Context counts – Listening with your client’s system in mind

As an executive coach you know how crucial context is, that vital ability to tune into the systems and subsystems that your client operates in. Interconnections join the organisational dots and these systems do impact your client, whether or not they’re fully aware of it or not.

Your clients live within these wider contextual factors. You do, too. As John Donne, the 17th century poet, so famously said, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” It’s as true now as it was then! So what, exactly, are systems in a coaching context, and how can being aware of them enhance your listening skills?

How Wikipedia defines a system

As Wikipedia says:

A system is an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and it is more than the sum of its parts (subsystem). Change in one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. Positive growth and adaptation of a system depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment, and systems often exist to accomplish a common purpose (a work function) that also aids in the maintenance of the system or the operations may result in system failure.

Interconnected systems are part of everyone’s existence. Everything your client discusses is rooted in a context backdrop – their network of relationships inside and outside work, the business processes they follow, their market focus and the stakeholders they serve, plus of course the wider national and international political climate. These inherent systems form the waters that your clients swim in every day, and the interconnections between them are a really important part of their world. As an executive coach, being unaware of these wider influences means the conversations you have can easily become far too linear or individualistic.

Step back to win a wider perspective

Context counts - Listening with your client’s system in mind

So, what does it mean to listen to someone with the whole system in mind? I often use the London Underground as a metaphor. Underneath the city there’s a complex web of train lines that take you from one part of London to another. There are often several different ways to get to your destination. To understand them, you need a map that provides an overview, with all the potential routes clearly colour-coded.

Clients’ systems are equally complicated. As a coach, you can take any line of enquiry you like. It might mean you end up changing direction in the middle of a discussion to explore another aspect.This doesn’t matter if the conversation is helping your client to see more of the whole picture, giving them a wider view than they would have from just discussing one element.

This means your coaching session will probably follow several directions. At some point, you may choose to explore just one aspect of the system in more detail, for example a team dynamic, the development of a new product line, or an examination of how business processes operate. It could include IT, marketing, recruitment, project planning or customer feedback. All of these and more can either affect efficiency and outcomes positively or negatively.

Achieve clarity with visual representation

You need to understand your client’s system and the related subsystems. It can be helpful to ask them to represent things diagrammatically on a whiteboard or flipchart, or in their absence simple props like cups, notebooks, smartphones and pens – basically anything you can find to represent the key factors in the systems you’re exploring together. Arranging the items on the desk can help your client see their own constellation clearly and enables you understand it. You can move the objects around or replace them as your conversation progresses. This is a proven way to help people gain new awareness, inspiration and ideas about what might be changed for the better.

It’s this ability to step back and observe that brings about real insight in coaching around systems, delivering the equivalent of the London Underground Tube Map. The difference is that your client is interpreting their own system, and in doing so they’re finding new room to maneuver and reinterpret. As you listen to what they’re saying, your questions become crucial in keeping your client thinking, challenging them to go wider and deeper. You are listening for what is not working in their context, but also to what is working well, the good things they might take for granted.

Gaining a vital helicopter view

Photo by: Antonio Lapa

As they outline their systems for you, and as you talk things through and consider the system implications, your coaching provides a useful gap. A space in which to consider issues. You’re better able to see that all-important helicopter view clearly, and it’s insightful for your client. You, as the coach, need to listen intently, perhaps summarise succinctly and ask clarifying questions. With their broader perspective in mind your client can then really listen to themselves. They hear their own answers, resourcefully mining for possible solutions and ways to intervene to improve their context.

In their book Coaching and Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy, Peter Hawkins and Nick Smith suggest that when working with system exploration, you can hold these three questions in your mind privately and silently:

  • What is the shift that needs to happen in this wider system?
  • What needs to shift in the relationship between this individual and the issue they are describing?
  • For those shifts to occur what needs to shift right now in this individual?

At the initial stages, you only listen to your client’s narrative, while keeping these three questions in mind. You will impede your client’s thinking if you share too much or impose possible solutions too quickly. Then, at an appropriate moment, you can shift your focus into the live system, the one that’s happening in the coaching session. You listen for and observe system parallels around what’s happening right there in your midst. The dynamics might be reenacted in the microcosm of your coaching relationship. Noticing this and reflecting upon it can bring real insight.

When wider systems are reflected in the session

Context counts - Listening with your client’s system in mind
Photo by: Yeshi Kangrang

When you focus on a client’s systems, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the outside pull and complexities of those worlds become partially mirrored in the landscape of the relationship between you.

A wise question that Hawkins and Smith suggest you ask yourself is,”what might I need do here to shift a relational dynamic in service of the changes that the client is wanting to make?”.

A skilled, coaching intervention at this point, can trigger significant changes. The coach needs to be honest and willing to take a risk. Sharing their thoughts or observations about what is going on in the session. Often this brings results. Once the client leaves the coaching meeting, their different thinking and follow on alternative behaviours may well positively influence the relationship dynamics in their wider context.

There’s another set of questions that can be extremely helpful to your client here too. These questions seem to work best as a trio. Having explored the client’s situation from a systems’ viewpoint, you can ask them to consider some possible changes.

Asking the three system’s questions:

  • What would you leave behind?
  • What would you keep?
  • Would you introduce something new?

These questions challenge your client to reflect robustly. They draw upon your client’s agency and contribution within their current context, giving them permission to explore beyond the existing boundaries. Your client can start to unravel complex systemic patterns, discovering a new resourcefulness and seeing the wider picture with different eyes.

Context counts – Listening with your client’s system in mind

Regular supervision is a great way you, as a coach, to gain that vital helicopter view of your own coaching. If you would like to explore a more systemic approach to your work, do get in touch. We’ll be delighted to support your professional growth. In the meantime, you might find our post about the Leadership Bottleneck Syndrome interesting.