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Constellations Coaching

Associate consultant Richard Hale reflects on the artful inquiry event he co-hosted for us earlier this year.
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By Richard Hale

I was delighted to host an artful knowing session with Mayvin back in May 2021, or is it artful inquiry, yes the inquiry comes before the knowing.

To be slightly academic and non-artful about it for a moment, the context of my session related to my experience of developing my own practice, my work with clients in business, academia and government over the last twenty years supporting them through transformation and leadership challenges.   

I’ve long been an advocate of work based action learning, believing in the strength of comrades in adversity who work together on the mysteries which vex us and who actually do something about it. More recently I have been drawn to the human aspects of Organisation Development and curious about the practical use of Gestalt psychology.  

Most of my life, I tended to separate my personal and working life, good at boxing things off, maybe an ability learnt from an early age, perhaps a coping mechanism or even a Gestalt disability.  

But these two sides of my life collided and for me and those close to me the impact was life-changing.   

In the artful inquiry session I told some of the story. It was pretty brutal for everyone in my family and as I prepared for the session I was frightened that emotion could render me useless, and I was concerned that I should protect those who featured in the story, but I sure felt I had a right to tell it. I knew I had support of my Action Learning Set whose members would be attending the session, drawing strength I whispered to myself ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

And it was the strength I had drawn from my Action Learning Set that had enabled me to manage the challenge in life I faced just three years ago.

***

I had been asked to coach a city lawyer who was frustrated in his career in an entrepreneurial tech business, who I deduced after my first meeting had throughout his career been a square peg in a round hole. He was now feeling blocked. 

I had recently been trained in Systemic Constellations Coaching and wanted to try to use this method to support my client. I felt the corporate lawyer might benefit from looking at the historic and current social dynamic in his business as a way of understanding why he was so frustrated. Maybe this would unblock some of the blocks that were preventing him from making it to the very top, or maybe he could find some peace in accepting he needed to find a different top.  

I asked my Action Learning Set to guide me as I made myself the guinea pig for a practice constellations coaching session. I would be the subject of the coaching support facilitated by the Action Learning Set who would use the constellations method. I figured practising on a personal scenario, rather than ‘role-playing’ the city lawyer would allow me to then do the proper work using this method with my client.  

I got it the wrong way round though. My client challenge became the conduit to the real work of me understanding my family and my role in it, yes it was really about me. 

***

Mum was very ill. A former nursing sister and matron now facing her final months and pushing away her family who wanted to help and support her. It was hurting us all and I didn’t know how to help. 

Ahead of my practice constellations coaching session I had swept up a load of artefacts from my house - grabbed in a last minute dash from the display cabinets and the shelves, and threw them into a napsack for possible use in my airtime with my Action Learning Set.  

In this session I pulled the items at random from the bag - we called it a ‘lucky dip’ approach and I spoke about who or what in that moment they embodied and I placed them on the ‘field’ (which I defined as my family) on the table and oriented them in relation to other people and themes that were prominent for me in the family. I set aside my worries that I might not be doing this according to the book and was encouraged to focus on how I felt, what I noticed and what I wanted.  

Some items represented people - an African woman carrying water was my wife facing towards us all. The gorilla my oldest son, wanting to show his strength, the rhino my other son pointed west was in South America discovering the world and himself. My sister the clay shape like two heads of the Gemini that she is. Her daughter the sprightly hare pointing away who was trying to break free and find her independence. The 1920s county sporting cap was all things family on my dad’s side: pride, values, tradition and respect. And the second African woman carrying water was Mum who wouldn’t even stand unsupported on the table. How apt. I lay her down but propped her head up with a makeshift item (the drinking glass) serving as a pillow.  

The constellation built up on the table before us and as we drew the session to a close I was asked what I wanted, how I wanted it to be. I said I wanted to help my sister, I knew she was hurting, not coping and not talking. I wanted my mum to have as good an end to her life as possible. Tears flowed, this wasn’t meant to happen, this was just meant to be about practising the method of working with systemic constellations. But this was now for real. I felt safe and cared for with my Action Learning Set. And the final comment made to me was ‘You can change the pattern of communication in your family for future generations’, it was an inspirational comment.  

***

Mum’s last words to me were a mystery at the time ‘You can do what you want to do now’, and to my sister ‘I couldn’t protect you’. But I felt empowered and the first thing I did was inform my aunt that her sister had died and invited her to the funeral. Mum hadn’t spoken to her sister for 27 years, I never knew why but it was something to do with her not coming to my wedding. To contact her I went via my two cousins who I had not seen since my teenage years. That channel had been blocked off too. Mum always discouraged me from getting too close to certain family members. 

I had sensed my cousin had been trying to get to talk to me alone but I could see we were now being blocked off by her mother. I engineered a brief moment where we were actually alone and within minutes she told me something she said she had wanted to tell me for years and she said she was sorry we had lost touch. When my Mum was evacuated to Cornwall from London during the war she had had a child there. I was shocked but not surprised. A week or so after Mum’s death I sat alone in the early hours of the morning feeling someone was missing. A very powerful, irrational and emotional sense. 

I found out we had a half brother and so I told my sister. Then I called an old nurse friend of my mum to see if there was more information to be had. She said she knew nothing of a baby boy but could now tell me I have an older sister from my parents, who had known about me all my life. The nurse friend had been an intermediary to my sister’s adoption by another nurse 63 years ago. She felt relieved of the burden of carrying this secret but said ‘Your mother never wanted you to know as she feared you would be ashamed of her’. Poor best friend of Mum, so loyal, carrying the weight of knowing, even her own daughter had been sworn to secrecy, telling me later she felt guilty knowing this whenever she had seen me over the years. She gave me her address and it turned out she was only four miles from my home.  

I called my younger sister and told her we also have a sister we didn’t know about and I was going to find her. I knocked on the door and she said ‘I know who you are, you are the image of my son, I knew you would come for me one day, Mum must have died, I now know I will never see her, let’s meet later’. 

We met again that evening and I learnt the most heart wrenching accounts of my dad, so wanting to connect with his daughter but she had been given up when he had briefly left Mum when she was pregnant before they were married. Towards the end of his life Dad had managed to meet her and build a relationship. He had snuck photos to her of me and my family. She produced these photos of me and my family and placed them on the table in the bar where we met, and she’s calling my dad Dad. He had told Mum that he had connected with their daughter but she forbade him from seeing her ever again, but he did.   

I later pieced together patterns from the past and realised Mum had worked in a care home at the end of the road where her daughter; the one she had been persuaded to give up, lived. Towards the end of her life, Mum made solo trips into town to see her (I kept telling her she was too unwell to go alone) following the route that her daughter regularly took, watching but not revealing herself. 

A few days later I browsed through a jumble of old photographs from my mum’s house. I fast found a photo of her as a young mother holding my older sister as a baby before giving her up. Then a photo of a baby boy that had been sent to my mother’s guardian ‘Aunt’ in her evacuation home in Cornwall. The home in the idyllic village where she always said she was so cared for by ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie’. I figured those photos had always been there but I had never noticed them. 

I was to learn more of my mum’s life in the three months after her passing than I had gleaned over 58 years. I had accepted she was secretive, I didn’t want to upset her and Dad had always steered me away from asking too much.  

I took my new found sister to meet our grandmother just before she died a month short of her 105th birthday. As we entered her room she said ‘Why am I here, I’ve been abandoned haven’t I? At least I’m not out on the street going through the bins for food’. A belated glimpse into her past coming from poverty living in the 1930s as an unmarried mother. My mum and aunt were born of a relationship my grandmother had had with her employer. He was a Sikh immigrant market trader in Shepherd’s Bush and a London Vetinary College drop-out, the very college where we could hear the cows mooing in Camden as I attended my learning set meetings at the Gestalt Centre, oh yes doesn’t it all just connect. Mum only ever told me her father was called George, he was a vetinary surgeon and he died in the war, no further discussion, and incorrect on three counts. And as for Nanny she was holier than thou, revealed little, so I could see how she landed a nice grace and favour cottage at the Manor House down South cooking for The Queen and keeping a few royal secrets. 

***

The systemic constellations approach combined with working with a trusted Action Learning Set had served me well. It was that dynamic I wanted to give a flavour of in the artful inquiry session. 

When I first learnt of the constellations approach I was somewhat sceptical. It felt a bit rule-based and formulaic and as for a suggestion that once the constellation discussion has been created, some sort of magic happens… that word ‘magic’ really aggravated me. 

When I gathered our newly extended family together to meet in a bistro we took our seats randomly. My new older sister sat right beneath a print which was the same one that had hung in my childhood home in the alcove above the sofa. A print that a few months ago when clearing Mum’s house I thought carefully about throwing and then threw, that I then noticed a few days later disintegrating on my driveway due to a downpour of rain. It felt like my sister had taken her rightful seat beneath the picture of a flamenco style dancing lady in a flowing red dress. Was this the magic, or just noticing? 

***

My inquiry continues, it’s hard to stop now, and I can’t not know what I now know, it has become part of me, maybe it always was.

There are more people in my constellation now, they were always there but were not seen by me, some are now in the foreground, some in the background, some not visible and no doubt there are others I’m not even aware of.  

I do wonder why in my professional life I was attracted to the art of asking deep questions, the essence of action learning, so much so that in my logical, systematic, no doubt engineering sector way I had to create a system and in my entrepreneurial way create labels - Action Learning Questions, OD Questions, Leadership Questions, Whateveryouwantocallthem Questions.

Maybe the connection between this supposedly objectively produced system for enabling others to get to the heart of the matter, to solve their mysteries (https://mayvin.co.uk/how-leaders-lead-post-pandemic-richard-hale-dave-ulrich/) was really a subjective manifestation. A subjective manifestation of me continuing that inquiry that started as a child when I wanted to dig into truth, to find out where I had really come from and who we really were and are, but I was told ‘Don’t go there’.

***

I was moved by the supportive comments I received during and following the artful inquiry session and relieved that the practical part worked as participants in pairs selected one or two items from their desk or office and discussed who or what they embodied. So simple, a key that opened a few doors when shared and held with trusted others.  

The following month I joined the next session in the artful inquiry series facilitated by Kathryn Winterburn, a beautifully crafted session on Artful Ways of Writing. This session gave me a way into a little more reflection, and so to close this blog here are said reflections:    

The longer you stand at the edge, the more nervous you seem.

How far dare you look over the edge? And what about me?

How far can I look over, see over and do I dare to even step over the edge?

What is this fear? Is it fear of hurting?

But I am compelled to challenge us all.  

Is it my destiny or is that a convenient excuse?

Am I scared you won’t like me, think I am screwed up?

Who are the screwers?

Do they deliberately try to screw me up?

Or maybe they can’t help it.

Are the screwers screwed up?

And so what if they are?

Is there any point in digging?

You told me once ‘You are really digging now.’

Yes I was. 

I was like a dog stood over a buried bone, 

digging harder the closer I got.

For what?  

Why do I have to be the digger?

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