The Outer Ring
Ways that using figures influences conversations about relationships
Visual and Spatial
Setting out a relationship overview provides participants with a unique form of visual and spatial expression that supplements and enhances verbal communication. Seeing a relationship overview can help to clarify and simplify situations that a person has experienced as confusing and chaotic. It can help make more sense out of a family’s dilemma.
Figure arrangements provide spatial overviews of a person’s social relationships and this contributes to a conversation by giving the participants an additional perspective for considering their situation and understanding each other. The communication is apparent and visual information brings with it an increase in clarity and directness.
Because visual and spatial expressions of this kind are unusual, particularly for adults, they provide fresh information about a situation. How the figures are placed invites curiosity about the point of view of the person represented and interest in hearing more about what they are expressing and why. When talking with groups and families, people show each other an expression of how they view their relationships and this will support a dialogical form of conversation.
People look at a relationship overview from a certain position, a short distance away and from slightly above. It is a kind of birdseye view and a colleague of mine referred to this as being in an elevated position combining observation and participation. The is the visual and emotion distance of surveying from the above, together with the personal, emotional intensity of knowing that this is about my life, my situation and the people I know and care about.
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote “He puts himself in a favourable position to receive certain impressions in order (for example) to describe what they tell him” (Philosophical Investigations II ix).
The well-known expression ‘I can't see the forest because of all the trees’ has relevance here, as a relationship overview can elevate a person’s gaze from being within the ‘trees’ so that the see a representation of their social 'forest'. It gives them the impression of looking onto their situation, at the same time as they retain their subjective experiences - a duality of perspective. This surveying position, a kind of participant observation in the conversation, can sharpen awareness of the content, scope and connections of the various aspects of the relationships.
A surveying position opens for talking about the contents of a person’s relationships as they are drawn to see and reflect over the thoughts and opinions they have concerning their situation.
Questions arise about which people belong together and which do not, and how they are involved. They can be invited to consider how the situation would look from another point of view.
The person arranging figures will be exploring their own understandings as well as demonstrating their perspectives.
Mobility and Flexibility
Figures can easily be moved, rearranged to compare and contrast different perceptions which makes a genograms and network maps flexible. One big advantage over drawing genograms and network maps is that the figures can easily be moved, rearranged to compare and contrast different perceptions.
Mobility is an essential element of dialogue as there is a continuing to-and-fro, from the one to the other which requires a positive energy and engagement. There is an expectation that differences of perspective will be brought up and aired respectfully.
Talking about a difficulty on the same way that the problem was formed in will be unlikely to create movement so present understandings have to be challenged and alternative perspectives brought to the fore.
In a dialogue there is a potential for development for all participants when a situation is viewed in a new way that is both acceptable to them and that they can act upon.
A single arrangement of figures is, in itself, quite static and there is a risk that the arrangement can understood as a true representation of a persons reality. This can contribute to leaving the family more stuck in their thinking if a therapist stops with just one view of a situation.
You are taken to a position where there is potential for movement and reflection.
Focus and structure
Using figures provides a conversation with a visual point of focus. The person setting out the relationship overview devotes a lot of their attention to the figures and their arrangement, less to the others in the room. The attention of any others is directed both at the person setting out the figures and at arrangement. This division of attention can relieve pressure on the person talking, as they are not the only centre of attention. Several therapists I have interviewed pointed out that using figures gives a conversation a clearer structure. Having something visual and concrete to talk about helps children to tell about themselves and their situations more easily. It also helped to get the conversation going, gave direction to the therapists questions and led quickly to issues that were important to talk about.
When the relationship overview helped to get the conversation going and led quickly on to important issues, it was not the position of the figures that was of primarily importance, it was the dialogue concerning the placements that was of therapeutic value. Picking up on the relevance of how the figures are placed and using this to explore the various understandings and possibilities makes using them therapeutic.
A relationship overview is a simple, ordered expression of relationships, and this structure can help to clarify and simplify a situation that the person has experienced as chaotic. Clarification can free perspectives that have become rigid and stuck.
It may challenge the therapist, who also has to divide their attention between the overview, the person talking and the others in the room.
Active, creative and playful
Using figures to form a relationship overview is an active form of communication. The figures are concrete and practical and a person is bodily engaged through purposeful movement. There is enactment, it is performed, carried out.
Other people present are involved. They watch as spectators, as with game or sport and can be eager to participate.
Picking up figures and moving them involves the sense of touch and purposeful bodily movement as well as seeing and hearing, and there can be a synergistic effect from actively involving several senses.
A relationship overview is a creative activity and this influences the conversation when considering how to understand and deal with difficulties.
A person setting out the figures can experience a sense of accomplishment when they see what they have made. The result can be surprising as aspects come forward that they had overlooked or not previously considered.
There is often a strong element of playfulness about using figures in conversation even though it is not a game. While it is taken very seriously by many youngsters, some have said that they it was more fun than other conversations with professionals.
Toying with ideas.
It takes a little time to select figures to represent people, to decide where to place them and consider whether the arrangement seems right. The rhythm of the conversation is different as there are quiet times where little is said. When the tempo is unhurried there are spaces for reflection and curiosity. The directness of visual expression, however, tends to lead dialogue quite quickly to central issues of relationships.
A relationship overview is literally between the people involved in the conversation. This enhances an understanding that difficulties in relationships are best seen as between the people involved, rather than within them. Generally speaking, there is more room for flexibilty in finding ways of resolving conflicts when considering them as between people rather than as a result of the nature of individuals.
In a social network there are often people with a greater degree of connectedness and influence than others. This is related to betweenness as a mathematical concept, which describes the centrality of nodes in a matrix.
Insightful and Revealing
Looking at a relationship overview gives fresh information on perceptions of relationships. With a couple, family or group, one person will often gain a direct insight into another’s perceptions and the conversation about will enhance their understanding. It is quite usual for parents to express surprise at the way their children understand things as they often oversee how differently process information.
An arrangement of figures is an unusual expression of a person’s social reality. It has an element of revelation for the person setting it out as well as anybody observing.
This is because they probably have not done this before and have no idea what it will look like until they have formed it. As they are in a surveying position, they will plenty of opportunity to reflect over the sight of it. Because the various relationships are shown in context of each other there is plenty of new information to take stock of.
The novelty of making a relationship overview gives a conversation a high degree of spontaneity. It is an unprepared, innovated, expression that belongs to the here-and-now.
Using figures is a highly reflective form of conversation where people are continually invited to take stock of their own point of view, attitudes and opinions and consider alternatives, not least their understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others.
Using figures enhances the idea that situations con be understood in many ways and that differing points of view and opinions can still have relevance and validity.
As relationship overviews are not tied to a particular theoretical position they can accommodate many theoretical perspectives, be used in many professional settings with people of any age, by themselves or together with others.
Relationship overviews are good at revealing power relationships for individuals, families and groups and can shift focus towards the dynamics of change so that a person’s energy is focused constructively. Overview of relationships can help people to review their understanding of alliances, values and resources when considering whether to make changes. They increase awareness of the power and influence they can have, together with the people around them and lead to discussing themes like resources, opportunity, network, support, agency, power collaboration.
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