Questioning your Questions:
The Systemic Constellation Interview
Tanja Meyburgh (2007)
In the interview before a family or systems constellation, questions are not used simply to gain insight into the relationship structures and the family system, they are at the same time always interventions in that system.
For example: “how would your relationship with your partner be different if depression walked out the door?” already implies that a) there is a possibility for it to be different (opens possibilities), b) the relationship to depression can change, and c) there may be a systemic reason for depression staying (a hidden gain). Another example would be asking the miracle question or a question that shifts the client from looking at the past and the problem, to look at future or towards the solution. For example, Imagine this constellation was successful and your problem is solved, how will you realise that? What will be different? How will you benefit from it?
The purpose of an interview before a constellation is therefore:
To collect information
To build the client-facilitator field / relationship
Develop the contract
Start the intervention
The presenting issue or question is the contract between the facilitator and the client and is the permission they give you to intervene in their system. This question needs to be honored and is the red thread that guides you through the interview and the constellation.
Koenigswieser and Hillebrand (2005) give guidelines for qualitative interviews:
Listen, ask questions and clarify when necessary. Be careful which words you use when you paraphrase. Are they the words the client used? Or are you putting in something new?
Don’t ask leading questions
Replace questions like “and that doesn’t worry you?” with “how do you find that”? Rather than saying, “that must feel scary”, you can ask: “how was that for you?”
Don’t give advice
Replace “you should tell him you are sorry!” with
“what do you think we should do”?
Avoid comments like “you should not have said that!”
Accept pauses and allow silences
Taking time to think often helps to understand better.
Open questions or requests for information could include:
If your problem were solved, how would your life look different?
Who would notice if you changed?
If you were to draw a picture of the whole situation, what would it look like?
You will hear various opening questions from different facilitators. For example:
What is your issue?
What is your problem?
What is your question?
What would you like to do today?
You can start in any of these ways but notice the difference: 1 & 2 ask person for a description of the problem. This may give you a clear picture of the entanglement the person is in, and then you move towards questions about how they would like it to be different. 3 & 4 elicit a more future or solution orientated response from the beginning.
Before a family constellation, both open and closed questions are used. There is a delicate balance between getting the necessary information and allowing the client to feel heard and to tell their story. Too much information and character descriptions can influence the representatives but too much structure may cause valuable information to be left out. It may be helpful to explain to the group in advance why lengthy descriptions of people may not be helpful.
There are different types of questions that facilitators use:
Open-Ended Questions are those that the clients cannot easily answer
with “Yes,”, “No,” or one- or two-word responses:
Tell me about your family?
Is there something else you think is important?
What would be a good outcome for you?
Open questions give the client the chance to bring in information that may be important without needing to go through the whole genogram, and it allows the facilitator to come in contact with the type of language, metaphors and words that are used to describe and name the problem. These all provide valuable information and give clues to words, statements and sentences used in the constellation by the representatives themselves and those sentences that you give to the representatives to say. Open questions ensure that the facilitator does not force their own personal worldview onto the client. They make it possible to privilege the language and knowledge of the client as an expert in their own lives
Closed-Ended Questions are those that the other can easily answer
with a “Yes,” “No,” or one- or two-word responses:
Is there anyone who died early?
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Was your father involved with somebody before he met your mother?
Circular questions give insight into the interconnectedness of the client’s system. For example:
What do you think your partner thinks of your problem?
What do you think your mother would say if she saw you now?
This type of questioning produces a great variety of hypothetical possibilities for transformation and generates positive expectations for future successes. These questions not only help to gain information, but they also generate information. The objective is to focus the client’s attention on the positive aspects, resources, and the development of potential.
Tomashek (2006) refers to constructivist conversations – solution oriented conversations used to help the client to develop new perspectives. The constructiveness of the facilitator’s questioning fosters the client’s awareness of the possibilities and arouses his or her resolution competency.
Questions of difference help to reframe the problem:
How would you like it to be different?
What would change if you found a solution to your question?
Questions can be used to understand the relational dynamics and the hidden gain of the problem:
– What are the effects on your life of this problem?
– Who benefits from this way of doing things?
– How has this pattern influenced other family members?
– If you were to solve this problem, how would it affect your future?
There is a danger as a facilitator to become tangled up in the problem of the client by focusing on the problem story. Instead of inviting them to become further immersed and isolated in their problem-saturated stories, we can try to understand their experience and ask questions rather than interpret, instruct, or more directly intervene. This is also an ethical stance. Although questions are not neutral, they are more open-ended than statements. When we genuinely listen to and value people’s responses, their ideas rather than ours, stay at the centre of the facilitation.
What are we looking for?
When we interview the client before setting up the constellation, we are looking to see if there may be a systemic entanglement or dynamic in which the problem, question or symptom makes sense. Systemically we assume that a symptom is not “wrong”, but rather an attempt for the system to maintain equilibrium and ensure its survival.
From the guidelines given by Hellinger we can form hypotheses about what might be excluded or out of order in the system and be the cause or contributing to the problem. Of particular interest therefore are those people and emotions that have been excluded, forgotten or not spoken about.
The basic orders of love summarized by Ulsamer (2003, p.48-49):
Every member of the family belongs equally to the family, and is respected in the same way, regardless of any personal qualities or particular fate. This belonging is independent of whether they are talented, feeble-minded or ‘normal’, or whether they are handicapped or mentally ill, whether they have died at an early age or committed suicide. Everybody belongs equally.
Whoever comes first is in first place, and the other follow in order. An older brother comes before his younger siblings. First wife comes before the second. Each person is respected equally.
Each member of the family has their own fate, regardless of how difficult or terrible it may be in some cases. Each person has to carry his or her fate completely, with all its burdens, with every turn of events, and with all the feelings that accompany it. In addition to their individual fate, each person also has to carry personal responsibility for everything they have done in their life.
Although the facilitator keeps the basic orders in mind during the interview, he or she should maintain an open mind for various possibilities while the constellation develops. The constellation is used to test the hypothesis and will give the necessary information on where to look, rather than the constellation being used to show the client what the facilitator already knows from the interview.
It is important that the facilitator does not get seduced into going straight for the “juicy” story or the drama, but uses the client’s question or issue to lead to the entanglement where the symptom “makes sense”.
As the facilitator we are in a position of power through our knowledge and can therefore easily marginalize a person’s experience by fitting them into pre-defined categories or hypotheses that we believe to be “the truth”. However, we must ask ourselves: who decided this was truth? Can we apply any particular theory to all situations, cultures, contexts and people? It is important to remain aware when working with different cultures or marginalized communities in South Africa.
Freedman and Combs (1996) come from the narrative/social constructionist position, which privileges the knowledge of the client so that they are empowered to come to their own understanding and solutions of their problems. They suggest that we ask ourselves the following questions from time to time to make sure that we don’t become prescriptive, directive, marginalising in our interviews:
Whose language is being privileged here? Am I accepting their words, phrases, or am I offering a distinction in my own language? Why am I doing that? What are the effects of the different linguistic distinctions that are coming forth in the therapeutic conversation?
What are the stories that support this person’s problem? Are there dominant stories that are oppressing or limiting this person’s life? What stories are being marginalized?
Am I evaluating this person, or am I inviting her or him to evaluate a wide range of things?
Am I situating my opinions in my personal experience? Am I being transparent about my context, my values, and my intentions so that this person can evaluate the effects of my biases?
Am I getting caught up in pathologising or normative thinking? Am I staying away from “expert” hypotheses or theories?
White and Eptson (1990) suggest questions we ask ourselves to check who is the privileged voice in the interview:
Does this model/theory/practice invite people to see the therapist or themselves as experts on themselves?
Does it require the person to enter the therapist’s “expert” knowledge or does it require the therapist to enter the world of the client?
Goolishian and Andersen (1992) suggest that we work from a “not knowing” position. That we don’t ask questions for which we think we know the answers to, or ones for which we want particular answers. We need to develop a stance of curiosity rather than “leading” the client to where we think they must go.
During the course of the interview it is very easy to lead the client in a direction that is of more interest to you than to the client. This makes it important for you to recognize and acknowledge parts of your own story that may be informing what you find interesting about theirs, what parts you choose to focus on, and how you view the problem and the solution. It may be a good idea to use a supervisor if you feel that the story of the client is becoming entangled in your own story. Find a way to acknowledge and allow that part of your story to have a place in your heart without excluding it from the client-facilitator system. It is essential that you can acknowledge your own story and give it the right place, which is with you. Only then can a client-centered constellation begin.
Andersen, H. & Goolishan, H. (1992). The client is the expert: a not-knowing approach to therapy. In S. McNamee & K.J Gergen (Eds.), Therapy as social construction. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (1996). Narrative Therapy: the social construction of preferred realities. New York: Norton & Company.
Koenigswieser, R. & Hillebrand, M. (2005). Systemic Consultancy in Organisations. Heidelberg: Carl Auer.
Tomaschek, N. (2006). Systemic Coaching: a target-oriented approach to consulting. Heidelberg: Carl-Auer
Ulsamer, B. (2003). The Art and practice of family constellations. Heidelberg: Carl-Auer.
White, M. & Eptson, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.