Bowen family systems theory has colonized my thoughts for the last couple of months. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen spent his career creating a more scientific framework for psychology. His framework is radically different from what I’ve been used to, and is causing a fair amount of soul-searching on my part. I’m finding this journey riveting.
Bowen theory (the short version)
In a nutshell, Bowen believes that all groups – families, teams, organizations – form systems based on the anxiety that arises when choosing between our ‘self’ and belonging to the group. We pass this anxiety around like a cold: Someone is always infected. In Bowen’s view, our role in this system determines our behavior more than our personal characteristics. Unless and until I’m willing to stop reacting to that underlying anxiety and choose a response that takes everybody’s needs into account – mine included. In this view, autocratic behavior is just another word for anxiety. Always being the one to stay late and do something for a client or the team is too.
What to do about it (in general)
In his approach, you stay connected with everyone in the system and maintain your own integrity. It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. You don’t join others at your expense and you don’t take your marbles and go home. This is not the comfortable choice. It’s more like a crucible out of which comes maturity and growth, not just for you, but for the whole system. But it’s not you righteously modeling a behavior you want others to adopt – it’s you choosing your path and sticking with it while staying connected and available to others, despite the flack they are giving you. You listen, and you connect, and you decide what to do about what others are telling you. This requires thoughtfulness and commitment without shutting others out. Bowen calls this differentiation.
The best example I can think of is having someone edit your writing. It’s your writing – you are the author. It’s your voice, your point of view, your self-expression. You are the final decision-maker. The editor gives you her opinion, often quite forcefully. As you take it in, you are beset with many thoughts: This editor is an idiot, she doesn’t get me at all. Or: This editor is an expert, I’d better do exactly what she says or my piece won’t be any good. With experience, you know that a good night’s sleep will allow a third voice to enter the conversation in your head: Some of these suggestions are great, even though they’ll require re-working entire sections. Some of them seem picayune, so I’ll ignore them, and other seem over-zealous, and appear to miss my point. I’ve got to talk those over with her.
Bowen’s theory explains so much of what I see in myself and in my clients. And it explains it in a way that doesn’t fence anyone in, which is why I love it. Trouble is, I don’t yet know how to apply it. That’s the tricky thing about theory: No user manual. So, into the lab we go. Let the experiments begin.
What to do about it (the specifics)
Decisions are anxiety-laden. Even simple decisions get complicated by the underlying emotional process that glues us together. It goes like this: I think the decision is mine alone to make and you think I should have consulted you. The leaders I coach often find themselves in this dilemma. They want to build a team, and they want to control the decisions for which they are held responsible. It looks unsolvable, and to some extent it is. By that I mean it’s a dilemma that never goes away. There is no one-size-fits-all approach which means you have to think your way through each decision. Analyze it to see which parts involve others and which are your alone. When we are reactive and wanting primarily to reduce our anxiety, we get this wrong.
Each decision has two aspects: What’s mine alone to decide, and what involves someone else. If I slow my automatic reaction down and go step-by-step, this distinction pops out. When I react automatically, I miss it. They key is to refuse to choose between them and me.
I’ll give you a universal example: A client wants the impossible, and right now. I want to go home on time and have dinner with my friends and play music. On the surface my evening looks doomed. I seem to have been presented with an either or decision: either I do what the client wants, or I have my evening. It’s that self vs. other dilemma. If the client is senior to me, I know what I have to do, at least that’s what our anxious mind says. Or, I may be so angry at these requests and the sacrifices I’ve made to honor them, that I simply say no.
The third way
Virginia Satir, another pioneer in the systems approach to groups, advised her students to never leave their clients with only two choices. She advocated te power of the third way, believing the third option is what took a client out of reactivity and into authentic choice.
The third option in the above situation stands a much better chance of satisfying each of you. Here’s one way it might sound: “I’ve got a dilemma: You want me to stay late tonight to work on this and I have plans I cherish and want to keep. How can we both get what we want?” Your job in the ensuing conversation is to refuse to choose between your needs and their needs. Do not settle for less than meeting both of your needs. This requires you to immunize yourself against their anxiety and increase your tolerance for discomfort – theirs and yours. The pay-off is a stronger relationship with your client, a better solution to the current dilemma, and the delicious surge of energy that comes from standing up to anxiety.
I’m very curious to know what you think about this. What’s your experience with the third way? And, because I’m writing on a topic I’m still digesting, I wonder if I’m making sense. I welcome your feedback.
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