Make Space, Not War

At last year’s Adventures in Clean and then again at a Systemic Modelling Level 1 workshop, I got into some drama with another participant (a different person at each workshop). These altercations happened unexpectedly and were so quick that it was difficult for me to step back and realise how much I was in drama.

Thankfully, in both cases, Caitlin Walker, the developer of Systemic Modelling, was present. She facilitated both myself and the other parties while we were experiencing conflict with one another, essentially ‘unpacking’ the drama between us. This created space for us to increase our awareness of the patterns we were running, and what choices were available to us for stepping out of the drama.

A few days later, I interviewed Caitlin to find out how she had unpacked my drama with the others; I figured it was a skill well-worth having.

What happens before you step in to unpack drama?

Caitlin: First of all, I have to notice it. It gets my attention. I start by observing what’s happening because part of unpacking drama is keeping it evidence-based, being able to listen accurately to what’s being said and the inferences each person is making. For me to intervene, the same pattern of drama or loop has to have happened three times. With you and Jenny*, voices were rising and you were saying the same things over and over again; you weren’t listening to one another in a way that was giving you new information.

With Susan*, the way you were trying to resolve the situation was not going to give you what you needed. She was repeating what she was saying, and you weren’t attending to that. At the same time, you were clarifying where you were coming from and she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t what she needed to hear. And so, neither of you were attending to the other. What I imagined was that both of you were missing something important for both of you to be heard.

The other thing I notice is what position each person is taking. In the case of Jenny, it was clear she wasn’t wanting to fight. She was defending while you were persecuting. The more you persecuted her, the more she justified why she had been OK to do what she had done. Then the more you needed to tell her that it hadn’t been OK for you.

I’m aware I’m making up what’s going on, so I hold my assumption lightly. What I think to myself is, if I can redirect or change the quality of attention in this moment, you will both have more of what you want.

And when you notice drama, what do you do first?

I say something like, “Let’s freeze. Let’s just pause this for a moment and find out what’s happening here.”

And what else is happening for you in that moment?

I have a very strong underpinning belief that neither one of you is likely to be deliberately hurting the other. So, I’m imagining that the conflict has nothing to do with that. This really helps me. My other belief is that people are motivated to act because something that is really important to them has been violated. If they didn’t care about it, they wouldn’t speak out or act up.

What happens next?

Then I think that my job is to help settle the conflict long enough so that we can actually find out, in a less toxic way, what’s important to each one of you.

And I do that by creating space. I might do that by blocking one person from being able to see the other – with my body. Or with my eyes, by looking at one person while speaking to them, holding their gaze. And I may also use my voice. For example, I said to Susan: “Shall I tell you what I’m noticing? I’ve heard you say that three times. Let’s just agree that I’ve heard you. Let me say it back to you so you know I’ve heard you.” Then after repeating back what she’d said, I said: “Is this what happened for you?” Or I might say, “Is this what you were going to say?”

After speaking to Susan, I said to you: “Jacqueline, what’s going on for you is …” repeating back what I heard you try to tell Susan.

Part of my job is to hold your attention so that you speak or answer when I say you can. That helps the parties know I’m in control, so that there is no need for anyone to be in fight or flight mode. If I don’t do that fast or strong enough, you’ll feel that you have to keep fighting your corner.

Then I will look at one person and say, “Have you got what’s important to her?” or “Do you understand where she’s coming from?” If you had said, “No”, I would have said, “Let’s go and find out some more.” When you say, “Yes”, I say, “OK. Summarise it so she knows you’ve got it.”

What is the effect of doing this?

I’m persuading your stuff and Susan’s stuff – whether it’s your inner child or your deepest values – that I will speak for it, that it won’t get left behind. And that’s why I asked you in your drama with Jenny, “Jacqueline, what are you fighting for?” Sometimes, I might also ask, “What is it that is really important to you right now?”

I’m wrestling with each one of you to find out what’s important to you, without the contempt. It’s about getting behind the value of the behaviour. What I’m doing is modelling curiosity about what’s going on; I’m modelling it for both of you … to slow down and to wonder. There is no guarantee that the other person will be able to make sense of your behaviour, but that is what I’m aiming for.

It’s not always easy, of course. If a person is not in touch with their motivation, and is instead looking to justify their feelings or their behaviour, it will be tough. What helps is when the people involved are in touch with the notion that, “This is just my stuff and it’s OK to have my stuff.”

And what happens next?

After I’ve done this back and forth between you, I speak to the group: “So what have we got here?” And I say, “We’ve got this (Susan’s stuff). And we’ve got that (your stuff).”

When I’m repeating back, it’s really important that I’m not exacerbating the drama. I’m filtering for what I think is important to each of you, and what is not. I’m also filtering for what will help each of you leave the drama and what will reignite it. For example, because I know of your persecutor streak, I know that if I were to emphasise how scared Susan was, her victimhood, then you would automatically go into persecutor even more; it would have been harder for you to get off your high horse.

I’m going to hold you with much tighter reigns because you’ve done more work on Systemic Modelling. So, saying to you, “You asked for drama and to learn how to navigate it so you can get better at Systemic Modelling” is more effective than saying to you, “She is scared when you do this.”

What else are you doing when you unpack drama?

I’m creating a narrative, that:

1.  The facilitator is in charge.

2.  This mess can be sorted out, without winners and losers.

3.  Everyone is fighting for something positive. Everyone is in this because they care about something.

4.  It is unlikely anybody is simply trying to hurt somebody.

5.  Whatever you think is going on, is probably not. There’s something hidden that when you know it, it will make sense to you. So, what I’m doing is, I’m unpacking backwards to the sense.

6.  People have unwritten rules and they might not even be aware of them. These rules are not everybody else’s rules.

7.  There are limits to collaboration.

Give me an example of what you mean by limits to collaboration.

In one of the companies I worked with, a director had a direct report who would get into drama if the feedback she received was negative. She only wanted feedback that was positive. And she would also rescue others if they got negative feedback, turning the director into a villain in her narrative.

When I was called in to facilitate this drama, I had to consider what I would do so that she wasn’t taken out and made to feel unsafe. How could I teach her without the group ripping her to pieces? This is what I said to unpack the drama: “For some people, getting negative feedback is really, really frightening and can destroy their sense of confidence. And negative feedback can be necessary for knowing what you need to move away from, and what you need to move towards. And although we’re going to explore how each of you takes feedback at your best, the harsh reality is that you’re going to get feedback however people give it to you. And it’s going to be incredibly important that you’re able to take that feedback by not going into drama.”

I asked myself, knowing that the idea of balanced feedback was going to put her into drama, how could I support her to be a brilliant learning example for the group about feedback and how it works rather than just letting her disrupt the group? I wanted to use her patterns to make my point without humiliating her.

We explored, “Who likes what kind of feedback?” in the group. I could then say, “What I’m hoping is for some real diversity in this group so that you can negotiate how you’re going to give each other feedback effectively.”

And then, I said, “I’m going to give you a heads-up. If you and I work together and we’re equal partners, then my feedback and the way I’d like to be given feedback are just as important as yours, and vice-versa. But that’s not the case if you’re my employee. The reason for that is that my allegiance as a leader is to the group and the project, as well as to the individual, and a leader may not be able to adjust themselves for everyone in their team. Hence, employees have to adjust to their leaders, and not the other way around. Leaders cannot adjust to you because they have a wider jurisdiction. You have to develop the resilience to adjust to them.”

This is also an example of anticipating drama. Sometimes, you have to create resilience in the group so that they are not held to ransom by one person who is in high drama. In this case, I was giving the direct report a chance to get out of her drama and I am also training the group not to follow her into drama.

What other tips might you have for a facilitator who is unpacking drama?

Face the person who is the most aggressive first. This makes it clear you’re not rescuing the other person. And then ask, “What are you fighting for? What’s important to you about this? What would you like to have happen?”

Then face the other person, and ask, “And what’s happening for you now? And what would you like to have happen?”

Essentially, unpacking drama can be illustrated like this:

What happens if the outcomes are contradictory or oppositional?

Then I’d say, “You want this, and you want that. You know what? You’re not going to get what you want. It’s not going to happen. So now, what would you like to have happen?”

A final question. What could I have done differently with Jenny? She crossed a boundary by telling me a metaphorical story to “help” me with the stuff I had brought to therapy. How could I have let her know that that wasn’t on, without getting into drama about it?

You could have been relational or person-centred instead of principle or process-centred. You could have said, “You know what? Thank you for your offer. I really appreciate that you want to help me. I can’t relate to that story but I can appreciate that what you’re wanting to do is to be helpful.”

Or you could have said, “I really appreciate your intention and it doesn’t work for me. And this is a real example of what this event’s ground rules were about i.e. not coming up and talking to somebody about the stuff they had shared in a coaching session.”

Another way would have been to say, “I really appreciate your intention and I think it has the opposite effect on me.”

That would have been a kind way of giving her a learning experience without getting into drama with her.


The next Adventures in Clean will be held in West Kirby, UK from 7 to 10 Sept 2018. To join our Systemic Modelling Rolling Programme and learn how to unpack drama in group contexts, the first step is to experience the process for yourself, via our Clean for Teams workshop. The next Clean for Teams is in Portchester on 29-30 October 2018.

We have changed the names of the other people in these dramas.

Tags: caitlin walker, systemic modelling, drama triangle, clean feedback, adventures in clean

Related reading

About the author

Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a certified Level 1 Clean Facilitator, and the first certified Level 1 Systemic Modeller in Asia. She is an associate of People Potential in Singapore and Malaysia; Training Attention in the UK; and Change 3.0 in Holland. She can be contacted for a free experience of Clean Language for individuals and groups at


comments powered by Disqus