Notes on Relationship Constellations

Marc Rettig
Rettig’s Notes
Published in
19 min readDec 17, 2016


This is a place for me to gather and organize notes, which I’m making public in case it helps someone else. This collection will change (though maybe not very frequently). It’s a work in progress, the cookies are still dough, standard disclaimers apply.

The bundle of ideas here: organizational constellations, family constellations, relationship systems, and the forms of coaching and facilitation based on those ideas.


Noticed, but still to be processed…


Social Capital readings: Lots to process from these (which certainly deserve a document of their own). In particular..

Leaving this diagram here for now.

Notes from Mish Middelmann webinar

If emotional intelligence is mostly about “me,” and social intelligence is mostly about “you,” relational systems intelligence is mostly about “we.”

Key components:

  • focuses on a relationship system: a group of independent entities with a common identity. focuses on that which is between the individuals.
  • These systems are always evolving. always changing. Conflict is a voice of the system as it changes. Conflict is a sign that “something is trying to emerge here.”
  • Positivity without being fluffy. Designing our communications so that for every hard conversation there’s more than one that is positive, that remembers what is working. Keep the balance in favor of positivity. Build the credit in your account, for those negative days.
  • Reveal the system to itself. People are naturally intelligent and resourceful. Once they see what’s going on, they are good at finding solutions.
  • The essence of coaching is about mirroring to the client what’s going on, so they can make intelligent decisions. It’s not about telling people what to do. Help them see where they are at, then enable them to be creative.
  • Encourage as many voices in the system as possible to have expression. This is crucial, as so often only a few voices are being heard. And not only hear all voices, but hear the collective voice. (?)

Problems this addresses

  • leaders struggling to achieve results through people
  • individual coaching seems so expensive and difficult to coordinate. So it’s better to work with the leadership team. Once people are in good relationship, the work becomes easier. Focus on relationship first. When working with the team, the cost per individual comes out much lower.
  • Approach is effective in working with difficulties around diversity. Helps teams better able to collaborate across differences.
  • most often, organizations don’t implement the advice they receive. In this approach, they generate the initiatives themselves. Coach’s job is to hold them accountable. “You made those plans, how did they go?”


  • general systems theory
  • process work (Arnold Mindell)
  • emotional and systems intelligence (Goleman)
  • Marital and team research (John Gottman)
  • Constellations work (Hellinger) [“the language of systems”]
  • OD and change management theory
  • Taoism
  • interest-based bargaining and mediation
  • co-active coaching

ORSC — organizational and relationship systems coaching

  • since 2002, 900+ courses, 30+ countries, courses produced in over 12 countries
  • Active in South Africa since 2012

Why does it work? Broadly, it is…

  • inclusive strategy, learning from Moshoeshoe (/mo shoe’ shoe’/) — created a nation by using an inclusive strategy, inviting people to join him. We live in a high-conflict world. But if we somehow hold a vision that includes people, that is the seed of success for our world.
  • Extends individual coaching benefits to couples and partnerships
  • Normalization of conflict
  • Central focus on the relationship

Case studies


Think of a relationship you would like to improve. Pen and paper….

  1. think about how relationship is right now. Draw a large circle, big enough to almost fill the whole page. This is the whole environment of the relationship.
  • In that circle place yourself. If you’re in the middle, the edge, you choose. Draw triangle for male, circle for female.
  • Now put the other things or events that are important in this relationship. Squares for things and events. Put them wherever you like. The terrain of the relationship.
  • Now draw the relationship between you and each of the others in the diagram. What is your relationship between yourself and the others? Use this key: dotted line for weak relationship, solid line for average, double line for strong, and — // — for conflict.
  • Review the diagram. Focus on the pattern. Your relationship systems intelligence. What do you see when you look at the whole? Ask yourself, “what needs to change here?” How does this need to change?

2. Get another sheet of paper, and draw another circle. label previous circle “now”. Label new circle, “desired”

  • now consider how you would like this relationship system to be.
  • draw a new diagram, using the same symbols, showing your desired future for the relationship.
  • Compare the two circles. What do you see? Zoom out, look at the whole thing. Now consider these questions…
  • What are you learning about this relationship? The details you can keep to yourself, but what’s striking you as you look at the relationship and the way you want it to shift?
  • What needs to change in the relationship system? And what step can and will you take to move toward the new way?

Bottom line

  • we are always in relationship. We need to become skillful at working with difference. This can be learned.
  • we are part of much larger nested systems
  • most relationship challenges are never fully resolved. Gottman: 69% of relationships are in “perpetual” challenge [check that]
  • relationship system skills can be practiced and learned

From here:

“When there is complaining, we way, ‘Bring it out! Complaining is welcome here.’ And when the complaining is done, we say, ‘What is it you really want? What is the need that underlies the complaint?’” Helps people be open, participate in the change.

  • What will you do differently? How will we actually change how we behave and what we deliver?
  • How will you contribute to the changes you want to see?
  • How will we hold each other accountable?
  • How will we be with each other when things get difficult?


  • Thrive characteristics / conditions
  • Rely on me for…

Podcast with Mish Middelmann — the “strategic planning for non profit” audio


How excited are you about this topic?

How engaged do you want to be, plan to be?

How engaged do you want to be in this session today?

Then get in pairs or triads. “What will get you engaged for today?” “What has to happen today?”

Now you know / have clues about the things that you need to pay attention to, in order for the day to succeed.

End of day: do design team alliances.

Have them self-select into teams. Get together with the people you will be working with most directly in the execution of this. Many teams? Then pick one. This isn’t the law, we just want groups who can be effective since we don’t have much time. Then supply them with a workbook that has the DTA (??) questions in it.

  • “When you do this work together, what’s the climate that you want to be working in?”
  • “If it gets difficult and it’s not working, not moving forward, what do you want to do then?”
  • The flourish question

Stage them through those questions, let them create actions and feed them back to the large group.

Clues about forming constellations:

Stand where you want to stand.

Why are you standing where you’re standing, and what’s that like?

What’s the kind of culture you want to build while you do this? What’s the kind of climate you want to have in your organization?

working agreements.

Clue: if they say “respect” is part of their agreement, there are follow-up questions that make it practical:

  • if you don’t have respect for someone, how will you be?
  • if you don’t feel respected, how will you be?

Notes from Marita Fridjhon, here:

We can be great at achieving objectives by competing with each other. We could achieve even greater objectives by working side-by-side on a greater challenge.

Diagnostic questions:

What is the nature of the challenge?

Who and what has your attention?

What is the relationship you see between players and hotspots? The players and the difficulty?

Where does YOUR focus go when things get hot?
(Task? Yourself and your own goals and obligations? Others? Escape? Making it better?)

If we don’t shift our view from individuals to the whole system, we find ourselves in this situation:

Individual view leads to question, “Who did what to whom?” Invitations like, “Please just focus on this or that person.” “Who can be fixed?” Most often, the issue is not personal, it is systemic. So the current crop of organizational and leadership coaches are focusing on relationship systems rather than individuals.

Give teams tasks. the teams who are most collectively intelligent had no bearing on efficacy.

Collective intelligence was a better predictor. It extends beyond people’s IQ.

Collective intelligence means

- had greatest social awareness — paying attention to each other

- had round table conversations, where there was an absence of a leader that tells group what to do. Collective effort. Given that, most effective groups had a variety of expertise, rather than the same expertise. The more diversity, the more creativity, usually.

- Higher number of women in the group may also be a predictor. Generally this relates to more / different social awareness.

Got it? Change the focus from individual performance to group social connection and level, open conversation and a focus on the collective whole.

Emotional intelligence: aware of my own emotions, and ability to express them.

Social intelligence: the ability to empathize with others experience and create relationship

Relationship systems intelligence: the ability to interpret my experience as personal to me, but also belonging to the system. It is both personal and not personal. It is an expression of the system.


Each system forms its own unique entity. The system has a personality, a life of its own. Culture? Not exactly. It is dynamic, It’s made of us, we’re affected by it. It has its own qualities.

Players within the system are seen and heard as voices of the system. This thing, this whole, can only express itself through its participants. “No chemistry,” someone might say. “No flow.” We can hear that as not only expressing the individual’s experience, but as one voice of the team entity.

A system relies on roles for organizational structure and effective execution. The role belongs to the team. Each individual, because of our background or personal history, are suited for certain roles. But the role belongs to the team. Now we begin to feel the systemic nature of events. Think of HR person or VP who says, “Just help me get so and so in line. If we can get them in line, we won’t have a problem.” Then that person gets fired or leaves. Someone else steps into the role, and takes on the same characteristics. Because the role belongs to the system.

This softens our gaze on the individual, and begin to see….

The system itself — beyond its members — is creative, intelligent, and generative.

There is a direction, an answer, that can be found in the system itself as opposed ot ts individual members.

Last principle is challenging:

Systems are in a constant state of emergence, ever evolving toward their next evolutionary stage. Always becoming the next version of themselves. This, by the way, involves parts (as well as the whole) being born, maturing, and dying.

It is impossible for a leader, or a leadership team, to manage this directly. You can set boundaries. You can participate with attention and affect its tendencies.

We have to be able to connect to the collective, to the entity that is the team.

The individual is an expression of the system or team to which they belong.

Take the CFO for example. When coaching that person, must remember that they will return to the system of which they are a part. And when they leave the coaching session and return to the system, that system may not support the change the CFO is contemplating. Or the system of the CFO’s family….

If you pull the red string, you will affect the red, blue, and green.

The web of connectivity, the team, the relationships, are the client.

Every member of the system is a signal for the system and a signal of the system. Everything that’s happening is in a state of emergence. Too often we see that as an emergency. But if we back away from it, we can see that something is in a state of emergence. Something is trying to happen. And chances are there is some wisdom in it, some team intelligence.

Redwood trees depend on fire to release their seeds. System intelligence. [?] What’s happening in the world — something is trying to be expressed. How it is expressed is not skillful. But there is intelligence underneath that which needs attention. Cultivation of its constituent relationships.

Consider nature of the challenge from the balcony view.

Put your attention on the web of connectivity between the members.

Each individual is a voice of the system; a signal for the system

What is different from this vantage point?

What is emerging for the system, the team, the “entity”?

What is it asking for / demanding / needing?

At any time, anyone in the team can take on the leadership role, to speak as a voice of the system. For example, if there is conflict that is being ignored, glossed over, perhaps someone can step up and take the role of asking the difficult questions.

The last question above is something to encourage everyone to ask in difficulty. It is a really useful question. You may not know what to do with it, but keep asking. It will find traction. On a regular basis you can ask your group, “what does the [international division] need? What is it asking for?”

That is the place where you stand with your heart in your throat, believing that the system itself is needing an answer.

If the whole system or team could speak, what would it say?

- If you choose to work from this new awareness, what would you do differently? IF it is saying “I need a change,” then ask yourself what is the nature of the change, and how we can act.

What becomes available from this perspective?

- Individuals and teams navigate change better; it becomes easier to align with what is trying to happen

- The load is spread; individuals become aware of their interconnectedness

- Enhanced creativity: a deeper awareness os something bigger to be in relationship with as change emerges

- A focal-length shift from the egocentric (me) to We to system-centric or eco-centric (It)

- Dynamic access to co-responsibility leading to agility and systemic resilience

The unfolding story

Butterfly — cocoon — caterpillar — butterfly — cocoon — …

In industry as in nature, an unfolding process of becoming. The system itself experiences this. We participate in it as members of these systems.


How to hear the entity voice?
First hear from individuals and the teams: people express what they think are only their own opinions. Then turn the question — if the whole thing had a voice, what might it say? Then usually a number of people will speak. We use an empty chair. Sit in the chair, and speak from the voice of the whole. When you sit in the team chair, you can’t say the things that you have said all along. “Sounds like that’s still you. Go back to your seat, and come back when you are ready to speak from the view of the whole.”

How to shift blame?

We do a lot of education around roles. Read up on that if you can. And I often talk [the number imbalance; one person on a nine-person team is seen as the problem. Now it is eight against nine. Not a very generative situation.]

If we take the problem person out of the circle, and each one of us begin to look at “what is the version of what that person does that is the problem, what is the version of that which I do?” What about it is useful? What do we now not have when this person is missing? More backbone? More honest criticism?

Using the third entity without explaining the third entity

From “What would Perrier say?”, here:

Talking along, working on stuff, then say something like, “I’m curious. I hear everything you complain about. But if you can imagine if the company/team could speak, what would it say about all of this?”

If they begin to go after that, I don’t have to explain about the third entity, because they have shifted.

I would listen very clearly for whether they are speaking in the voice of the company/team, or if they are still using their own voice. “Well Joe, that sounds exactly like what you just said before. But I’m not sure that the company/team would actually say that. What would IT say when you say what you just said?” Emphasize the distinction.

Even if they don’t completely get it, they are already starting to think differently.

I tend to ease these things in. Later on I might say, “Hey there is actually a theory about this.”

We often do too much theory in our context-setting, and people tune out. So instead of doing “Lands work,” you can just talk in those terms. “It feels like over here in CEO land there is about 200 people. How do you get there?” Over here in coach land it feels like…. Begin to use lands. Very subtly you begin to shift the paradigm of thinking, and language.

I have done many constellations on a CEO’s desk. Pick something on the desk that represents each person that we’re talking about. Who is the stapler? Who is the pencil?

Jabe Bloom, talk at the ACE! conference on best practices in software

. . . . .

Marc Rettig’s notes from the talk:

Starting about 16:20 in, quotes Amy Edmondson, who advocates for “teaming” as a verb, an activity, vs. “team” as a noun. We’ve invested so much in the idea of teams, that we have lost focus on team forming, participation, process as a set of skills.

“Teaming is a verb. It is a dynamic activity, not a bounded, static entity. It is largely determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork, not by the design and structures of effective teams. Teaming is teamwork on the fly.”

Amy Edmondson


Edmondson is saying that one of the skills that knowledge workers need is the ability to form teams quickly. And not just form them, but give them the right amount of structure so they can last as long as they need to, and not overinvest in structure so they last longer than they need to.


The pace of change is crushing cycles. We no longer build software in six months or a year. Some ship a new release every day.

Question that Bloom uses to get teams to think about consequences of this: Suppose we had a bug that was destroying 10% of our customers every day. What kind of capabilities would we need to address that kind of problem? So this is not a question about the capabilities we want to use every day. The question is, could we address this, and how quickly?

Bloom’s point in bringing this up is that we tend to establish static team structures, which we’re now learning is not the best way to work in fast-paced environments. When considering his hypothetical question above, the answer very probably involves bringing together a group of people with the particular knowledge, skills, and authority to quickly address the challenge. The question presents an extreme, but does so to highlight the fact that short cycles mean new challenges arising frequently, threatening the capabilities of a static team structure.

“Fast-moving work environments need people who know how to team, people who have the skills and the flexibility to act in moments of potential collaboration when and where they appear. They must have the ability to move on, ready for the next such moments. Teaming still relies on old-fashioned teamwork skills such as recognizing and clarifying interdependence, establishing trust, and figuring out how to coordinate.”

- Amy Edmondson

“Teaming blends relating to people, listening to other points of view, coordinating actions, and making shared decisions. Teaming requires everyone to remain vigilantly aware of others’ needs, roles, and perspectives. Therefore, teaming calls for developing both affective (feeling) and cognitive (thinking) skills. Enabled by distributed leadership, the purpose of teaming is to expand knowledge and expertise so that organizations and their customers can capture the value.”

- Amy Edmondson


Bloom proposes that emergent teams are a capability we need to develop.

Implication: Loose team structures

Making knowledge, skills, and experience available on demand

Companies have been approaching this by asking people to write things down — describe their knowledge, skills and experience. But we’ve found that this doesn’t work very well.

What might we do instead?

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value …of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. …Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.

- Jean-Rene Fourtou

Bloom: one thing we get with more flexible team structures is an increase in creativity, because “creativity comes from having disparate views touch each other.”

So how do we create structures that allow us to do that, that allow an increase in contact between people with dissimilar views?


“Managers (must) adapt to the ambiguity of flatter organizations in which bureaucratic changes of command were replaced by networks of negotiated influence.”

- Ronald Burt

Managers used to be able to rely on positional power. [In Burt’s terms, they were in hierarchical networks of relationships, able to “borrow social capital” from sponsors in other parts of the hierarchy. -MR] But now they must learn to negotiate influence [they must learn to build bridging social capital -MR].

The term “negotiated influence” is a specfic one. Bloom shows this slide:

There was a time when we saw value in, and so invested in, machines and factories. Capital. Then we moved to human capital — what you need to own as a business owner is in people’s heads, so you need to structure that. Intellectual capital: not just the people, but also the information.

23:50 And now social capital. What we’re investing in now is not only the networks of people in our organization, but the ability to dynamically create those networks in ways that add value to the organization.

Here’s one consequence of the shift from human capital to social capital:

Social capital explains far more than raw intelligence or individual skill, when it comes to performance within an organization.

Strong and weak bonds. Isolated cliques. Some teams may work closely. Some may just have mutual friends. And in some cases, there are structural gaps. This is an opportunity for someone to move into a brokerage position.

The functional opposite to brokering is “closure”:

Teams form boundaries around themselves, and become a closed group.

Now look at this!

Basic point of this graph: when you have mostly highly closed networks (right side), your performance will drop. Rigidly structured networks have low performance. Networks with fewer constraints and more holes (left side) will have higher performance.

There is a power law at work here. The first few constraints you put on your network are the most damaging. (Steep drop in left side of curve.)

Bloom uses the following slide to make a point about how we might manage using these ideas.

We’ve seen that creativity blossoms when we put people together who have very different ways of seeing a situation, very different experience. We might apply this idea by temporarily separating teams, or isolating a single team for a period, then bringing them back together with others.

The slide shows that a population without division — a single large group — evolves slowly. But if part of the population is separated (we isolate a team, for example), it experiences rapid evolution in response to the constraints of its particular environment and situation. When the boundary is removed, we get a “cross-breed” of the two populations. In the team example, a cross-breeding of two sets of ideas.

Bloom calls out the following as a key point: if you are committing teams to large, long-term projects, it is very difficult to restructure them. But processes that allow for deferred commitments allow for dynamic restructuring.

Commit teams to short periods of these “crushed” cycle times, use moments between cycles as opportunities for restructuring, then allow teams to restructure themselves.

[Note that “participation” and “commitment” link nicely to Peter Block’s insights on community and the conversations necessary for citizenship. -MR]

Bloom introduces “Conway’s Law”:

Conway’s Law

Organizations which design systems… are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of those organizations. [See:]

So if we want flexible, configurable software architectures, we must pursue that through flexible, configurable organizations and networks of communication.

Bloom quotes Fred Brooks, reflecting on Conway’s Law:


Suggested operating principles

  1. People who operate under their own autonomy are more likely to care about their work, notice and react to changes in context, and be innovative. Therefore, try to push decision-making as far down in the chain as possible.
  2. The shorter the distance between relevant information and people making decisions, the better likelihood that good decisions will be made. Since it is difficult to move knowledge around, try to make it so the people who know the most about something are also the people making the decisions, or as few steps removed from the decision-makers as possible.
  3. When innovation is required to solve novel problems, diverse perspectives allow the organization to “see around the corners.” The idea is to not only pursue distributed decision-making, but also diverse decision-making. For example, get different teams to work on the same problem from different angles.



Marc Rettig
Rettig’s Notes

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Okay Then