Sooner or later, within most of the coaching conversations I have with clients, the influence of things external to them comes up. Either this is the influence of family, friends, work, their physical environment, finances etc on the decisions and thoughts they are having, OR the potential influence of the work they are doing on themselves on others. This usually happens naturally because most people do not exist in a vacuum – even if they feel alone.
This part of coaching has a fancy name – systemic coaching. At it’s simplest, this means paying attention to, and perhaps exploring gently, the “system” around the coachee. Questions such as “Who do you have around you that would support you in what you are trying to do?” “What or who that is important to you might also be affected by what you have learnt/decided?” A coach might ask these questions in order to allow the coachee to make sure they are prepared for any things that might sway them from their actions, or to encourage the coachee to think about accountability and broader support. We know that the coachee’s progress is in fact more significantly affected by the external environment (including other people) than it is by our skill as a coach! What we have to do is explore that external environment with them and help them develop strategies to face challenges to progress when they occur.
In leadership and work performance coaching, the consideration of “knock on” effects on the wider environment, or the external pressures on a particular individual or decision are essential but can bring additional insight to the coaching process. One client of mine was working on developing his team leadership skills having moved to a position where his team were mostly distributed around the country. Discussing different ways of communicating some information, I asked the questions “How do you want your team to feel when they hear your message?” and “What do you want them to know when they hear your message?”. My coachee paused and reflected for several minutes (which is always a bit nervewracking to hold silence but I know that this is what works for home) and then came up with answers to the questions and dramatically different ways of communicating his message. Work is ongoing but this more direct “systemic coaching” type question was certainly useful in that situation and I will use those questions again!
Sometimes a coach might use some more formal “systemic coaching” techniques. These can include “constellation mapping” – using objects to represent the various parts of the “system” that the coachee sits in and moving them around according to the work being done. Identifying your personal “Board of Directors” is a good exercise for individuals – especially those in new roles or those wanting to feel more confident in their lives. Who is your “cheerleader”? Who is your “expert”? It’s a bit like growing a network but the purpose of the network in this case is to support you and your development.
Often I see parallels between my coaching work and my former world of environmental and climate research. With systemic coaching – this is really clear. With the environment, we may come up with a solution to fix one thing e.g. a dam to provide water for a large city, but if we don’t consider the impact of changing the water course for the surrounding reason, we will end up in trouble of one sort or another. The same is true for most coaching situations.