Saturday, September 21, 2013

generation to generation

Non-anxious presence. I have heard people use this phrase many times over the past four years but I cannot recall hearing it even once before then. The first time I encountered this rock-bed idea (articulated with those particular words) was in a book by Edwin Friedman entitled Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. I am not sure if Dr. Friedman coined the phrase, but I am inclined to think that its prominent usage today is due largely to his teaching and writing. The book was first published in 1985 so, of course, Friedman’s use of the expression has been working its way through hearts and minds for at least three decades now—slowly transforming the way we think about agencies of change in various relationship systems.

Among his many hats, the late Edwin Friedman was both a rabbi and a psychologist. Regarding the latter, he ascribed to a particular field known as family systems therapy. Perhaps chief among the features that distinguish family systems therapy from other approaches is the conviction that whole systems should be taken into account when providing therapy for individuals.

For example, if a child is suddenly having trouble at school, acting up, becoming depressed, rebellious, or careless—or if they adopt any other number of behaviors that provide occasion for concern—the traditional therapeutic approach places the focus of therapy on the child.

But family systems therapy takes a step back from this and considers those features of the system in which the child lives that may have encouraged and produced this “trouble” in the first place. The system—the characteristics of that web of relationship itself—may be what needs to be changed if the child is ever going to lead a healthy life.

So, family systems therapy prioritizes process over content. A content-approach asks, “What is the issue and how can we resolve it?” A process-approach asks, “Are there features of the system itself that gave rise to this issue? How can we change the way the relationship-process is set up so this issue becomes, in effect, a non-issue?” Family systems therapists see the traditional approach as akin to beating a dead horse. No matter what short-term “progress” one makes with a “patient” the same issues (albeit in different disguises) will keep popping up in the long-term—because the system itself which gave rise to the issue has remained the same!

For example, among ministerial leaders it is common to encounter the problem of burnout and chronic anxiety or depression. The traditional approach treats the leader: “How can we help the leader rest, worry less, and/or take a vacation?”

So, the leader finally takes a vacation or, even better, goes on a sabbatical. They are given four months to rest. And they return. One year later: they are back in the same situation they were in prior to the rest period. This is why family systems therapy asks: “What is it about the system that nurtures burnout, anxiety and depression in our leaders?”  If we can change “the dance we do” in this environment, we will change the fruit borne of it. 

One key, then, to nurturing healthy relationship systems is healthy leadership. And the core of healthy leadership, Friedman asserts, consists of non-anxious presence. Healthy leaders embody non-anxious presence which, in turn, fosters non-anxious environments—which, in turn, provides a context in which people can thrive.

Sounds simple, right? “If we can practice this so-called non-anxious presence, we’ll all be okay.” It isn’t easy to do this, however. Here’s why:

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