preparation, and must be fitted to the system
in question it should not demand too much of them (Im not a good actor).
In our experience most clients, even if at first they are rather reserved toward
doing such enactments, eventually warm to the technique of monologs and aside
interviews. Depending on the situation, the counselor can suggest different levels
of intensity and participation.
Case example: The counselor asks the clients to help her better understand what they have
described. She requests that they all stand up and enact the situation. This is not role-playing
as such, but rather a depiction of the spatial context. The clients work while standing, and
perhaps they can depict other elements as well by taking up different positions in the room
(Dad is sitting on the sofa, and next to him are his two sons, theyre watching television.
And now, what happens when Mom enters the room and says dinner is ready where does
she stand when she says this? Oh, I see, back here . . .). The counselor lets the actors play
the scene as it more or less happened (And how exactly did the argument go: When you
said Say it now. OK, thank you, and what did you answer?).
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If one wants to weaken the interaction patterns that are causing the problems, it
can be helpful to carry them to the absurd: The counselor can ask those present
to exaggerate a certain behavior and to act it out as such. Or the counselor intro-
duces absurd elements: dramatic gestures, large distances. This presumes that the
relationship between the counselor and the clients is good, and that the counselor
likes to take risks, be experimental about things and is comfortable with such
methods. Acting as if introduces an inner distance to what is expressed and
makes it all experimental and unreal, changing the mental perspective of pre-
vious interactions. The actors can no longer slide into their usual problem-causing
patterns since the interactions that now take place are viewed against an absurd
or funny background. Clients often report that, once back home, they revert to
their old behavioral patterns and then have to laugh at themselves when they
think about the enactment that went very differently during the counseling ses-
A similar effect can be found in role-change, where clients are asked to assume
the role of another person. This, too, is possible only when great trust has already
been established, since it presumes that noone will use the situation to demean
someone else or showcase how awful that person acts. If properly used, however,
this method can help the actors to better understand other roles and see what it
feels like to walk in the others shoes. This is also an excellent source of empathy
training and generally raises clients social competence.
Such role-playing situations can be used for experimental purposes. New role
behavior can be modeled through mutual interaction and then tried out and deep-
ened in a subsequent enactment.
Case example: Counselor to client: What would that look like himsaying what he doesnt
like without insulting you? To the partner: Could you please try that out for me?
We can ask clients to portray such changes during the counseling session in order
to compliment them (in the sense of cheerleading, see Chapter 5.11.2).
This method can even be employed during individual therapy to induce emo-
tional concentration. Here, we work with empty chairs that symbolize the most
important persons in the clients life. Clients can attempt to attack difficult mat-
ters, to express what they previously could not express. An example is the uncen-
sored expression of anger previously held back. The results can be quite surpris-
ing: New perspectives turn up; or it can be good to just get it off your chest; or
the client discovers (to his or her own surprise) that the problems purported to
be causing ones anger are not as important as previously assumed. One can also
try out a number of variations. Sometimes it is more effective to voice things
directly rather than talking about them. This triggers emotional-affective process-
es that may lead to more clarity and, above all, are easier to remember.
All of these methods introduce an element of movement, humor or playfulness
to our work. They activate creative problem-solving in difficult situations. In the
sense of Grawes functional factors, these methods have further advantages: They
represent powerful tools for updating problems and for raising clients emotional
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involvement, which, according to neurobiological research, is an important pre-
requisite for building new, alternative neural pathways. And they contribute to
long-lasting and strong visual and kinesthetic impressions that can serve in ev-
eryday life as anchors for possible alternatives.
However, all of these methods must be closely adaptedtothe client systemtoavoid
imposing a foreign element and effecting negative resistance or withdrawal tenden-
cies. In this sense they are more demanding than purely verbal methods since they
require constant and careful monitoring of the process on both the nonverbal and
physical level. When using these methods, we must avoid giving the impression that
we are teaching the client somethingabout what is right. This may be the trickiest
aspect. It is our experience that one can indeed work very effectively with this meth-
od, but that well-founded systemic modesty is also necessary. The whole process
must be designed in a way that maintains the focus on trying out new things. We
must continually ask the clients (and ourselves) whether what we are doing befits
them or not. This in turn, as a sort of bonus, reinforces the clients self-esteem. 5.7 ModellingCont exts:Net-Work
5.7 Modelling Contexts: Network
After a long period of time in which concepts of individual cases and therapeutic
approaches to psychosocial work stood at the forefront of interest, social networks
have recently witnessed a comeback (Altmeyer & Krger, 2003; Herwig-Lempp,
2004; Rhle et al., 1998; Zwicker-Pelzer, 2010). It is amazing that such concepts
are once again considered modern. As far back as when Alice Salomon laid the
foundations of social work over 100 years ago, social networks were already deemed
necessary to provide support tohumans among themselves (Zwicker-Pelzer, 2010,
p. 366). There is a long tradition in social work of community work, as witnessed by
community psychology (Sommer, 1982; Sommer &Ernst, 1988) and by family ther-
apy (Speck &Attneave, 1987). Working with and modeling social contexts is, in our
opinion, a basic part of systemic work. In the light of the value of social networks in
general, it would contradict our understanding of our own discipline to limit social
systems to just families. Of course, this approachis more challenging, demands more
know-how, andfinancial coverage is not always guaranteed. Not all forms of systemic
training include work with networks. Nevertheless, including a clients social net-
work in ones work can be of great value and expands the realm of the possible
solutions immensely.
At the 1986 family therapy congress in Brussels, Johan Klefbeck and his col-
leagues introduced an interesting model of network therapy used in a social hot-
spot (see Klefbeck, 1998). When individuals or clients were confronted with cri-
ses, Klefbeck and his co-workers included the clients friends, colleagues,
neighbors and other important persons in the counseling process. Sessions were
held with groups 20 to 30 persons, in the hopes of activating the resources pre-
sent in this network to discover solutions. Such a session is prepared by taking
stock of the relevant network together with the clients, and preparing a network
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map containing the symbols often used in genograms or family maps. The net-
work map can be divided up into several sectors, and individuals are entered
according to how close the clients feel them to be. Relationships are represented
by lines and other symbols. This results in a map that can depict the relevant
persons beyond the usual (fragile) family system, which in turn provides stressed
family members with the hope of establishing contacts in other areas. Herwig-
Lempp (2004) collapsed these and other models into his so-called VIP map,
which sounds better to most clients. Figure 29 depicts both models side-by-side.
Such a map should always be constructed with an eye toward the envisaged
goal and benefit: A geological map of Europe is of little use for hiking through
the woods. We therefore suggest trying card on yourself first and then using it to
answer the following questions.
Once all relevant persons have been collected, one can venture the first cau-
tious hypotheses based on this visual impression (see the case example below).
The following questions can be important for proper application. They refer to
network dimensions that provide important indications of functioning social sup-
port both in research and practice (see Sommer & Ernst, 1988):
Content: What are the most important types of social relationships in my life
(friendship, collegiality, family)? Under what circumstances are they more or
less important?
Density: How many contacts are there in my network? Do I have a few strong
connections or many weak ones (or vice versa)? Reliable or unreliable contacts?
Accessibility: How quickly can I reach a network partner? Does anyone live in
my immediate vicinity? Could I get them out of bed if I needed someone to talk
to? Or do we only meet by chance, every couple of weeks or so?
Compatibility: Does my network offer me support in my present stage of life?
Or do I need to approach other networks or build completely new ones? If I am
Figure 29: Network map and VIP map
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a single mother, do I know other mothers with whom I can exchange tips and
baby clothes or just have a good talk? If I am in training, do I know anyone else
in a similar position?
Reciprocity: Is the relationship balanced, with both sides giving and taking? Or
am I just a giver? Or do people withdraw because I demand too much and give
too little?
Stability: Can the relationships withstand droughts and crises? Or are they
merely fair-weather affairs?
Following this thorough inventory one can invite the important persons in the
network to help in solving the problem at hand.
Case example: Clo Madanes (personal communication, 1989) reported on a young man
who had made several dramatic suicide attempts near the apartment of his earlier girlfriend.
A family session showed that the young man was rather isolated: His father was no longer
present in his life, though there were two uncles he knew well from childhood. In light of
the preceding dramatic events, Clo Madanes invited them to take a couple of days off from
work to help take their nephews mind off his negative thoughts and maybe become ac-
quainted with other women. She reported that the three men got along very well, and that
the young man was able to establish new contacts and enjoy the support of his uncles, who
took over the role of the father he had never really had.
If the counselor cant or doesnt want or go this far, perhaps one can work with
the clients on the basis of the network map to strengthen specific parts of the
social network.
Case example: A single mother was sent to counseling by Youth Services because of various
problems her daughter was having. She was in a rather ambivalent relationship with the
girls father. He hit her repeatedly, only to then assure her that he wanted to do better
without concrete results. She was determined to get away from him, came back to him.
The daughter had become very confused and disoriented by this roller-coaster ride. The
woman took good care of her daughter and was attempting to complete occupational train-
ing herself, since she desperately wanted to get off welfare. From what she had reported,
it was clear that she had a very week network. Her network map is depicted in Figure 30.
Working with this map confirmed the hypothesis that her loneliness and her need for the
practical support (driving her to appointments, watching out for the daughter, discussing
her meetings with authorities) were preventing her from getting away from her partner.
The initial steps in counseling thus consisted of expanding her social network. We used her
career aspirations as a framework: If she truly wanted to attend and complete occupational
re-training, she needed neighbors who would support her and support her daughter, who
desperately needed more contacts to help her in school. So she activated old friendships,
moved to another neighborhood and got in touch with other mothers there.
This approach was so successful that in only 6 months she had made the decision to
completely sever the relationship to the daughters father. She entered a training program,
and the problems the girl had had in school got better the more solid the living arrangements
became. There were even matters the mother was able to solve on her own ones the
counselor had planned to help her with. Another mother in the neighborhood became her
good friend and was a great help in her daughters upbringing.
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The map can be drawn up together during a session or alone by the client at
home. It is especially valuable when it prompts the client to tell stories, to remem-
ber, to think back. The network often does not reveal itself in its entirety until
one enters this phase of the counseling process and one story leads to the next.
Its similar to working with sculptures or the family board where symbols repre-
sent individuals in the family who can be moved around until they find their
proper position. With the network map, too, one must strike a balance between
clarity and completeness. 5.8 Externalization
5.8 Externalization
By employing externalizing interventions we provide problems or internal pro-
cesses with a symbolic form. This can occur with words or with actual objects.
This method was introduced to family therapy by the Australian researcher Mi-
chael White (White & Epston, 1990). Such techniques were developed in hyp-
notherapy according to Milton Erickson to give form to symptoms or other phys-
ical/mental phenomena. A wart is depicted as a dodgy guy who leads the way to
important, dormant desires (Lenk, 1988); a stomach ache becomes a hard lump
and then a loudspeaker that can express important messages (Prior, 2012, per-
sonal communication). In the German-speaking countries many authors used
these symbolizations early on, for example when speaking of depression as a vis-
itor whom one invites in and can just as easily ask to leave again (Weber et al.,
Figure 30: Network map of a single mother
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Case example: A classic, often-cited example is the therapy of an encopretic boy described
by White (White & Epston, 1990, pp. 60 ff.), who in the course of his conversations with
the boy and his family gave his habit of soiling the bed the figure of a sneaky poo.
Thereafter, the therapy concentrated on determining all the things this monster could do,
the times he typically showed up (and the times he didnt), and what effect he had on the
boys life and his family. Basically, these are the same questions we used for an exploration
or intervention (see Chapter 2.4 and 5.3), the difference being that they are now related to
an imaginary being instead of directly to the problem or desired solutions. It became clear,
in time, that the sneaky poo had the effect of isolating the child from other children and
making it difficult for everyone to see the positive and interesting sides to him. It meant
stress for his parents and their marriage, and kept the family from inviting friends and
neighbors over. It also destroyed the happy moments between the mother and her son, and
so forth. But the boy also said that there were times when the monster did not come or
was successfully banished. Based on these descriptions, and on the exceptions mentioned,
a number of interventions were possible. For one, the counselor was able to work with the
family on reining in the negative influence of the monster. How could the mother and son
experience good moments despite occasional visits by the monster? How could everyone
in the family continue to stay in touch with their friends? It was important that the parents
recognized the boys strengths and enjoyed having him around. Further, the counselor used
the symbolization to figure out what the family and the boy could do to banish the monster
from their lives.
In externalizations, we begin with the clients descriptions and work with them
at finding or creating a symbolic form for the problem. This can also occur in the
form of a question:
Case example: If this inner voice were a being what would it be? If this depression
were a human being who always popped up at the worst possible times, what kind of person
would that be?
Such a symbol can have the form of a human being, a mythical or fantasy creature,
or some other object. Instead of asking the client, one can also make a suggestion
and observe how the client reacts, whether the suggestion is acceptable or not.
Case example: When you speak about the anger that overcomes you again and again, it
makes me think of a tiger whos lashing about with his claws out. The way you describe
your daily life reminds me of someone whos always carrying around a full bag of stones
on his back and keeps inviting other people to put more stones in the bag.
Sometimes it may be better to use questions in advance to invite the client to
describe the aspects or scenes in concrete terms. Symbolization can then be em-
bedded more organically into the conversation.
Case example: Your stomach pains, are they more warm or cold, sharp or blunt? What
color do they have? Do they feel large or small? So, there is this sharp, cold, red object,
this tiny but fierce thing that goes on a rampage in your stomach. If this object were a kind
of being, what kind of creature or animal would it be? What comes to your mind as youre
describing it?
Case example: And this voice that keeps repeating to you: Dont let them jerk you around,
dont let them rip you off! where does it come from, from behind you or from the front?
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Oh, I see, from behind you. This may be a little difficult for you, but it would be helpful
to me if you could be more precise does it come from the left rear or the right rear side?
Is the voice male or female, high- or low-pitched? And what does it say, exactly does it
always repeat itself or does it say different things? And if you were to look over your right
shoulder right now after hearing that deep male voice and someone were standing there
who would it be? Could you identify his face?
Some clients need time to get used to such procedures. That is, we sometimes need
to overcome resistance and garner the clients acceptance for such unusual (strange,
crazy) questions and statements. It helps if weve already established a good and
trusting rapport that can withstand such cheekiness and weird ideas. When over-
coming such obstacles be sure to stay attuned to what might make it easier for the
client. It might help to mention their children and the advantages of baby talk. Or
to comment that others benefited fromtalking about everything in a whole newway.
Case example: I like to use this comparison when talking about the problemsince children
better understand that. Can you live with that? Recently, in a family with very similar
problems, this method had a surprisingly good effect, and it was very helpful to imagine
that the depression was an unwanted guest who repeatedly came uninvited. Now Id
like to confront you with a really crazy idea. Lets assume your bed soiling is a mythical
creature that always seems to be bothering you. What do you think it would look like?
Once a symbolization has been introduced and accepted by the clients, the coun-
selor can proceed in various directions:
Asking about exceptions to the rule and what helps to keep the unwanted guest
at bay.
Determining together with the clients what can be considered useful about the
monsters visits.
Working out what helps drive away the monster.
Asking clients to go and find the objects they used for their symbolization and
to deal with them for a while.
Case example: Based on the advice given by Gunter Schmidt (personal communication,
1991, reprinted in Schmidt, 2010, p. 285 ff.), the counselor suggested to the client to pro-
cure a number of bricks and to carry them around with her. She had the habit of weighing
herself down with things, shouldering them with great patience, but then sliding into de-
pressive moods. The client found the idea rather strange, but the counselor thought it might
be interesting if she experienced her situation very concretely what its like to let others
pile so much on your back. He said it was important that she stick it out for the next 3
weeks, until the next session which she did, reporting that she became very angry with
the counselor after about 10 days, because hed given her such a stupid task. She became
so angry that once, while in town, shed taken the bricks and thrown them with vehemence
into the next available waste basket. That made her feel lighter, in every sense of the word.
During the next session she reported that, in the days following this incident, she had
withdrawn from her parents on one occasion, and from from her girlfriends several times,
who always were asking her for some favor. Thereafter, the discussion turned to whether
this aggressive act (which was untypical of her) might serve as a reminder that she has a
right to set limits to others.
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Such a method can also include asking clients to imagine their inner states as real
beings, obtaining symbolic figures and talking to them.
Case example: While counseling a man who had sought help because of stress symptoms
it became clear to the counselor that the man was putting tremendous demands on himself
to complete every task perfectly and quickly. But this behavior was also causing him to
neglect his family and his hobbies and himself. He was aware of the fact that this self-made
stress was the result of his ambitions, which led him to do everything with 150% commit-
ment and accept help from no one. During the conversation, one particular figure kept
popping up to depict his inner motives: a pastor clothed in black, with the name of better
safe than sorry (his father had been a Protestant cleric). He also found a figure to depict
the other side of this coin, called just chill out: a little devil figure. The counselor and the
client talked a while about the meaning of the Devil as a fallen angel, and the counselor
told him a story from a book by Peter Ustinov (The Old Man and Mr. Smith) describing
some funny scenes where God and the Devil need each other. Toward the end of the session
the client was given the task of buying toy representations of these two figures and talking
to them every evening for about 20 minutes and review the events of the day. Maybe they
would tell him who had the upper hand on that particular day, and why that was necessary,
and how they envisioned the competition between better safe than sorry and just chill
out. Just talking about this task was itself a source of amusement, and during the next
session the client reported enjoying the whole thing very much, thinking up scenes in which
the devil deceived the pastor. These externalized dialogs were the starting point of two
important processes: finding a new balance in life and recalling important scenes from his
childhood. Working through these childhood memories also helped him find a healthy level
of stress in his life.
Symbols can also be used as reminders of important advances and changes in life,
as externalized forms of important goals and intentions, so to speak.
Case example: In management coaching, a client reported that it was important to her to
demand more of her subordinates and reduce her tendency of giving in to every request
brought her way, showing sympathy for the employees problems while neglecting her own
needs. She chose a stone from the counselors collection and put it on her desk. It was both
an object of decoration and a very effective reminder for her not to lose track of her own
Background Text: How Do Externalizations Work? Plus: A Warning!
Externalizations work in a similar way as reframing: They allowthe situation to
be seen from another vantage point and create a playful distance between one-
self and problems experienced as very serious and difficult. The problem (e.g.,
burdening oneself too much) receives its own symbolic expression (bricks in
ones pockets). Dealing directly with these symbols (becoming angry at the task
and throwing off the load) transitions to doing the same with the real everyday
burdens. Adifficult and exhausting internal conflict (to chill out or to be perfect
at all tasks) takes on a visible form. And even if this new form leads the whole
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5.9 MetaphorsandStories
5.9 Metaphors and Stories
Why people love metaphors and stories, Saadi, a Persian poet, already knows:
Sometimes we cant avoid science, mathematics and learned discussion, which
help us to further develop human consciousness. But sometimes we also need
poems, chess and stories, so that our mind can experience joy and refreshment
(quoted after Peseschkian, 2007, p. 9).
situation ad absurdum, it keeps the inner struggle from going on as before: If
the client allows himself to become involved with the conflict, the latter is cou-
pled to the externalized game, resulting in amusement and some distance and
new perspectives: New approaches to solutions become evident. The playful,
humorous nature of this method allows clients to confront themselves with
sometimes repressed resources from their childhood and to (re)discover their
own playful creativity. All of which is necessary if behavioral patterns are to be
changed. The playful nature of this method comes in handy especially in system-
ic work with children, since they often use symbolic, magical forms of thought
to process their experiences. Child therapy with psychodrama consciously em-
ploys this method and uses symbols to improve childrens understanding and
cooperation. The more negative, shameful sides of symptoms recede into the
background, making the whole thing a lot more fun. Furthermore, important
unconscious matters can now be expressed, they become present in everyday
life and can encourage new decisions.
Michael Whites suggestions to find masquerades for symptoms (sneaky
poo) are in themselves creative contributions to and expansions of the in-
terventional repertoire of systemic therapy. However, they also carry the risk
of viewing annoying problems only (or preponderantly) in a negative light:
All things bad must be overcome. This can cause us to neglect the fact that
such problems may actually be meaningful within their overall context. As
described above, however, these aspects can be brought into focus by playing
with symbols.
Background Text: Using Stories in Therapy and Counseling
Stories have always belonged to popular psychotherapy dealing with conflicts,
long before psychotherapy became a scientific discipline (Peseschkian, 2012,
p. 17). Stories were, and still are, elements of counseling in all cultures. They
help people to see things differently, to accept new solutions to their problems,
to adapt to what cant be changed, to find solace. In this regard, the Oriental
storyteller, the griot (traveling musician) of many African societies, the mother
or father who tells their child a fairytale, the writer who composes a carefully
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We have a wealth of different ways to work with metaphorical elements. For
example, we can
choose and adapt stories from the realm of fables,
offer reports on the way earlier interventions went,
tell our own (or slightly adapted) stories and anecdotes about things that have
happened elsewhere or in the past,
work with maxims and mottos.
crafted tale all play a similar role. In psychotherapy, stories and metaphors
were quickly adopted as part of the repertoire. We would like to mention a few
of the authors who made a substantial contribution to this process and to whom
we owe a great debt for providing many impulses.
The first is the great Nossrat Peseschkian, who collected Oriental stories for
use in psychotherapeutic work (e.g., Peseschkian, 2012, 2007a, 2007b). The
second is Milton H. Erickson, who in his own brand of hypnotherapy often
reverted to such methods and whose pupils carried on this tradition and laid the
foundation for a rich collection of stories and metaphors (Lankton & Lankton,
1989; Trenkle, 2010, 2013; Zeig, 1980). In systemic therapy, narrative ap-
proaches (Anderson & Goolishian, 1990, 1992) are best employed with the
thought in mind that human systems are, above all, linguistic systems that per-
petuate themselves through the repetition of stories and tales. This tradition
encourages clients to tell their stories, whereupon the counselor tries to use and
rework these stories with questions, comments and reframing.
But stories and metaphors can also be introduced when more direct inter-
ventions are met with resistance. They address the more unconscious, eidetic
processing of information. Peseschkian (2012, pp. 30 f.) speaks of depot ef-
fects: By stimulating our imagination, stories remain in our memory longer
and are more easily retrieved in everyday situations. They go under the radar
of clients resistance, and clients can adapt and interpret them as best meets
their needs. In Peseschkians transcultural method they have the role of trans-
porting traditions and conveying information transculturally. People from the
Orient have always used stories to lay open the resources of their homeland,
to remind themselves of their traditions and values, and to motivate them-
selves to consciously face the question of which values one wants to maintain
in the newhome country. People fromthe West viewsuch stories as a treasure
chest of alternative viewpoints and behaviors.
Stories can also serve as regression aids (Peseschkian, 2012, p. 32). They
loosen up the situation, provide contact with childhood behavioral patterns
and recall lost resources, encourage creativity and a humorous approach to
reality, invite one to fantasize, and provide the necessary space to develop
alternative visions and utopias. They ideally complement short-term ap-
proaches such as the magical question or imaginations of the future.
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The following list of action mechanisms and applied uses for metaphors refers
expressly to the works of Peseschkian (2012) and Zeig (1980).
5.9.1 Joining: Stories Can Be Useful
During the sometimes tense initial session(s) of counseling, stories or anecdotes
can help the clients relax and break the ice. They create trust and confidence
and thus support the overall process of counseling.
Case example: To a mother who was ashamed to be coming to counseling at all, but who
had tackled many new tasks in her lifetime, we told the following story: If you want
something youve never had, you must do something youve never done. From a resources
point of view this story is not quite politically correct, since it assumes that the desired
goals, at some point in time, already existed or were within reach. But for this woman this
little piece of wisdom corresponded quite well with her present situation (never having
been to counseling) and her experiences (bold and risky new beginnings). She laughed,
then became thoughtful, and was finally able to relax and engage in the conversation that
followed. Similar effects often lie in personal anecdotes that fit the clients personal expe-
riences: When working with fathers who work in the construction business, I (R. S.) some-
times tell them that I myself once worked in road construction. If appropriate, I tell the
rather embarrassing little story of how we students once drove the companys bus into the
ditch and one of the regular workers had to bail us out. That can loosen up the atmosphere
and carries with it the message that even counselors need a little help from their friends
sometimes, and that everyone in the room is in possession of a special set of resources.
5.9.2 Illustrating Stories, Encouraging Insights, Mirroring
People who are caught up in their old habits often find it difficult to see the
meta-level and to objectively view their own contribution to the conflict. In such
situations, stories can help to set up a mirror for themto look into without being
confrontational about it. Clients can always say that the story is nice, but theirs
is different. Even if the counselor retreats and agrees, the story is now out in the
open and may have a longer shelf life than expected.
When dealing with quarrelling couples or other conflictual parties that are trying
desperately to win us over as judges or allies, one can tell the following well-known
Case example: A rabbi is approached by a bickering couple. The husband describes the
situation to him. The rabbi nods after some consideration and says: Youre right! The
man is overjoyed at this news and tells his wife what the rabbi has said to him, whereupon
the wife runs to the rabbi full of indignance and tells her side of the story, to which the
rabbi says: Youre right! Back home, she reports this to her husband, who in turn goes
back to the rabbi and angrily says: Rabbi, you said I was right, and an hour later you tell
my wife shes right you cant do that! To which the rabbi says after some thought: Youre
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Islamic tradition tells a similar story (Peseschkian, 2012, p. 28). The bafflement at
this unusual turn of events causes clients to recognize their own dogmatic position.
They are able to assume the metaposition and think about their situation more care-
fully: What if both of us were in the right, without the counselor having said so.
Case example: When coaching managers who make very high demands of both others and
themselves and have difficulty delegating things, I (R. S.) often tell the story of a similar
coaching situation I experienced many years ago: The head of a clinic was having massive
problems with job stress. He was a quick thinker and usually came up with good solutions
to problems that cropped up. When the team analyzed the situation, it turned out that this
mans quick wit had in fact led to a sort of passivity on the part of the other managers. One
head physician said with a sly grin that during meetings, they had learned to wait after the
problem had been presented until the boss had offered his solutions which came quickly
and were nearly always quite useful. This pattern of interaction caused the clinic head to
assume that the whole responsibility for coming up with solutions lay with him, which of
course also matched his idea of leadership.
This story always produces a discussion about ones own managerial style and the
interaction patterns in ones own team. The good thing about it is that it doesnt
actually describe deficits, but rather the very special talents of the clinic head.
5.9.3 Encouraging a change of perspective
Stories, metaphors and jokes have been used for centuries to effect surprising and
sometimes eye-opening changes in perspective, something that can then be acti-
vated in therapy and counseling as well.
Case example: I tell clients who always see themselves as victims and whom I (R. S.) would
like to invite to assume more responsibility the following story, which I experienced in my
judo training: We were attending a week-long judo workshop with an older Japanese trainer
and were in the process of practicing freeing ourselves from handholds on the floor. We
were lying in twos on the floor, my partner put me in a grip, a sort of stranglehold, and I
was to try to implement the escape trick we had learned which wasnt working out at all.
I was busy trying to loosen my opponents grip around my neck struggling intensely but
with little success when the trainer stepped up to us and gave me a clout on the head: If
you want to move your partner, move yourself. Then he went off again to someone else.
Japanese trainers are said to consider their knuckles and powerful words to be effective
didactic means of getting their message across. In any case I was lying there, at once upset
and rather disoriented when it donned on me that, indeed, I had concentrated solely on the
stranglehold (it was a rather tight fit), leaving the rest of my body dangling as if paralyzed.
I started to become more active, to change the angle, to get away from my opponent with
my legs and lower body, to grasp his legs with mine. The result was that he had to continually
refit the hold in order not to lose it. The whole situation took on a new dynamic, and in a
moment of carelessness on his part I slipped away.
The saying If you want something, look for a way; if you dont want something,
look for an excuse says about the same thing but is not suited for many clients
due to its drastic and confrontative wording.
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Sometimes sayings or little poems can present new approaches: Detours raise
your knowledge of the locality is a saying from Vietnam that is applicable to
clients who complain that their life is not smooth enough. Or: How to get God
to laugh? Make some plans!
5.9.4 Stories Cause Searching Behavior and Open up Lost Resources
Telling stories is, formally speaking, akin to hypnosis: A well-formed story makes
the listeners forget about what is going on about them (dissociation). They con-
jure up intensive images, which, like psychotherapy, trigger inner searching pro-
cesses that can free ones own resources and lead to solutions.
Case example: During the counseling of an extremely achievement-oriented client, the con-
versationturnedto his relationshipwithhis father. He describedhis father as a coldandabsent
man. The only chance of getting any attention lay in performing some special feat. Being the
oldest son in the family, he also had the greatest responsibility, so it was understandable why
achievement had become such a major part of his life. I (R. S.) told himthe story of the young
rascal he surely had been and whom he had completely forgotten over the years. This story,
which we then worked on together, dealt with what rascals do with their time, the tricks and
pranks they think up, etc. After developing this story, I gave him the task of looking for this
little rascal in his present world: Every other day he should take about half an hours time to
read childrens books, think about his childhood, talk to his siblings, whatever seem helpful.
In the next session, he reported that he had forgotten the task he had wanted to call me, but
he was too ashamed of himself. Every day he had tried to remember what the task had been.
To my question of whether he had done anything interesting during that time, he said that
one day, after work, he had spontaneously had a pillowfight with his 4-year-old son. That was
not at all like himsince he usually spent the evenings working on the renovation of the house.
Since that day, however, he and his son had played together regularly and had done a number
of idiotic things that were great fun. I congratulated himand said he had solved the task much
better than I had originally envisioned it.
5.9.5 Introducing Possible Solutions Indirectly Through Models
Stories present us with models. They depict conflict situations and suggest pos-
sible solutions or note the consequences of individual attempts. Thus, they rep-
resent a sort of model learning, though the model is not hard and fast, but rather
contains any number of possible interpretations and reflections on ones own sit-
uation (Peseschkian, 2012, p. 29).
The last point is of particular importance to us because many stories contain a
more or less explicit moral and may therefore be rejected, because they appear to
limit choices rather than increasing them. And yet they present an opportunity to
delve into possible behavioral alternatives and their consequences: The depot ef-
fect of such stories can activate certain elements found in various everyday situa-
tions much more than if done on a cognitive level. One can avoid presenting stories
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as linear models of moral commandments, by modifying them(put inother contexts,
add Oriental or fairy-tale elements) to make them appear as an offer.
Case example: When dealing with conflicts, the story of the two donkeys has proved useful:
The two donkeys are attached to each other and try with all their might to reach two racks
of hay located in opposite directions. Since the rope is too short, neither of them reaches
its goal. After thinking for a moment, they decide to go fill their stomachs together,first at
the one pile and then at the other. This metaphor can be used as food for thought for the
next session. Or the counselor uses it immediately by discussing what the rope stands for
What has bound the two antagonists together? and what situation is mirrored by the
futile attempt to reach both goals at the same time. In short, what are the consequences of
each donkey striving to reach his goal regardless of the other and what possible solutions
are available to the donkeys in their context?
Proposing acceptable solutions means conjuring up reports fromprevious cases and using
them as examples. A single mother whom I counseled a few years ago proposed a very
nifty solution after much pondering . . . Last year I met an adolescent who had a similar
problem to solve and got the following solution from a friend of his . . .
In order for our work with stories and metaphors to remain productive, we need
to be mindful of the following five points:
1. Empathy: Clients need reasons
Some people learn by observing others, whereas some have to try things out for
themselves. Still others can learn solely by thinking about things. The counselor
must remember that most clients will find it unusual and strange to have
stories told during their therapy sessions. It may therefore be advantageous to
embed and justify the stories:
Case example: Many people learn best by observing others. In counseling, for example, I
find it very rewarding to observe the creative ideas my clients come up with. And many of
my clients think its helpful to learn about how other people who were in a similar predic-
ament went about things. Something just occurred to me that might address what weve
been talking about, and Id like to relate it to you.
Case example: While sitting here, listening to you, a story just came to my mind. It is one
of the Oriental stories collected by Dr. Peseschkian. I like telling stories, and about 60%
of my clients really benefit from hearing them. Maybe it will be of some use to you, too.
Case example: A couple of years ago a family in counseling had similar problems to deal
with and came up with some fantastic ideas to solve them. I think it was so fascinating and
unusual Id like to share it with you.
Case example: That reminds me of a saying thats rather radical, however; I debated wheth-
er to tell you, but its been bouncing around in my head for some time nowand Ive learned
its better to take such ideas seriously.
2. On constructing a good story: Masking and drama
Effective stories should be a good fit to the clients situation in several respects:
context, space, persons involved, time. And yet they must be masked enough to
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avoid any direct connections. Their purpose is to encourage the clients to think
about their own situation. Masking can be done by placing the story in a com-
pletely different historical or metaphorical context (fairy-tale, other country, other
time), or by changing the story to provide sufficient distance (the protagonist is
a mother and not a single father, an aunt instead of a meddling grandmother, etc.).
The story should, in any case, contain resources that are useful for solving the
problem(s) at hand and that have been identified and discussed by the client at
some point: That increases the identification effect.
But stories must also have a certain innate drama to them. Counselors must
practice telling extravagant stories! Build up the suspense, emphasize certain
parts, push others to the background, vary your tone, the tempo, the volume of
your voice. The best way to practice is to tell stories to children and to learn from
that what keeps them glued to your words and what turns them off.
3. Qualify: Invite, dont preach
Many stories can be overly pedagogical and preachy (think back to your own child-
hood). As constructivists, we do not want to do that to our clients. Besides, telling
such stories rarely evokes the desired effect or is rejected outright. Even if we resort
to telling only ambiguous stories, our clients will presume some pedagogical back-
ground and may distrust our motives. But stories need not be preachy. They can just
as easily invite us to look at things fromanother vantage point, to explore alternative
paths. If you want your stories to be accepted, qualify them.
4. Dont discuss
Dirt that we tread isnt hardened, but spread is a piece of wisdom that goes
back at least to Goethe. As a rule, stories need no explanation and do not need
to be interpreted or subsequently discussed. This is the way they release their
depot effect and set the inner thought processes in motion, eventually leading
to creative ideas. For this reason, we stop any need to discuss the story by re-
marking that we are unsure whether that would be fitting at the moment and
then change the topic. Sometimes its helpful to tell stories at the end of the ses-
sion or to pass them on to clients for the road. The storys effect on the client,
however, should be discussed at length.
5. Stories effects are not specific
If this still seems too pedagogical and edifying, heres a piece of constructivist
consolation: When employing stories, we should always count on clients hearing
and interpreting them in a completely different way than we had intended. One
can never accurately predict how any particular client will react. And that, pre-
cisely, is why such methods are so valuable: The solutions that filter down from
stories and metaphors always result fromthe clients own associations. Only then
do the clients experience these solutions as their own achievements.
Case example: A female client came to therapy for treatment of her very intense anxieties.
Her parents had instilled in her the conviction that self-assertion was a sure sign of egoism
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and thus evil. On her first invoice was a postage stamp bearing the likes of WilhelmBusch
and one of his verses: What is good, this is true, is the evil we dont do. She came to the
next session and was now convinced that this stamp had been chosen especially for her.
She had spent much time thinking about what it meant, and then it dawned on her that
she had to allow herself more of what she had always considered evil. She even tried it out,
tried consciously to be evil toward others and was pleasantly surprised to discover that
she liked it, that she felt free and that the others didnt automatically shun her. I debated
for a long time whether to tell her that the stamp had actually been put on the letter in our
office, and that Wilhelm Busch meant what he said in completely the opposite way: He
spoke of refraining from doing something, not allowing it to happen.
5.10 BetweenSessions
5.10 Between Sessions
One of the most interesting tasks assigned a client was given by Milton Erickson
(personal communication of Bernhard Trenkle, 1997).
Case example: Erickson had been called to treat an older woman who had fallen into deep
depression following the death of her husband. Since he was only going to be in the city
for a short time to take part in a seminar, there could only be one consultation. During the
conversation he discovered that she had belonged to a church congregation but had stopped
attending services on a regular basis. And he discovered in her room that the Alpine cycla-
men were blossoming. When he asked her about them, she reported with great pride that
it was a very difficult matter to get them to grow, and that this was the only thing that gave
her strength since the death of her husband. At the end of the session, Erickson, with all
his authority, gave her the following task: She should continue to cultivate these flowers
and should go to every christening, confirmation, marriage and funeral of a member of the
church and give someone one of her flowers as a gift. The woman followed his advice and
soon was once again integrated in her contacts and in the congregation and eventually
overcame her depression.
This story shows how tasks can be implemented in systemic counseling. The im-
portant thing is usually not the actual task itself (giving away flowers doesnt
sound like a real therapeutic goal), but combining the context and the resources
in a particular way gives birth to new experiences. The task described above got
the woman in touch with one of her resources (growing Alpine cyclamen) as well
as with important people from her church community (her loss of contact was
both the result and driving force behind her depression). The assigned task was
focused on occasions in which the congregational members would be confronted
with similar challenges as the woman: life-changing, in part sad, in part happy
transitional events. Its is easy to imagine that, during some of the ensuing con-
tacts, besides the joy at receiving such a rare present, important conversations
were struck up about what it is like to lose someone and facing a new phase in
life just as the woman was currently experiencing.
Thus, such tasks serve the following purposes:
To strengthen the process of change in the time between sessions,
To attest to the clients the responsibility for changing their own lives,
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To enable new experiences that can then be worked through in counseling,
To leave certain issues behind and to experiment with new ones (trial runs),
To address important topics metaphorically and thus to work through relevant
(but perhaps tabooed) topics indirectly.
These methods are employed in many different sorts of therapy. Especially behav-
ioral therapy has developed a massive arsenal of such practice methods that can
be assigned to clients between sessions. For example, self-confidence training
uses multilevel plans to confront clients with ever more difficult tasks from
asking for directions to going to a shoe store and trying on shoes with a salesper-
son for an hour without actually buying any. Systemic therapy can learn much
from these interventions, although systemic approaches are usually aimed at
goals: The goal is not simply to practice some new behavior, but to fulfill the tasks
in a way that induces change in the patterns of the relevant client system (see the
case example in Chapter 5.10.3 Change Tasks).
Tasks can be categorized according to various criteria. We suggest a goal-ori-
ented structure that categorizes tasks by function. If applied with caution, one
can also adapt this to include a tasks function depending on the clients willing-
ness to change. Below we list the various types of intervention along with exam-
ples. This sort of classification necessarily implies a certain amount of arbitrari-
ness, but for learning and demonstration purposes it is useful, even if any number
of mixed forms emerge in practice (Table 13).
Table 13: Overview of the different types of tasks
Change tasks Rituals Trying out new
Clients are re-
quested to write
down when the
problems occur
and to note
what happened
before and after-
Clients are re-
quested to keep
up their problem-
atic behavior a
little while long-
Clients are giv-
en tasks to trig-
ger the new be-
havioral and in-
teractional pat-
Ritualized in-
structions are de-
veloped to re-
spond to impor-
tant transitional
situations or to
react in certain
critical situations.
Newly developed
and desired be-
havioral patterns
are assigned to
be tasks that
should be tried
out for a while
or modified.
This allows a dif-
ferentiated view
of things: The
context is consid-
ered, attention is
focused and
paths of action
usually become
In the presence
of high ambiva-
lence toward
change, this
serves as an invi-
tation to take
some time, and
shows respect
for nonchange
as a better alter-
New experienc-
es become pos-
sible, both on
the behavioral
level and on
the level of in-
teractional pat-
terns within
the system.
This allows one
to overcome loss,
to concentrate on
the most impor-
tant elements of
a situation, to
adapt. It can pro-
vide the security
to cope with diffi-
cult circumstanc-
Helps one to
practice and con-
solidate new
functional behav-
ioral patterns.
Low ----->-----> Willingness to change ----->-----> High
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Which task is the best choice depends on the problem and on the context of its
solution, on the willingness of the client to change, and on the clients resources.
If we view counseling as a way of raising a clients competence, then we must
consider those tasks to be the best that can be dealt with using subjectively ex-
perienced skills (Schmidt, 2010, p. 113), i.e., those that support the clients self-
awareness of skills and help the client make progress.
5.10.1 Observational Tasks
Observational tasks can introduce clarity and certainty to a situation something
thats very useful and often necessary at the beginning of a consultation. Relevant
information is collected for both the counselor and the client to ponder, and the
willingness of the client to cooperate can be tested directly. The latter is especially
necessary when the willingness to change is uncertain. And for many clients it
can be comforting to simply be given something constructive to do this early on.
With these tasks we can
Obtain more detailed information concerning how a problem occurs: Could
you please write down exactly how often you have headaches in the course of a
week and how intense they are on a scale from 1 to 10.
Discover the context and get a clear view of the problem at hand: Please write
down exactly how often you have a headache and note what you were doing in
the five hours leading up to the headache (activities, persons you met with,
place). Please observe who first criticizes whom in the moments leading up
to an argument.
Focus ones attention, also on resources: In the next fewweeks, please note what
in your life you would like to change and what should stay the way it is. In the
coming weeks, note the ways in which Vanessa shows her willingness to help.
Addressed to a teacher: This week, in our group, Jessica showed considerable
motivation to learn and things were more relaxed at home inthe family. You could
help us by observing Jessica in the next few days and letting us know even the
slightest changes that occur in her school behavior. Addressed to a pupil expe-
riencing school problems, especially with one of his teachers: In the next week,
please observe and write down everything your teacher says to you that is nice.
To the teacher: I spoke with Sven and his parents and said that he cant go on
treating you with such a lack of respect. His perceptions are very limited and he
sees only the negative things around him. Thus, Ive asked him to complete an
observational task by registering only when and howoften you are friendly to him.
Maybe you could note whether his behavior does indeed change in this week.
These last observational tasks represent the attempt to intervene in a negative course
of interaction by predicting a positive result or by giving the two interaction partners
separate but complementary tasks. This is a positive use of the effect of the self-ful-
filling prophecy. Marie Luise Reddemann (2007, p. 42) employed a so-called hap-
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piness diary to make her point, particularly with traumatized people or people stuck
in their problems: The clients are asked to buy a particularly nice diary and to write
down in it every day, every other day or twice a week, whichever is fitting, all the
positive things they experienced on that day regardless of howsmall they were. For
someone experiencing difficult times, such a log can be a great help and a source of
strength for surmounting everyday woes by observing the resources available by
smelling the roses along the way, regardless of how dusty and long that path may
be. Such tasks can also be modified by asking the whole family to participate in a
ritual and noting the results: What did we do today to make each other happy?
What was the highlight of everyones day?
Emphasize means of gaining room to maneuver: Please note when you feel
depressed. Write down what you did that day, what you experienced. Ob-
serve carefully what makes your daughter happy, which of your invitations to
play she takes you up on. Please note when you son goes to bed without
raising (much of) a ruckus. Note what was different than usual. One of you
can put David to bed on odd days, the other on even days. Note what happens
on the days he is particularly stubborn.
Clients can better maneuver when they observe the exceptions going on around
themand the situations in which these exceptions occur or when they observe the
problematic behavior in a specific interaction context. The latter task has a similar
effect to exacerbation questions (asking what would make things worse) or asking
what factors have a particularly strong influence on the problem(see Chapter 5.3.2).
5.10.2 Ambivalence Tasks: Do nothing! or More of the same!
This sort of task corresponds to the tenets described in Chapter 5.4.4 concerning
working with ambivalence and the ambivalent mandates of clients described in
Chapter 4.1.3. They are, as it were, the equivalent of extending ambivalent com-
ments to concrete tasks: Clients are asked to continue or even increase their prob-
lematic behavior for the time being. The most important thing is to reframe the
problemin a positive way that emphasizes the meaning and value of not changing
ones behavior. Thus, if high ambivalence is present toward change, the client can
take a timeout or simply do nothing. Once the counselor has come down on the
side of no change, the clients are free to explore the advantages of change without
external pressure.
Case example: A young man suffering from agoraphobia is still living with his parents. He
says he would have been long gone had it not been for his state, but he clearly worries
about leaving his mother alone with his father. We suggest he take his time. He should think
about what sort of help his mother might need, howlong he intends to live with his parents,
the degree to which ehe is willing to sacrifice his own interests and where the limit is for
him. (Hypothesis: The symptom is a way of solving another, very different problem, such
as the mothers loneliness or the sons real fear of moving out.)
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Case example: To a young man who always reacts with stomach aches to conflicts in his
relationship we suggest doing nothing since he needs more time to develop alternatives to
help solve the problem. He could, for example, act as if and see whether that helps or
not. (Hypothesis: His symptom protects him by softening the effects of conflicts.)
Case example: One can suggest to clients that they need not actually initiate change but
rather only think about change. Ask clients to think about this every day for half an hour
to determine whether such a change would have any negative effects and what losses would
accompany it. (Hypothesis: Symptoms serve to increase power and influence.)
Case example: We could also ask clients to intensify their efforts. For instance, we could
ask them to think even more intensely about their decisions, in order for them to discover
what important message is contained within their problematic behavior.
As described in Chapter 5.4.4 concerning ambivalent comments, such a task de-
mands a thorough look at the value of persistence within a system something
that must be defined very precisely if it is to play a role in motivating the client to
carry out the task. The simple and superficial request to keep the symptom for a
while will hardly have the proper effect.
5.10.3 Change Tasks
Clients can also be given tasks that stimulate new behavioral and interaction pat-
terns, and that enable new experiences on both levels. This method is useful when
the client-counselor relationship is good and when the client is highly motivated to
change. The task comprises the eschewing of established habits or the reworking of
previous habits into newforms or temporal patterns, for example, the Milan groups
famous strategy of regulating behavior on odd or even days (see Selvini Palazzoli et
al., 1979, and the example given below). This forces the client to do things either
very intensely or to try out something completely new. Old patterns are interrupted,
which in itself creates new experiences. At the same time, the counselor can make
suggestions for alternative behaviors that are then discussed during counseling ses-
sions (e.g., by asking about exceptions or working on specific scenes).
Case example: A couple complaining about their sons disobedience receives the task to
divide up the responsibility for setting limits the father on even days, the mother on odd
days. They should, however, support each other and take note of which works better. This
task interrupts the old pattern which consisted of the mother being responsible for setting
limits and the father always criticizing her that her method wasnt working.
Case example: A woman who has been mourning a loss for a long time is unable to pull
herself out of it and regain control of her life. One could suggest that she set aside one hour
of every day to mourn and to plan her mourning time appropriately (candles, pictures,
special place, etc.). At all other times, when sadness appears, she should postpone being
sad to this hour of mourning and carry on with what she is doing. Or one suggests she take
a weeks vacation and mourn intensely during this time, while ensuring that important
people in her life are present. In both methods, one changes the temporal structure, and it
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is our experience that such a change has a good effect on clients: Grief has its own place
and then moves aside to let other things in life become important again.
Tasks can also be prepared through interrogative methods or stagings.
Case example: A client who had trouble saying no to the wishes of her immediate envi-
ronment, was asked to practice role-playing during a session. The task, for the next week,
was to alternate between very short and more exhaustive explanations whenever she had
to say no to demands that she couldnt fulfill. As is often the case, the client ended up
overfulfilling her quotient, spontaneously saying no more than she had planned. She was
encouraged most by the fact that she was not rejected or punished for doing so.
But tasks can also serve to delve very deeply into the structure of the system and
actually activate changes in behavioral patterns. This is where we introduce meth-
ods from behavioral therapy, as the following example illustrates.
Case example: A mother had been referred to counseling with her 11-year-old son Ken due
to his violent outbursts in school. She shared an apartment on the ground floor of her
mothers house with her partner and a younger daughter. Her mother, the boys grandmoth-
er, lived upstairs. Ken had a roomon the first floor, between his mother and his grandmother
the most practical solution considering the limited number of rooms in the house. So,
in more senses than one, Ken lived in a sort of limbo between the two women and didnt
really know where he belonged. What he did know was how to play the two against each
other and thus avoid all limits. It was our hypothesis that this in-between status was causing
some of the problems, so we decided to invite the entire family, including the grandmother,
to counseling. The two women were highly motivated to attack the problem, only to sab-
otage each other with negative remarks. The mothers partner was hostile toward the whole
procedure. Ken acted aggressive toward him, which didnt help. At the same time, Ken
expressed the wish to have more contact with his mother. Besides his problems at school,
the following also was mentioned: Ken had been wetting the bed since his parents sepa-
ration, he was severely overweight and was being teased at school because of it. His weight
problems also had to do with the living situation: He had become accustomed to eating a
meal with his mother and then going to his grandmother to clean out her refrigerator. To
Ken, it was most important to focus on eliminating his bed-wetting, his mother and grand-
mother wanted to work on his weight problem. So we chose these as our main topics, as
vehicles for working through the problematic patterns we were witnessing. To address the
eating problem, we asked the two women to work together and set up some rules for Ken
to follow, which would be enforced by the two women. The goals were that they coordinate
their efforts and that they cooperate via mutual support, both of which were achieved
relatively quickly. As to the bed-wetting, we suggested that only the mother should be
concerned with this matter (our first attempt at strengthening the family boundaries). We
chose a classic method from behavioral therapy and modified it for our purposes: The
mother and son should use a calendar to register only the dry days. We asked the mother
to sew seven little sacks and, as reinforcement, put a sort of voucher in each. She should
first observe her son and then discuss with him something he would like to do with her
(little activities such as buying an ice-cream cone, reading a story together, cooking some-
thing together, playing a game, etc.). Finally, she should write the activities down on the
vouchers. Ken was then allowed to take one of the vouchers for every night he went without
wetting the bed. The mother promised to redeem the voucher within a weeks time. The
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number of dry nights increased rapidly, and the mother kept her word. Thus, the amount
of mother-and-son activities also increased considerably, leading to an increase in positive
experiences. It was a touching scene after a few weeks in counseling, when Ken held a
whole wad of vouchers in his hand and grinned from ear to ear: They were proof that he
was going to spend a lot of time together with his mother. When we talked about this and
asked whether his mother would perhaps be overwhelmed by the amount of vouchers, he
said it didnt really matter whether she redeemed each and every one of them he was just
happy to have her near him. This scene also said a lot about his many dry nights. With his
growing self-esteem, we were now in the position to attack his school problems. The living
situation didnt change, but the boy now clearly belonged to his mothers household. The
mother was, once again, the person raising him, whereas the grandmother had taken a
supporting role.
One could chide us for using such a simple conditioning scheme in this case, or consider
it a sad state that a boy had to earn his mothers affections by not wetting the bed. But
the really sad thing was how the mother had withdrawn her attention from Ken through a
spiral of rejection and violent behavior. She had tried to shield her family and especially
her new partner from her difficult son, but paid for his expulsion with a massively bad
conscience. In this messy situation, we used the bed-wetting as a vehicle to invite the mother
to once again take up her role as parent and to provide mother and son with the opportunity
to have positive experiences with each other. This sort of reinforcement strategy should be
seen primarily as a way of changing interaction patterns.
5.10.4 Rituals
Like stories and metaphors, rituals are an age-old element of transitions, change
and healing found in many cultures around the world. Von Schlippe and Schweit-
zer (2007, p. 191) note that psychotherapy, too, is a sort of ritual. Boscolo and
Bertrando (1993, p. 282) even speak of reproducing the structure of transitional
rites in therapy.
In line with the thoughts of Evan Imber-Black (2003, personal communication)
we differentiate between rituals according to theme: rituals of belonging, of heal-
ing, of reaffirming ones identity, of expressing ones own beliefs, of transition. In
counseling and therapy, where the goal is to trigger change, the most important
rituals concern life transitions, found in all cultures throughout processes of tak-
ing leave of the old and beginning something new: christening, initiation, wed-
ding, burial, new job, retirement, to name but a few (see Chapter 5.12: Leave-
Taking and Final Phase).
The following case example, Jessicas ritual, as well as the discussion on rit-
uals stem from a contribution by Antony Williams (2003).
Case example: Jessica was a middle-aged woman who was very invested in her work and
had collected many things she felt were important to her life. She had a large number of
paintings and sculptures scattered throughout her apartment which took up every inch of
the space. A number of them were by a famous painter who had been her partner and had
died about 10 years back. She was unable to get over this loss andnowlivedvery withdrawn.
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She took part in a training group where her problemwas to be discussed. Together with the
trainer, the group developed a ritual for Jessica that included the following instructions:
When you go home today, take all the pictures from your bedroom and put them some-
where safe. Now spend an hour of every day for the next month in this picture-less room,
doing basically nothing. If you are on vacation, imagine the room and spend an hour there
every day, as if you were at home in your own bedroom. And while you are sitting there, let
the emptiness of the room have its effect on you. Ask yourself: What could change? Your
birthday is coming up next month, so invite everyone youd like to have around to a party
for yourself and your friends. On your birthday you can change your bedroom in any way
you want.
Jessica accepted the ritual as prescribed. A year later, I met her again in a follow-up
course. She reported the following changes: Over the past year, I felt like I was living out
in an open field, with nothing fixed. I have known for a while that I would like to live in
my house with another man, but before I didnt have the freedom to do so. It was too
painful to feel the loss of my late friend I dont think I really ever said goodbye to him.
Ive become more creative in many ways: new fields of learning, music, travel. In my work
Ive experienced a number of difficult situations, but got through them better than ever. I
am now better able to say no, and am better at seeing where my responsibility lies and
where not. And I can say that to people directly. I used to have the tendency of loading
myself down with all sorts of obligations. Now I feel safe in my own house, I can be there
for and by myself, along with my loneliness or my wealth. I no longer need to be the guardian
of his works of art, that is over, I can go shopping or just relax. I still go to my bedroom
for an hour when things get difficult; to my empty bedroom.
The key elements of Jessicas case example are as follows:
The ritual serves to introduce a different experience, a different perspective. The
question is: What sort of experience could bring Jessica to change her perspec-
The ritual is a ceremonial element: removing the pictures, sitting in the room
every day for an hour. Such behaviors have something sacred to them, in the
sense of something special rather than religious. Agood ceremony uses elements
that have a meaning above and beyond the ordinary. The 30-day period and the
1-hour-a-day timespan both contrast with her everyday life.
The ritual includes a waiting time. Jessicas not changing anything for a month
had the goal of slowing things down so that she could see where she was headed.
Even if, in the end, she had decided to hang the pictures back up in the bedroom
(which could even have been part of the therapists plan), her intense contem-
plation on the matter would have introduced her to many alternatives.
At the end of the process lies a ceremony: Ending the ritual on her birthday made
it clear to her that there are natural transitional points in ones life cycle. It
caused her to pause and think about what had changed in her life.
The difference between rituals and other tasks
We often employ tasks in family therapy. And rituals are a special sort of task.
Both tasks and rituals are responsible for changes that take place between ses-
sions. They serve to trigger new thoughts and new behavior patterns in clients.
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Tasks are sometimes used to test a hypothesis, to introduce new perspectives to
the situation and thus, hopefully, to bring about important breakthroughs.
Rituals, on the other hand, act rather transformatively: They create a neworder
in a clients life or even within the client directly by adapting elements of sacrifice,
penitence and enlightenment. They bring light to the jungle and allow attitudes
to be modified and new constructs to arise. Whereas tasks are aimed at the mun-
dane routines of everyday life, rituals address more major questions such as be-
longing, healing old wounds, identity and basic convictions. They create a unique
level of time and space and use symbolic means to produce reorientation process-
es. A ritual takes up the clients old patterns only to change or expand on them.
In the example above, the ritual enabled Jessica to accept the power her past had
over her present life, while at the same time playing with the possibility of change.
Her sorrow was represented (and even amplified) by the empty room, whereas
the birthday party signaled her new life.
The elements of a new ritual
Rituals serve to both mark and encourage the transition from one stage of being
to another. Carrying out rituals can sometimes take weeks or even months, al-
though their actual execution may not always be that important. The process of
preparing for transition, the direct experience and the reintegration into everyday
life may carry more weight. Rituals performed in a group context have four parts:
Separation: Transitional rituals release the actors from their earlier roles (e.g.,
adolescents progressing to adulthood). This is often accompanied by metaphors
of death, loss of status, symbols of nakedness, vulnerability and dissolution. Emo-
tional pressure builds up, and those involved are completely focused on future
events. Jessica had to wait an entire month before she was allowed to make any
decisions concerning the paintings.
Preparation: Preparation is probably the most important part of the ritual, even
if we are usually concentrated on actually experiencing the final act. Preparations
for a wedding, for example, can last an entire year, though the actual ceremony
lasts only an hour. During preparation, the participants are occupied with clothes,
colors, materials, food, drinks, songs, dancing and scheduling special events. We
dont need anything exotic: through the power of symbols the ordinary can have
great impact (Wear your favorite red shirt, go to the market on Saturday morning
and get two of the most beautiful and ripest eggplants).
Enactment: During the enactment of the ritual, the client should not only say or
think something but be physically active. In one way or another, the ritual must
be difficult to perform, although it is wise to embed these actions into something
that the client generally likes to do. These actions should lie somewhere inbe-
tween difficult and easy: If they are too easy, the ritual loses its meaning. If they
are too hard (i.e., too confusing, too expensive, too demanding, too different from
ones basic values), then the client may refuse to do them. The enactment uses
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special behaviors and symbols it demands a certain time and space and se-
quence lying somewhere between predetermined and selectable events. One
should carefully study existing solution patterns and resources, and use them to
create new meanings by liberating them from their normal references: Jessicas
bedroom is not only a bedroom, but also a very special room in which she makes
important decisions.
Celebration: This is the last stage of transitional rituals. Here, we return to the
community with our new status. This part of the ritual has a collective dimension
to it, which helps us to accept our new role or new stage in life. A celebration
nearly always implies the acceptance of a loss in order to begin something new:
Jessica had a birthday party with her friends at the end of her ritual.
The idea behind the ritual is not to provide the protagonist with good advice
about how to live life, but rather to use the power of the ceremony to bring the
client to see new perspectives and new meaning in life. One can never be quite
sure which perspectives and which meaning a client will take away from a ritual.
That is why we use symbols and symbolic actions that are always at least slightly
ambiguous: This allows clients to construct their own meaning.
5.10.5 Practicing New Behaviors
If change is occurring, but the situation is still instable, one can provide alternative
behavioral patterns as part of the task. This helps the client to practice and consoli-
date what is new and already functioning. It has the advantage of being limited to a
sort of pilot project or dry run for a predetermined length of time, say, the first day
of the week or one week long. This keeps the task manageable and implies that
it is acceptable to validate and, if necessary, fine-tune the result.
Case example: In a group of adolescents new rules are being discussed and established. The
group decides to try out the rules for a period of four weeks and then to judge what the
advantages and disadvantages are.
Case example: A single mother has practiced accepting help from her parents and asking
her friends for help whenever necessary. Shes still somewhat apprehensive about changing
her relationships and being on the receiving instead of the giving end. We reach an agree-
ment that she should try it out for the next four weeks and see what happens. Then we
could discuss everything.
Case example: A client from an assisted living home for the mentally ill has learned to apply
some new ways of structuring her day, and now she wants to try them out on her own. She
and her counselor arrange for them to meet every other week to talk about the results of
her experiment.
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5.11 AccompanyingandSupportingChanges
5.11 Accompanying and Supporting Changes
Imagine: A number of questions have been posed and answered, a sculpture or
two have provided important impulses, the client is positively surprised by some
comments and has even mastered a task with amazing results. We witness the
first signs of change what now? In the past, therapists who thought things were
moving too quickly spoke of transference healing and remained skeptical about
whether the light at the end of the tunnel was truly in sight. After all, relapses
could happen at any time. And good clients took heed of this skepticism. Today,
we can better appraise such results and would like to suggest three ways to ap-
proach such situations. We also provide a couple of methodological tips.
5.11.1 How to Be Supportive
Be positive about change: The midwife
Anyone who has observed Virginia Satir and Insoo KimBerg at work, with their very
different personal styles, discoversatleastonecommoncharacteristic: Theybothgreet
the statements of their clients both verbally and nonverbally with great pleasure, like
a midwife delivering a newhuman being into this world with a smile on her face and
real joy. This attitude is a good approach to use from the very beginning and even
more so when initial successes are being reported. It is no coincidence that Virginia
Satir put so much emphasis on self-esteem. Most clients are not blessed with a stable
self-esteem. Reacting to the changes in their life supports this process.
Reclaiming land by connecting the islands
Every positive change, however small it may be, should be seen as a new island in
the sun to be greeted with great joy and cared for immediately, so that it doesnt
get flooded again. Always keep inmind that waves may come at any time and reflood
everything. Thats what it means tobe born: Life is full of adventures! Dont succumb
to skepticism and grumpiness, but rather assume that one island leads to another
and then start networking them. The Dutch have considerable experience in this
procedure, and anyone in need of proper illustrative materials should take a look at
the writings of Maria Aarts (2009) on the Marte Meo method.
If you prefer a more horticultural approach: Once the seed of change has been
sowed and the soil has been prepared, the first leaves will pop up and look very
much like weeds. The art of gardening is to recognize the difference, to nurture
and care for the seedlings and to protect them from being trampled on. Only in
this way can changes become viable plants that, together with other plants, form
a garden of true beauty. Of course, we are talking here about a truly biological
garden that can withstand the presence of a weed or two.
Being positive: Joy, humor, pleasure
Nossrat Peseschkian (2007a) called his approach Positive Psychotherapy, and a
group of researchers in the United States under the banner of positive psychology
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studied the key factors to a successful life (Seligman, 2012). Both groups showed
howimportant it is for individuals to have a positive attitude toward their own and
other peoples productivity, development and change. A positive mood and a pos-
itive attitude toward ones relationships are very important, as are humor, joy and
pleasure. That these things are conducive toliving a good life is alsoreflectedinsome
of the theories quoted above, such as synergetics (Haken &Schiepek, 2010) and in
the research results of Grawe (2000, 2005). Today, many different, groundbreaking
results are emerging from the research being done by Seligmanns group, which
proved that maintaining a good mood however it may arise, through humor, a good
meal or a friendly conversation can increase ones performance immensely: Hu-
mans work better, more concentratedly and productively doctors are better at
diagnosing their patients when in a good mood (Seligman, 2012, pp. 70 ff.). The
newest results from neurobiology also confirm the hypothesis that new circuits in
neuronal networks are establishedmore quickly inthe presence of positiveemotional
states (see Hther & Rther, 2010, pp. 224 ff.).
5.11.2 Cheerleading and Asset Growth
The term cheerleading (Walter & Peller, 1992) describes concisely what we men-
tioned above. What we mean becomes clearer if we take the term apart: cheering
and leading. By praising (small) changes, getting hyped up about them and cele-
brating them, we can lead people to achieve even greater changes in their lives
to become even more courageous and more confident in their own abilities. Ac-
cording to Walter and Peller (1992) as well as Durrant (1993) four questions or
comments promote this attitude:
Howdid you come to the decision to do something newand surprising? Ques-
tions of this sort address the clients own initiative and decisiveness. Often one
gets a rather vague answer to such questions since people tend not to think very
intensely about their actions. But that is of no consequence, since our objective
is to direct the clients attention to the fact that they decided on their own. That
is what we are praising. Such questions are powerful even if we fail to receive a
clear answer after repeated querying.
How exactly did you do it, how were you able to manage it? This question,
or similar ones, demand detailed answers and usually serve to illuminate prob-
lems. Here, however, they are employed to explore successful strategies to
discover what course of behavior or action led to the eventual success. This is
important for clients who often have little awareness of how positive results
actually come about. In this sense, this method can support further successes
and change.
What is your explanation for how this has suddenly become possible? We
always enquire about the clients own theories, how they explain things, to get
insights into how to construct future changes.
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That is fantastic! There should be a basic level of enthusiasm. Of course, no
counselor can practice being excited. Rather, as often mentioned above, the
most important thing is ones inner posture: Howcan I authentically reflect back
to a client who may be stuck in any number of problems how dramatic it truly
is when he finally begins doing things differently?
Here are some questions taken from a conversation with an adolescent who had
been convicted of assault and was participating in a social rehabilitation program:
Case example: So you were being provoked while in a bar and didnt hit back. I think
thats fantastic! That is a major step for you, maybe we should write to Guinness Book of
World Records. But how did you decide to act as you did? What made you decide not to
hit back? What exactly did you do and think while you were in the situation? That
means that for the first time, you thought about the consequences before acting, I mean,
hitting back or accosting the other guy. That is something completely new for you! What
did your friends say about it? And your girlfriend? And how did the other guy react he
was probably just waiting for you to go at it, knowing how you usually react? Whats
your theory on how you were able to hold back this time? I realize thats a lot of annoying
questions, but you know how I am I always want to know everything in great detail,
mostly because I think its just great the way you handled yourself.
Capital gain, in this context, has nothing to do with money! Rather, it means what
clients accumulate by solving their own problems and by reaching their goals.
Clients often see themselves as weak and dependent. Solutions lie beyond their
means, beyond their control and beyond their influence.
Case example: It just took ahold of me. I didnt have a choice but to . . . Theres
nothing I can do about it . . . Well, because Im sick . . .
Accompanying changes means expanding clients horizon and enlarging their ar-
ea of control and influence. And that always begins with their consciousness! For
this reason, we always question their lack of control and their presumed absence
of influence:
Case example: When does it take ahold of you and when doesnt it? What happens before
that? Have you experienced situations in life where you acted differently? What do other
people do in such situations?
We point out changes and describe them as positive and a sign of the clients
Case example: How did you manage to . . . Sometimes things work out, dont they? How
is it that in some situations you forget you have that skill? What did you do to stop or cut
short your rampage? How did you do that?
There is a Chinese saying: If you want to lead people, go behind them. This
piece of wisdom, originally meant for managers, fits the following tale:
Case example: A nurse who worked in a rehabilitation center was accustomed to taking
the patients out on their daily walk, to strengthen their motor capabilities. She would link
arms and go up and down the halls with them. Then she made the following observation:
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If you go slightly faster than the patient it makes them feel insecure they feel like theyre
being tugged along and rushed to go faster they become fearful and overly careful. How-
ever, if you go slightly slower than the patient, minimally behind them, they feel more secure
and walk on their own with more confidence: The walk turns into a pleasing act.
In our counseling work, this means using existing approaches with clients, sup-
porting them and helping them. Our interventions must befit the time, pace and
habits of the client.
5.11.3 A Climate of Change
German culture is very focused on revealing deficits. In some Oriental cultures,
in contrast, doctors were paid to keep their patients healthy. German anamnestic
practice also centers on reporting deficits. We need drastic changes here if we
want to systematically work in a more resource-oriented way in the future. We
are well aware that this stands in contrast to the demands expressed by those
footing the bill, who will only approve counseling if the client exhibits extreme
deficits. Here are some questions one can introduce in routine situations to sup-
port a climate of change (Durrant, 1993):
Files or reports: What sort of evidence is there that the behavior has changed for
the better? That the client has made progress? That it is worthwhile to continue?
Under what circumstances could the old behavior have turned up but didnt?
What did the client do differently, what was a surprise?
Case discussions: What went better this week? Were there any noticeable chang-
es? What does this relapse have to tell us? This negative result? How did we
judge the problem? Can it be seen differently? Could we react differently to it?
Everyday situations (meals, trips, games): Here, too, many clients fail to see the
buds of change and trample on them before they can become viable plants. So
here, too, we need to point out that exceptions and small changes are possible
and to remark positively on them, for example, through short comments.
5.11.4 On Relapses and Incidents
Second-order cybernetics have taught us that we must always remain cognizant of
the observers contribution to the observed events. What we talk about, what we do,
which topics we meet with a smile and which ones make us furrow our brow, the
words we choose all of these things have an influence on the clients: Our actions
focus their attention. The word relapse is a good example: On the one hand, it has
somethingtodowithfalling backwards, not going forward, not running andjumping
but being passive (it happened again!). On the other hand, it clearly marks a
direction: backwards, not sideways, not even slowly forward (is there actually such
a thing in human development as going backwards?). Thus, when we speak of re-
lapses, we are conjuring up images that are not very conducive to change:
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We are talking about illness, personality structure, basic disorders, deficits, irre-
versible traumatization instead of: The client has the tendency, a general dispo-
sition, that repeatedly leads to his . . .
Pessimistic expectations: The behavior recurs again and again. Again and
again, in autumn . . . . . . when under stress . . . . . . every time, when . . .
Although small changes did occur or perhaps were overlooked: The same be-
havior is repeatedly shown.
The concept of loss of control: The behavior overcomes someone like an unin-
vited guest.
Worst of all: a relapse that invalidates all previous successes. It reveals which
stage has actually been reached: The client is not ready not by a long shot.
This leads to pessimism and despair among both clients and counselors.
This can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: Even the slightest signs are
interpreted as precursors to an impending relapse, which in turn leads to certain
reactions in the clients and their environment which then set off (or cement)
problematic spirals of behavioral reactions. Gunther Schmidt (2010, pp. 361 ff.)
emphatically notes that such processes can serve as hypnotic suggestions that, in
the end, create the very phenomena one is trying to avoid.
It is worth it to try and develop a different approach to and a different vocab-
ulary for such phenomena. Whenever we speak of relapse, clients immediately
resort to old behavioral patterns, which implies that the client has been able to
cope without them (at least for a while) and has developed alternative patterns:
The client has thus successfully exhibited the basic competence of living with
appropriate patterns. In such a context, nothing stops us from speaking not of a
relapse, but rather of an incident or rerun (Schmidt, 2010, p. 371) and thus
to view the behavior through systemic glasses. And we must ask why someone
would under these specific circumstances want to revert to old patterns. What
are the questions and what are the challenges such behavior is trying to satisfy?
A few methodological suggestions
Avoid using the word relapse: Instead, say recourse, rerun, revisit, old
pattern versus new pattern. This linguistic change alone can conjure up other
associations and images and helps the client to think in problem-solving categories.
Present it as something normal: Dont wait but try to imagine in advance the
circumstances under which such an event might occur. What would the client (or
the clients relatives, significant other, etc.) have to do to trigger such an inci-
dent? This way one can work out the contextual circumstances that might lead
up to it. Once it is viewed as normal to sometimes revert to old patterns, clients
must no longer be afraid of the damning verdict that previous progress can some-
how go down the drain when mishaps occur. Once in a while, we all revert to
old, unwelcome patterns we thought were long gone. Even the occasional coun-
selor has been known to do this.
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What if you were to simply skip the revisit?: Such a paradoxical question can lead
to a metalevel and help the clients to put some space between themselves and
their problems to see the matter as unpleasant, but not completely without
hope. We can also ask whether it would be of some advantage to repeat some of
the old stuff occasionally, and what damage would be caused by refraining from
these repetitions.
Case example: Who would be most irritated if you were to continue striding toward your
goal so determinedly? Who would miss the pleasure (and gloating) of seeing you fail if you
never stumbled along the way? Who was always convinced you wouldnt make it anyway?
Might it possibly be useful or important to provide such people with a little reassurance
every once in a while?
The feigned revisit: acting as if: If the clients development were to run contrary
to the interests of others, feigning a relapse may in fact be helpful.
Case example: Imagine a mother who wants her daughter to be unsuccessful in life and is
always prophesying her imminent failure. Thinking through and planning how and when
the client could enact a repetition, for example, how she has to stay at home because of
her depression, calling her mother and bemoaning her fate, can introduce a very creative,
positive tone into dealing with the repetition of old behavior.
Talk about and plan alternative behavior: If we see a situation coming in which
reverting to old patterns will appear to be the best solution, we should openly
talk about alternatives.
Case example: What can the client do that is similar and has the same meaning but not at
such a high price? Perhaps she could have a rest instead of becoming depressed; she could
call a friend instead of going out to get something to drink; she could immediately leave
her apartment instead of letting the dispute escalate and become violent.
Redesigning the revisit: If, however, behavioral repetition does occur, despite all
precautions, one can discuss how it can take a less radical course.
Case example: Whenever you notice that youre beginning to slide into depressive feelings,
what can you do to immediately snap out of it? If you decide to skip school again, what
could you do to ensure that it wont be weeks before you return?
But what if it still happens? Systemic work with incidents
Incident, not relapse: As described above, using the right vocabulary is im-
portant. One should make clear that the event is normal in the course of a long
developmental process.
Differentiation: What was different than usual? It is important to determine
what the differences are to earlier behaviors in similar circumstances. This dispels
the pessimistic viewpoint that one has, in fact, exhibited the same behavior as
in the past.
Providing new meaning and function (reframing): This method is similar to that
used in other systemic situations though on the other hand it is somewhat more
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difficult here since the client (and sometimes the counselor) must swim against
the stream of inner disappointment. And yet it is clearly the key to working with
relapses: Describing the incident from the new, present vantage point and under-
standing it as an attempt at resolving an existing challenge not as a plump,
passive reversion to old patterns. We can describe it as follows:
A sign of stress: This was a particularly difficult test run for you. Clearly, you
fled back to the warm nest, since the new course of action which youve used
in many situations very adequately didnt succeed so well. You could learn
fromthis howto avoid certain situations for the time being, or accept that reruns
will sometimes occur.
The attempt to regain ones balance: Its interesting that youve become depres-
sive at this particular juncture, when youve asserted yourself in two different
conflicts and now another one was in the making. Its almost as if you didnt
want to ask too much of your partner by showing your self-confidence a third
time. What makes you afraid of acting like you did in the previous situations?
The attempt to satisfy old demands: It seems to me that something in you is
telling you your parents are not yet ready to see you as the independent daughter
that you are. And you are a very loving daughter who would, if need be, give up
that independent life for the sake of her parents. Maybe you felt that your par-
ents were struggling with the idea of you as a young responsible adult and ne-
glected things for this reason.