Do I really need to do “inner work” to be a systems changer?

Anna Birney
Feb 27 · 5 min read

An exploration

I often share the resistance people have to doing their “inner work” — the process of deliberately changing yourself through bringing an awareness to what is happening inside you and how it affects what you do in the world — and ask myself surely we need to just get out there, change things and stop navel gazing!

Although I have been doing my own inner work for years (below see practices I draw from) I have been cynical about really publicising it as something that is needed for others. Over the last couple years however I have started to pay more attention to its effects and also of the effects of not doing the work by noticing how it shows up in my practice as a facilitator and coach.

Why is it important? What does it really mean?

Recently I was facilitating a dialogue that was trying to enable the group to move forward on a decision. I was noticing a lot of resistance in the room to the conversation and also to the process I was using. Through undertaking my ‘inner work’ I had come to realise one of my triggers — that is something that might cause us to feel emotional not by the current experience but because it takes you back to something else in your past — is when someone is rejecting a process or conversation, I start to want to overly please the criticiser, rather than paying attention to what is happening for the whole. This then affects the way I am facilitating and starts to lessen the ability of holding the space adapting and moving forward towards the outcome that might be needed. On this occasion I was able to noticed what was happening inside of me and realised that the issue was not really about me but about the dynamics in the room and I was able to keep my cool, not shut down the conversation and adapt the process but not based on needing to be liked — which over the years I now realise I have stumbled around, frozen (that is not knowing what to say or do) or got upset myself.

We are all a result of the society we are trying to change, and we need to explore how we do not keep perpetuating the problems in our society. The issues that exist in the world also exist within us. Climate breakdown makes us confront our choices, issues of social justice our privilege and position, both dealing with our own behaviours, the despair it might bring and the part we play in the problem. To help people connect to the challenges we are facing we also need to connect with our own narratives — our authenticity perhaps — and how we come against the challenges — our vulnerability — so that we can support others.

Inner work allows us to connect with both what is happening in the room and in the context we are working within, to work with the energies and emotions that often sit below the conversations. As the person who is holding a space we need to connect to ourselves. This is not a process of becoming the master or the hero of these challenges but about working on yourself, to see ourselves a part of the system so that we can be in service of these bigger questions and issues.

Systems fields that reference the importance of inner work

There are a number of different approaches that are used by change makers with different methods that might reference ‘inner work’ here are few examples that my practice draws on:

Action inquiry is a broad field which asks inquirers to make a conscious reflection on the perspectives and worldview we act from (triple loop learning) and to be open to the change that might be needed. There a number of practices that are used to help people explore their assumptions, ways of looking at the world and also what happens when these play out when you work with other people.

Theory U — a social technology used for change — talks about the blind spot of leadership — and starts their presentations with this quote “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor. They purpor that we are blind to the source (or inner place) where the potential for change might come from. It seeks to address this challenge through the process of sensing the present — presening as a way to understand where this potential might be. This requires both the individual and group to let go of the judgements, cynicism and fears that are holding back this potential emerging. They use tools such as journaling to help access this state. This type of work has also informed some of the work of systemic leadership.

Processwork including deep democracy draws on psychology as a systemic method for working with challenges, particularly power and conflicts. “It’s the facilitators job to remain sensitive to everyone, to draw distinctions and to encourage people to fine-tune their comments to reflect their precise feelings.” (Mindell — Sitting in the fire) It assumes that if you cannot be sensitive to yourself then you cannot support others to be sensitive to the situation the group is working with.

Many of these practices also draws from mediation practices — Jean Boulton a complexity applied theorist draws the link between a complexity worldview and Buddhism — where meditation is a practice to explore your own awareness of the world.

At the beginning of this year as part of the School of System Change we ran a short programme — Spark — to support those who are working with systems change ignite others systems change practice. Through this programme we introduced “inner work” to the group and by doing this we were able to see how using systemic tools was more than just using them as a method but was also a practice we need to cultivate both in how we work with people through a process and by exploring our own operating system.

If you have your own approaches or reflections on ‘inner work’ I would be interested in hearing what they are and of the experiences they help you with.

This blog is my summary and reflection after a call with a group of systems practitioners exploring this topic and draws on their ideas and thinking.

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.

Anna Birney

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Cultivating #systemschange | Director @forum4thefuture | Launching School of System Change | Passion #inquiry #livingsystems #livingchange

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.