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Peter Bernhardt: Uncovering Systems IQ

--Bela Shah, on Feb 21, 2013

Imagine our social world - our relationships, our communities, and our professional organizations – as a collection of overlapping systems. Each system is living and changing, transitioning through a pattern of survival, development, and finally transformation.  

Peter Bernhardt, a psychotherapist and organizational consultant, explains that when we apply this type of systems thinking to our world, we can understand and also embrace our interdependence and impact on one another.
 “Living systemically means having a felt-sense of oneself as a part of something larger, recognizing that every input I make- every gesture, every word, has an impact on the relationship systems that I belong to.”
Approaching our personal and professional interactions through a systems-based approach can slowly uncloak layers upon layers of our own preconceived notions and perceptions, and in the long-term, create a more harmonious human and non-human ecosystem.
So how do we do this? By uniting in our differences.  It seems counter-intuitive but after Peter explained it more carefully, it actually makes sense. 
“If we accept that all systems survive, develop, and transform through discrimination and integration of differences, then we have our best shot of moving forward to develop and transform in organic ways.”
This is the fundamental basis of Yvonne Agazarian's theory of Systems Centered Therapy (SCT), which has greatly influenced Peter's work.  In SCT, a method known as “functional subgrouping” is effective in creating a bounded space for addressing and understanding divergent views and approaches, whether in our personal life or at work.
Peter offered a real life example to illustrate how this works.  An individual had just entered a new teaching role in a class focused on inter-culturalism and social change.  After an intense session on the legal constructions of race and racism, two members from different racial backgrounds and with strong differences in perspective became quite charged up. There wasn’t a solid structure in place to create boundaries of information during the class and the teacher decided to facilitate a post class discussion.  When the teacher saw that the two members with heated disagreement also joined, he asked the entire group to first join on similarities and to hold their differences for a later part of the discussion. 
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the young black man who had experienced a lot of hurt based on the white man’s lack of acknowledgement about continued racism in today’s society sat quietly and listened to his perspective.  And then he shared something very beautiful.
“The young black man expressed that he had come to a place of understanding of this white man’s perspective and he attributed it to resisting an impulse to jump in and also, to honoring this format of joining on similarities.  He called it a “healing conversation”.
In the example above, the two members of the class had moved first from survival, then into development, and finally into a transformative experience.  When we stay in survival mode, we boundary our capacity to take in new information and something within keeps getting triggered to react. Both parties feel that their interests are under attack.  But as we began to move into development, and eventually transformation, we delve into our own identify and recognize what is important.
“Systems centered therapy allows for differences to exist within a contained space and the likelihood of conflict is significantly lowered.  Even though there are differences amongst individuals, everyone is immersed into a level of integration where each person tolerates and responds to the other person’s diverging views instead of immediately reacting.”
In another example that involved an inter-ethnic couple, Peter used systems centered therapy to help them realize and understand the different cultural perspectives that each person was bringing to the relationship.  Interestingly, he focused on small tasks that seemed to cause huge conflicts, such as washing the dishes! 
Both individuals in the couple had their own way of washing dishes, but they began to see that their different approaches stemmed from deeply held cultural beliefs.  Once this was understood and accepted, the couple was able to create a bounded space for talking about their differences and discovering points of compromise and negotiation.
Peter explained how even within this new place of understanding, many new differences will begin to emerge.  One way to support this emergence of newly revealed differences is through further subgrouping. 
An individual in a group that has gone through systems centered therapy can then branch off to focus on a new issue and start his own subgroup.  This kind of subgrouping continues and in the process, individuals within overlapping systems began to uncover and break down many of their own deeply rooted assumptions, prejudices, and fears. 
By helping groups to delve into their own communication patterns and explore their reactivity, people are trained to begin noticing when they are triggered and identify when and how they become anxious.    Applying the SCT tool in order to shift away from our own habit patterns can be quite powerful, for ourselves, and for our interconnected world!