International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry


A Deeper Level of Humanity: My Introduction to The Constellation – Birgitta Schomaker

Everywhere you look, you see remarkable individuals and communities that have managed to break through the walls of trauma and tyranny in order to connect to their deep sources of humanity. What are the conditions that make these breakthroughs possible and allow ‘miracles’ to happen time and again?’

Driven to get to know more about Theory U and Appreciative Inquiry (AI), I accepted Joke d’Haese’s invitation to partake in a workshop for change facilitators organised by The Constellation in the small Dutch town of Kerkrade near the German border. The Constellation is a Belgian NGO and network organisation that supports communities in more than 60 countries in responding to local challenges.

Why now? 

The three-day workshop took place exactly a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th, 2015. In the context of this horrifying event, I could not have imagined a more uplifting and promising experience than attending this workshop. I left the workshop with new hope, experiencing the promise of the strong human connection that emerges when using the appreciative perspective. The facilitators of The Constellation inspire communities to find their own truth based on their life experience and through dialogue.

I consider The Constellation’s vision and approach a powerful way to generate the kind of breakthroughs Scharmer and Kaufer refer to in the opening quote.

The Constellation says about their work that: “In a world that needs to confront life challenges on a daily basis (HIV, TB, malaria, reproductive health, livelihood, climate change, peace and reconciliation), every community has the capacity to respond to such threats, to build a common vision, to act and to adapt.” The Constellation believes in empowering local communities: “Every community can become Life Competent: the ‘state’ where it is able to deal effectively with the threats and challenges that it faces. Global experiences reveal that local responses are a critical factor to achieve progress on life challenges. Local responses are the set of actions that communities take by themselves to address a certain concern, first of all using their own resources. These local responses can be facilitated.”

Reflective practitioners

The facilitation approach of The Constellation evolved in an organic way by a process of continual fine-tuning of best practices. Projects are continuously evaluated in an appreciative way through a practice called “after experience reflection”. Lessons learned are shared with other facilitations within the same community or transferred to other communities. Truly a learning organisation, The Constellation. Learning by pointing out what works well, and stressing what can be amplified, exploring what can be improved with an open mind.

From expert to facilitator

The Constellation has clearly defined its vision for interacting with local communities, described in the acronym SALT: Stimulate, Appreciate, Learn, and Transfer. SALT is the DNA of the Constellation. SALT also refers to Support, Authentic, Link, Listen and Team. The facilitators of The Constellation believe in the possibilities of people to solve their own problems. SALT directs the attention to what particpants would like to reinforce or encourage, and reminds practitioners to share their learnings.

During the weekend, the facilitators guided us through the Community Life Competence Process (CLCP), a cyclical model used to assist communities in tackling their challenges:

  1. Who are we? (Our common humanity)
  2. Who do we want to be? (Envision)
  3. Where do we stand now? (Self-assess)
  4. How do we get there? (Prioritise and plan for action)
  5. Act
  6. What have we learned? (Share and learn)

Instead of problem solving there is space for “what wants to be born” – the dream or vision.

What makes us human?

I found the first step in the process – describing what defines us as human – intriguing. This first step creates connection between the people involved: universal values like respect, authenticity, responsibility and altruism are emerge from the dialogue.

The preamble of The Constellation Charter states that:

There is one condition to our journey: we must recognize that we are all human, moved by similar hopes and concerns. In our interactions with others, we leave behind our references to a world made of experts and uneducated people, clerics and lay persons, rich and poor, donors and recipients. We then become free to share our experience and to appreciate others.

From dreaming to planning

What I especially liked about the SALT way of working was the step bridging dream and plan. When working with groups, I often find this challenging: how do you avoid get too much “down to earth” too soon? How do you keep the spirit of the dream alive? During the weekend we explored so-called “practices”, which describe core elements of the dream as if these are happening right now, in clear language. By using concise, tangible statements, the dream is specified without watering down the imagination of the participants. Subsequently the group assesses its current state by taking a close look at the practices: to what extent do we currently “live” or “embody’”these practices as a community?

“The new in any system shows up first at the periphery”, Scharmer states. You could call Kerkrade, located near the border between Germany and Belgium, a city on the periphery, not only because of its geographic location, but moreso because of the transformation this area has been going through in the past decade: the large monastery Rolduc has closed (a stronghold of the Vatican since the 12th century) and the closure of the coal mines. Kerkrade has become marginalised: people, businesses and institutions have left the area. Instead of framing this as problematic, we focused on possibilities. “What is dying, and what is wanting to be born?” is the recurring question in Theory U material. During the weekend we were introduced to local civil initiatives in Kerkrade through so-called SALT visits. These were promising initiatives, characterised by inclusion: offering local community members ways to participate and stay involved. Rather than staying distant during the visits, we learned to engage in personal conversations, meeting on eye-level.

Indeed, now!

Scharmer and Kaufer wrote: “The good news is that the world has enormous unexploited potential in the form of inspired, intentional, and collective entrepreneurship. But we need to be much more methodical about tapping this dormant force to bring about global movements for good.”

With SALT and CLCP, the network of facilitators of The Constellation have developed a tried and true method to activate dormant potential of communities. By sharing success stories and stories of hope within the community of facilitators, The Constellation is one of the compelling worldwide movements for positive global change.

I wrote the first version of this article right after the attacks in Paris, in November 2015. Today, as I am writing the second version of this article, my thoughts go to the mourning people in Belgium, after the attacks in Brussels on March 22nd, 2016. More than ever, the world needs effective methods to stimulate dialogue and to foster harmonious communities, that is for sure.

With gratitude to all participants at the workshop in Kerkrade, and a special thank you to Gemma & Joke for embodying the SALT principles.

Birgitta Schomaker

Amsterdam, March 25th 2016


  1. Photo credit Ricardo Walters (Botswana, 2015)

    The following is a quote from Scharmer & Kaufer (Leading from the emerging future, 2013)

    “Everywhere you look, you see remarkable individuals and communities that have managed to break through the walls of trauma and tyranny in order to connect to their deep sources of humanity. What are the conditions that make these breakthroughs possible and allow ‘miracles’ to happen time and again?’ “

  2. More on the Belgian NGO and networkorganisation The Constellation can be found here:

  3. Anita Sheehan-Nutz says:

    Dear Birgitta,

    I hope you are well. I am re-reading this article and am so touched by its depth, its clarity and its completeness. You are a true ambassador of the Constellation (and Theory U). I just want to thank you for it.

    All the best,


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