Genogram Insights: Looking to the Past and Learning for the Future

In the words of Robbie Robertson, “You don’t stumble upon your heritage. It’s there, just waiting to be explored and shared.” Those who have gone before us, our parents, ancestors, family members, and those around us such as friends and mentors can have a great impact on the trajectory of our lives. One way that we can examine the impact that others have had on our lives is by doing a genogram exercise. In this exercise, you walk back in time through your family line examining a variety of features such as career, relationships, health, and personality. Below we examine how to do a genogram exercise and the benefits of looking back and examining potential influences on our careers, thought processes, relationships, and behaviors.



“If you don't recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.” - Madeleine L’Engle

The data: research and insights related to the genogram exercise

What does the data and research say about reviewing your genogram? Is there any science behind looking to those in our past and those around us? According to research discussed below, by examining the careers, health, and behaviors of those in our family line and those around us we can gain insight into potential explanations for behavior, belief, health challenges, mental health, and even career paths.


The nature vs. nurture controversy

Before examining this exercise, it is important to note the continued debate amongst psychologists called “nature vs. nurture.” This debate focuses on the “question of how much a person’s characteristics are formed by either” genetics (nature) or upbringing and life experiences (nurture).


Currently, psychologists and scientists have established that these two categories both have a complex relationship to personality, behavior, intelligence, and other characteristics. Therefore, today we conclude that “both” natural influence through genetics and nurturing influence via personality traits of parents, relationships, and experiences impact the development and characteristics of an individual (PsychologyToday, n.d.). Because of this understanding, we can look at genograms as a diagram of complex influence.


By examining the types of traits relatives and others have had, we can examine their effect on an individual, understanding that there might be a genetic trait as well as a shared experience as an explanation for similarities or differences.


“The most important influence on a child is the character of its parent, rather than this or that single event.” - Erich Fromm

Parental influence on careers

Research from Georgia Southern University compared the careers of the parents of students studying to become teachers. Their research found that slightly more students had parents who worked in education. This indicates that parental careers can have an influence on the career choices of children (Tillman, 2015).


In surveys by JobList, 48% of survey respondents felt “that their parents strongly influenced their career path, while almost 40% felt pressured to follow their parents’ career advice.” They also discovered that 2 in 3 parents “said they were disappointed that their child did not follow their desired career.” Furthermore, almost 25% of respondents stated that the influence that parents had on their careers began at the age of 6. Lastly, they found that the number one industry desired by parents for their children was information technology, and the most popular industry for survey respondents to work in was also information technology (JobList, 2021).


Meta, previously Facebook, has also conducted research regarding the influence of the careers of parents. They found that “a child may be much more likely to follow in his or her parents’ footsteps.” However, they also indicate that the “absolute percentage may still be quite low.” For example, a son with a father in the military is “5 times more likely to enter the military, but just 1 in 4 sons of a military professional does so.” They summarize their research by stating that “people within a family are proportionally more likely to eventually also choose the same occupation… However, in absolute terms, the vast majority of kids strike their own path and choose a profession different than that of their parents or their siblings” (Adamic & Filiz, 2016).


In summary, we can conclude that parents have an influence on the careers of their children, but as indicated in the nature versus nurture debate, this relationship can be complicated by a parent’s experience in their career, the parent-child relationship, and a child’s unique experiences. Nonetheless, parental careers do appear to have some influence on the career choices of children.


Parental influence on relationships, thought patterns, behaviors, and mental health

Relationships between family members can have a great impact on the development of a child and their personality, behavior, and beliefs. Melissa Stanger, Licensed Master Social Worker, explains that the relationship between parents can influence the offspring's relationships, their ability “to be vulnerable,” how they “handle conflict,” and how they “express emotion” (2019).


The relationships displayed around individuals in their youth have the ability to teach them healthy or unhealthy behaviors, thought patterns, characteristics, and/or beliefs. In regards to mental health, while the link between genetic inheritance and mental health is still being studied, Stanford University states that “if someone has a parent or sibling with major depression, that person probably has a 2 or 3 times greater risk of developing depression compared with the average person.” They also explain that for depression specifically, “in most cases… around 50% of the causes are genetic and around 50% is unrelated to genes (psychological or physical factors)” (Levinson & Nichols, n.d.).


Ultimately the relationships and behaviors of those around children in their development can have a great impact on their future characteristics, personality, behavior, mental health, and conflict management.


“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” - Pearl S. Buck

The why: why study your genogram?

A genogram can be an insightful tool to reference when examining the influences that others have had in your life. By looking back at the relationships, careers, and health of ancestors, individuals can learn more about the potential sources of their personality and even the potential roots of their challenges. However, aside from gaining insight and explanations for one’s own behaviors, what benefits can be gained from examining a Genogram?


Enhanced “intellectual performance”

Research from the European Journal of Social Psychology states that “thinking about one’s genetic origin (i.d. ancestors) provides people with a positive psychological resource that increases their intellectual performance” (Fischer et al., 2010). They studied this by instructing some research participants to think about their ancestors while others did not. After this, they measured how the participants thought they would perform on intelligence tasks and how they actually performed. They found that those who thought about their ancestors had higher expectations and higher intelligence scores. They conclude that this might be because when individuals review their ancestors, they experience “increased levels of perceived control and promotion orientation” (Fischer et al., 2010).


“I think history is inextricably linked to identity. If you don't know your history, if you don't know your family, who are you?” - Mary Pipher

Identity insights

According to Anna Lima from the Journal of Cape Verdean Studies, examining one’s family history “gives a better understanding of self” and “a greater sense of self-confidence, increased self-understanding, and greater resolve to improve personally (2019). By doing a genogram exercise, individuals gain insight into the many influences on their identity and are encouraged to continue their family legacy via self-improvement.


Encouragement and learning

By examining the lives, lessons, behaviors, choices, outcomes, and stories of those in past families, individuals can receive encouragement and even learnings. For example, when an individual can see the financial stability of their family increase throughout generations, they receive encouragement in that they come from a family with a success story. Otherwise, if a genogram shows the poor behavior or mistakes of past generations and their negative consequences, individuals can learn from these mistakes without having to experience this themselves (Lima, 2019).


How to create your genogram

When creating your genogram it is important to note that it can be as simple or as detailed as desired. However, the more detailed your genogram is, the more common trends and details you might notice when examining your finalized graph. Genograms can be created using paper and pen, but online programs can also be used. Check out this video of an example of what a genogram can look like and the steps to create one.


When creating a genogram, it is important to know a few key symbols. If you are an executive coach using the genogram as a coaching exercise in a group, it might be helpful to print the following chart out and disperse it amongst your coaching group. Consider the following chart from GenoPro:


“When you know your why, you’ll know your way.” - Michael Hyatt

For the executive coach

The genogram is a great tool that can be used in executive coaching, specifically as a peer group activity. However, it is important to remember that executive coaches are not mental health professionals and are not qualified to address past family trauma or mental health disorders. In cases where past trauma or mental health challenges are discussed, it is important that executive coaches make referrals to mental health professionals as necessary. Aside from this, executive coaches can encourage their clients to look back on their genogram as a source of insight into their current careers, behaviors, and beliefs. Doing so can encourage coaching participants to work towards their own development, increase their confidence, and give them insight into the potential “why” behind their behaviors and career. Looking back and examining the “why” of their behaviors can also give executive coaches additional insight on how to best help their coaching clients and the mental or physical roadblocks on their way to success.


The main takeaway

The genogram exercise is a great way for individuals—either in a coaching session or in a peer group—to gain insight into their own careers, behaviors, challenges, and family history. By doing this exercise, participants can gain confidence, a desire to improve themselves, encouragement, and even increased performance. Introducing this exercise to peer groups and executive coaching clients can give insight into the “why” behind certain behaviors and beliefs. Doing this exercise can also give executive coaches additional insight into the beliefs and behaviors of their clients, ultimately helping them provide the coaching that best suits their needs.


“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” -Alex Haley

References

Adamic, L., & Filiz, I. O. (2016, March 17). Do jobs run in families? Meta. https://research.facebook.com/blog/2016/03/do-jobs-run-in-families/.

BrainyQuote. (n.d.). BrainyQuote. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/robbie_robertson_642298.

Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C., & Weisweiler, S. (2010). The ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41(1), 11–16. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.778.

GenoPro. (n.d.). Genogram Symbols - GenoPro. https://genopro.com/genogram/symbols/.

JobList. (2021, September 21). The Impact of Parental Influence: Career Edition. https://www.joblist.com/trends/the-impact-of-parental-influence-career-edition.

Levinson, D., & Nichols, W. (n.d.). Genetics of Brain Function. Stanford Medicine. https://med.stanford.edu/depressiongenetics/mddandgenes.html.

Lima, A. (2019). Family History and Genealogy: The Benefits for the Listener, the Storyteller and the Community. Virtual Commons - Bridgewater State University. https://vc.bridgew.edu/jcvs/vol4/iss1/5/.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Nature vs. Nurture. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/nature-vs-nurture.

Stanger, M. (2019, October 1). 4 Effects Your Parents’ Relationship Has On You. Talkspace. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/how-parents-relationship-affects-yours/.

Tillman, Kristen, "Parental Influence on College Students’ Career Aspirations" (2015). University Honors Program Theses. 86. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/honors-theses/86.

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