Chapter 13 - Understanding context and systemic thinking

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Systems mapping

It is useful for the coachee to consider the different systems they are in, in order to understand their issue(s). The basic starting question is often: ‘What else is happening here of which we might want to take note?’

Exploring the system can be undertaken in a variety of ways, but one of the simplest involves:

  • Defining who and what is involved. The coachee may perceive only themselves and the immediate protagonists, but a systems perspective identifies other players who may exert an influence on how each party behaves. Sometimes the players are not people at all, but cultures and processes.
  • Exploring the assumptions, expectations and aspirations of each of the players – where they align, clash and are tangential.
  • What happens within this system that made the issue more or less likely to occur?
  • Based on this understanding, to what extent was the issue (e.g. a negative event) an outcome of an action (or inaction) by one party, or an outcome of the system?
  • How does this change our perception of what happened?
  • What happens if we replace the desire to e.g. assign blame with e.g. the desire to learn?
  • What responsibilities would it be helpful for you and other parties in the system to assume, to prevent this issue resurfacing?

Most people can emerge from this process with a clearer sense of their personal responsibilities and with greatly reduced self-defensiveness.

The systems:

  • The coachee’s work.
  • The coachee.
  • The coach.
  • The coaching relationship.
  • The team.
  • The organisation.
  • The work environment.
  • The wider context – social, economic, environmental.

Some questions for the coach to ask/consider:

The coachee’s work:

  • Tell me about your work. What do you do? How? Where?
  • What is particularly satisfying? Why is that?

What part of your work is stressful/challenging? What makes it like that?

  • What would you like to reflect on?
  • What did you do? What happened then? What were the consequences? How did you feel about that? What did you want to happen?
  • How would you have liked it to happen?

How could that have been achieved? What would you have done differently?

  • What resources would be useful in dealing with these kinds of situations again?

What other options are there? Who are your allies? Who can you  involve?

  • What might happen if you did ...? How would you handle that? What might be a metaphor for this?
  • How would you describe the interaction?
  • If someone else were telling this how would they describe it, what

would they say to you? What would they do?

  • What supports do you have for your work?
  • What do you need?
  • How can you access the support you need?
  • What skills do you have?
  • What are you good at?
  • What needs development?
  • How can you acquire these skills and knowledge?

The coachee:

  • What is going on for you now?
  • What is happening to you physically?
  • Why do you think this is so?
  • Have you responded like this before?
  • How do you usually respond? Have you come across this before?
  • What do you notice about the way you work?
  • What patterns do you see?
  • Why do you think these situations recur for you?
  • Do you want to change anything?
  • How might you begin? And then?
  • How do you see yourself in this role?
  • How similar or different is it from other roles you have been in?
  • What do you want to say that you are not saying?
  • What makes it difficult for you? Why?
  • What would make it easier for you?
  • What do you do to keep stress at bay? How are you balancing work and life outside of work? What impact is this having on life beyond work?
  • What are your personal goals? How do you want your life to unfold?

The coach:

  • What am I experiencing/feeling? Is that what the coachee may be experiencing?
  • What image comes to mind?
  • Who does the coachee remind me of?
  • What past experiences of mine are being triggered? Do I need to explore this issue of mine with my mentor? Is this a distraction or may it help the coachee?
  • Is this my agenda or the coachee’s?
  • Plus the same as the questions in the coachee section above.

The coaching relationship – questions to reflect on silently:

  • What is going on between us? Is there a power issue?
  • Is it coachee-led and focused?
  • What are the accountabilities?
  • Is there a developing conflict of interest?
  • Are there any blocks/barriers that are hindering the development of this relationship?
  • How can deeper trust develop?
  • Is there a parallel process going on?
  • When will be the time to dissolve the relationship?

The team:

  • Where do you fit into the team? What part does the team play in this? What are the team dynamics? What power issues are there?
  • How does the team fit in to the rest of the organisation? How would the team see this?
  • What impact could this have on the team?
  • How could you engage your colleagues? What resources can the team supply?
  • What needs to change? How can you influence change?

The organisation:

  • Describe the organisational structure. Is it congruent with the goals and core business?
  • How does this affect the work environment?
  • Who can you discuss this with in the organisation?
  • What systems are set up to respond to this? What needs to be considered?
  • Do they fit for this situation? What needs to be developed or challenged?
  • What resources can you access?
  • Who do you need to liaise with?
  • What obstacles do you have to overcome?
  • How will you do that?
  • What is the organisational culture?
  • What effect does this have on you and your work?
  • How do you think the Board see this issue?
  • What advice would they give you?
  • How can you convey to them your perspective?
  • What would convince them?

The work environment:

  • What part does Information Technology have to play now and in the future?
  • What Code of Ethics/Standard of Practice underpins the work? What ethical tensions are there?
  • Who are your stakeholders? What are issues for each group? What is most crucial now?
  • Who are your coachees and customers? What networking opportunities are available?
  • What strategic alliances can you make?
  • Who are your competitors? What gives you the upper hand? What added value do you give?
  • What are the current industry issues being grappled with?
  • Where is your business positioned?
  • Where do you want it to be?
  • What is the funding/financial situation currently?

The wider context:


  • What part does gender/sexual orientation play here? What cultural values come into play and take priority? What values are taking priority here?
  • What spiritual beliefs may be important?
  • What is the predominant/minority view on family commitments? How is this influencing the decisions?
  • Is this discriminatory? How might it be seen? By different groups?
  • To what extent is this situation influenced by language difficulties?
  • How do you respond to the issues that multiculturalism raises?
  • How can you use the media for a positive outcome?


  • What government policies are influencing this direction? What are the expectations of funders? Contract requirements? How does this policy impact? What can you or others in the organisation do about it? What laws impact? Are changes pending?
  • What do you see are the global forces that will impact on you in the near future? What can you control/not control?
  • Where will technology take this in the future?


  • What effect will this have on the environment?
  • What responsibility do you have towards preserving the environment?
  • How far does this go? Who has the say?

Alternatively, help the coachee ‘map’ the context of a presented issue by capturing on paper a range of factors associated with it. Some of these factors may be obvious; others may only be revealed in the flow of the learning dialogue.

Headings to explore may include: goals, ambitions, values, people, fears, skills, resources, self-esteem, beliefs and so on.
Approaching from the presented issue, the coach might ask ‘Who are all the people, who have an influence on this issue and how you react to it?
Approaching from a broader perspective, the coach might ask,

  • Who are the people who matter to you?
  • Whose opinion of you influences how you think and/or behave?
  • Who can make a difference to your ability to achieve what you want at work? In your non-work life?

Each of these people may, if the occasion demands it, be linked to other factors in the system. For example:

  • What are your fears with regard to this person?
  • How does this person affect the resources available to you?
  • What values are you applying to your judgement about this person?
  • For example, why do you hold these values about this situation, but different values about another?

New factors can be added continuously, as they emerge from the dialogue (see Figure 13.1).

Alternatively again, use systems thinking to help the coachee build a systems map of their situation, as follows:

  • Write their name and a short description of their issue (20 words or so) in the centre of a large sheet of paper.
  • Link the individual with all the key people or entities which can influence what they do, or can be influenced by them.
  • Indicate the direction of influence (using arrows) and the strength of influence (using width of arrow and numbers 1 = low, 5 = high).
  • Draw in the pattern of influences between these different people/entities in the same way, using a different colour.
  • Consider the coachee’s current issues in light of this systems map.
  • What does it tell you about what tactics might succeed or fail?
  • What critical judgements will the coachee have to make to achieve their goal?
  • Are their goals realistic within the existing network of influence? If not, how can they change the network/system?

A final alternative is for the coachee to select a range of objects to represent each individual in the wider system. They can place the objects spatially in the room in a way that represents something important in the system (such as emotional closeness/distance of the relationships).

  • Ask the coachee to stand in each place one at a time and speak from that place in terms of what it feels like to be there and how they perceive the rest of the system if they look around, for example, what needs they have, etc.
  • Help the coachee to think about what strikes them most strongly about the system.
  Download Figure fig_13.1

Solution building

If the way you are exploring a situation together is unclear, solution building is a way of visualising and engaging with it.

  • Take a large sheet of paper and draw a blank jigsaw on it. Draw it so only the outlines of the pieces (20–30 is usually enough) are visible.
  • Ask yourself the question ‘What do we know?’
  • For every item you do know, write a note in a piece of the outer edge of the jigsaw, gradually working inwards.
  • Ask also: ‘What do we not know?’ and write these items in pieces at the centre.
  • Finally ask ‘What do we not know that we don’t know?’ and place any items this generates somewhere between. Assume any remaining pieces belong to this category.
  • Add colour to emphasise the differences.
  • Once you have completed the jigsaw, you can begin to discuss how you can change more of the picture to the colour of the ‘do knows’.

Mind mapping

This common approach to capturing the content of conversations or presentations can also be used for exploring complex issues.

Define the issue: put the main issue at the centre of the mind map. When deciding the concept:

  • Is this a dilemma (i.e. about choosing between two or more difficult options)?
  • Is it a case of knowing what needs to be done, but not wanting to do it?
  • Is it about knowing what needs to be done but not knowing how?
  • Is it about not knowing either what needs to be done or how to do it?

Define the strands of relevant concepts. Your coach can help you categorise these.

  • People – who?
  • Processes – how?
  • Resources – what?
  • Objectives/outcomes – what?
  • Expand the branches of the mind map using the following questions:
  • What is the last thing you would want here?
  • How will you know if…?
  • What is that like? What does it remind you of?
  • Can you represent that thought as a picture or a symbol other than a word?

Responsibility mapping

This is a useful tool for stimulating insight into how comfortable the coachee is with their responsibilities and the demands upon them.

Table 13.1 Responsibilities: taken and given

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What do you want to/need to…à
What are you …â

Take full responsibility for?

Take some responsibility for?

Take no responsibility for?

Completely responsible for




Partially responsible for




Not responsible for




Table 13.2 Impact matrix

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How much does this impact on you?à
How much responsibility for it do you carry?â

A lot


None at all













  • Ask your coachee to fill in the tables for each task they have. This will allow them to rate their responsibilities from a variety of perspectives.
  • Analyse each perspective with your coachee asking:
  • How well do you fulfil the responsibilities you have now? How do you know?
  • How well defined are those responsibilities? Would it help to make them clearer? If so, how can you influence that?
  • To what extent are these responsibilities imposed on you or willingly accepted?
  • How can you exert greater control over the responsibilities you want to keep/gain?
  • What responsibilities can you/do you want to let go? What ones do you want to acquire?
  • Who do you want to transfer some responsibilities to? How can you make that happen?
  • Ask your coachee to consider how they would feel if they could change their responsibility map in these ways.

Unpicking issues

A simple and much-used process for helping coachees work out what is going wrong in a problem situation is to compare and contrast with a similar situation where things went well.

  • Ask the coachee to visualise two situations, one where they faced a problem and the outcome was positive, and one where they were faced with a situation where things were going wrong.
  • Start with the positive situation, draw out key components such as:
  • Who was involved?
  • How prepared was the coachee?
  • What were the certainties and uncertainties?
  • What happened that they didn’t expect?
  • How did they feel at each key stage?
  • How well did they feel things had worked out?
  • Now ask them to visualise the second situation. Focus on the differences between the two, allowing them to develop an understanding of the issues and an agenda for change.

Different realities

This approach works well in situations where the coachee’s views or assumptions hinder achievement of their goals. It illustrates how people can hold different realities.

Ask the coachee to:

  • Accept that other people may have different perceptions of reality and that these may be as valid as their own; or (if the issue is not one involving other people) that your existing perception of reality is simply one of many that they could choose to adopt.
  • Help them understand the consequences of seeing the world differently and that they can choose the realities they see.
  • Help them choose realities which will help them towards their aspirations and goals.

Useful questions to explore different realities are:

  • What do you see in this situation?
  • What do others see?
  • How would you describe the difference?
  • What filters are you applying when you see this situation? What might you be avoiding noticing?
  • What filters do you think they are applying? What might they be avoiding noticing?
  • What benefits are there for you in holding this view on reality?
  • What benefits are there for them in holding this view on reality?
  • What would be the benefits to you of a different view on reality?
  • What would be the benefits to them of a different view on reality?
  • What would be the benefits to the organisation if you and they shared a common view on reality?
  • What dialogue would help you and them to adapt your perception of reality?

Achieving influence

The following questions help to shift the client’s thinking towards using gaining and using influence in constructive, collaborative ways.

  • How often do you get frustrated that other people operate with different priorities to yours?
  • Can you describe a situation where people have been happy to go along with your ideas? And one where they weren’t? What was the difference?
  • What are the pluses and minuses of influencing other people to do what you want them to?
  • What could you do to create the environment where people are pulling you along, rather than being dragged by you?
  • If you were in your colleagues’ shoes, what would influence you to follow this path?
  • Given the choice between acquiescence, compliance or commitment which would you choose?

The support matrix

 Research into what happened when high flyers moved from one organisation to the next found that they frequently failed to perform in the new environment. A key factor was that the supportive context of the organisation, where they shone, was not replicated in the new role. Managers, in particular, often tend to assume that they have to be self-sufficient and coaches can sometimes unwittingly reinforce that assumption. You can help by raising your coachee’s awareness of the need for effective support networks and by passing on skills of how to create and sustain such networks.

  Download Figure fig_13.2
  • Ask your coachee to consider the support matrix in Figure 13.2, with two dimensions of power/influence and supportiveness (low to high).
  • Help them think about who they would need to help them implement change in their organisation. They should consider the people who do fit into the quadrants; to maximise support consider the following questions:
  • Champions are people at a more senior level, who provide active support. Useful questions include:
  • What can the coachee do to make them support them even more?
  • What risks lie in using the relationship with champions to drive the change process? (Where might resentment build up?)
  • Allies, sometimes called friends, provide practical ground support and encouragement. Useful questions include:
    • What support does your coachee need from them?
    • How can they influence champions for you?
    • How can they protect themselves from false friends?
  • Enemies are open about their opposition. Useful questions include:
    • How much is enemies’ opposition directed towards the change or the agents of change?
    • What would move them to another quadrant?
    • How will your coachee do that? Can champions help?
    • What are the risks of building better relationships with enemies?
  • False friends make pretence of support but either fail to deliver support or actively undermine the change process and those associated with it.
    • How can your coachee make the risks of opposition greater for false friends?
    • How could false friends be shifted to allies?
  • General questions applicable to all four groups that you could discuss with the coachee include:
    • What is this person’s primary motivation?
    • What other, less obvious motivations might they have?
    • Who influences them and how?
    • How courageous are they?
    • In what circumstances would your coachee trust them?
    • How might your personal perception of them prevent your coachee from using them effectively to support the change?

Your coachee may identify a number of ‘unknowns’ – people whose attitude and orientation towards the change is not clear. If this is the case, help your coachee to  consider what they could do to bring this person into one of the four quadrants.