Systems Sensing: Making what’s implicit explicit. Collective Transitions with Hilary Bradbury and AR+


In social change, we often find ourselves facing new challenges and with increasing dynamics or greater complexity. For example, plans or strategies that once felt solid and secure, may no longer be realistic or feasible. A challenge may bring a project to a momentary standstill. As one moves from the space of “the known,” they enter the “space between.” How do we best navigate uncharted territory? How do we collectively stay present in the suspect of the space between and how do we move to a more safe and stable ground? What are our innate capacities for creatively wayfinding and what are resources for how do we make sense and meaning of the situation?

Luea Ritter and Nancy Zam of Collective Transitions, explain that we often don’t have words to name or describe these experiences. Indeed their our developmental edge exploration is finding a language that helps to make the invisible and subtle explicit and valued including how they incorporate their capacities and other ways of knowing as individuals and as groups. They help groups create meaning together. We experimented with their systems sensing process at the AR+ Gathering.  Their work is informed by Systemic Constellation, which has been adding to the practice of systems thinking by bringing an embodied or felt-sense approach. Systemic Constellation as a method is based on the practice of family constellations which originated in the (controversial-for-some) work of Bert Hellinger, who was in turn inspired by what he learned about conflict resolution among the Zulu in South Africa.

Systems sensing is primarily listening deeply – mostly internally and intuitively – to any given system and its different elements, and from there, letting our next actions and decisions be informed. 

During the AR+ Gathering/ eCO Retreat 2021, we brought Systems Sensing to a practice session with 12 other participants. Like the other practice sessions, the aim was to practice at our developmental edge. System sensing is a practice of relating with different elements – or aspects such as resources, people, processes  – of a system using our felt senses. One of those resources is intuition. Acknowledging intuition may seem edgey for those who have no systematic way of working with their own intuition. It was an edge to explain this type of intuitive sensing to set the context of the practice for those, like all of us, educated primarily through conventional scholarly backgrounds.

People arrived haphazardly to the session. Some had already signed up, others were assigned. Luea framed the session as being about expanding and widening our ways of knowing, and our passion for making these ways of knowing more explicit. She shared what she and Zam mean by Systems Sensing, along with clarifying basic aspects of the practice. How Systemic Constellation could be a practice field and tool for Action-Research Transformations, – with its focus on transformation and societal change – might be a shared question.

To actually get a real feel for systems sensing we needed to agree which system we’d all focus on. As a group, we decided to dedicate our focus to the AR+ Learning Community, after all each of us had that in common. And we posed an open and generative question that can be used to acknowledge what is present in the system, “What’s a next step that could best support and activate the potential of the AR+ Learning Community?” We then converged on the inquiry question together that would guide us over the next hour: “What is important to know at this moment that can create conditions for a more clear and aligned learning community?”

As we entered the practice, we did a centering meditation to connect to our bodies, while letting go of potential mental answers to the question. We then introduced a whiteboard with colored shapes to visually depict named elements and asked participants of the group to represent one of the elements. Together we agreed that 6 essential elements of the system comprised: Case Giver, Learning Community, Challenge, Resource, Unknown, and Earth (see the image below).

During the sensing practice, we asked the representative for each element how he or she wanted to be positioned, how it felt connected to the other elements, and what somatic experiences may be present. As the facilitated process unfolded, elements shifted their positions, shared their impressions and new insights emerged that were then regularly checked with the case giver.

Hilary Bradbury, the case giver shared her reflections of the experience:

“I was thrilled to be part of Luea’s and Zam’s work with systems sensing. While we agreed that all six elements were relevant to understanding AR+, and indeed most any human system, we also agreed that given our number and limited time we must simplify as much as possible. Still, having agreed that the 6 elements were essential, it was less clear was how any of us could actually embody an element. What would it mean, really, to embody the element of the whole learning community. I thought about us as being part of a postmodern theatre.

In the ensuing silence we were each invited to volunteer for the role that “called us.”

At first I did not want a role at all; I thought I’d be better off as a participant-observer. But then it appeared that most everyone else might be thinking that too. (Some theatre this would be if we didn’t step up!) So when volunteers for “the case giver” were requested and no one else spoke, I thought, “well, who better to embody that role but the founder-curator of the community, i.e., moi?” (And, in some ways, who worse?!) As soon as I took the role I decided internally that I was in character. No longer an observer, I was a participant. Anything that happened henceforth was information to me in my role. As me!

Other participants were entirely bemused about taking any role with so little information. But things started to heat up when one courageous participant, Bjørn Uldall, to whom I was grateful, volunteered. He felt called to play the role of Earth. He reported knowing it was “his” role because there had been some talk about doing away with this 6th element so as to further simplify the system. He felt, somehow, that Mother Earth must remain and that she would have a message for AR+.

Other participants, with greater and lesser clarity, filled out the other remaining roles: Unknown-Community-Resources-Challenge.

It was already information to me that Earth spoke first. After all, a founding mission statement for AR+ is to put ART in service of our eco-social challenges. We are, after all, slowly turning our beauty Earth inhospitable. ART and AR+ is intended to do something about that. Were we paying enough collective attention to our mission?

In taking the open role of “case giver” I saw myself as recapitulating the very founding of AR+. Back then too I had wondered, if not me, then who?! And one colleague had stepped forward then and said, AR+ – what a great idea, let’s do it! I was responding to the leadership vacuum in terms of organizing the growing global system of action researchers. Many action researchers are developing their own local systems – yay –  but who is connecting us? While lots of people could see the importance of connecting, no one actively wanted to do it. And, as I so often do, I therefore played both in the role of protagonist (organizer of a global system) and facilitator and observer who was seeking to understand and enhance others ability to collaborate as knowledge creators of a different order of knowledge. Here I was again. Feeling encouraged by a participant-supporter. And because Earth spoke early and quickly – and positioned himself closer to me, now looking at me – I felt less alone. I felt more confident.

In Systems Sensing interpretations (such as the one I have just given) spoken interpretations are deferred, i.e., not spoken during the session. In this we are released from cognitive sensemaking during the role play. This doesn’t mean there isn’t sensemaking (clearly I was doing that by quickly sensing that the mission of AR+ is to organize action researchers for transformations at a time of eco-social crisis).  It just means it’s more fleeting, less processed, more intuitive.

In truth a more conventional researcher – especially naturalists – would insist that I was merely projecting on Bjørn. Maybe. After all there is no explicit rational understanding of what was happening. Yet those embodying their roles had a felt clarity about how they wished to position themselves vis a vis others. Even if we couldn’t understand it, we felt called to certain movement and not others. Slowly there was a movement to more closely face one another. Just as Earth had done to start, next Resources moved closer. (I remember thinking, “O good, maybe we will be able to pay our bills!”) The representative of Community then pivoted and spoke “O, I am so busy with my daily work. Still I am interested in what’s happening.” I thought – well, that’s pretty much exactly what members of AR+ tell me. Yes, they are interested in ART but they are so busy with work that in truth is often less nourishing to them but feels more pressing. The mysterious Unknown suggested we all simply “breathe.” As someone who brings meditation where possible to all AR+ activities (we did 30 mins each day before we commenced the Gathering), that seemed both a support in the moment and a reminder that it’s essential outside our role play.

Now that I write my reflections, my own fuller sensemaking of all this comes more clear. I am left with sensing that Systems Sensing provides for collective intuitive processes. This is not so usual.  I am reminded of colleagues who report finding breakthrough clarity about a problem by using the iChing. And I have benefitted from the dream work of psychoanalysis, and my poor person’s version in my Tarot cards.  I see tremendous value in what Freud and Jung called for in excavating at the border between conscious and unconscious. It is there that emancipation of “more knowing” may lie. Of course intuition is also  attached to old patterns and unnoticed biases. Freud called both for auto analysis and clarified that it is not enough to do it alone. Any rational person must be wary of intuitive know how. Must continue to test it, prod it, but also use it.

I the advantage of Systems Sensing in convening a space for processing together. Where iChing, dreamwork, and tarot are individualistic pursuits, systems sensing happens in a facilitated group. Luea and Zam scaffolded us as a group through the gestural simplicity of movement. This gives space to some essential  – rather than very wordy – making-meaning together. I very much like the ratio of private intuition to shared meaning making. 

I end with a big thanks to Luea and Zam. I left with a deeper sense of my own mission for AR+ in responding to the eco-social crisis around us. ART is for bringing inner/personal development and outer (organizational development) work together. We do this with one another, so we bring more participative practices to all social institutions. In this way, we get to create a new life enhancing society, one that positively impacts and reshapes politics, education, healthcare, business. I felt we had a microcosm of that with Luea and Zam which enriched us all. I recommend their work to all.  And leave the last words to them.”

We, Luea and Zam, as Collective Transitions, are grateful for this experience to explore our developmental edges in this way together. This session was a taste of what might we discover as we use our bodies as instruments or antennae that can pick up different types of navigational signals and what patterns might be shown from how we are sensing together into a shared question leading us to new edges.

For more information about Systemic Constellations, feel free to listen to this audiocast primer:

We invite anyone who is interested in experiencing or participating in the system sensing practice Hilary recommends to join Collective Transitions during bi-monthly practice sessions. See the calendar for more information.

Graphic map generated during the systemic constellation with element placements.

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