Aktualisiert am 24. März 2024

The ethical imperative: Act always so as to increase the number of choices.

Heinz von Foerster (1973), On Constructing a Reality, p. 1


Johannes Herwig-Lempp

Systemic Social Worker, Dipl.-Socialpedagogue, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor for Sciences of Social Work/Systemic Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences in Merseburg/Germany (Merseburg is near Halle and Leipzig). Social worker, supervisor, and trainer. Author of three books: “Systemic Social Work. Attitudes and Acting in Practice” (2022, only in German), “Resource-Oriented Teamwork” (English version in 2013), and “Drug Addiction as an Explanatory Principle” (1994, only in German) as well as numerous articles. Born in 1957, two adult children. Living in Halle/Germany (about 150 km south of Berlin).

pcmpc: please change my pronouns constantly. I am so many. I do not have just one, but many identities (and not only divers/female/male) – like every other person has as well. “I contain multitudes” (Walt Whitman, recently also Bob Dylan). I am, just like you, much more complex than I or you can imagine. I want to remember that and keep it in mind. You don’t have to accept that, you don’t have to understand that, you don’t have to believe that, you don’t have to change my pronouns – you can ignore that if you want. And yet for me, I am many, and each one of us is many.


Systemic means: we always have choices.

Toolkit: Useful Suppositions for Systemic Social Work

… on the subject of „reality“:

  • Everything said is said by someone.
  • Objectivity is the self-deception of a subject.
  • The environment we perceive is our invention.

… on the subject of change:

  • Problems are matters of opinion.
  • It could just as well be otherwise.
  • There are always at least seven possibilities.
  • Everything is fluid. Change is constant. There is always progress, never regress.
  • Small changes lead to further changes .

… on the subject of people:

  • All people are „eigensinnig“ (have the ownership of their perspectives) and autonomous (have the ownership of their decisions).
  • People always do as they please.
  • Mixed feelings are quite normal.
  • People always have good reasons for acting as they do.
  • Instructive interaction is not possible.
  • All people want to cooperate at all times.
  • All people are alike with respect to these assumptions.

… on the subject of systems and theories:

  • Systems exist. Right? Wrong!
  • Theories are tools.
  • Suppositions/assumptions are not fact, but might prove to be useful.

The absolute („all“, „always“, „is“) nature of the wording in the statements does not imply that they are true, rather it conveys the idea that we are dealing with an assumption, a definition that can (not must) in all circumstances be applied.


Asking questions is a science and an art. The science is found in how you are constructing your question. The art is found in your tone of voice, your body language, and your remarks before asking your questions.

Jim Camp (2019), No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home, EABooks Publishing, Audible Books (Chapter 8, Min. 6:15)

If you have permission to be who you are, changing becomes easier.

Jay S. Efran, Michael D. Lukens und Robert J. Lukens, Language Structure and Change. Frameworks of Meaning in Psychotherapy, New York 1990 (W.W.Norton & Co.), p. 77

I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written. I cannot accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs. But I accept, with reservations that give me freedom to ridicule the statement at any other time, that…

Charles Fort (1931) The Complete Books of Charles Fort (Dover Occult) (S.555-556). Dover Publications. Kindle-Version

A perfectly realistic map is a useless representation. (p. 2) Theory Is to World as Map Is to Territory (p. 29)

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther (2020), When Maps Become the World, Chicago and London (University of Chicago Press

I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

Angela Davis

sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

We shouldn’t assume that people intuitively hold the apparently deranged or evil views they profess. However, we should take seriously their social goal, namely, to reject the standard groups that make up the majority of society in favor of a fringe coalition. As a result, if we want them to abandon their silly or offensive views, attempting to convince them of these views’ logical, empirical, or moral failings is unlikely to work. Instead, we have to consider how to deal with people who feel their best chance of thriving is to integrate into groups that have been rejected by most of society.

Hugo Mercier (2020), Not Born Yesterday. The Science of Who We Trust and What we Believe, Princeton NJ (Princeton University Press), p. 197f

Everything I say is Art in Art. Everything I do is Art in Art. “We have no Art, we try to do everything well.” (Balinese saying)

Mierle Laderman Ukeles (1969), Manifesto! Maintenance Art – Proposal for an Exhibition

For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Shakespear, Hamlet

Here I would like to point to Einstein’s idea that your theory determines what you see. As I see it, there is a lot to be said for the idea that reality is the invention of beliefs.

Steve de Shazer (1989), Resistance revisited, in Contemporary Family Therapy 4/89, p. 227-233

I attended Yale University, which was ranked at the time as the second most liberal of the Ivy League schools. […] Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical. Liberals marched for peace, workers’ rights, civil rights, and secularism. The Republican Party was (as we saw it) the party of war, big business, racism, and evangelical Christianity. I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism. We supported liberal policies because we saw the world clearly and wanted to help people, but they supported conservative policies out of pure self-interest (lower my taxes!) or thinly veiled racism (stop funding welfare programs for minorities!). We never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducing harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals. And if we could not imagine other moralities, then we could not believe that conservatives were as sincere in their moral beliefs as we were in ours.

Jonathan Haidt (2012) The Righteous Mind. Why good people are divided by politics and religion, London (Penguin), p. 126

It’s Hard to Hate People Close Up.
It’s easy to hate people when we depersonalize them and keep them at arm’s length. But when we get to know them, when their troubles and struggles become real, when we feel their pain as human beings, it becomes much harder to hate.

Anne Wade, The Soulmate Dance

[As social workers] we endure this world of increasing paradoxes and yet we carry out or daily activities and perform our professional functions. We should, however, not merely endure passively, but also learn to endure actively, to hold amidst adversity and difficulties, to prevail amidst a sea of trouble, to be a hammer rather than anvil, to bear up under such frustrating contradictions and not to be intimidated by the enormity of the problems and crises. Active endurance means substituting hope for despair, persevering rather than giving up, persisting rather than surrendering in the face of difficult odds and helping to sustain our clients, our group members, our constituents, and ourselves through mutual support.

Louis Lowy (1979), Of Enduring and Curing, of Caring and Daring

Accepting reality is the first step to insanity.

Sticker in USA, found by Jürgen Hargens

We are all handicapped.

Victor Papanek

You don’t have any chance, but just take it!

Herbert Achternbuch (German author, actor, director)

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.

George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

Ken Robinson (2006), Do Schools Kill Creativity? TED talk

The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at root of all things of our doing.

Cormac McCarthy in 'The Kekulé Problem', Nautilus Magazine April 2017

I have never seen a problem in my life.
I have only seen talks about problems.

Insoo Kim Berg, quoted by Plamen A. Panayotov, Bulgaria

Reality is overestimated.

Seen on a t-shirt in Heidelberg, May 2017

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about the world were the truths and they were beautiful. […] And the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio - The Book of Grotesque, in: The Portable Sherwood Anderson (1985). Edited by Horace Gregory, Revistied Edition, Harmondsworth (Penguin Books), p. 45

Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic selfcenteredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.

David Foster Wallace (2005), This Is Water

If you fall on your face, at least you are heading in the right direction.

Milton Erickson

Having guts always works out.

Stefan Sagmeister

Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him. Invoking objectivity is abrogating responsibility, hence its popularity.

Glasersfeld, Ernst von (1992): Declaration of the American Society for Cybernetics, in: In: C.V. Negiota (Ed.), Cybernetics and applied systems. New York: Marcel Decker, 1–5, 1992, p 3

Only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.

Heinz von Foerster (1995), Cybernetics and Circularity

The system now means, not a thing, but a list of variables. This list can be varied, and the experimenter’s commonest task is that of varying the list („taking other variables into account“) until he finds a set of variables that gives the required singleness.

William Ross Ashby (1958), An Introduction to Cybernetics, 3rd impr., New York (John Wiley & Sons Inc.), p. 40 (first in 1956)

The word exist derives from the Latin existere, meaning „to stand out from.“ Therefore, saying that something exists simply means that it has been discriminated from a background. A „this“ has been separated from a „that.“ Things exist for human beings when they have been given, defining boundaries.

Jay S. Efran, Michael D. Lukens and Robert J. Lukens (1990). Language, Structure, and Change: Frameworks of Meaning in Psychotherapy. New York: Norton & Co., p. 35

… an explanatory principle – like ‘gravity’ or ‘instinct’ – really explains nothing. It’s a sort of conventional agreement between scientists to stop trying to explain things at a certain point.

Gregory Bateson (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Chandler, 38-58

Everything said is said by some observer.

Humberto Maturana

We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.

Anaïs Nin

The truth is that there is no truth.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’ve always believed that if you’re going to fantasize about something you shouldn’t waste your imagination trying to make it realistic. If you want realism, you should be out doing it, not sitting there dreaming about it.


Power, meaning ‘ability, whether physical, mental, or moral, to act,’ has become an evil word, with overtones and undertones that suggest the sinister, the unhealthy, the Machiavellian. It suggests a phantasmagoria of the nether regions. The moment the word power is mentioned it is as though hell had been opened, excluding the stench of the devil’s cesspool of corruption. It evokes images of cruelty, dishonesty, selfishness, arrogance, dictatorship, and abject suffering. … Power, in our minds, has become almost synonymous with corruption and immorality. […] To know power and not to fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. In short, life without power is death; a world without power would be a ghostly wasteland, a dead planet!

Saul D. Alinsky (1989), Rules for Radicals. A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, New York (Vintage Books) (original 1971), p. 50ff

These rescuers in Rwanda, like the other courageous resisters, rejected culpability to injustice when they refused to pretend ignorance. They did not accept the common rationale that they were powerless to intervene to save others.

Kristina E. Thalhammer, Paula L. O’Laughlin, Myron Peretz Glazer, Penina Migdal Glazer, Sam McFarland, Sharon Toffey Shepela & Nathan Stolzfus (2007), Courageous Resistance. The Power of Ordinary People, New York NY: Palgrave, p. 87

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Attributed to Margret Mead (quoted in Thalhammer et al. 2007, p. 63 - see above)

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

Yogi Berra

Each family, individual, or couple shows a unique way of attempting to cooperate, and the therapist’s job becomes, first, to describe that particular manner to himself that the family shows and, then, to cooperate with the client’s way and, thus to promote change.

Steve de Shazer

Three Rules: 1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! … 2. Once you know what works, do more of it! … 3. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again: do something different!

Insoo Kim Berg

Our job ist to make them shine.

Insoo Kim Berg

Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions.

Attributed to Steve de Shazer


International Presentations

“Solution-focused dialogue with political dissenters” Workshop at the Annual Conference of the Solution-Focuses Brief Therapy Association (SFBTA), “Coping with hope”, Online, November 4-5, 2022

“A myriad of smart responses to rude comments” Workshop at the 11th Conference of the European Family Therapy Association (EFTA) “Systemic Resonances and Interferences” Ljubljana/ Slovenia September 7-10, 2022

“Systemic is more than therapy: Systemic Social Work (in Germany)“ Presentation and Round Table Talk at the 11th Conference of the European Family Therapy Association (EFTA) “Systemic Resonances and Interferences” Ljubljana/ Slovenia September 7-10, 2022

„Humans, Rights, and Us – Systemic can also Political”, Keynote at the Nordisk Nätverkskonferens, September 1-3, 2022 Göteborg/Sweden, Tema: Delaktighet (Participation)

„A Diversity of Possible Responses to Simple-Minded Remarks” Workshop at the 40th Annual Conference on “Equity, Inclusion and Diversity: Bridging Difference In Times of Crisis!”, Online, June 18-19 and 25-26, 2021 of the NSGP (Northeastern Society for Group Psychotherapy)/USA

“A Diversity of Possible Responses to Simple-Minded Remarks” Workshop at the Annual Conference of the Solution-Focuses Brief Therapy Association (SFBTA), Online, November 10-15, 2020

“A Diversity of Possible Responses to Simple-Minded Remarks” Workshop at the Annual Conference of the Solution-Focuses Brief Therapy Association, November 6-9, 2019 in Montreal

„Crossing borders by dialogue“, Workshop together with Julia Hille, Magdeburg, on the 10th Conference of the European Family Therapy Association, „Visible and Invisible: Bordering Change in Systemic Family Therapy“, Naples, September 11-14, 2019

“A variety of thoughtful answers to thoughtless comments”, Workshop on the 10th Conference of the European Family Therapy Association, „Visible and Invisible: Bordering Change in Systemic Family Therapy“, Naples/Italy, September 11-14, 2019

“A variety of thoughtful answers to thoughtless comments” Workshop on the „Connecting People—The Nordic Network Meeting“, Trondheim/Norway, June 13-15, 2019

“Humans, Rights and Us – Systemic Social Work Provides Strategies”, Workshop on the „Connecting People—The Nordic Network Meeting“, Trondheim/Norway, June 13-15, 2019

“A myriad of smart responses to rude comments”, Workshop on the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW) Congress „Meanings of quality of social work education in a changing Europe“, Madrid/Spain, June 4-7, 2019

“Humans, Rights and Us – Social Work Provides Strategies”, Workshop on the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW) Congress „Meanings of quality of social work education in a changing Europe“, Madrid/Spain, June 4-7, 2019

„How Do I Manage Cultural Diversity With Right-Wing People, Nazis, Brexiteers and Trumpians?”, Presentation, York/England, March 15, 2019

“Attitude & Action: How to realize Resource-Orientation” Presentation, Counselling Conference Cologne “Resource Orientation & Peer Support, Cologne, November 22-24, 2018

“Let’s Talk About Success // Wie man Erfolge ausschlachten kann” Ein zweisprachiger Workshop // A Bilingual Work­shop, Counselling Conference Cologne “Resource Orientation & Peer Support, Cologne, November 22-24, 2018

Problems exist. Right? Wrong! – Presentation at TEDx Uni Halle (Saale), June 1, 2018

“Team counselling and supervision in institutions and/or foundations”, Workshop for the Systemic Association of Northern Greece, Thessaloniki, September 30, 2017

“A Diversity of Possible Responses to Simple-Minded Remarks” Workshop on the Seventeenth International Conference on Diversity in Organizations, Communities & Nations, Toronto/Canada, July 26-28, 2017

„Simplify Your Research – Practitioners Can Go Science“ Workshop at the International Systemic Research Conference 2017, Heidelberg, Germany, March 8-11, 2017

„’Le Pouvoir est Mort! Vive le Pouvoir!’” Power as a Resource and Useful Metaphor“ Workshop at the SFBTA Annual Conference on Solution-Focused Practices, Halifax, Nova Scotia/Canada, November 2-5, 2016,

„Power as a Helpful Metaphor“ Workshop at the EFTA 2016 Conference „Origins and Originality in Family Therapy and Systemic Practice“, Athens/Greece, Sept 28 – Oct 1, 2016

„Problems exist. Right? Wrong!“ Presentation at the EFTA 2016 Conference „Origins and Originality in Family Therapy and Systemic Practice“, Athens/Greece, Sept 28 – Oct 1, 2016

„Peer-Team – Quick an Easy“ – Workshop (1 day) at the University of Stirling/Scotland, November 24, 2015

„Let’s talk about success: A Guideline – Workshop“ – SFBTA 2015 Conference on Solution-Focused Practices, Wilmington NC/USA, November 4-7, 2015

„Simplify Your Research“ – Workshop at the conference Linking Systemic Practice and Systemic Research in Therapy, Education and Organisational Development, Heidelberg/Germany, March 6-8, 2014

„Mind the Gap! Potential Space in Systemic Social Work // Acht auf den Abstand! Möglichkeitsräume in der Systemischen Sozialarbeit“ – 4. Merseburg conference on Systemic Social Work (bilingual), Merseburg/Germany, October 19, 2012 (organizer)

„Die VIP-Karte [‚The VIP-Map]“ – Workshop, Int. Meeting SOZIALE DIAGNOSTIK – Stand der Entwicklung [Social Diagnostics – Stage of Development] –, Fachhochschule St. Pölten/Austria, May 8-9, 2008

„Ressourcen im Umfeld: Die VIP-Karte in Sozialarbeit und Unterricht [Resources in Context – The VIP-Map in Social Work and Education]“ – Workshop, Internationale Fachtagung Integration – Rehabilitation – (Re)Sozialisierung, veranstaltet von ASYS, VHS Ottakring und fh-campus Wien, Vienna/Austria, April 26-27, 2007

„Erzeugung und Konstruktion Systemischer Sozialarbeit [Creation and Construction of Systemic Social Work]“, Subplenum at the EFTA-Congress „Creating Futures – Systemic Dialogues across Europe“ Berlin/Germany, September 29 – October 2, 2004 (Moderation)

„Systemic Practice“, a three days workshop at the international Student Conference at the Babes-Bolyai-University Cluj-Napoca/Romania, May 6-8, 2003

„Let’s Talk About Success! – Six Arguments and a Guide How to Do It“, Workshop at the IV. European Family Therapy Congress, Budapest/Hungary, June 28, 2001

„Let’s Talk About Success! – Six Arguments and a Guide how to do it“, Workshop at the XII. World Family Therapy Congress, Oslo/Norway, June 15, 2000

„Social Systems Exist. Right? Wrong!“ – Presentation at the American Society for Cybernetics‘ European Conference, St. Gallen/Switzerland, March 15-19, 1987

Also Workshops and Seminars on…

„A Short Introduction to Systemic Social Work: Unusual Questions“

„Working voluntarily with involuntary clients – Systemic Social Work Applied“

„A Short Introduction to Systemic Social Work: Mind Sets“ – Seminar

„The Power of Social Work(ers)“

„Inventing Hypotheses – Teaching Systemic Social Work“ – Seminar

„A Matter of Perspectives: Systemic Social Work“ – Seminar

“How You Can Enjoy Your Work With Difficult Clients“

„Systemic Social Work: An Autonomy Based Approach to Social Work Practice“

„Relaying Systemics Systemically“

„Peer Supervision – Quick and Easy“

„Unsettling Power: The Systemic Approach“

„Systemic Social Work: A Resource Oriented Approach to Practice“


Johannes Herwig-Lempp (2017), Assuming We’d Like Our Team Meetings to be More Entertaining … in: metalogos, Online-Journal, Issue 31, text no 19, p. 7-11, metalogos-systemic-therapy-journal.gr, originally 2008 in German: „Angenommen, wir wollten mehr Spaß haben in unseren Teamsitzungen…“

Johannes Herwig-Lempp (2014), Systemic-Constructivist Research Means To Me…, [English version of a contribution to the website http://www.systemisch-forschen.de/was_ist_systemische_forschung [systemic research – what is systemic research] from 2010/2014]

Johannes Herwig-Lempp (2013), Resource-Oriented Teamwork. A Systemic Approach to Collegial ConsultationGöttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht)

Johannes Herwig-Lempp (2013), Catchword: Explanatory Principle, unpublished English version of: Stich-Wort: Erklärungsprinzip, in: KONTEXT Jg. 44, H. 2, S. 215-217 (pdf)

Johannes Herwig-Lempp (2013), At Least Seven Possibilities – Systemic Social Work in Germany, in: Walter Milowiz & Michaela Judy (ed.), STEP – Systemic Social Work Throughout Europe. Insights (download). Result of a Lifelong Learning Project, funded by the European Commission, p. 30-40

Johannes Herwig-Lempp (2000), Let’s talk about success! Guidelines and 6 arguments why to talk about successful experiences [unpublished  translation of an article originally published in German]

Johannes Herwig-Lempp (1996), Drug Addiction, The Systemic Approach, and The Concept of „Acceptance“, in: Journal of Systemic Therapies Vol. 15, 2/96, p. 24-35, p. 67-68

Johannes Herwig-Lempp (1986) Sheldrake’s „Hypothesis“. Contribution to the Tarrytown Prize (unpublished)

List of all my publications


Myriad Coloured Stones – Social Work – A Mosaic (2011). A documentary movie by Eva-Maria Kühling, 16 min.

STEP-Project: Systemic Social Work Throughout Europe (2011-2013). A LEONARDO Project

DBSH – German Professional Association of Social Work (sorry, only in German)

TEDx Talk: Problems exist. Right? Wrong!

TEDx Event at the University of Halle, June 1, 2018

See the presentation on Vimeo

Short Interview

Interview by Hannah Gutberlet, student at the Hochschule Merseburg, in November 2017, for the tv-program of the University of Merseburg

See the interview on Vimeo