Why behaviour is not the cause

We often attribute the cause of an event to behaviour. Which makes perfect sense because ‘the behaviour’ is what we see. And so we can identify it. And as a result to ‘what we see’ a response with a connecting conclusion is possible:

–  John always responds cranky to an assignment. According to his manager this causes a dispirited atmosphere in the team.

–  Lisa’s three-year-old son takes over the entire household – his will is law. Lisa believes that this is the cause of the tensions between her and her husband.

Action = Reaction
In You do not have a relationship, you create one I have already explained that an action always results in a reaction. So indeed, if someone acts cranky then others will respond to this accordingly. Which, in John’s case, will have its effects on the team as a whole. Similarly, we can assume that the behaviour of Lisa’s son causes tension between the two parents.

So far, so good
A logical solution would be that Lisa’s son and John would ‘just’change their behaviour in a way so that it does not result in any undesirable consequences. However, often it is not that simple. In order to be able to truly change behaviour we should have a look at the underlying causes. What makes it that John responds so cranky? And why is Lisa’s son so demanding?

A way to identify underlying causes can be found by looking through a, what I call, systemic perspective. This can be explained by zooming out the situation. To be able to do this, you do not only look at the individual but you also include the whole environment in which the person finds himself (the system).

The system
You can see the system as a group consisting of people that belong together (context). In the case of John we look at the whole team. In the case of Lisa’s son we look at the whole family.

All members of the team and family are directly or indirectly connected to each other. All members influence and are being (visibly or invisibly) influenced by each other. If one person moves, then the other is automatically set in motion as well.

A system ‘lives’ according to numerous basic conditions concerning ‘belonging’ (as opposed to exclusion), ‘seniority’ and ‘balance in giving and receiving’, and always working to maintain the balance between the different elements (= self regulating).

In the system
A disturbance of the aforementioned basic conditions will result in imbalance. Because everything and everyone within a system is connected to each other, such a disturbance effects the whole system.

The system does everything to restore the balance. These movements are invisible, but can nonetheless be felt by all the members of the system. A reaction on such a sensible movement results in visible behaviour:

– The bigger the efforts and movements to restore the balance are, the more ‘trouble’ you will experience. This can cause unrest, irritations, and compulsiveness.

– When the balance has been restored (the basic conditions will be met) then this will be experienced as a more peaceful situation.


It works both ways
In short, behaviour is not the cause but an expression of something that occurs within the system.

Concerning John: all team members had the feeling that they needed to give more than they were given back in return. John was the person who expressed this feeling through his behaviour.

Concerning Lisa’s son: the boy expressed demanding behaviour because he sensed the already existing tension between his parents. This was his way of communicating what had gone wrong even before he started showing challenging behaviour.

As a friend noted: ‘We often do not realise that we do not only influence our environment but that our environment also influences us.’

This sums up the whole story.


–     Karen van Hout

What do you take from this story? Feel free to leave a comment.