What is systemic coaching?

To make it clear from the very beginning, systemic coaching is not just another toolbox for coaches or a set of fancy coaching exercises; it is a rather a profound shift in the way you coach.  It starts with the question ‘Who do you consider your client to be?’. The systemic coaching is about applying systemic principles and nurturing the systemic intelligence of both the coach and the client.

Who is your Client?

In most of the classic coaching approaches and schools of thought, the client is the person sitting next to you in the coaching session. You would explore the client’s goals and work towards their achievement in the following sessions. In systemic coaching, as Anton de Kroon said, when you open the door to your client, you let also their System come along and enter the coaching room. This is valid for any kind of coaching since we all belong to various systems, but it is particularly valid for coaching happening in the organizational context. In that case, the system of the client’s organization is ever-present and cannot be excluded. So, working systemically is in an interplay between the needs of the person and the way the client’s system works.

To be clear, here we don’t speak about the organizational expectations from the client’s superiors but rather about what the deeper layer of the client’s system invites the client to be. It is also about allowing the client to better understand the system they belong to and look beyond the obvious challenges that they are facing. So, who is your client? The person sitting next to you, the system or both? And who comes first? By answering these questions, you will make a whole shift in your position in the coaching process which, in turn, will affect the way you listen to your client and the inner place from which you are asking the questions.

Deepening, not just broadening

We are all familiar with exercises like stakeholder mapping when you are asked to look for the needs and interests of various stakeholders related to the project or the issue that you are exploring. This is often presented graphically and is followed with exploration about what you can do to make each stakeholder more engaged or less resistant, for example. This is, of course, very beneficial for broadening the perspective and developing empathy for diverse stakeholders.

However, working systemically is not only about broadening the perspective but also about – deepening it. In other words, it is not only about the empathy with the parts (e.g. single stakeholders), but foremost the empathy with the System as a whole. As the Gestalt psychologist would say: ‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’, meaning that we cannot understand the whole System just by better understanding its Parts. It is rather the other way around. Thus, working systemically means looking for patterns and messages of the system and developing empathy with the whole. In a systemic coaching session, this might lead to a deep question like “What wants to happen here?”.

Systemic coaching develops systemic intelligence

We all have systemic intelligence; it is innate and it has always been very useful for our survival. It helps us to understand the groups we belong to, what is required not to be excluded and how to find our place. This must be as ancient as humanity itself. However, because of the modern-age noise, it seems that these systemic antennas are somehow forgotten, and this capacity tends to be less used. The recent studies of social intelligence (Goleman) show clearly that our brains create wireless connections with each other, which is considered as the neural basis for human empathy.

Moreover, the experience with systemic constellations (Hellinger) shows that, by simply belonging to the system, we have access to information about the elements in the system and how they relate to each other.  In the organizational context, systemic intelligence can help leaders understand the deeper needs of the system, allow them to hear the messages present in the current challenges and find ways how to move the whole system forward. The systemic coaching with leaders and managers does exactly that, it helps them to zoom-out and have the whole-system view, and sense what is required from them in order to move the whole system forward.

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