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Edwin Friedman Thinking Systems

What I want to do this morning is talk about how congregations function like families. I am going to do it from a variety of points of view. I’m going to begin with a fable. This one is called "Burnout" and it’s about a fish tank with a scavenger fish in it, you know a scavenger fish is supposed to keep the fish tank clean. I’m trying to be as realistic about it in my use of language as possible so I hope that you will appreciate that.

Once upon a time there was a scavenger fish that lost its taste for shit. (I don’t think I have to read the rest of the fable. You all got the message already!) It was your normal, garden-variety scavenger and had never previously shown any signs of being different from the other members of its species. It lived in a normal-sized tank with the members of several schools and, from the very beginning of its association with this ecosystem, seemed always to be in perfect harmony with the environment. It never got in the way of the others and they reciprocated, allowing it to do its thing.

It always knew its place, the bottom, never let things pile up, never rose to the surface unless some debris had failed to settle, and, even as more and more fish were added to the tank, never, absolutely never, tired of taking crap from the others.

Daily it swam below, keeping the tank clean. Though, in truth, one can not say that it was out to keep it clean. The orderly environment was more the accidental result of the scavenger doing what came naturally. Nor, for that matter, can it be said that the others left it alone because they understood how they benefitted from the way it functioned. In other words, to an outsider, the scavenger might have appeared to be playing a role. This is a far different thing, however, from saying that it, or those who benefitted from their association with it, ever thought in those terms. After all, one might just as well have said the others were there to give it something to do. Yet, on the day the scavenger stopped eating shit, the effect on the entire tank was a tidal wave. Every aspect of this living environment seem to be affected, and almost all at once.

The first to react were the guppies. Normally a spritely crew that glided to and fro, often in threes and fours, they seemed, on this day, almost completely unable to "stay in school." The males, in particular, usually a swaggering lot, with their multicolored tails swishing this way and that, had great difficulty staying aplomb, and rather than giving off their usual well-attired air, almost appeared to be disheveled.

Another inhabitant of the tank that became noticeably disturbed was a small baby piranha. It’s growth having been limited by the dimensions of this environment, the vicious instincts that were natural to it’s kind, never broke through at all. On this day, however, ontology broke through to its progeny. It went wild! With no teeth to speak of, it did no damage, really. Still, it began to behave in a way never seen before. Whereas, previously it had moved about quite slowly, lackadaisically taking a morsel here and there, now it swam back and forth in an aggressive frenzy hitherto unknown to the entire network. It would dart, stop, look around menacingly, trying to show it’s little teeth in a threatening manner, only to turn again and home in on some other phantom object. If this "personality" change in the piranha seemed odd, however, at least it was in keeping with it’s kind. Not so, the changes that appeared in the angelfish.

Normally a haughty type that propelled themselves about with utter confidence and independence, they seemed on this day to be moving as though they had no idea where they were at all. It was almost as though they had been filleted of their internal guidance system. Usually their largess provided a buoyancy which enabled them to remain motionless observers for long periods of time. But now, one found itself totally unable to remain at rest, while two seemed to have become permanently motionless and appeared to be huddled in a most uncharacteristic way close in a corner away from everything else. A fourth stayed in perpetual motion sometimes actually rolling its pancake body over on its side as if to try to float, and on several occasions, when it rolled a little too far over, this angelfish began flying upside down.

No living part of the system was unaffected. A seahorse lost it’s familiar S-curve and, after trying to squiggle like a worm, eventually gave up in frustration and proceeded to coil itself totally into a ball. Some of the more luminescent types utterly lost their capacity for illumination, and a particularly squat and dreary-looking thing that had normally drudged along to itself suddenly became euphorically friendly. Skipping a ballet about the tank, it scared the hell out of the others with its sudden efforts at closeness, and on one flirtatious occasion, made a leap so carefree that it nearly threw itself out the window in the top.

For its part, the scavenger fish that had lost its taste for shit moved about, unmoved. If it sensed the change, it showed no response to anything novel. It kept circling in the old patterns, but without its usual appetite; it seemed just to be going through the motions.

What eventually would have happened if things would had gone on much longer would never be known. For the changes had not gone unnoticed to those outside of the tank. One day, suddenly, as if taken by an unseen hand, the scavenger fish disappeared, plucked forth, never to return. And just as suddenly, plop, another of the same ilk had taken its place, whereupon it proceeded immediately to take up its job with diligence and relish.

Just as quickly, everything returned to normal. The guppies regained their grace, the baby piranha again become docile, the angelfish found their gyroscopes, the seahorse uncoiled to a curve; luminescence returned to the environment once more; and the nameless squat and dreary one was once again squat and dreary. As for the previously resident scavenger, this fish out of water was cast in the refuse pile and the next morning eliminated by whoever in that system regularly took out the garbage.

That fable came to me as an effort to describe, systemically, what seems to occur in burnout in work systems, family systems, and so on. We hear, constantly, for example in airplane crashes, about the blaming on pilot error. The focus on the burnout of clergy is a focus on pilot error. It blames all congregational crashes on pilot error. Instead of asking, are there factors that go into work systems that are more likely to burn out their leaders? And if so, are there ways that the administrator, the minister, whoever is running things can function so that they are less likely to become a symptom of that system?

It is intriguing, of course, how with human systems also, once the overfunctioner stops over-functioning the whole system tends to go into collapse. And if it is a work system, they’ll often fire that person or the person will resign or quit and in comes another one, plop, starts over-functioning, and everybody else is able to function again. There is something pathological when a system can only function at the cost of somebody burning out. Yet, we as clergy, are constantly put in the position of being precisely that.

What I want to do is give two different presentations around this notion. I do not think we have to over-function the way we do. I think that there are other ways to operate that are far less stressful for us. But in order to teach that, I first have to teach a way of thinking about a work system.

What are the factors that you can put into a comparison between a work system and a family system? The first one that I just suggested, I’ll come back to again, is that the burned out member of the family can be understood as symptomitizing something in the system rather than just something in themselves. One of the problems with burnout programs that help rehabilitate and bring renewal to people who are burned out, is they focus on the burned out person as being the problem. A systemic way of looking at things, which suggests on the contrary, that the so called "burned out" persons have allowed themselves to be vulnerable to something going on in the system.

This in certainly organically true about the human body. An organ in the human body will not dysfunction because it is bad. It will symptomatize something going on within the structure, the metabolism, the homeostasis of the system itself. And the same thing is true extending cells into colony of cells and then colonies of people.

I’m going to present seven or eight ideas. The first one is the concept of homeostasis. Homeostasis is a fancy phrase simply meaning balance. Homeostasis is what is necessary for stability. On the other hand, homeostasis is what works against you when you want change. So that one of the reasons change is difficult is, the same factors that are necessary for stability now must be upset in order to bring change. Stability is not always healthy. Stability works against you, it resists you when what is necessary is change. A pathological system can be stable pathologically, so to speak.

When people are afraid to disturb things and their fear of change is greater than health, then they are not going to get healthier. Most people would prefer peace to progress. That works against us. Most people, and I include me and everybody in this room, would find that there is no way out of a chronic condition without being willing to go through an acute phase. We’d all prefer the dullness of the chronic pain to the acute pain necessary in change. And yet, there is probably never a chronic situation that you can work through unless you are willing to tolerate more pain intensely over a shorter period of time. That is as true about a toothache or standing up to a vestry.

Now the concept of homeostasis is simply this. I’m going to give you a fancy definition for a system. When I use the word system, and I, by the way, use the word family and the word system interchangeably. So any time I say "system" I mean any kind of family. Any kind of relationship system. Any time I use the word family, I mean system, and vice versa. A system achieves homeostasis from the moment it has an identity. A system is any set of relationships which upon achieving homeostasis, functions to maintain that homeostasis through inner adjusting compensations. I’ll repeat it again because I think it’s important for you to understand how I’m thinking and how I’m using the term. When I use the term "system," I mean any set of relationships which upon achieving homeostasis, functions to maintain, to prolong that homeostasis through inner adjusting compensations. Now, that concept of homeostasis is the over-riding principle in all human networks. The concept of homeostasis will over-ride individual efforts to bring change. And change that occurs in a system, if it doesn’t disturb the homeostasis, will not last. That is why we constantly recycle symptoms. If there is, in a family, really important unresolved issues that the partners have with their own families of origin, you can get them to promise to be better, you can try to remove the symptom somewhere in the family, but it will never go away forever.

Or, maybe the best example of homeostasis I can come up with is as follows: This would be a situation in which you have a child who is acting out severely, and mother who is around all the time is having to do most of the dealing with the child. And a lot of the symptomatology and the problems are surfacing here (drawing on board). Quite often the parents will come in about a problem with the child and I will say, "You know what you got here is a terrorist." I learned this back in 1980 when Khomeini was first going wild. I was seeing all of these families and I was saying, my God, you know you got a hostage situation here. And some of the parents would say, "We’re not holding our kids hostage." It’s never that way, it’s over the other way. (Laughter) I’ll get onto this with congregations too, there are congregational terrorists. Now, they can only do their damage if they can hold somebody hostage. I’ll get to that point.

Now, so in comes this couple and I’m saying to them, "Look, you got a problem here in which nobody is standing up to this child, nobody is defining self to the child. Mother, one of the things I’ve noticed is a lot kids begin to symptomatize when mother is starting to feel her own oats. It’s not because mother is pathogenically doing something to the kid, but on the contrary, mother is tired, mother wants to be her own person and then the kid symptomatizes almost as though he was hooked on mother’s anxiety and when mother stops being anxious, he does something to make mother anxious again. And, I would like to support you not to be anxious." And then I always, and I’ve learned the hard way, turn to the husband, and say, "Sir, I have to warn you of something, this sounds exciting to you, but I want to warn you of something, your wife can not differentiate herself selectively. What I would be doing with her to help her be more of a person, in order that your child would grow up, you sir, will feel it in the gut because she’ll start doing the same thing to you." And the man said, "I can take it, anything for our kid." (Laughter) And, six months later, he’s saying, "Well, we don’t have to continue this, you know we could use the money somewhere else, or ah, (Laughter) ahhh, guess what dear, I just got transferred across country, ah, I guess you’ll have to stop the therapy." Now that’s what I mean about homeostasis.

Somehow or other the dysfunction in the child is also connected to something here and what she has to do to define herself to the child will bring about a change that will bring disturbance here (drawing on board). One of the problems and one of the difficulties in getting change is: if you do the initiatives that will bring about fundamental change, you will disrupt the homeostasis and it will begin to surface somewhere else. What’s related to this is simply the notion that whether it is a work system or a family system the location of the problem is not the cause of the problem.

And let me give you several examples. One would be a hospital in the Washington area. An intense fight broke out between the physician in charge of the intensive care unit and the nurses. And they were fighting back and forth, and the woman who was the nurse Ombudwoman for the hospital and who handled problems like that had come to me for some consultation. And I had a personal interest since my wife was going in for an operation in about a month in the same hospital. The problem surfaced within a month of an announcement in the newspapers, that the hospital, which had been a university hospital, had been sold to a private corporation. And the staff in the hospital was never warned in advance. They themselves read it in the newspaper. And within a matter of weeks, an intense conflict shows up in the intensive care unit.

Recently someone told me a similar story with regard to a church and the fight broke out in the choir. I, then said, "Well, maybe there’s something similar in terms of the intensive care unit in a hospital and the choir in a church, as being the vulnerable spots most likely to symptomatize problems in the system." Someone then said, " Didn’t you ever hear the statement that when Lucifer fell out of heaven, he fell into the choir?"

In the synagogue it’s more likely to be around the religious school. And you can take computer firms and you can take automobile manufacturers and it wouldn’t matter what the corporation is, different corporations, by which I mean different organic structures, different relationship systems will have areas where they’re most liable to symptomatize. But that’s different from saying the symptom was caused by the area in which it occurred.

We can draw an analogy again to human beings. Human beings because of their genetic makeup, are liable to be more vulnerable in the cardiovascular system, the endocrine system, the muscular skeletal system, the immunological system, and genetic system and so on, it depends on our makeup. But, that does not determine whether or not we get sick. Our structures will only lead to where we are most liable to manifest the illness. The fact that we have a weakness in that area is not in itself a sufficient condition for having a disease. So, this is an important notion to distinguish between the process and the content, to distinguish between the location of a problem and the cause.

A similar situation occurred down South in a major university. Where a fight broke out in the Psychology department which may be its choir, so to speak. The struggle broke out shortly after it was announced, suddenly and by fiat, that every member of the university would have to teach on three different campuses next year instead of one, that the university had just bought two other dwindling colleges. What I’m trying to suggest is when a university buys two more campuses, when a hospital is sold from a university to a private corporation and goes from non-profit to profit, when sometimes a church moves from one building to another, those are homoeostatic changes. And they will produce symptoms. It is worth looking at every organization you’ve ever been a part of to ask, what systemic changes might have occurred in the six months to a year before a problem surfaced? This concept is as true about personal families as it is about congregations.

Now, there is another side to this which is that sometimes if the problem is not handled well, and to the extent when a problem surfaces it is not treated as a systemic problem but simply as an issue that has a right to its own focus, what happens is, the problem remains and gets passed down from generation to generation. I talked yesterday a bit about pills and plums among churches and synagogues. It’s true in work systems too. Once you’ve been spooked, it’s hard to de-spook it. I’m at a point in almost believing in ghosts, when I watch for demons, and so on, when I watch the effort of congregations and families to get out from under what seems to be a curse.

Let me see if I can give you an example. Let me put in one idea first. In family systems thinking, trauma is not in the event, it is in the way the system handles the event. Ten little girls aged ten can be raped and they’d come out of that rape differently, depending on how the system dealt with them. If the family felt too guilty about it, went too much in the direction of a campaign against rapists for the rest of their lives, or tried to keep it hush hush, there is more chance that they would traumatize the rape than if they could deal with all the pain and embarrassment and everything and work it through. But what I’m trying to say is events themselves are not shocking and traumatic as much as it is the emotional system that traumatizes the problem.

Where this shows up is when ministers have to leave suddenly. Particularly under embarrassing circumstances. That can spook a congregation for generations. I went to give a talk about, maybe it was 5 or 6 years ago, at a very large synagogue, one of the largest and oldest synagogues west of the Mississippi. And I knew that twelve years previously the Rabbi had been found to have had an affair. He announced it. He resigned suddenly in the embarrassment of it all. And I get picked up the first night for dinner by a member of the congregation that had been around for a long time and he knows I’m a family therapist and I’m going to give a talk that night. We don’t go a mile before he starts bringing up that incident. This is twelve years later. Two months ago, which is five years from my previous visit, one of the major Rabbis in that congregation called me, along with his president, that would be the senior warden. And we spent an hour and a half on the phone discussing how to handle a major problem which had to do with the leaving of another major professional in the congregation. And the anxiety that is still left over 17 years ago is still in there. I mean these are bright people. It basically appears to me a solid congregation. And yet the anxiety of that original event is still in there.

Another thing that happens is, to the extent members of the congregation are going through personal difficulties at the time there is a trauma in the congregation, each one reinforces the other. I have a concrete example of this from my personal experience. I announced on one of the Jewish holidays that this would be my last year after 15 years in the congregation. There was a woman in the congregation that had been a founding member. She and I had always had the best of relationships. She didn’t talk to me for 4 months. Well, that week her husband told her he was leaving. So she got one reinforcing the other and it was a double barrel.

And that is going on all the time out there and we can’t always know it. We can’t ever know it. In all events, what I’m saying is not only can a symptom surface in one part of a body that is really systemic. I mean you know this obviously from your own body. Pain in the jaw could be referred from angina. The color of the skin could have to do with the liver. Similarly in any relationship system at all, where the problem surfaces is not necessarily the cause and it requires a systemic way of thinking about a congregation or any work system to come to appreciate what is the difference between a systemic change and what is simply a palliative for the symptom. All that I’ve said thus far to the extent it is true is equally true for personal families and congregations.
Another dimension of this process and content distinction is it helps you deal with criticism. Somewhere in my book I have a list of all the criticisms every minister has ever gotten from every congregation in the world. I don’t think I missed any of them. They’re very clearly listed in a table. They have to do with your personal habits. They have to do with how you visit the sick. They have to do with how you function in the pulpit and so on. And you can list them. And it’s the most ecumenical list that’s ever been created.

I was invited in as a consultant to a very old church in the Washington area. It was founded by people who were stonemasons in the White House. There is a Lincoln pew in it where he sat. It is only three blocks from the White House. And they had invited a new minister in because the congregation was dying and they did a big search for this person and they found him. And he did a splendid job at achieving everything the search committee was looking for. And you know what happens in such a circumstance. They get rid of him. (Laughter) Anyway, this tremendous fight developed and here you see the homeostatic shift. It’s like the wife and the husband and the son on the (drawing) board, except now, you see, the husband and the parents here, say the minister is the child. And the minister comes in to start functioning well. Except there are two parents. The old guard and the new guard. And it was the new guard that hired him and because he didn’t pay enough attention to at least keeping a relationship going with the old guard, they pushed and pushed and pushed to get him out. One of the things that happened was, and of course, everybody fought about the issues and that wasn’t the issue.

So what they do is they poll the congregation and I’m sure you all know here when a vestry or a session or a board of trustees is incapable, doesn’t have the courage to take positions, they always do the same thing. They poll the congregation. So what they did was they sent out this huge questionnaire. And they asked everybody in the congregation what you liked about the minister, what you didn’t like, what you liked about the congregation, what you didn’t like. And they correlated all this material together. And I got invited and I said you know this church still has a money problem and I can solve it for you. There are 350,000 church units in America. If you would send this around to every church in America and just charge them $5.00, $10.00, whatever, and say to them, look this questionnaire contains every question and every answer that any church has ever asked and when you have to do a questionnaire we can save you a lot of money. You don’t have to send it out. (Laughter) Here it is. The answers will not be different.
My own alertness to this problem occurred when I first was ordained and somebody did some polls of reformed synagogues and I never forgot it. A given Rabbi polled his congregation. He listed all his activities for a week. And he said I would like to know from you, my congregants, how much time you think I ought to spend on each of these activities every week. And he just said that and let them do it. He did not ask them to total it. The average number of hours was in the 70's and two were returned where the total was more hours than there are in a week. And I never forgot that in the terms of the expectations and the projections, and my thought always about the minister in the congregation is like the mother bird and all the little baby birds and the mother bird has a worm and they’re all reaching for it. And that’s the way I see the problem.

What I’m getting to is, all of this crap that comes out is irrelevant. You have to touch it to some extent but it’s never the cause of the problem. Criticism is a form of pursuit. Criticism and complaining are forms of pursuit. The complainer and the criticizer is always going after somebody. They are also manifestations of dependency. The guy in your congregation who is happy with his life, the woman in your congregation who is moving in a direction towards her own goals, she couldn’t care less how many hours you spent in the office. The people who are focused on us are those who have emptiness in themselves. And the big problem all the time is that we are paying attention to that.

What I didn’t say yesterday (and I should have put it in is) I mentioned how I go around the country and I speak to clergy and educators, physicians and attorneys, teachers, nurses, and so on, and I mention how everybody seems to have the same problems on the issue of change. What I did not say to you was something else that seems to be universally true, about all institutions, whether it is a hospital, or a school or a church, or a work system that’s profit oriented, whatever. And that is, that the people who are least motivated, most recalcitrant, most passive aggressive, most dependent, are calling the shots. I see that everywhere. And it’s counter evolutionary.

It feeds into something, which I’ll get into more. It feeds into the focus, in the middle of the 20th century to the late 20th century, on empathy. An enormous amount of empathy is a disguise for anxiety. Caring is an unlimited concept. If you make the basis of the way you’re going to deal with people caring, there is absolutely never a way to know when to stop or how much is enough. And it feeds into the hands of the unmotivated. I suggest that if you go back to the sermons of the 19th century, even the 20th century up to Fosdick, nobody’s talking about caring. People are focusing on responsibility. And this thing that has gotten going, where people should be more concerned about caring than being responsible affects all the helping professionals. It affects the pastoral groups, the therapist groups, the physicians and everybody. And, it feeds into the hands of the least responsible. Caring, I think, is a natural concept, like togetherness. I think caring comes naturally out of responsible people. But when the origin of one’s functioning, when the beginning of one’s functioning, when the major goal of one’s functioning is simply to care for others, you lose yourself and everything gets chaotic. I see it everywhere.

The people who are really moving forward, who want to get ahead with their lives are rarely the people who are invested in the institutions (and they are the people we would love to have), it is on the contrary people with great emptiness in them that seem to be over and over again those who are calling the shots and causing most of our problems. I am heading toward, ultimately, how can we reconceptionlize our calling so that we don’t get stuck with that. I guess on one level what I’m suggesting is a disruption of the homeostasis, but the homeostasis that has gotten going is one which allows the least motivated to have far too much power. And, one of the effects is, they produce an unending amount of content which we focus on.

There is another way of going about it (which I will get to more either tonight or tomorrow). Anyway I’ve been going through things that I think are the same with families as corporations. The same thing is true in families. Consistently, I have found that if someone in a family comes to me for help, it’s always the most reasonable member. And, I’ve gotten to wonder: Is my job to teach people how to be less reasonable?

It is extraordinary to me how, the people who are in pain in organizations are those who are far more the adaptive people, are far more those people who are concerned about others. And, what I constantly find myself doing is trying to teach people how to stop being pain hoarders. How to give pain back to others. Not to cause them pain in the sense that you’re going out to cause them pain, but at least to give it back to them. That’s the only way that they’re going to be motivated to change. If your approach is caring rather than responsibility, you can’t do that. It is a form of caring, of course.

Now to continue with the parallels. In families, just like in corporations, like in synagogues, like in churches, what I find consistently is, it is the unself-limiting person who tends to be invasive, aggressive, and takes over. I don’t know if you all know the difference between how a virus replicates and a bacterium. A bacterium replicates in a normal mitotic process. It duplicates itself and replicates itself and when it has replicated the DNA, the RNA and so on, it kind of divides and now we got two. It comes naturally out of its own self. A virus, on the other hand, is not capable of replication in that way. What a virus does is it infects a host cell and assembles itself out of the DNA of the host. Viruses are somewhere on the border between animal, vegetable, and mineral. They don’t fit the normal category. They can’t propel themselves so they are not animals, though they do replicate themselves, but not like animals do.

There are a number of human beings on this planet that function like viruses. They are not capable of being productive out of their own existential DNA. They must infect the host. And these are the creatures that are constantly the problems, in families and in work systems. And, unless the host can learn to immunize itself to that invasive force...... Reasonableness, caring, love will work beautifully with a certain number of people on this planet. A small number of people on this planet. And, it will work best with people who are least important to you. What I’m heading toward is the notion that being responsible for oneself and self definition is one of the ways you keep the virus from infecting you anywhere. It’s as true in a family system as in a work system. One of the things I’ll get onto tomorrow on the issue of leadership is that the leader of a work system functions as its immunological network.

It is absolutely guaranteed that if you’ve got members of a work system running around and causing problems, then the people at the top can’t define themselves. It’s one of the few things that I believe I can say that’s 100 percent true. And, I hit on this accidentally. I was seeing a great number of people in the varying helping professions. And, I was saying to them, you can bring in problems from your work system as well as from the families you counsel or your own family. And, it began to surface, that every time a nurse, a physician, a minister, a therapist, was having problems functioning in a system because there was all kinds of craziness going on, the person at the top was poorly defined. That is as true in a family system as a work system.

Again, I’ll give you an example that’s salacious and yet it fits. There was a congregation, synagogue, in the United States which two years ago, the Rabbi came up for life tenure after 25 years. And, during that period of time, a member of the congregation somehow found out, and I don’t know how, that he had been picked up twice for solicitation of prostitution. The effect was that he not only didn’t get life tenure but he left the congregation. I met the Rabbi shortly afterwards, with his wife, I’d been in school with him, and I said to him, "I want to ask you one question, I mean you have been well liked there for twenty-five years, right?" He said, "yes." I said my question is this, "Was the president of the synagogue a peace monger, a really sweet, nice guy, but incapable of taking a stance?" And, he and his wife looked at me in utter amazement and said, "How did you know that?" I said, "Because, a strong person in that position, when he had gotten this information would have said to the virus who spread it around, ‘Look this Rabbi has been with us for twenty-five years, he’s done an enormous amount of good in those twenty-five years, a lot of people love him, and for these two things we are not going to get rid of him.’ You know, even Moses broke the Ten Commandments in anger and God gave him another set." (Laughter) And he should have gone on and said, "I will not hold any committee meetings about this and I will not even recognize you from the floor, and if you try to run around and do a whole bunch of things, you cannot count on my support in any way whatsoever." That would be like the T-cells telling the virus to get lost. I’ve seen it all over. It again suggests the systemic quality of work systems.

I’ll give you a couple more examples on this. I recently had someone come to me about a consultation with regard to a branch of the Federal Aeronautics Administration somewhere in the Washington area that handled the radar for certain airports. The way the system was established what you had was two different branches (drawing on the board). You had a guy at the top and then there were two different branches here. And under these men, it was almost an all male system, there were technicians down here. One person at the top with two lieutenants and under each of those lieutenants several people on either side. Now what happened was this man had been brought up from the ranks down here, been put over him and he was black. And the people under him tended to be of a redneck sort and there were rumblings and disruptions of everything. The person at the top called in a consultant to find out what to do and the consultant comes to me and asks me what I think she should tell the top. Should we sit them all down and discuss and get everything out on the table? And I said that’s ridiculous. What is necessary here is for the person at the top to sit these rednecks down and say, "It is the law of our country that we do not discriminate with jobs, positions, and so on, on the basis of race or any other kind of selection. Therefore, I will brook no resistance to his position and if you do not like it I will be glad to help you find other positions." That’s all the person at the top had to do. The notion of them all sitting down and discussing it, that’s what happened at Eastern Airlines. Remember Eastern Airlines went down the tube about a year or two ago. Do you know that in the summer before that, they got everybody together with a consultant to discuss their feelings toward one another. Can you imagine Borman and the head of that Union sitting down and talking to one another and discussing their feelings toward one another and the thing just got worse.

I’ll give you another example just to show again the systemic importance of leadership which I will get to. This is a female system, just to show again the focus on gender differences is not the important issue. The issue is maturity. Here is a system for wayward girls. They got about 12 little girls in this home. And there’s a director and she has three social workers under her and a couple of nurses (drawing on the board). There’s a cook who’s important here who’s male and then there are some volunteer people who all work at this home for wayward girls. What happened was, one of these girls told the cook that a male volunteer had come and laid down on her bed. That’s about all there was. It went through this system like fire. And there was anxiety all over the place and the staff met to discuss what to do with it and it turns out they had a weekly consultant. So when the consultant came and the leader asked the consultant how to handle it, the consultant came to me for a consultation. And I told them about the FAA situation. I told the consultant the story. And I said this is ridiculous. What are they discussing this for? All that is necessary is for her to go to this guy and say, "There is a rumor going about that you laid on the bed of one of the girls. We don’t know whether it’s true or not and we can’t prove it. So let me just put it to you straight. We absolutely cannot tolerate that kind of thing in this system. If there’s even a hint about it again you’re out." And if she had done that the whole system would have calmed down. I then found out this woman was having major problems with her own daughter because she can’t take stands with her own daughter either. Again, I’m trying to convey something larger here. I’m trying to convey how certain factors are systemic. One of the major ones is how the head of any organism functions. When the chief lay person and the minister are together on things, that’s rooks back to back on the chess board, that’s an impregnable position. When you got that person with you. Let me go on still about comparisons between work systems and family systems.

Another area is transitions. I once asked an Orthodox Rabbi and a Priest about a hunch I had. Which was that every story I’d ever heard about possession by demons it seems that the possessing spirit always enters during a rite of passage. And they went and checked their folklore and their own thinking and came back and they said, "You know, you’re right". The demon always enters during a transition period. I believe that transition periods are the periods when families and work systems are most likely to get spooked, if they are not handled well. Conversely, they are periods for exorcism. And a system that has been deeply spooked, can often only get un-spooked at some later transition period.

When I give a presentation I try not to replicate too much what’s in the book because I have more to say than is in the book. And yet, I’ll refer to the book at times, even though it may sound like a commercial. Chapter seven in the book is all about rites of passage, how they can be viewed as family events rather than simply events celebrating the individual. I’m suggesting that in families, weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs, and baptisms and so on, the fancy family concept, you know in therapy it is called the concept of the identified patient. The person who is sick is the identified patient rather than the patient. Well, you could look at the member of the family who is being celebrated as the identified celebrant. The whole family goes through a passage not just the person being focused on. Family systems unlock during that period, during transition periods, you can get more change during that period than at any other time. And during that flux, demons can escape and demons can go in. When the emotional system of the family is being pulled apart by all kinds of struggles, that’s when the demon can get in.
We pay too much attention, I believe, to entering ceremonies and not enough to leaving ceremonies. Again, I believe that it’s chapter 10 of my book, I spent the whole chapter on how to enter and leave a congregation. I can’t go into it in great detail now but I think that there are ways to leave a congregation so that it’s less likely to be spooked. And there are ways to enter a congregation, to be less likely to be possessed by the spirit that’s coming in. And my guess would be, that the pills in this world, the congregations that are chronically troubled, have been spooked by some important event way back in their history. And that it would require something similar to exorcize the system. In all events, I did want to comment briefly on the transition notion. They function the same way in work systems and family systems and we don’t pay enough attention to them.

Now, I want to go on to what in effect is a practical understanding of a way of applying everything I’ve said so far and it’s equally true in work systems and family systems. Those of you who have already read my book will have had more familiarity with it. The concept originated with Murray Bowen, my major mentor, and it is the concept of the emotional triangle. So, I’m going to take a little time in explaining it. Because, it is again, something similar to work systems and family systems and yet it helps operationalize everything.
The concept of an emotional triangle is also one of the most ecumenical things I know about. To whatever extent it is accurate, it is cross-cultural, cross-racial, international, it’s just something it seems all protoplasm gets into. And, one cannot say that men rather than women are more likely to get caught in a triangle. One can not say that blacks more than whites or Christians more then Jews. The laws of an emotional triangle operate exactly the same way for all people. Let me briefly put them on the board, and then give you an example. And, it will get to the whole issue of stress in leadership and I think it will bring together much of what I was saying. Triangles operate to the exact same extent in family systems and work systems.

The basic law of an emotional triangle is this, a triangle is any three people in a system. And, let me first say it in terms of a family and then let me put it into a work system concept. There for example, would be a father, a mother, and a child and here’s mother’s mother (drawing on the board). A triangle could be any three of those people. It could be the partners and the mother-in-law. It could be the parents and the child. It could be a mother, her mother, and her child. Any three people in the system. It could be, if that was a congregation, two vestry members and a minister. It could be a vestry member, a minister, and another member of the congregation. It could be the Bishop, a member of the congregation, and the minister. Any three people in any relational system is an emotional triangle. It could also be any two people and an issue. So, that the third member of the triangle could be something which I’ll simply call "X." "X" could be his symptom, his drinking, his sexual acting out, his passive aggressiveness, his failure to find a job, whatever. And, a triangle could be husband, wife, and his symptom. Or, her symptom. Or, a child’s symptom. The father, the mother, and mother’s chronic condition. It could be any parent, a child, and the child’s school habits. It could be a congregation, a minister, and the congregation’s conservatism. Any three components in an emotional system is a triangle. That’s the first notion. Anybody that you supervise and the person who supervises you, that’s also a triangle. Any three members of any hierarchy, in any work system.

The first law of an emotional triangle is that you can’t change a relationship you’re not apart of, for more than a week, (laughter) so that here (drawing on board) are two people, any two people, and here is a symptom, that belongs to either one of them. They could be marriage partners, or say, a father and his daughter, and the symptom. If she has a symptom, see here’s a man, that could be his wife, that could be his child, that could be his mother, that could be a member of his congregation, any person he’s related to, who has a symptom, he can not change the relationship of the person and their symptom. That seems to be a fundamental law, that’s cross-cultural, trans-gender, or anything else. That would be the first rule.

People, somehow, will always say to me, "You don’t understand." But I tell them that in the history of the human species, no woman has ever successfully gone to her man and said, "You know, I don’t think this is the way you should deal with our child, your mother, or your boss, whatever." And, have the husband respond, "You’re right honey, I don’t know why I didn’t see it that way, myself." That’s never happened in the Jewish family, a Christian family, a black family, a white family, or any.

It’s a little worse than that. The more you try to change two other people in their relationship with one another, or somebody and their symptom, their habit, whatever, the odds are, the more perverse it will get and the effect will be the opposite of your intention. So, the more you try to pull people apart, the more they fuse, the more you try to push them together, the more conflictual they get. There’s something, I don’t know what, bigger than both of us in that sort of thing. Triangles function in a perverse way.

The biggest, and I think most important rule of emotional triangles, however is this, to the extent, and this wouldn’t matter what the system was, work system or family system, let me change this to A, B, and C, so it becomes more abstract (drawing on board). Here’s three components in a triangle, they could be three people, or two people and an issue. A, B, and C. To the extent, from the position of A, you try to change the relationship of B and C, you will wind up with the stress for the problem. I don’t think stress has to do with quantity of work. That’s one of those paradigm shifts I was talking about yesterday. I do not think that you can go out and correlate people being stressed by how much work they’re doing. Well, you can say they have different thresholds, no, I think it’s the relational position from which you try to handle work, pressure. Stress increases logarithmically in any situation if you’re handling it from a triangled position.

There was the famous executive monkey experiment done thirty to thirty-five years ago. It becomes more of a apocryphal story because I think that it was never replicated. But, they tried to stress these monkeys and give them ulcers by frustrating them. Then the normal notion would be people who have ulcers worry too much. You know, what’s the common mythology out there, "They worry too much, they’re anxious and so on." That gives them ulcers. So, they frustrated these monkeys in every way they could and they couldn’t produce an ulcer. They teach it how to get food and then frustrate it. But, they found that if they made the monkeys responsible for getting food for the other monkeys and then they stressed them, then they could produce a symptomatic disturbance.

I’m suggesting to you that the key to burnout and not becoming that scavenger fish, see what the scavenger fish is always in the middle of, is the functioning of the other fish in keeping the tank clean. If the scavenger fish could get out of the middle, in other words, as long as you are dependent on another person’s functioning for your own goals, you’re in trouble. That’s one hundred percent true. To the extent you make your own satisfaction in life, your own goals in life, dependent on your functioning and to the extent you can reconceptualize your profession, your job, your parenting, your spousing, whatever. To the extent, you can make your goals in life dependent on your own functioning, you’re less likely to get triangled.

I’ll get to this tonight on the leadership issue and suggest a way to do that. I believe, though I don’t have the time to go into it, that the majority of severe illness, in people, occurs to people in triangled positions in their families. Where they’re either in a triangle between two other members of the nuclear system or sometimes somebody in the nuclear system and somebody in the family of origin. But, physical illness is to, I think a large sense, the somatizing of stress in the family. And, the person most likely to somatize it is the overfunctioner. Not always, but I think most likely. I’m not a physician, I never play physician, but I am astounded by the extent to which if I’m seeing a family, anybody, and they come in, and one day someone has a physical illness, all of a sudden their arm is bothering them, all of a sudden they have a cold they can’t get rid of, as soon as I see a somatic disturbance like that, I think triangle. And, I have been amazed at the extent to which, using somatic disturbances as warning signals of triangles is terrific. But, again the major notion on this is, that to the extent you wind up with the responsibility for the relationship of two others, two people or a person and their issue, or a system and its issue, then you are asking for it. Now, you realize that comes in at a tangent to most notions about stress and hard work.

Let me try to put some flesh on the bones. My favorite example of it. Here is just, I thought, the perfect example of the triangled minister. It involved a Rabbi, where two members of his congregation came to see him regarding the bar mitzvah of their son (drawing on board). These parents were divorced. And, she was re-married. Rabbi, father of bar mitzvah boy down here, who by the way had a speech impediment, and the Rabbi was therefore particularly invested in this kid doing well. And, here the parents who were divorced and she was remarried. And, the parents who are both significant members of his congregation come to him and say, "Rabbi, as you know the bar mitzvah is next week and we got a problem. She wants her new husband to come and have an honor at the bar mitzvah. Well, she was adulterous with him before we broke up and there is no way that I will pay for this thing if she even brings him. Would you please help us, Rabbi, solve this problem?" (Laughter) That exact same problem can show up at IBM, you know, you can change it in some way, it’s, you know, you sir are the executive officer, the chief executive officer, you’re the manager of this branch. Would you solve the problem for us? And, the Rabbi is really caught because the kid is a hostage. Particularly because of his speech impediment and the Rabbi wants the bar mitzvah to go well for the child.

Now, my advice on this thing, cause the Rabbi can’t win, my advice for the Rabbi was for him to be stupid. It is only smart people who get sued for malpractice. (Laughter) Malpractice is related to the expectation you set up. And, most of what we go through in our congregation are malpractice suits. Nobody ever got sued for being dumb or stupid. (Laughter) Well, what would he do? One thing he could do is, he might say to the couple, "God, I love you both and you both have been long standing members of this congregation, and this thing is beyond me, I haven’t the foggiest what to say to you. Maybe you should call the whole thing off, it’s too much for everybody." Can you imagine that Jewish family, a week before, calling off the bar mitzvah? Or, another one would be, "Well, I know this sounds stupid but maybe you can have two separate bar mitzvahs and she’d have hers and then you can have the other...

The purpose of suggestions like that are, how do you stay in touch and not pick up the responsibility? Again, it’s like the non-anxious presence, anybody can avoid being anxious by not being there. But, then it won’t effect change. Similarly, you can try to solve this problem by taking stands, but you’re going to get side winded one way or the other. On the other hand, to do nothing, or to say, "I’m sorry, I just can’t deal with it," won’t get you anywhere either. If you can stay in touch with the other two parts of the triangle, that have conflict with one another, and not get hooked into it your presence will modulate the effect on the other two. That’s a systemic notion that you can use in every counseling session in the world. It is not necessary for you to come up with suggestions to help them. They can’t hear them anyway. What you can do is just keep talking to them and get each one responding back and forth to the other one.
But, there’s another issue. It’s one thing to be a counselor, the clergy have a special problem where there are particular political ramifications for every counseling thing we do. It’s one of the reasons, I believe, that clergy can’t go to members of the helping profession for supervision. I don’t think psychiatrists, social workers, and all the therapists out there can ever appreciate this problem. One of the ways that I have tried to convey it to them is to say to them, suppose all your patients knew each other and were discussing what you did with them with one another and they could collectively bargain their fee with you. (Laughter) How effective could you be? Now, my model for this is Columbo, you know the Peter Falk character. Who’s constantly hoisting these smart guys on their own petard by being stupid. It takes a lot of smarts to know when to be stupid. It really does. But, it shouldn’t be seen as simply a copout. It is a way of staying in there but not taking over the responsibility. This can work in a variety of ways in any kind of work system.

And, by the way, to the extent he, this Rabbi, is worried about the kid and the kid is his hostage, then it will never get anywhere. It’s only if he back washes the anxiety, the time deadline will get to him as long as he feels responsible, to the extent that he can get helpless, the anxiety will backwash to the parents and they’ll be motivated to do something.

You know my model is Solomon, actually. You know the famous Solomon story where the two mothers come each claiming they have the kid and Solomon does a beautiful detriangling job, and comes up with the really stupid idea that maybe we should cut the baby in half and give each mother a half. I mean, that wasn’t in the best interest of the kid either, you know. The point I’m trying to make is if you get the anxiety in the right place, the long run thing for the kid will be better. If you keep rescuing the kid from the parents you never get change.

Here’s another example of how it might work. This is a teacher in a school system. It was a private school system. I won’t say what denomination ran the private school. And, here was a teacher, with a class and one terrorist in the class, acting out like crazy. It happened that the child was the child of the wealthiest donators to the church school. And, she was in a triangle between wanting to make her class function well but worried because she knew how important their money was and it made it impossible for her to be effective. Now, here is the school board. My suggestion to her was that she take the problem to the school board and say this, "I got a problem here, I got a kid who is acting out and the parents are very wealthy and I want to be guided by your advice. Which is, should I take stands with this kid and keep up the academic principles of our school, in which case you may lose this family, or do you want me to fudge the standards in order to keep the money? What is your policy decision?" If the group says to her, and this woman was having chronic back problems all through this thing, if the group says to her, "the standards are what are important," then she goes ahead and she can take stands with the kid and off she goes and her back problems will go away. If on the other hand, the board says to her, "well, see how well you can handle it, you know, ah, we ah, we think standards are important but you know this family is important too." They fudge it. Then, what she does is let the kid act out like crazy. Do everything she can to make that kid as destructive as possible until the other parents come in and say, "our kids are complaining about that kid." And then she says, "I understand the problem, I just want you to know that I went to the board and they said
...." And, she’s out of it and her back clears up either way. And the problem is where it belongs.
As I see it, all members of the helping professions, are, what’s the word? Inflicted with, it is an infestation, this thing about the need to take over and take charge and make things go right. I tend to talk ecumenically, but there’s one theological concept out of medieval Jewish tradition that I’ve always been fond of. It’s called a _______ which is a Hebrew word for "to contract" and the ________ in asking the theodacy question of how evil came in to the world with a good God, said that what God did was contract himself and give space to the functioning of human beings and that’s how evil came in to the world. And my view is that’s what God did for us, he contracted himself to give us more space and that’s the least we can do for our vestries. God gave us the freedom to screw up, are you willing to do that for your charges? Are you willing to do it for your kids? Are you willing to do it for other people in your life? If you’re not, then accept the stress that goes with it. There’s no way out of it. The big issue however is, you not only accept the stress, you prevent change. The emotional triangle concept will operate in every work system. It will operate in every family system. It is based on the notion that somehow or other it is not possible to bring about a change in a relationship that you’re not a part of.
The flip side of it of course is, given any relationship where the people are uncomfortable with one another, they will tend to triangle in a third person. So that even if you understand this clearly in terms of your own functioning, to the extent that you go in to a congregation, a work system, that has important unresolved issues in it, it is more likely they’ll try to triangle you. In fact, I’ve never thought about it til this minute. But you know, one of the ways of knowing how unresolved issues from the past are when you enter a congregation or interview for it, is the degree to which triangling occurs. I think that’s a fair concept to say. The degree to which part of the congregation tries to get you to side with them against other parts of the congregation. I can’t think of a better litmus paper test for how deep the unresolved issues are.
We’ve only got a few more minutes. Anybody want to ask a question, more for clarification of this concept?

Question: I’m a little bit confused because when you talked earlier about if you are in charge, be in charge. But in the triangular situation you are talking about, back off. Response: Right, the apparent contradiction is resolved around the notion of defining yourself, so that I will always encourage people to define how they will function, rather than telling others how they should function. That’s the heart of it. I will be getting into that a lot more, but that’s the basic notion that self definition is the way out of triangles.

Question: It almost looks like to me like your example of a teacher has constructed a triangle, if you say she’s having a problem with a student, why doesn’t she just reprimand the student? Response: Oh that’s fine. Have you ever seen a teacher successful in confronting a kid like that? Where’s it going to go? You were right, I was jumping into the middle. We were assuming that this began after she for the thousandth time told the kid to sit still, okay. You see, if we extend this farther as I did with that cancer analogy earlier, we are not dealing with children, we are dealing with symptoms of families. When you have severe chronic acting out kids in school, the problem is in the parents. How do you get it back washed up there? That’s the issue.

Let’s see two more hands and then I will tell you a funny story for ending the morning. Question: You can’t effect the change in any system that you are not a part of, what happens if you refuse to be triangled? If you are the health giver or therapist and you keep yourself from being triangled, where are you in the position to effect change if you’re not part of the system? Response: I don’t know if we are playing with words here or not. I’m not sure I understood your concept, but if you can stay in a system and refuse to take over the responsibility, you can often force others to do it. Question: So you can still remain in the system? Response: Oh, that’s essential. The phrase used in my book I got from a foreign service officer who was a severe overfunctioner both at work and at home. When I started teaching him to do this he said, "You know you’re asking me to defect in place and we all know in the foreign service that defecting in place is far more powerful than going over to the other side." I use that phrase on a lot of people and they love it.

I’ll tell you a little story which I understand has just come over from Europe in the past year or so which plays on this whole notion of triangles and so on. It’s interesting because it’s a modern joke, yet it’s based on a much older thing. And it’s a story that takes place in an Eastern European _______ , that’s a small, small section of a small Jewish town in Poland during the days of matchmaking. There were two girls in the town that wanted to get married. And so they did a matchmaking thing with two guys from another town. And a cart is bringing the two young grooms and a flood comes and sweeps it away while crossing the bridge. Only one of the grooms survives. So the groom comes into town and there are these two anxious mothers wanting their daughters to get married and there is only one groom. They don’t know what to do. So they go to the Rabbi. The two women from town go to the only Rabbi in town and say Rabbi, we have this problem. We contracted for two grooms and only one came and we don’t know who is supposed to get him. The Rabbi says, I don’t know what to do with this, there’s no precedence to this situation at all. I’ve never seen anything like this before, I don’t know how to handle it. Hm, the only thing I can think of is we can do what Solomon did. We could cut the groom in half and give half to each of the brides. So the first woman says, "That’s ridiculous! What would I want half of a dead piece of meat for my daughter?" The other one says, "Well if that’s the tradition, that’s the tradition." And the Rabbi says, "There’s the true mother-in-law."

Comments

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