A recent study has shown that systemic coaching enjoys greater popularity in Germany than in other Western societies. While systemic coaches seem to form the majority over here, systemic coaching virtually doesn’t exist in the United States, for example. The reason for this phenomenon eludes me, but it may have to do with an inherently German preference for clear structures – or maybe “systemic” sounds intriguingly close to “systematically”?
In any case, systemic coaching does indeed feature several benefits: from a systemic perspective the context of a given problem (which might be somewhat neglected in other approaches) is placed at the center of the investigation; this in and of itself is an interesting starting point. It is grounded on the assumption that human behavior in general is more explainable and understandable from the respective context it occurs in than from the individual’s personal history. This holds true in many coaching situations, which is why systemic thinking is a great help within the coaching process. This is especially the case when dealing with systemic problems, in other words problems that are not tied to individual players – if you replaced the individuals in question, quite similar problems would still occur. Based on this observation it is obvious that the respective system affects individuals and how they react. On the other hand it certainly holds true in many cases that replacing a manager actually leads to an improvement or even solution of the problem in question, indicating that it was the individual subject of the previous manager which had caused the problem, and not a specific systemic context.
In my experience, however, coaches with a purely systemic approach tend to disregard some key factors: firstly, that any individual is able to influence the system, and secondly, that any individual represents in and of themself a “system” or “sub-system,” a fact that requires further means of understanding than mere systemic approaches. In this light, every individual with their different modes of reaction represents a sub-system within a greater system (i.e. the team), and sometimes changes within any individual party – for example after they have understood something within the context of their personal history and were able to change longstanding behavioral patterns as a consequence – can affect the entire greater system along with its communication patterns.
Relationships are almost always characterized by mutual influence; there is a constant stream of reciprocal interactions. In my opinion, both the view that behavior is only determined by context, as well as that problems are always grounded within the individual are equally wrong. Based on the assumption that initiating change at one place within a given system will inherently provoke system-wide effects, it seems obvious that causing psychological changes within individual sub-systems will increase the likelihood that changes will occur throughout the system.
This can be easily observed in private systems such as families. I have experienced this, for example, when a mother called me to schedule a session with her son, who still regularly wet his bed at age eleven. After hearing her story in greater detail, I suggested that it might be better that we’d schedule a session for herself and not her son. My impression was that her son’s problems were closely connected to the pressure she put on him. She was open to this idea and through working with the Introvision method, it quickly became apparent how important it was for her to feel that she was needed. Ensuring that she was needed seemed almost to act as a psychological “survival program” for her. The effect of this was that she imposed herself on her child permanently. The son, under constant pressure, responded with the aforementioned continued bedwetting, as well as showing difficulties in school – in turn he constantly required her “assistance”.
It was enough to work through the imperative, “I must be needed,” to significantly release the pressure in the relationship between mother and son. After a second session with the mother the son ceased to wet his bed.
To sum up: while we have indeed worked individually through Introvision coaching, this has also effected a lot of movement within the entire family system. Furthermore the occurring individual changes also affected the husband as the relationship between the spouses changed. And even at her work place the client was suddenly able to show new ways of reacting, which also led to changes in this, yet another, local system.
This shows that it is quite useful for systemic coaches to know methods through which they can work exclusively with an individual – without circular questioning or similar methods. That way, potent stressors can be eliminated, thus setting in motion a number of changes within the greater system. It does not seem to be effective if a purely systemic approach is overused. Coaches should be able to think systemically, they should be able to estimate the impact of behavioral effects, and understand how systems work, but they may find themselves at end’s wit soon if a basic understanding of the subsystem signified by individual human beings is missing. At the end of the day a good coach must be able to help his clients tackle and overcome their inner, personal hurdles.