Applying SPT in group processes
“The field tells you where to go”
When we get together with Laura for a chat and ask her about her experiences with applying Social Presencing Theater in groups, the richness of her stories allows us to really get a sense of what is possible with embodiment methods like this. Coming from a background in social and visual anthropology, systemic therapist and consultant Laura Pastorini has been using Theory U as a process framework with clients from widely different backgrounds for years now. Other forms of embodiment work already formed a common thread in her work early on, starting at the age of seventeen with a focus on wellbeing. About seven years ago, she says: “through constellation work, I met Arawana Hayashi in 2012 and I completely fell in love with the work she was doing. I started working and training with her.”
Now, Laura is active as an independent consultant, in an association of peers in Uruguay, using Theory U as a framework for the transformation and change processes she facilitates in a variety of groups and organizations. She sees an increasing demand for this kind of support in her work with the public sector, social projects, NGOs, and other institutions. The reason behind this demand is that these embodied methodologies offer “a completely different kind of result and approach to the issues of organizations”, going deeper into the structural root causes of their challenges.
Letting go of our own judgements
Laura notices that SPT is becoming more and more integral to the services she offers her clients, as the need for a more deeply embodied understanding of challenges seems to be growing. She recognizes that this has something to do with the instant impact such methods bring about. Instead of discussing challenges, going into a method, and then coming up with elaborate future plans for change, a direct shift occurs in how the groups and teams operate together — during the process itself. “This kind of methodology has the power to transform a system immediately. When you see something, and when you experience something, it will never be the same again.”
It is a joy to listen to Laura’s lively stories of how she works with different kinds of groups and how she approaches bringing in Social Presencing Theater — which in many contexts is still quite an unconventional method. When we ask her what it takes to introduce such practices into more corporate or traditional settings, she smiles and says: “We need to practice what we preach, and let go of our own judgements.” She goes on to explain that: “When we decide beforehand that these people will not be able to work with this, that is a judgement. Just be there with all your antennae! (…) You have to be curious.”
Laura illustrates this point beautifully by taking an example from her past experience, in which she was to facilitate a group consisting of both elderly participants and youthful ones. She and her colleague expected the older participants to pose a challenge, and that the young people would be open to working with the body. In reality, the opposite turned out to be true. Whereas the young people were quite self-conscious when it came to their bodies, the older participants couldn’t get enough of the embodied practices. One woman did all of the practices in her wheelchair, including the 20-minute dance. This is a wonderful lesson in how holding space also means staying open and not allowing your own judgements to limit what is possible in the room.
“A dialogue without words”
A key element in Laura’s approach to applying Social Presencing Theater exercises in groups is her playful and flexible attitude, with an openness towards not so rigidly interpreting the methods. For people who wish to bring embodied work into their context, she recommends listening to the social field — i.e. the context and group of people you’re working with — for, as she puts it: “the field tells you where to go.” In doing so, it is obviously helpful to have a deep understanding of the tools you are working with. For example, understanding that a duet — a specific SPT practice between two practitioners — is in essence a “dialogue without words”, she was able to accommodate two participants who were a bit apprehensive about using the body and suggested they do the duet on paper instead. Meeting them where they were, she was able to have them fully participate in essentially the same practice.
Midwives’ Association Uruguay
A particularly interesting group that Laura worked with recently, is the midwives’ association Nacer Mejor, which as an organization experienced a powerful shift after a year-long, in-depth U process with Laura and her colleague. With Social Presencing Theater having been very much at the heart of their work together, this is a unique example of the effective potential of embodied methods within organizations. Over the span of a year, the team came together for a total of 6 workshops, each of which was geared towards a specific part of the U process — i.e. co-sensing, redirecting, presencing, crystallizing, prototyping and co-evolving. Moreover, with about two months in between each workshop, the track left lots of space for processing after each stage.
Nacer Mejor’s objectives were generally to strengthen the inner structure of the organization in a sustainable manner, and to find a way to contribute meaningfully to the larger health system in Uruguay. This particular group was very open to, and comfortable with, embodied work, as they largely consisted of women who were used to working with bodies in their daily practice. Therefore, the group was able to go deep into their questions and challenges, and truly benefit from the depth and quality of conversation that can emerge from SPT. Laura tells how the embodied practices in the first workshop immediately allowed the group to get a sense of itself and their current situation at that time.
After that initial session, the second workshop aimed to redirect the attention of the group to challenges and problems in their system. This session brought about a powerful shift already, that proved to be crucial to the rest of their journey together. In SPT exercises designed to sense into what feels stuck in individuals, there were many common themes popping up, such as burn-out, fatigue, overwhelm, and a sense of rebellion against the system. During the 4D mapping, in which the current reality is mapped out in the room physically with participants, some clear tensions became even more visible in the organization. Themes such as a lack of communication and operating in between two opposite mindsets emerged. Laura describes how the immediacy of the physical aspect allowed the group to directly experience their current reality, more so than if they had tackled these issues at just a mind level.
“When you embody a system, the system changes immediately”
During that second session, things shifted in the organization as the workshop was happening. Someone resigned, the decision-making group shifted — things were clearly moving. After the gathering, other small shifts naturally happened, such as the first ever cross-departmental meeting within the organization. This was certainly remarkable, but no real surprise to Laura. As she emphasizes: “When you embody the system, the system changes immediately. (…) Which is also logical: When you move one piece, all other pieces get moved”.
The third workshop focused on recharging the batteries and tapping into existing resources to draw from. As Laura says: “When you get to the source, you get to the resource.” They carried out presencing practices to retreat and reflect, such as stillness and journaling. Embodied practices that focused on valuing the unique presence and gifts of each individual in the group allowed for a real sense of energy being unlocked. Laura describes the participants starting to feel excited and a sense of pride emerging — both about their individual talents and about their shared work as an organization. In fact, the financial struggles they were having started shifting after this workshop: as they began to value their work more, they dared to take steps towards creating more financial stability.
All in all, the power of the embodied component in this group’s process cannot be emphasized enough. By workshop 4 and 5 an energy seemed to have been freed up that allowed for the entire organization to move more playfully and freely towards better health — both internally and in relation to their entire context. Clients were involved more in the organization, greater care was given to the physical spaces from which they operated, and more supportive organizational structures were put in place for coworkers. Deep conflicts, touching on themes such as gender relations and traditional institutionalism, had surfaced during the process and were now being addressed, both inside and outside the workshops.
It takes a Village
Even the organizational structure that came out of the process eventually emerged from the embodied practice known as the Village. They had already done this many times before; a playful exercise of moving through the space mindfully, with just a few simple movements as your “language” for doing so — e.g. walking, standing, turning, sitting. During the final workshop — which happened to be on the day that Laura intended to suggest a cyclical organizational structure — circles emerged as the leading pattern in the Village for the very first time. Small circles felt close together, a strong core, but closed off. Medium circles left more space to see who was coming in and going out. A large circle was inclusive and could open up to the outer world. Indeed, these were exactly the layers the organization ended up implementing into its structure: a core decision-making team, a larger team to monitor internal relationships, and finally the team responsible for the relationship towards the larger context.
At the end of the year, people felt like they were part of an entirely different organization. Not surprisingly, the participants shared with Laura that they felt she and her colleague had themselves been an integral part of the process. She recognizes this as part of her work, listening to the social field, staying curious, and engaging in what the process needs. Clearly, this year had also been incredibly rich in learning for her. Laura reflects: “When you work with conflicts, with problems on the surface, and you go deep down into the iceberg, you tend to touch very deep social wounds. This process was a big lesson for me in how to deal with such wounds in a very natural and resilient way, without losing your position, your values and your core. That’s exactly what they did, and that really touched me.”
With a heartfelt thank you to Laura for generously sharing her stories and material; to Rachel Hentsch for video editing, proofreading the article, and image support; and to Angela Baldini for initiating and leading the interview, and her helpful input on the article itself!