Improving team coaching

Dorothee Stoffels provides a look at how systemic psychotherapy approaches can improve team coaching 

For me, there is a unique and special feel to bringing a team together and exploring their interpersonal dynamics, strengths and challenges as a group. Having everyone in a team come together tends to create a different sense of potential for change than working with individuals. Being a team coach with a background in systemic psychotherapy, I have always been struck by the ideas and different interventions that systemic practice has to offer to the field of team coaching.

Systemic psychotherapy in itself is a vast field and has undergone a number of developments throughout the years. However, there are some principles that I regularly draw on when working as a team coach. In this article, I will first share some general principles from the practice of systemic work and then move on to exploring the use of two particular techniques in team coaching: systemic hypothesis and circular questioning.

In systemic psychotherapy, individuals and groups are not seen as existing in isolation. They are embedded in a web of relationships. The key emphasis of team coaching is therefore to create heightened awareness of patterns of interactions between people and explore how different team members respond to each other. At the same time, teams are usually embedded in an organisation and always exist within a socio-economic, cultural and political context. All of this will have an effect on the team’s functioning and interactions. Sometimes ‘bringing the wider system into the room’ helps unblock stuck situations. For example, by talking about how the wider context impacts on the team or by discussing the interplay between teams. Another option is to actually introduce and invite another member of the system into the session.

The systemic approach views everyone who is in a system as interconnected. A system in this context might be a team or a whole organisation. Linear cause-effect thinking, where only two people within the system are seen to impact each other, (for example, one team member’s rather challenging comments will always cause another team member to withdraw) is seen as unhelpful. Instead, taking the view that everyone plays a part in the creation of the pattern around an issue or challenge in the team is considered to be important. Viewing teams in this way allows a move away from a blame culture where individuals or pairs might be singled out as ‘the problem’. [pullquote]All behaviour is seen as communication in the interactions of a team, be it small events such as a missed meeting or a lack of a response to an email[/pullquote]. New thoughts, discoveries or information that emerge from the answers to the questions of the team coach are viewed as creating difference. This means that the process of joint communication in a team, facilitated by a team coach, will effect change and allow growth. A necessary ingredient for this is what systemic psychotherapists call a ‘state of curiosity’ in the mind of the coach. Being curious about what might be going on within a team will help the team coach see and bring forward multiple perspectives and ask useful questions. It will enable not only the coach but also the team to look for different descriptions and alternative explanations all the time. In this lies the potential for change and an increased sense of effectiveness in working together.

Systemic hypothesising – how to use your hunches

As team coaches, we often consciously and unconsciously hold hypotheses or hunches about the teams and groups we work with. Hypotheses are generally seen as starting points for an investigation or inquiry. They inform what questions we ask and what interventions we make when we engage with teams. The discipline of purposefully hypothesising helps to open our mind to different possibilities about what might be going on for the team and will guide our questions, interventions and experimentations in sessions. However, it is important not to hold on too tightly to our hunches. It is essential not to see them as the ‘truth’ about a situation. Formulating a new hypothesis prior to every session with the team can be helpful in retaining a sense
of curiosity.

A systemic hypothesis should attempt to include all parts of the system within the team (e.g. the different team members; the leader) and can even be extended to the wider organisational system around the team (e.g. different functions that need to work closely with the team; the customer; senior managers etc.). Coaches can include a number of areas into their hypothesis. These could include:

  • People and relationships
  • Behaviours
  • Meaning, intentions and beliefs
  • Feelings
  • Situations and events
  • Time. 

Circular questions – bringing difference and connections into conversations

Circular questioning is often used by systemic practitioners as a way of exploring a situation. Circular questions are called circular as they are not so much concerned with why something is happening but rather focus on what other people are doing when something is happening. These questions assume that the behaviour of one person is shown by implication to be connected to another and they help team members make connections and broaden their understanding of their contexts.  Through circular questions, new information tends to be released, which in return encourages new ways of viewing team challenges. The purpose is to explore issues and challenges in detail and the questions tend to be categorised into questions that create difference and questions that create connections between people in the team and the wider organisational system.

[pullquote]Questions that create difference tend to focus on changes in an issue over time between people and between situations[/pullquote].

On the other hand, questions that create connection tend to be asked around behaviours, feelings, beliefs, meaning and relationships. All of these areas are important to explore when coaching a team. Sometimes, for example, it can be useful to track the sequence of behaviour that occurred in a team meeting (“What happened first and then after that…. and after that…?”), encouraging the team to talk about everyone’s behaviour. These questions about behaviour can highlight detailed patterns. At the same time, exploring underlying beliefs that inform behaviour or feelings can be powerful.

Finally, a key area of focus for team coaches tends to be questions around relationships. Getting a third person to comment on the relationship between two other people in a team can be very impactful as can asking the group to imagine what someone else in the organisation might say about them as a team. This invites a new perspective into the team.


The systemic principles of interconnectedness, patterns of interaction and the role of curiosity enable the team coach to have a unique approach when working with a team. These principles will influence what hypotheses coaches might develop as they are looking for patterns and connections within the team and with the wider organisational system. This in turn will have an impact on which questions the coach will use to support the exploration of his hypotheses. Circular questions, both attempting to create difference and connection can be a very useful tool in the process and lead to the emergence of new information and therefore to a change of functioning of the team.

A fully referenced version of this article is available on request.


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