Meaning Guide

Helping the system to see itself

This is the second part of a two-part article, inspired by the systemic patterns running through the Disney movie Encanto. You will want to read the first part before this in order to set the scene. In this post we’ll cover what the film says about approaching systemic problems, and more interestingly for me, what it says about how to represent them.

We left the family in a knot of double binds. Bruno – the one person who managed to see through it all – has disappeared, proving that any attempt to untie the knot will simply make it tighter. The only person who has any hope of shedding light on the bigger picture now is the protagonist Mirabel, who has a unique inside/outside perspective because although she is part of the family, she somehow managed to escape receiving a gift. “Escape” is the right word here – it’s clear by now that getting a gift in this family is also a curse. This gives her the freedom to ask questions of the system as a whole, and observe how it responds as a whole.

Not talking about what we’re not talking about

And respond it does. The centre-piece of the whole movie is a song that somehow manages to pack everything that I have said, and much more besides, into a single 4-minute animation sequence. It was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, and if you thought the Hamilton songs were clever, this is another level.

Each character, one-by-one, sings a separate song about their individual bind, using their own individual melody. Then, as the song climaxes with the words “time for dinner”, we move up a level in the system and hear the emergence played out as sound. Each strand of music represents an individual with a particular problem, but when they come together over the dinner table (where else?!), we lose the thread of the individuals in the overlapping counterpoint of the whole. Each problem enriches and nourishes all the others. The sum is more than the whole of its parts, and the music and choreography explain this in a way the words alone never could. It’s simultaneously beautiful and tragic. Listen carefully in the background and you’ll hear the sisters when they come to the end of their melodies singing “it’s fine, it’s all fine” over and over in the background. The purpose of the system was supposed to be about maintaining a legacy, it now uses that legacy as a salve to persuade everyone that everything’s fine when it clearly isn’t.

Once again, don’t just think of this as an articulation of family dynamics. How many organisations use their values, or their ESG rating, or their origin story, or something amazing they did in the nineties, in the same way that the Madrigal family uses grandad’s candle? How many schools rely on the Ofsted rating they had ten years ago? How many research departments only exist because of the ideas of one person who’s not even there any more? How many project teams rest their identity on the presence of a single star performer?

You could go on and on with examples; what these situations all have in common is that you can’t talk about them when you’re involved in them. Just like the Madrigals’ dinner party, meetings become tortuous affairs in which everyone has to maintain a litany of individual fictions so that the narrative of the whole can be maintained, and the more everyone cares, the more it hurts.

What’s the solution?

If Bruno holds the key to the family’s problems, but “we don’t talk about Bruno” … what do we do?

I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but I think the song doesn’t just articulate the nature of the problem, but also points to the solution. First of all, look more carefully at the actual knot: because the binds are joined together at the level of the system as a whole, the emergent problem isn’t actually that they can’t talk about Bruno; it’s that they can’t talk about not talking about Bruno. If they could talk about that they could probably solve the problem, but they’re trapped in the logic of the double bind: to talk about not talking about something is still to talk about it, the same way telling someone to be spontaneous is telling them not to be spontaneous.

It’s impossible.

And yet …

And yet here’s the crazy thing: they can sing a whole song about it. Not a whole song about Bruno, but a whole song about not talking about Bruno. This is subtle but profound: if the things you need to talk about are at the level of the language itself, then you need a meta-language to talk about the language. That’s hard, because most of the words are already taken. One of the ways you know you’re in a double-bind is that you get the horrible feeling of needing to speak but being tongue-tied, because the language you want to use is actually part of the system that’s oppressing you. You can’t talk about the fact that you can’t talk about it.

But could you sing about it? I don’t mean literally (although that would be interesting!) I mean, could you start talking about the not talking by changing the medium? Could you draw a picture of the not talking? Could you turn it into a diagram? Could you build a model of it? Could you write a poem about it? Could you use clean language to develop it as a metaphor?

Who’s recording this?

The answer is, if you’re inside the system, then almost certainly not – the only reason Mirabel is hearing the music is that she occupies this unusual half-in / half-out position. This is the traditional role of the coach or the systems practitioner: operating within the system, but not being part of it. Seeing the patterns of the whole, and trying to represent them in a way that allows the system to heal itself, but without becoming a pariah in the process.

Is it just a coincidence that the family name is Madrigal? If you don’t know it, the madrigal is a form of song from the renaissance era that’s famously rich in polyphony; I used to sing them back in my student days, and I can tell you that when music is this contrapuntal, it’s really hard to pay attention to the whole while you’re concentrating on singing your own line:

grief; Tho 
tired, naugh tired vith grief, I 

This is true of life. The problem Encanto illustrates is that the group can’t be performing its song and listening to it at the same time. There has to be a third party to reflect it back. What would have happened if instead of running off to fix the house, Mirabel had had some means of recording what she heard and playing it back? Could the song itself have become an object of conversation?

Changing the language

In The Body Keeps the Score, which deals with treatment of personal trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk describes the phenomenon of alexithymia, in which “children and adults simply cannot describe what they are feeling because they cannot identify what their physical sensations mean. They may look furious but deny that they are angry; they may appear terrified but say that they are fine.” His book makes the straightforward argument that just as trauma affects us as bodies not just minds, so therapy needs to be embodied – be that through art, dance, mindfulness, role play, yoga, massage. It can’t just be restricted to words, because while the words are fine for individual symptoms (“I have flashbacks”, “I lose control”, “I feel numb”), they run out when we try to describe what’s happening from inside a body that’s experiencing all of these things at the same time.

What Encanto shows us is that what is true for individuals is also true for groups: trying to solve deep systemic problems using words alone probably isn’t going to work. If an organisation can’t talk about something, then by definition it can’t talk about the fact that it can’t talk about it; the inability to talk is itself an emergent property of the system.1

So what’s the solution? Encanto is refreshingly honest in accepting that if the knot of double binds is pulled too tight then there actually isn’t one. Pull on any string hard enough and the house will fall down. For the Madrigal family, this turns out to be the quickest solution – the site has to be cleared for a new house to be built. The ending may seem a bit saccharine, but this is a Disney film after all, not Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s also not generally available to us for the groups we care most about, particularly at the larger scale of entire organisations and communities. We can’t destroy the NHS and rebuild it from scratch. We can’t just wait for all our colleagues to quit and then create a new team. We can’t flatten the town we live in and start again.

But we can all be more like Mirabel. We can become more sensitive to the patterns around us. We can listen to people instead of talking over them. We can take time to appreciate how their stories blend into a whole that has its own unique properties. We can welcome third parties to capture these patterns – whether through art, story, music, film, poetry, or whatever.

And finally, the lesson I didn’t see coming from all of this: we can listen to our kids. There’s a cliché in systems circles that children are natural system thinkers, but that this gets educated out of them. I have three kids, aged between six and twelve, and I’ve talked to them about this film a lot, and although they wouldn’t have the technical language to express it, the fact is that they understand the content of everything I’ve said here with an immediacy that I can’t match. I use big words and fancy concepts, while their understanding is at a gut level; if I’m honest as I read back through what I’ve written, the most profound observations are all things they’ve shown me, not things I’ve seen myself.

So I do wonder what all this means for education. If these instincts are there in our children, but there’s no language at hand to describe them, surely this is a deficiency in our curricula? And if it takes a child to see what’s really going on in Encanto, maybe we should be listening to them a little more in how those curricula are devised? In the future, perhaps understanding what emergence is wouldn’t mean an adult taking a course in systems theory, but a child paying attention to a magical house.

And to the extent that we truly care about resolving the problems that surround us rather than just complaining about them, then we all need to be that child.

  1. And the reverse – what’s true of individuals is true of groups. If you’ve ever been unsure about the idea that systemic patterns are recursive, read the chapter in Van Der Kolk’s book on Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS), which is basically Encanto for individual trauma victims, with the house representing the individual’s body and the family members their subpersonalities.

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