ethics, morality and constellations facilitation

The issue of the ethics, skill and general practice of how we facilitate constellations is a topic that is rarely discussed, and yet it is crucial. How we teach newcomers to facilitate is also a topic that has produced few books or articles, and yet, in the end, our practice and work must and will stand on this topic, and this topic alone, as the future of constellations work unfolds.

Yes, the constellations process is at times awe-inspiring in its reach, profundity and effectiveness, but it cannot and does not exist on its own. It never comes without the practice of the facilitator, the vehicle through which the constellation is formed and functions, and this very power and effectiveness of the constellations process can be damned by the facilitator.

What is also true is that the newcomer to the work of constellations often does not have the ability and experience to be able to discern the effective, ethical and ‘good’ facilitator. Too often the impact of the constellation confuses the noviciate in his or her ability to estimate the effectiveness and morality of ‘good facilitation’. Yes, I use the word ‘morality’ because to me good facilitation is moral facilitation, in the sense of the dictionary definition of the word ‘moral’:

concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character: holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct

Sadly, in my view, many family constellations facilitators have taken some of the more disappointing aspects of Hellinger’s, at times, authoritarian facilitation to heart, and have developed into authoritarian and directive faciltators, forgetting, in my view, that the client really is and must always be understood as the best authority on himself, even if much of his ‘knowing’ is not fully conscious.

Hellinger, initially when working with the constellation, used a representative for the client because he thought that it was not possible for the person to see beyond his fixed frame of reference, and despite the fact that many times later in his work he did put the client directly into the constellation from the start, this idea of there having to be a representative for the client seems to have stuck. I did it myself for many years, espousing this same idea, that it was not possible for the person to move beyond their fixed frame of reference of who they are; that, in effect, the client is a helpless hapless individual who needs someone to see him or her for who he actually is, and tell him.

I don’t believe this at all now, and my work proves it to be untrue every day. In fact I think this attitude, an attitude that says that the therapist/facilitator knows better than the client, is dangerous. It has its reach back to the very beginnings of psychoanalysis, when Freud, under pressure to be sure, decided that the accounts of his clients of having been sexually abused as children where not true, but the wishful fantasies of the child for sexual contact with the parent (Masson, 2012). This then allowed the analyst to be the interpreter of the client’s material, thereby the authority of the truth of the client, the arbiter of who the client really is and the controller of the therapy. There cannot be a more extreme example of the abuse of power than for one person to assume such a role as the interpreter of another’s reality. VBfrontcoverJune10

As a psychotherapist of some experience, this topic of facilitation skill and style is close to my heart. In my first book, In the Presence of Many: Reflections on Constellations Emphasising the Individual Context, I made an initial attempt to discuss this topic in the chapter entitled Facilitation: Style and Intention (Chapter 12). In this chapter I made a distinction between two polar styles of constellations facilitation: the ‘more directive’ and the ‘less directive’ modes, distinguishing them as follows:

“A more directive, intervening approach tends to maintain control over what happens in the constellation, thereby… requiring the facilitator to trust her own hypotheses rather more than the impulses of the constellation. If she holds her role too tightly [in this way], the representative information begins to become more mediated by what the facilitator permits.” (Broughton, 2010)

“The less directive mode is more challenging for the facilitator. While it gives the facilitator the space not to know the answers, it also requires a high degree of trust in the process and a willingness and ability to be extremely patient, tolerating uncertainty, confusion, not-knowing and risking seeming incompetent. It involves surrendering authority to the client, the representatives and the constellations process, at the same time holding the space for this to unfold.” (ibid)

In the book I elaborated on these statements, looking at what the gains and challenges are for the therapist of each style. At the end of the book I put in a list of the pros and cons of the more directive and less directive styles, which you can find here.

In the years since this book was published I have moved firmly from the family constellations work to the trauma constellations work oriented by the theories and practice of Professor Franz Ruppert, as will be obvious from my website.

However this move to working with trauma as the more central issue, along with the understanding of how we survive trauma, and continue every day to ‘survive’ the trauma, as if it were right here, happening now, has made the issue of facilitation style even more of an important focus for me. A profound understanding of trauma dynamics must put the way we work firmly under the microscope. We cannot mess with another person’s traumatised self with our narcissistic needs; thereby hangs perpetual re-traumatisation of the client in the very environment that is supposed to relieve and help.

In my second book, due out this autumn, I take my exploration of facilitation further in light of what I now Front coversmunderstand about trauma. To wit: trauma is a situation by definition where the person is completely and utterly helpless and without power. It is a devastating moment that at the time we are not sure we will survive. Our life is in the hands of another. I am talking about relational trauma here, rather than natural traumas. Our ability to metabolise and recover from natural traumas (earthquakes, tsunamis and some accidents) is different from our ability to recover from the shock and betrayal of relational trauma.

This element of powerlessness that is the definer of trauma affects our ability to feel powerful in our lives from the moment of the trauma onwards. The loss of power and authority of one’s life is a devastation that one does not recover from easily. Aside from Ruppert’s model of the split psyche as the result of trauma, the integration of which is the purpose and aim of healing, this issue of power emanates right through the therapist/client relationship from the moment of first contact.

This, more than anything must give us cause to look carefully at our facilitation. The purpose of working with others is not to be the source of a calamitous re-traumatisation of the client (or the representatives for that matter), and our clients and those who attend our groups have a right to expect us to know this, and to care about it.

So what does this mean for us as facilitators? Well primarily it means we must work with our own trauma. We cannot be responsible facilitators if we avoid our own trauma, our own splits, our own narcissistic injuries from the earliest time of our life¹. We cannot see the client and the situation clearly if we are functioning from our surviving mode, and we must do everything we can to recognise our surviving strategies and minimise the likelihood of our work coming from this place. Just putting myself forward as a therapist/facilitator immediately puts this to the test. I am on the line every step of the way, and that in itself can be enough to cause a minor re-traumatisation in me… thence into survival mode, thence to potential perpetration towards the client.

We must, every moment of our professional working life be attuned to these power issues. Every intervention we make we must be sensitive as to whether it skews the power away from the client and towards the facilitator. Every moment of our facilitation must in my view have as its intention the undermining of any inequality biased in our favour, even that which the client, because of his or her own survival mode, attempts to create. People who have suffered the devastation of loss of self, loss of power and authority over themselves in the trauma moment, may as part of their survival mode attempt to devolve authority for themselves to another, the therapist. We need to be excruciatingly conscious of this, and try not to succumb to it.

We have to demonstrate clearly every step of the way that we trust the client to have the ability to know himself, to shift his perspective, his frame of reference, when he is ready and when it makes sense to him. The more the facilitator shows this trust in the client, the more the client then comes to trust himself. As therapists we are there to respect the autonomy of the other, not to increase his dependency on us, just as we are there to recognise the existence of trauma not to re-trigger it in our clients.

Trauma destroys a person’s trust in herself and as therapists we must not perpetuate that self-mistrust. Psychotherapy has been founded on the therapist’s mistrust of the client, originating as I said above with Freud himself. We have to stop that. The humanistic movement attempted to change this by its commitment to the idea of self-actualisation, the belief in the innate impulse of all of us to become whole and fulfil our potential. And yet the deep vein of mistrust persists in therapy today.

Mistrust breeds mistrust… but in the same way trusting, no matter what, breeds trust, and creates an increasing spiral of trusting ability. My view is that the therapist must trust the client in everything he or she says as demonstrating the truth of where he or she actually is right now… even if the client does not trust himself, I can trust this as being true for him. This doesn’t mean that I must trust the man selling me a second hand car. That is a different situation. In the therapy room the being of the client is who he is right now… and that we can trust and respect.

But we can only trust another person when we trust ourselves, when we can have confidence in the healthy being of ourselves, and to do that we have to address our own trauma, our own split psyche, our own destroyed trust in ourselves.

The discipline of being a therapist/facilitator is extremely demanding. It requires an ability to tolerate not-knowing, confusion, uncertainty, intimacy and fear. All of these are primary stimuli for unresolved trauma to resurface, and so the therapist by just being a therapist is constantly putting herself into a potentially re-traumatising situation. To think otherwise is reckless, irresponsible and incompetent. Those therapists or facilitators who work through control, excessive direction, management, coercion and authority demonstrate in my view, by their very style exactly their mistrust of themselves, their own insecurity, uncertainty, fear and lack of awareness of their own trauma. This kind of facilitation becomes a manipulation of the truth as a protection for the facilitator herself.

Charisma does not make a good therapist. Force of personality and charm has no useful place in my view in the therapist. As a constellations facilitator we have an expertise in a process; we are not the expert on the true nature of the client or of his journey to health. We need to be realistic about this and not use our work as a shield to protect us from our own vulnerability.

The constellations method is an extraordinary process, with a power, intelligence, elegance and authority way beyond what the facilitator can conceive. It is best approached in an experimental manner… a questioning manner. Interventions should be proposals rather than demands or commands. Coercion has no place in the healing process, neither does argument.

The dominating facilitator demonstrates his lack of trust in the process of the very tool he uses, the constellation. It is very easy for the facilitator to dominate the constellation: the representatives have extremely sensitive unconscious antenna for what the facilitator wants and will frequently concur rather than stand their ground. Approaching the constellation in an enquiring manner allows the representatives to trust themselves, and when representatives are able to trust themselves the results are formidable.

As facilitators we do not know the answers. We may have a theoretical framework that helps to explain what we see, but all theory is just theory, it isn’t reality. No theory accounts for everything. All theory must always be subject to constant review. To fix a theory is to die… there is no life in the full stop if no new sentence begins…


Comments are welcome… Please be aware that all comments are subject to moderation so don’t expect your comment to appear immediately.


¹ For those who are unfamiliar with Ruppert’s work, a central feature of it is the understanding that the earliest time of our life, in the womb and in the first two years of life, is a time when our extreme helplessness and inability to make sense of our experience means that we are exceptionally vulnerable to trauma. Ruppert has called this ‘symbiotic trauma’, a trauma of the symbiotic phase of our life. This is such a vulnerable time for the human child that it is unlikely any of us are without some degree of symbiotic trauma, and by the same means entanglement with our mother and father’s trauma and other unresolved traumas in the family. For more on this refer to Franz Ruppert’s books and my latest book, the heart of things: understanding trauma – working with constellations.


Broughton, V. (2010). In the Presence of Many: Reflections on Constellations Emphasising the Individual Context. Green Balloon Publishing, Frome, UK.
Masson, G. (2012). The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, Untreed Reads Publishing. (First published 1984)


ethics, morality and constellations facilitation — 1 Comment

  1. Yes I completely agree with what you are saying. Having witnessed a constellation workshop once and having been an issue holder on another occasion I do have reservations about the power of the facilitator. After the first workshop I was uneasy what had been opened up for the issue holders with no support offer to work through what had surfaced.
    In my own case I was directed to recite word for word what the facilitator said with no interventions allowed. I felt that the facilitator was using his blanket knowledge of trauma reaction without taking into account or wanting to hear the whole story or rather facts of circumstance., I found this rather scary.
    Charm yes and I am not doubting the experience of the facilitator of working this way but it felt dangerous.

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