Hiding In Plain Sight: The Social Field

“Every feeling, thought, movement, and encounter is simultaneously an inner and outer event.”

—Arnold Mindell


 Alan Briskin and I are working on a book about “fields.” I have written several previous posts about them. The map to this territory is becoming clearer and more detailed as we, along with David Sibbet, Gisela Wendling, and Karen Buckley, share our ideas about and experiences with fields. We are also investigating the work of those who have explored social fields before us like Mary Parker Follett, Kurt Lewin, Pierre Bourdieu, and Otto Scharmer. The following piece is an adaptation of writings and conversations between Alan and myself. 

As noted in my previous post, Alan Briskin and I think of a “field” as a dynamic, living series of perceptible forces emanating from multiple sources inside and around us that influence how we feel, think, and behave. Field phenomena include everything from how you feel with good friends, to social customs and group norms you might take for granted, as well as  conflicts that arise among competing factions. When we think of them in this way, fields are everywhere, within a person via interactions of brain, mind, heart, and body activity, as well as among people, ideas, social institutions, and physical forces. As you can see, fields are networks of interacting relationships, some more evident than others.

Why the heck do fields matter? Especially if we can’t see them. They matter because in so many ways we are unconscious of the fields that influence and manipulate us. We are not aware enough of what they are or how they operate or  or how we might influence them for positive ends. We were born into unique social fields within our own families. These enveloping fields influenced us as children in ways that we only slowly became conscious of as we grew older. Their characteristic nature became more familiar as we experienced the fields of other families, helping us become aware of differences with our own. This is true of organizations as well.  One year I consulted with an automobile company in Detroit, a Catholic hospital in Kansas City, and a spiritual organization in California. The social fields in each of these situations were dramatically different and shaped people and their interactions in dramatically different ways.

Through these posts and ultimately in our book, Alan and I hope you and others will become aware of fields, their impact on you, and on those around you. The ability to be aware of fields, their presence, emergence, and dynamism, is a crucial skill for intentionally and skillfully perceiving, interacting, and leading. To help us become more aware and discern how fields influence us, we are exploring three types of fields: personal, social, and noetic. Even though these fields are always interacting and influencing one another, I will consider them separately. My last post was on personal fields. Here I explore the social field.

It’s challenging to describe the social field since it includes so many things, almost everything PLUS the kitchen sink. Although it includes the influence of the personal field, it operates on a different scale and contains forces and information specific to it. Many smart people on whose shoulders we stand have been exploring this terrain for decades. These include Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), and more recently Arnold Mindell, Lauren Artress, Peter Senge, Joe Jaworkski, Adam Kahane, and Otto Scharmer.

Building on the work of these thought leaders, we conceive of the social field as a region or zone permeated by interpersonal, group, and mass aggregates of human relationships. It includes the sensory dimensions of the people involved including what they see, hear, taste, touch, smell, feel, think, and do. It contains the rules and boundaries that shape what happens among people in groups such as motives, norms, processes, and structures. It contains less visible aspects as well that are only known from deeper reflection and astute observation, such as shadow dynamics and deeply held prejudices. The social field includes physical aspects like buildings, meeting rooms, artwork, and natural settings that reflect and echo the past and affect the present and future. Finally, forces that are part of social fields also include habitual patterns formed over decades and centuries in economic, political, institutional, cultural, religious, and psychological domains.  The guiding questions when investigating fields are what is it I still cannot see and what is it I still don’t know?


Unveiling What’s Hidden in Plain Sight

As we did in the previous post on personal fields, let’s use David Sibbet’s Four Process Flows* to unveil the social field in groups and in larger, encompassing the social field. First I will pose questions regarding groups.



  •   Awareness: Are you aware of the group as a whole with its shared beliefs and conflicting dynamics? Are you aware of what the group is focusing on or ignoring? Do you know what the group’s implicit intention is? What is the group wanting to accomplish or resolve? What clues might help you answer these questions: facial expressions, gestures, postures, tones of voice, words?
  •   Energy: What are you sensing in the space around you? Is the conversation lively and cooperative, laborious and strained, or fast-paced and combative, even punitive? Are people engaged or bored? Are they leaning forward in anticipation or in combat, leaning back as if they want to flee the scene, or simply sitting straight up and watching?
  •   Information: What are people talking about? About the task at hand or about something else entirely? What patterns in the larger social field are being mirrored in the group’s interactions?  For example, what metaphors and images are they using? Ones associated with combat (“we need to fight this), nature (“our thinking is evolving”), or relationships (“we need to work together”). Are they speaking in terms of right or wrong answers or seeking to find common ground?
  •   Operations: What colors and shapes do you notice in the room? What is on the walls? Do you have a lot of space around you or is the room small and cramped for the size group? Who sits where? How are tables and chairs arranged? Are the supplies and technology needed available and working?


  •   Awareness: What are you and others aware of in the context in which you are operating? Economic conditions? Political positions? Patterns of inclusion and exclusion from opportunities and policy making? Characteristics of organizational or community culture? Historical patterns of beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors?
  •   Energy: In general, are people feeling anxious, hopeful, discouraged, engaged, or simply disengaged from society as a whole? Are people feeling connected and included or isolated and “othered?” Do various groups feel differently depending on their role, position, or how they are seen and treated by others?  
  •   Information: What metaphors and images are prevalent in the media, including advertisements? What messages are implicit in them? How is information being conveyed? In simple forms like lists or in complex forms like paragraphs or stories?
  •   Operations: How does the physical design of the building(s) in which you work affect how work is accomplished and how people interact with one another? How does the physical layout, including who lives where, of your city, county, state, or nation affect how people interact and perceive one another? How does it affect people’s opportunities for education, information, work, and connectivity?


Reasons to Unveil Forces in the Social Field

There are at least two reasons for unveiling the forces in a social field.  First, becoming aware of forces driving people’s behavior, usually outside of conscious awareness, allows you to surface them, make them public and available for investigation.  Second, making the forces public means people can be more conscious and intentional about their behavior. They can better align what they do and say with their intentions.

  1. Make Forces Public. Mirroring or describing aloud what you see and hear, without criticism, allows people to become aware of their behavior  without getting defensive,  so they can determine whether it is consistent with their intentions. In a meeting of scientists and engineers I noticed that after each person spoke, a colleague would immediately start to pick apart what the speaker had offered as a plausible way to solve a workflow problem. These criticisms appeared to generate a combative tone in the meeting and silenced several members of the group. When I described what I was seeing, I asked whether they were applying their pattern of scientific rigor from their labs to their criticisms of one another. I suggested that the issue at hand was complex, meaning it didn’t have one right answer like they sought when working on technical issues. The patterns in their larger social field were affecting the group. With this new awareness, they began exploring people’s ideas before critically evaluating them.
  2. Align Behavior with Intention. The scientists and engineers I have worked with over the years are hard-working people with great integrity. Their focus is on getting it “right.” And aren’t we glad they are. For the most part, we have dependable, safe electricity  illuminating our homes and medicines that help us when we are sick. However, they aren’t always as adept in human interaction. My clients thought they were doing what they were supposed to do, pummeling one another’s ideas to get them right not realizing the impact they were having on one another and on the group. After becoming aware of their behavior and its impact, they surfaced their intention to work as a team and to solve the issue at hand. Although they occasionally still fell back into habitual behaviors in meetings, they often caught themselves and began to ask more questions of genuine curiosity versus questions of implicit criticism.

You don’t have to perceive or understand all the forces in the social field. That’s impossible. However, we can begin to unveil some of the forces and bring them into awareness so they are not driving people’s behavior unconsciously. This is how we align behavior with good intentions.   

*The Four Process Flows were adapted by David Sibbet from the work of Arthur M. Young.      

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