Family Constellations and Family Panoramas.

By Lucas Derks 1997

People represent people in their minds, and in the submodalities of these representations, they encode the quality of their relationships. By the same means they picture their family members, and by doing so they also define their family ties. In this article I will argue, that these family representations dictate what type of interaction patterns will occur in between family members. Or briefly: Family representations dominate family interaction patterns.

Beside that I will explore how early representations of ones next of kin shape ones personality. And how 'social traits' can be altered by way of re-arranging the submodalities of the representation of ones family of origin.

Family pictures

My modelling research (Derks 1995) has shown that most people tend to represent family members, and all other people in general, as if they were solid, standing, objects in space. And the way these objects are located in space --in relation to the self-- is the main factor defining a relationship. Location appears to be the most common critical submodality in social life. This research resulted in The Social Panorama Model: An NLP-tool to explore and change the structure of social experience. A tool which applications reach far beyond the subject matter of this article.

Someone's social panorama is defined as theSocial panorama summ of this persons social representations. In most people the general shape of this comes closest to a panoramic landscape. The (kineasthetic) self is located in its centre; it is from where is looked, felt and listened around. This central view point is surrounded by the representations of all individuals and groups that are relevant to a person. In theory, social representations can be placed anywhere in the socio-sphere that surrounds a person. But most individuals attach circumscribed meaning to left, right, up, down, front or back. As if their 'social opperating system' unconsciously organizes classes of social representations. The distance to these social representations also varies, as does their size, color and brightness. And every location means something different to a person. As already stated above: The essence of the social panorama model can be expressed in one short slogan: Relation equals location.

To get access to reliable social panorama information, the NLP-er may apply the following procedure.

  1. Have the persons close their eyes.
  2. Have them think of: 'All people in the world as they exist around you'.
  3. Ask them to focus on a certain social context (family, work, kindergarten).
  4. Ask them, 'where --left, right, up, down-- do you see or experience...(name of relevant group or individual).
  5. Have them point this location out, before they open their eyes again.

Why this procedure?

Social representations may differ in their level of abstraction and consciousness. Seeing a mental picture of your brother at the moment he said 'yes' and married his ex-wife, is quite concrete. It is like a mental photograph. On the other hand you may have a general sense of 'my brother', that is not so mutch bound to place and time: This can be said to be a broad generalization about who he is. And this type of generalization may function very mutch outside of your awareness.

The above procedure helps most people to get access to a usefull level of abstraction and to bring this type of knowledge to consciousness. Problems with accessing social panorama locations, may have to do with the clients misunderstanding the questions, resulting for instance in them pointing at 'geographic' locations. So they point to the east, because the named relative lives in a city east of their home town. Turning the person 180 degrees, and asking them again to point out the location of this relative, will reveal wether or not the question was clear to them.

In difficult cases, it may help, to first have a person point out the location of their spouse, by just asking:'Where do you experience, sense, (intuitively, subjectively) your partner; left, right or in front of you? As soon as this leads to the access of the right level of abstraction, finding other locations will be simple.

By using this procedure it has proven to be relatively easy for people to visualize individuals, groups, teams and the constellation of their family at differing ages.

There seems to exist no level beyond the Social Panorama

As soon as the social panorama location of a group or individual is found, the person immediately knows what this means in terms of relationship: He will experience some of the social emotions connected to this group or individual. On the other hand, by having a person attend to the social emotion, we can be shure they will visualize the group or person in the appropriate location. 'Feel, what you feel for John... where do you spot his image?'

Peoples social panorama must be regarded as their primary or basic way of representing social relations. In other words, people do represent relations in space --but don't possessalternative and more powerful ways of representing them-- and they live and act primary on the base of these spacial representations. So whatever a person does, rationalizes, tells or otherwise expresses about a relationships, this does not affect him as much as a change in the location where he sees, hears and feels significant others.

Representation dominates interaction

By just experimenting with this I came to believe that representation dominates interaction. In other words, in the submodalities I have represented my brother I have encoded my relationship to him. The interaction patterns between me and my brother are the result of the ways in which we both have pictured each other in our minds. Change (one of) these images, and the interaction patterns will change.

In the social panorama we see different classes of social representations, all having their 'person-like' character in common. The social panorama can be said to be a sphere of personifications. In this sphere we may find:

  1. Representations of others (living people).
  2. Representations of groups.
  3. Representations of parts we consider to belong to our selves (self images and projections of personality parts)
  4. Representations of social entities that are not live humans, but personified objects, abstractions, spirits or gods and the like.

Families and locations

When we assume 'relation equals location' and 'the social panorama is the primary or basic social representation' and 'representation dominates interaction' we are ready to look at families again. When we assume that any family system consists of relations, these must primarily be laid out in the imaginary space around a person.

As soon as one starts to listen for the predicates of location in spontaneous talk about family ties, it is all very convincing: nearness, distance, besideness and closeness, fill the air.
"My dad was out of reach for me." "My ex wife stood in between us." "My sister has always been the closest person to me."

"My parents stood side by side and were backing me up."

The accompanying nonverbal behavior, like gazing and gesturing at spots, in combination with kinaesthetic predicates like warmth, coolness, looseness and tightness all prove the validity of this view.

Other evidence, supporting the crucial role of the submodality location, comes from interventions as used in several schools of family therapy (Satir, Pesso, Moreno, Menuchin). But non of these methods are based on the assumption that location is the primary way of representing relations.

Modelling Bert Hellinger

A therapist that implicitly does use the above assumption is the German Bert Hellinger. Moving around family members in the client’s social panorama is his main type of intervention. He not only applies this method on actual family problems, but also with all other kinds of psychological problems and even serious health crisis.

In Anchorpoint of august 1997, Tim Hallbom and Kris Johnson wrote about the work of Hellinger and in march 1997 I wrote an article in NLP-world that dealt with some patterns in his work. Although Hellingers methods and ideas are in conflict with several of the NLP presuppositions, this does not automatically imply that we can't learn something important from modeling him. Modelling him is a endeavour that already provided NLP with some usefull techniques. And in all of this the Social Panorama has proven to be the vital modeling tool.

Are social submodalities universal?

Bandler suggests to treat submodalities as idiosyncratic: People differ in what certain submodalities mean to them. Differences in taste and preference as we do encounter them in art witness the diversity in submodality codes. Hellinger's practice contradicts ideosyncracy as far as submodalities in the social domain are concerned. Because relying on the feelings of stand-ins presupposes that all humans apply similar submodality coding for social relations.

Hellinger cannot respond to this type theoretical issues mainly because the notion of submodalities is non-existent in his vocabulary. He acts as if social submodalities are a universal language of certain locations meaning certain relations.

My own pilot studies (Derks, 1995, 1997) show that there is a strong overlap between individuals in the meaning they give to some social panoramic locations. But wether this extends to the level that justifies relying on stand-ins needs further examination. If people do agree that much, as Hellinger's work implies, stand-ins feelings are as good as anyone's feelings to test the quality of a position in a family constellation.

In one experiment I placed nine different idividuals on the same 'client location' in a simple family constellation. It was very clear that:

  1. The client and all eight his stand-ins experienced very strong negative emotions, --as measured on the spot with a questionnaire based on the structure of emotions (Camaron Bandler 1986). On a seven point scale for 'intensity' the mean was 6.2
  2. But the character of these emotions varied widely within the negative range (craving, fear, pressure, limitation and anger, rage, feeling threatened, feeling nailed down, restless and discomfort.) Also the intentions behind these emotions showed a wide range (I want: motherly love, harmony, don't want to be in the middle of not communicating people, more freedom and don't want them to look after me, closeness, see my dad, freedom, to look backwards).
    The fact that Hellinger is a successful therapist does not prove that social submodalities do have an universal meaning. But it shows that the amount of overlap is such,  that it often works often enough for Hellinger to proceed this way. His success primarily demonstrates the strong impact changes in family member locations do have on a person, no matter whether these fit exactly to the needs of the client or not. What I mean is, that even when a therapist applies 'random' shifts in location, these may start off an important search proces in a client.

  3. But Hellinger interventions are not random, but follow a series of fundamental composition rules, that I will discuss a little later.
    Another remarkable aspect of his approach is the passive role of the client. As soon as the client has put the last stand-in on his location he is asked to sit down and observe; the client has near to no saying in whose position will be changed and in what way. Although Hellinger let himself be guided by visual calibration of nonverbal behavior of both clients and stand-ins, he states that deciding about who must be moved to where, is a task exclusively reserved for the therapist.
    Difficult to all NLP-ers is Hellingers statement: 'What works is the truth.' Because it is evident that he is the one who decides about what this 'truth' is: His map is the territory. Although he suggest that it is 'the soul of the system' that reveals this truth to him.

The solution

Hellinger's therapeutic goal is to change the clients' mental representation of his family from disorder to order. He comments to a case with a client named Bruno:

"He had an internal image of the relationships in his family. The pitiful attempts by which the family tried to solve their problems lead to the death of his sister and his mother. Bruno had brought his internal image to the outside, and we could look at it. When it was standing there outside of him, it could be changed to reach at a better solution. To ensure this solution will work for Bruno, it does not take any change in his (real) family. His father does not have to change; he even does not have to know anything about this at all. And the dead will stay dead. Bruno on the other hand will be able to take this new image up in his soul, loving, and than it will work out fine for him." (p.407)

The aim of this process is to reach at a family constellation in which everyone is standing at the right spot. This is what Hellinger calls 'the solution.' After having been a bystander for a while, the client is presented with this solution, and has to accept it. By changing places with his own personal stand-in, the client is able to explore the new family layout from within. This first perceptual position 'reimprinting' is often the final step of the therapeutic procedure.

Family parts

The rules to what the 'better solution' has to obey, is very much in accordance with the principles of the social panorama and NLP at large. Hellinger states that every family member of a person, belongs to this person. In other words, people internalize all their family members; and these internalizations become personality parts. Success in therapy comes when the relationship to all internalized family members (parts) is emotional positive.

The family of origin

Working with someone's childhood family system, may have a tremendous influence. This is logically caused by the fact, that the family of origin is the very foundations of personality. These early social connections are build on in later life. And also, the fundamental experience of belonging to a family is the prototype for belonging to other social systems in adulthood. The parts making up the childhood family system, are often largely identified with. So, although your father is an 'other', you have copied much of his mental software in the files you consider 'yourself'.

There is no need to explain more about the important role of parents and next of kin, were so many psychologist have done so for ages. Problems that take the shape of social personality traits: Core patterns, that a person repeats in many different contexts, seem to be rooted in the structure of the family of origin. Agression, hesitation, withdrawal, submissiveness etc. can be treated succesfully by changing the family of origin.

Systemic entanglement

Family members transfer their family images to other family members. A baby is born within the existing family system. His parents and older brothers and sisters do already use social representations. And these older family members act on the base of these representations, and by that dictate part of the relationship with the new comer. In this way older family members strongly influence the social panorama of the young members. That is why Hellinger regards birth order as something very significant. Older family members mold the family panorama of a younger member, and by doing that they may transfer all kinds of troublesome relationships, that Hellinger calls 'systemic entanglement'.

Parents may locate a new child on the same spot in their social panorama where a deceased child stood (and often give it the same name). This may lead to identification with deceased siplings. Or at other times, long gone loved ones of the parents are sharing locations with a child. The child will partly sense to be an adult lover. Or parents may omit a stillborn baby in their conversation with a younger child, but still 'show' the location of the deceased baby. As a result the younger child feels something is missing but does not know what it is. Especially when a male baby replaces a female (or visa versa) this may cause problems with gender identity, in Hellinger's view. On this level of systemic entanglements Hellinger is at his best and at his most dangerous in the sense of providing clients with negative suggestions.

By modeling Hellinger it becomes apperrant that people can suffer from death relatives they never met, or that people may seek death to rejoin deceased relatives.

A nice example in my own practice was a client who complained, he couldn't reach his goals. It was easy to discouver that the nearest personification in his social panorama was his uncle who had committed suicide. This personification was located at only 15 cm in front of his head; exacly blurring the direction of his future on his personal timeline. Moving the uncle opened up a bright vision of the future.

The Frivolous assumption

However, changes in the current family system, that involve a change in attitude, say from hatred to love, will also have a profound impact on the client. Implicitly Hellinger also makes use of what in social panorama is called: 'The frivolous assumption.' This says, that when we single sidedly change our mental representation of a person, and by doing this change our attitude to him, this will affect the (real) persons' attitude to us. NLP does not explain this effect from supernatural influence, but as a result of unconscious non verbal interaction. When I changed my attitude towards a person, he will unconsciously start to respond to my changed nonverbal cues, and by that change his attitude as well.

Designing changes

If we assume the social panorama to be the primary set of social representations, this implies it must also be the place to make significant and permanent changes. Shifting a social unit from one site to the other may be very easy for a client; as easy as imagining to move a piece of furniture in his home.Although moving units can be easy; to the therapist, the most critical question to answer is: What must be moved to where?

How does Hellinger solve this?

Hellinger has seen great numbers of family constellations, and does firmly generalize from this experience. But he does not provide us with a set of composition rules for improving family layouts. But in his book "Ordnungen der Liebe" (The laws of love) he reveals some of his rules. My analysis is partly based on this book and on seeing him and his colleques work in reality and on video.

The type of moves that Hellinger has family members make in order to improve a family constellation are of every conceivable kind: coming closer, moving away, exchanging places with an other family member, turning around, etc. However, the vertical dimension, that has proven to be very significant in the social panorama research, is not used by Hellinger. So he never seem to put a person above ore below an other, although we may regard his 'bending down low' ritual in this respect.

Ritual interaction

The ritualistic side of Hellingers works will be dealth with some more in our next article. Part of these rituals consist of sentences that the therapist vocalizes and that must be repeated by the client. Hellinger seems to highly value these 'incantations'. For instance he orders clients to repeat: 'I give you the honour', 'Dear mother I do stay here a little longer', 'I will give you a place in my heart'.

 Family Panorama's the NLP way

 To match the common NLP style we need to depart from Hellinger's method in five major ways:

  1. The Family Panorama is made visual without the use of stand-ins, but only in the clients imagination; aided by sketches, chairs, shoes, pillows or whatever is useful.
  2. The transfer of resources, from the client to family member-parts, is applied as the major way to change relations and thus locations. Transferring resources will often replace the actual shifting of locations, since locations will shift automatically after a resource has arrived at the personality part that represents a family member lacking that resource.
    This is something known from reimprinting and reparenting. The changes in locations comming from transferring resources, do however result from unconscious creative activety at the side of the client. They prove the capability of peoples 'unconscious social operating system' to make effective and ecological shifts without any instruction from the therapist.
  3. The client himself is the one that by shifting to the seccond perceptual position checks ecology for all family members; so stand-ins have no part in this.
  4. A list of Family Panorama Patterns is used, as a guide to the therapist for designing changes. (Some of these Fam. Pan. Pats. are presented at the end of this article). Usefull shifts in locations can be suggested in the regular NLP way of working with submodalities.
  5. Changes in the childhood family layout are worked with and consolidated in a way similar to that used for beliefs. The client will be taken over the time line with his new childhood family panorama. By doing this, the past is connected to present and future.

  This is in conflict with the NLP habit to test ones results. NLP-ers believe the client to be able to complete most creative thinking and reconsiddering, within the time limits of the therapy session. NLP-ers send a client home, ideally speaking, when everything is fixed. Hellingers clients on the other hand, have to do mutch homework to complete the therapy. Hellinger says he relies on his clients 'souls' for that to happen.

 I recommend to do ecology checks with the client for every shifted family member by having the client step in seccond perceptual position with this family member.

 My personal experience so far shows that it may occupy a person for a week or two, to finnish the integration, if he is only confronted with the new constellation in the Hellinger way. But even if we do check ecology and future pace, things may be a little uncertain. This simply means that, we sometimes need to wait a couple of days before we are able to assess the result.

 For instance in one case, two weeks later, the images of parents that were moved from up front to the back did return to the front. Checking the positive intention of their return revealed the reason immediately: Mother once had a stroke, she had to be watched to prevent a repetition. Knowing this, enabeled the client to resolve this easely. She placed mother at the back again, but kept monitorring her health by way of an imaginary side mirror.

 But at other times it has proven to be possible to complete the work within a two to three hour session. Checking ecology by having the client go seccond position with all family members repetedly, comes near to being waterproof. So Hellingers insigts and NLP precision can be combined, when one takes time for it.


 The most effective way of shifting locations in family panoramas is arrived at by transferring resources way back in the history of the system. A technique sometimes called  're-parenting'. After having send to one of the parents whatever resources they need, they most often automatically move to more favourable locations. And not only the parents move, in most cases every family member moves in directions that are in agreement with many of Hellingers solutions. It is very promissing that these movements seem to follow the natural flow of the client’s unconscious mind. And the shifts that result from resources being transferred seem to be of high a standard of ecology.

I close by saying, that Bert Hellinger has a unique style of working, it seems to be effective in many cases but it violates the basic assumptions of NLP.

Relevant literature:

 Satir, V. Peoplemaking. Palo Alto: Science and behavior Books, 1972
Hellinger, B. Ordnungen der Liebe; Ein Kurs-Buch von Bert HellingerCarl Auer Verlag, Heidelberg, 1995.
Bandler, R. Using Your Brain for a Change, Moab, Utah:Real people Press, 1985.
Bandler, R., Grinder J. & Satir, V. Changing With Families
Science and Behavior Books, Inc. Palo Alto, Ca. 1976.
Derks, L.Exploring the Social Panorama, in NLP World,Vol. 2, No.3 28-42, november 1995.
Derks, L. & Hollander, J. Exploring the Spiritual Panorama, in NLP World, Vol. 3, No 2, July 1996.
Derks, L. Family Systems in the Social Panorama, in NLP World Vol. 4, No. 1, 21-38, March 1997.
Derks, L. Das Familiensystem im "Social Panorama", in MultiMind, august 1997.
Derks, L. & Hollander, J. Essenties van NLPUtrecht, Servire 1996.
Derks, L. The Social Significance of Inner Space. Manuscript of 267 pages, Copies: IEP, Staringstraat 1, 6511 PC Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
Grinder, J. & Bandler, R. The Structure of Magic, Vol II
Science and Behavior Books, Inc. Palo Alto, Ca. 1976.

Lucas A.C. Derks is social psychologist and a trainer at the Institute of Eclectic Psychology in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He wrote and co-authored several books and numerous articles mostly dealing with NLP and related psychological topics. His newest book on the Social Panorama is in publication.

Thanks only to Walter Oetsch from Linz in Austria, the social panorama was linked to Hellinger’s work. Walter’s suggestions were taken into account and will add to further improvements of these applications into the future.