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Generation to Generation

Author: Edwin H. Friedman
Copyright: ©1985
Publishers: The Guilford Press. New York, N.Y.
Book Review by: Cathy Bernatt

Generation to Generation

Book Reviewer Special Preface
I took over 14 pages of notes and quotes down (for the first 163 pages out of 305) as I reread this book for the second time in preparing to write this book review. There is a tremendous amount of thought-provoking, valuable and rich material. This review will focus on section one (Chapters 1 and 2) and section three (Chapter 9), as they give a detailed theoretical explanation of family systems theory and its application to leadership which is the heart and soul of what the book is about. I will provide a series of quotes that summarize the essence of these chapters and I will add my own comments along the way. This is an unorthodox way to do a book review, I think. But Friedman is a very good writer and has a gift for explaining difficult concepts in very simple terms. Honestly, I find it hard to capture the essence any better or simpler than he already has.

Generation to Generation is a deep and fascinating read, extending systems thinking into the arena of family therapy. Friedman tells us at the start that every clergyman and woman regardless of faith are part of three different families which are all emotionally interlocked: families within the congregation, our congregations and our own. He makes claim that emotional processes are identical in all systems and so, "... unresolved issues in any one of them can produce symptoms in the others, and increased understanding of any one creates more effective functioning in all three. (p.1)

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The book is divided into four sections. Section one deals with Family theory, specifically how it differs from the individual model of therapy which takes a linear, cause-effect approach. Section two explores the families within the congregation covering marital bonds, when parent becomes child and looks at a family approach to life-cycle ceremonies. In section three, his focus turns to the Congregation as a Family System where he covers organizational issues, leadership and the self, and beginning and terminating congregational relationships. Finally Friedman goes into the personal families of the Clergy focusing on the conflicts and traps of the immediate family and the potential for salvation within the extended family.

All that he talks about can be applied to a systemic look at issues of leadership within a corporation as well. Friedman points out that, "Family Therapy suggests that leadership is itself a therapeutic modality. What is vital to changing any kind of family in not knowledge of technique or pathology, but rather the capacity of the family leader to define his or her own goals and values, while trying to maintain a non-anxious presence within the system." (p. 2-3) In my experience as an organizational development trainer and consultant, one of the biggest problems I see inside corporate structures is the overemphasis on task ("getting the job done") with little regard to process. Too often, there is a systems approach to the manufacturing processes, but a linear, cause-effect approach to the human equation. That, Friedman would say is the first issue to be addressed when problems surface. Another issue I have observed is top managers, who create a highly "anxious presence" amongst their staff rather than a "non-anxious" one and the enormous negative ramifications of that alone on the system.

Family Systems Theory consists of five core basic concepts which distinguish the family model from the individual model. They are:

  1. The identified patient: according to family systems, the "identified patient is not "sick" but simply the one in whom the family's stress or pathology has surfaced. (p. 19) Crises are thought of as opportunities to bring change to the whole emotional system so that everyone benefits and grows personally.

  2. The concept of homeostasis (balance): "Homeostasis is the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence. The concept of homeostasis brings out the resistance families have to change. It guides in the creation of strategies for change. And it helps develop criteria for distinguishing real change from the recycling of a symptom. (p. 23)
    In work systems, the stabilizing effect of an identified patient and the resistance from the togetherness at all costs help explain why even the most ruthless corporations often will tolerate and adapt to trouble-making complainers and downright incompetents, whereas the creative thinker who disturbs the balance of things will be ignored, if not let go. Such homeostatically induced sabotage is a major obstacle to change in any emotional system, family or congregation." (p. 25)

  3. Differentiation of self: "Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life's goals and values apart from surrounding pressures, to say "I" when others are demanding "you" and "we". It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one's own destiny and emotional being. It can be measured somewhat by one's ability to respond when confronted with crisis. According to Murray Bowen from Georgetown Medical School, a key variable in the degree to which any family can change fundamentally is the amount of self-differentiation that existed in previous generations in the extended families of both partners.

    The meaning of the book title, Generation to Generation, for Friedman is captured in this concept. There is a scale of differentiation which develops. Children of each generation tend to be a bit less mature than the previous generation and tend to marry partners with similar maturity levels. Families with individuals toward the bottom of the scale would be far less equipped to deal with crisis, and would respond more quickly to redress the balance if the homeostasis of the family were disturbed, particularly if the disturbance were caused by another member to achieve a higher level of differentiation (maturity). (p. 39)
    I have a clear memory of taking a stand when I was 17 years old with my mother and sister who used to be able to control me with a look. One day, I decided I would not be their puppet anymore. A few weeks later, strongly holding my own, my mother and sister said to me one day, "You're changing, Cathy, and we don't like it." I replied, "That's most interesting because I feel happier than I can ever remember feeling and have no intentions of going back to the "old me" so get used to the "new me". I have also experienced both the challenges of homeostasis and differentiation in my marriage and in my professional work.

  4. Extended family field: Extended family includes our family of origin, our original nuclear family (parents and siblings) plus our other relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) "Gaining a better understanding of the emotional processes still at work with regard to our family of origin, and modifying our response to them, can aid significantly in the resolution of emotional problems in our immediate family or of leadership problems..." (p. 31) A problem with one part of the machine will impact all other parts. Sometimes by focusing on the apparent problem ("identified patient"), we miss out on finding the key. Edgar Schein, Peter Senge and the Learning Organization theorists suggest asking a repetitive series of questions that are focused on "Why?" or "Then what..." to get at the source of problems or to bring out key patterns in a situation that need attention. Answering one question brings up another until finally patterns begin to emerge and the "REAL" not "Perceived" problem surfaces.

  5. Emotional triangles: An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues. The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will "triangle in" or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. Typical emotional triangles found in families are mother-father-child; a parent and any two children; a parent, his or her child, and his or her own parents. A work system triangle is any position of responsibility, someone you oversee, and the person who oversees you. (p. 39) This covers the five components of family systems theory.

I want to bring this review to a close by summarizing some of the key points Friedman makes in chapter 9 on "Leadership and Self in a Congregational Family". Friedman says that, "The key to successful spiritual leadership... with success understood not only as moving people toward a goal, but also in terms of the survival of a family (and its leader), has to do more with the leader's capacity for self-definition than with the ability to motivate others. (p. 221) He goes on to say that "Leadership through self-differentiation has a significantly different effect on the paradox of resistance than do the models of leadership through charisma or consensus. It eliminates the leverage of the dependent; it reduces conflict of wills; and it accomplishes these without increasing the potential for cloning." (p. 231) The ultimate goal is for all to become self-differentiated.

"Leaders who keep on working on their own self-differentiation, "...automatically challenge their followers to do the same and, thus, maximize the process of self-differentiation throughout the entire family. (p. 233)

I strive in my daily life as a leader, as a wife, as a member of my extended family to become more self-differentiated everyday and in doing so, hopefully help to change "history" by taking a new fork on this generation's journey that will hopefully lead us all to become healthy, productive, holistic self-differentiated humans! It is a lifetime process, or perhaps several lifetimes!

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