Solving conflicts with the model of etheric forces

By Karl-Dieter Bodack, July 2022

How do we come together again?

Photo: © photocase_115170

The term "corporate culture" includes proposals and rules that refer to interactive action ("leadership") and then also represent specific processes and states. In order to understand social processes, it is useful to speak of "forces", or better still of "force fields", following physics, which determine social events in a similar way as gravitational forces, magnetic or electric fields determine physical events. In the social sphere, the forces at work are generated by the participants, whose relationships collectively create a meta-level above the individual relationships between individuals. It is often referred to as "climate" or "atmosphere", although such terms are also understood in a "figurative" sense.

Experiencing community

"There was a lot of hot air!", I learn in the report about a working group. In another case there was an "icy coldness". "It dawned on me," someone tells me; someone else was "completely in the dark!", while it happened in bright daylight. I heard about "living communities" but also about "the silence of the grave" in the report about a meeting.

Here adjectives do not describe material circumstances – rather, the speakers use them in a "figurative" sense. Because here it is not physical light, real warmth, death and life that is referred to. In fact the terms used reflect mental and emotional processes in social happenings!

Do "warmth – cold", "light – dark", "life – death", "harmony – discord" really describe real events in communities, initiatives, companies? Are there possibilities for shaping these four poles in their social action? Could they help to overcome the confrontations of the coronavirus pandemic: for during the latter we learned of "heated exchanges", "dark figures", "deadly attacks" and "shrill tones"! Let us look for opportunities for shaping discussions and activities that – even with differing values and convictions – lead to a basic consensus for peaceful coexistence and joint action!

Forces working in communities

In anthroposophy this meta-level is called "ether" and investigated. In the social happening "etheric forces" can be experienced and recognised. Here they are qualitatively differentiated into "light ether", "warmth ether", "life ether" and "sound ether" (1)(2). At first, the term "ether" seems misleading; it refers to something completely different from a physical-chemical substance. However, since it has been adopted in subsequent work, it will also be used here: it describes the differentiated qualities of the four forces acting on people within the framework of social processes.

The laws identified by Rudolf Steiner were deepened and further developed in various directions above all by Ernst Marti (3) and Heinz Grill (4) (5). If the term "ether" seems misleading or arouses preconceptions, it may be replaced by "formative forces", "developmental forces", "shaping forces", "environmental forces", "social field forces", "social culture", "ambience", "atmosphere", "social climate" or the like.

In this context, this "fourfoldness" can initially be understood as a "theory" that is applied to real social processes and is either verified, modified or also falsified.

Steps into practice

Social happening in groups will be considered here such that it is understood in terms of the effect of the four etheric forces. In this context influences can be powerful and positive, then the intentions of the group succeed, its ideals and goals are achieved well and within the planned time frame. A symbiosis of individual activities then develops into joint effects that go beyond individual contributions. The aim is to recognise which of the four etheric forces work in their specific way and how they grow or are diminished by the behaviour of the participants.

Light ether effect

It serves the progress of knowledge: do we understand the situation correctly, do we find the influences at work, do we recognise our individual abilities, do we find the possible alternative courses of action, etc.? To this end, all members should express their observations, perceive those of others without reservation and ask questions openly. When there is disagreement, only the content and not the speaker should be criticised. Here it is necessary to overcome ignorance, uncertainties, assumptions and fears, assumptions without facts disrupt the working of this etheric field.

Warmth ether effect

This is about building empathy: the aim is to awaken the readiness to be able to express one's own views without reservation. The field grows by expressing our own sensitivities and perceiving the sensitivities of others – without criticising them. It can also grow through art (singing, dancing, painting).

Personal attacks, blame, judgements about the character traits of others, projections, but also performance demands on others damage this etheric sphere.

Life ether effect

It is intended to help a group to progress in its work, to achieve growth and to keep gaining new initiative forces in the process. To do this, contributors should be aware of how they have progressed compared to an earlier point in time. They should create a living group atmosphere with yoga exercises, eurythmy or role-playing and practise variations and metamorphoses in their conversations and encounters. Disparagement, discrimination of people or groups as well as sweeping judgements have a negative effect here because they deny the reality of life and hinder conversations with differentiated assessments.

Sound ether effect

Harmony is to be created in the field of action of the sound ether: how do the individual contributions and activities interact, does a sound, a melody or even a symphony emerge? This can succeed if all the individual contributions build on the content of the previous speaker, if the individual contributions or activities are in good "proportion" to each other and work phases are designed in sensible numerical proportions.

The aim is for the participants to experience processes as "coherent" and "harmonious". The sound ether is damaged by routine and monotony as well as disruption, especially by third parties.

How to work?

Working together for a goal that cannot be achieved alone: this only succeeds when etheric forces bring the individual forces together to form a synthesis, especially when people with different world views, values and convictions come together. In order for a synthesis to emerge from diversity, processes need to be shaped: how do we want to speak and work with each other? The continuous shaping of the four etheric fields leads to the building and cultivation of the "climate", the "atmosphere", the "culture of conversation". In doing so, the participants perceive how the four etheric fields develop and notice any deficits. For larger groups, a facilitator should be chosen: they will make requests and give reminders and have contributors pause to evaluate a current situation and suggest behaviours that will strengthen the etheric forces.

In this context the meaningful, goal-oriented care of the individual etheric forces is also important. A troubled community in need of developmental steps will especially nurture the life ether. A lecture that one-sidedly creates mainly light ether will hardly reach the hearts of the listeners: only through questions and through insightful answers will warmth ether arise. When participants make requests that can be met well by others, life ether develops that promotes developmental steps.

Nonviolent communication

Marshall Rosenberg's "Nonviolent Communication" (6) offers qualified procedures for conversational processes that de facto address and develop the four etheric fields:

  • with the presentation of facts, "light ether" is built up,
  • with expressions of personal concern, "warmth ether" is created,
  • conversations about possibilities for action build up "life ether",
  • well-crafted requests to others can initiate qualities of the "sound ether".

This confirms the existence and valence of the four fields of activity in the social sphere: here a "bridge" between the anthroposophical social impulse and Marshall Rosenberg's current, worldwide movement becomes possible.

With the four process steps, four fields of action emerge that allow goals to be achieved through joint action that reach beyond the sum of individual abilities (8)(9).

Social threefolding

A significant and still relevant intention of Rudolf Steiner is the "threefolding of the social organism" (7). It aims to create a social environment that is fit for human beings and that corresponds to the threefold constitution of the human being. Just like in an "organism", the three ideals of "freedom – equality – fraternity" should be shared by all participants. This activates all the soul's abilities, everyone can develop holistically and contribute to social activity. To this end three social fields must be predisposed accordingly:

  • the cultural sphere in which those involved develop their skills and contribute their initiatives to the happening: it requires corresponding spaces of freedom;
  • the sphere of the law which, by means of agreements and laws, gives equal rights and duties to everyone involved, so that the ideal of equality is realised;
  • the "economic sphere", where everyone is granted the resources they need to satisfy their individual needs: this is where solidarity is to be experienced.

With "threefolding", a school is constituted in such a way that everyone can contribute their abilities and intentions to school life. This is done within the framework of a constitution that regulates cooperation in delegated tasks and working groups in such a way that conflicts are avoided – here the board of governors is primarily an organ of perception. Responsibility for the economic management is shared by many so that the needs of all are met as well as possible.

A company can realise "threefolding" through "trimodal management" by

  • "team focus" for the development of new products and processes (innovations);
  • "authority to issue directives" for compliance with laws, rules and agreements; and
  • "delegation of responsibility" for customer-focused action, that is, to meet the needs of others.

Rudolf Steiner's intentions at the end of the First World War were initially aimed at a new constitution of the Empire. Today, the constitutions of the EU and the Federal Republic of Germany offer good foundations for the specific organisation of the three fields of life: this means that "social threefolding" can currently be realised everywhere, in initiatives, institutions and enterprises. Practical examples in schools and companies show good success (9). Since with social threefolding the people involved can be addressed holistically and can participate, it offers an ideal basis on which the four etheric forces depicted can be awakened and nurtured in the social happening.

Author: Prof Dipl-Ing Karl-Dieter Bodack MS, born 1938, Technical training at Hibernia, studied design, mechanical engineering and social sciences in Essen, Stuttgart, Berkeley. Staff and leadership positions at German Railways (DB). Co-founder of a Waldorf school, a course of study at a state university of applied sciences, the DB InterRegio train system and a rail vehicle company. Freelance consultant for initiatives, schools and companies.

Contact: kdbodack(at)


(1) Rudolf Steiner: Occult Science. An outline, Forest Row 2013

(2) Rudolf Steiner: Inner Experiences of Evolution, Hudson 2006

(3) Ernst Marti: Das Ätherische, Basel 2014

(4) Heinz Grill: Das Wesensgeheimnis der Seele, Sigmaringen 2015

(5) Heinz Grill: Übungen für die Seele, Roßdorf 2016

(6) Marshall Rosenberg: Konflikte lösen durch Gewaltfreie Kommunikation, Freiburg 2004

(7) Rudolf Steiner: Towards Social Renewal, Forest Row 2000

(8) Karl-Dieter Bodack: Sich selbst entdecken – Andere verstehen, Schritte zu Selbstentwicklung und erfolgreicher Zusammenarbeit, Aachen 2016

(9) Karl-Dieter Bodack: Ein Leben mit Spuren – Als Anthroposoph bei der Deutschen Bahn, Frankfurt 2021: It contains numerous examples of the action of etheric forces in working groups, political bodies and board meetings in the context of citizens' initiatives, schools, German Railways and in companies.


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