FOCUS: Small Systems

DISCIPLINES: Personal Mastery, Systems Thinking

What we give we get back.
—C. Terry Warner

This morning I was standing in line to buy corn at the Farmer’s Market. A woman I don’t know was also waiting. She turned to me, smiling broadly, and said, “This makes me glad to be alive. Beautiful Saturday morning, fresh corn!” I looked at her, felt the connection, and smiled back, “Me too.” As I walked back to my car, I realized that her smile and the connection had lifted me…set me up for a great morning.

I often think of systems as big and complex, like the environment, the economy, or the inner workings of a company. But two people are also a system.

A system is defined as a group of interacting, interrelated, interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole. So my Farmer’s Market friend and I qualify. We interacted; we were interrelated as standers in the corn line, and we were definitely interdependent. She influenced me and I suspect that my response affected her back. In subtle, complex ways we connected and left smiling, uplifted.

These small systems created by two people are at the center of most of our lives: these are the systems that sustain and support us and those that trouble and vex us as well.


I once met a retired divorce lawyer. He told me this amazing story. He had been very successful, helping dissolve marriages, getting the most for his clients. After he retired he began to wish he could help marriages repair instead of end, so he tried something new. He still practiced some law, so when people asked if he would represent them in a divorce, he said, “I will. But I’ve learned there is a simple way to make sure the process goes well. You must do it before I’ll accept your case. For the next month, treat your spouse with utmost kindness. Do it genuinely, because you want a good divorce. Come back in a month and I’ll help you.” When he told me his story he had tried this method on six couples. The results had been identical. At the end of a month, the complainant came back and thanked him for saving the marriage. What they’d discovered is what Terry Warner promises: What we give we get back.

Now I can hear someone saying “You don’t know so-and-so! I am consistently sweet to her and she treats me terribly.” The truth is we can be sweet and outwardly cooperative, but if, underneath, we’re judgmental and negative, that’s what she will feel and respond to. How we see others is communicated subtly and it affects how they see and respond to us.


If what Warner says is true, it is profound.

Here’s the good news: if a small system is stuck, only one heart needs to shift. Eventually the other will not be responding to the same person. The way to do this is to allow the truth of the other in, to allow ourselves to be influenced or touched by the other, which in itself touches the other. The small system reorganizes itself.


  1. Are you noticing the small systems you’re part of?

  2. Reflect carefully on this: Do you get what you give?

  3. How can you let the truth of the other in? Allow yourself to be touched by him/her?

  4. If there is tension in some of your systems, ask yourself:

    1. How is it to be on the receiving end of me?

    2. What if I’m wrong?


  • Please join me for a 45-minute telegathering to explore small systems. Call Thursday, Sept. 10, 2008, at noon Eastern (11:00 a.m. Central, 10:00 a.m. MT, 9:00 a.m. Pacific) 1-218-486-1300 Bridge: 276583. No need to register…just call at that time!
  • C. Terry Warner is the founder of The Arbinger Institute and author of Bonds that Make Us Free, and major contributor to The Anatomy of Peace. The ideas in this post come broadly from Arbinger material. I am committed to living these ideas. I have seen this material help people make personal and professional changes that are huge and sustainable. I help teach a 15 week Arbinger teleclass for coaches around the world, called Choice in Coaching. Let me know if you’re interested in learning more about it.
  • I am hosting the Hope Hot Line every day from August 23-29. Call the Hope Hotline and receive a different message every day. I’d love to have you call in and also let me know how you think I did as a hope ambassador. The number is (212) 714-HOPE or (212) 714-4673. The Hope Hotline is the contribution of Katherine Gotshall English, who started it to bring some extra light to the world.

Sharon Eakes | 720 Maple Lane | Sewickley, PA 15143

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