Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Building Bridges – thinking about ways to communicate Bowen systems theory across frameworks

Reflections on the 50th Bowen Centre Symposium, Arlington – November 2013.
By Jenny Brown

I have recently returned from Washington DC where I attended and presented at the Bowen Centre’s 50th Symposium. It was a privilege to participate in such a long standing gathering of systems thinkers. The 50th anniversary celebration and some of the presentations from Bowen’s letter writing and manuscript archives gave a rich historical insight into the development of this family systems theory. Amongst all of this stimulating thinking and learning I found myself wondering about how it is possible to build better connections between those who think in terms of systems and those who focus primarily on individual or on two person relationships. Could I be more effective in forging idea exchanges and respectful connections with those who explain and treat human symptoms differently or more eclectically?

The Symposium guest scientist, who presented his research on temperament, was Nathan Fox PhD (Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland). At the first panel discussion Professor Fox raised the issue of the chasm between clinical work and research. He spoke about the challenges of language confusion between what he was hearing from Bowen presentations and the language he was familiar with from the research literature. The question of how to bridge the gulf between disciplines and theoretical perspectives was a continuing theme of symposium discussions. What goes into successfully communicating across frameworks?

Some symposium discussions addressed the value of communicating a systems understanding of the published research on topics such as the impact of the social environment (in particular family factors) on childhood expression of temperament. There was further discussion about removing unhelpful jargon that excludes helpful sharing of viewpoints and discoveries (this sentence is a little confusing to me, can you simplify or will your readers understand?). Examples of jargon and language barriers were Bowen theory’s use of the term “anxiety” as the driving force of patterns of distance, over-involvement and triangles. This general use of the descriptor “anxiety” was highlighted by professor Fox as confusing for researchers who are used to diagnostic and specific contextual categories of anxiety.

I have been reflecting on the successes and setbacks in my process of bridging good dialogue that explores both Bowen theory and other approaches. The intellectual effort of writing partnerships and discarding jargon for descriptions in everyday language is only a small part of addressing the chasm. I think that it is most important to observe and address the underlying emotional process (heightened tension) that undergirds dealing with differences. A couple of months ago I received some feedback from a participant in a training group I was facilitating. She expressed that she experienced me shutting down her ideas about a therapeutic approach in our group conversation. I appreciated her openness with me about this interaction. I certainly could recognise that at times I can get reactive to people taking discussion in a different direction to what I am privileging. I responded to this valued scholar’s feedback saying that sadly my principles and my reactions are not always in sync. While my principle is to engage thoughtfully and genuinely in listening to and learning something from alternate frameworks, I know that my immaturity often overrides and I automatically act in ways that devalue the autonomy of another’s thinking journey. This awareness is an ongoing part of my growing up journey. Staying connected to the thinking of others when it is different to where my thinking is going is one of the key components of working towards lifting maturity (differentiation).

These are some of the 7 aspects of working on maturity in relationships that I summarise in my book, “Growing Yourself Up”:
Staying connected — especially in the face of difference:
– To what degree can I enjoy the mutual benefits of close relationships without losing my responsible self (my boundaries)?
– To what degree am I able to keep in calm contact with those in my family or group who view things differently to me?
– To what extent am I able to resist becoming a chameleon who adjusts my viewpoint to fit in with others and to keep a sense of peace?
– To what extent am I able to express my opinions without becoming emotionally charged up or needing to find allies to support my view?

I was glad for the effort presenters at the symposium made to engage in a dialogue about bridging the chasm across different frameworks. I appreciate that this was what guided Dr Bowen in inviting scientists to his centre’s meetings so that his theory could be thoughtfully scrutinised through the lens of various scientific endeavors. For myself the building of bridges is, at its core, a relationship and emotional process. It calls for not responding to difference as threatening and not reactively pushing a preferred way of understanding onto others. Conversely it doesn’t mean blurring a distinctive in order to create false harmony. I will need to work to keep observing myself in this ”bridge building effort” and continue to welcome the feedback from others about their experience of our communication.

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