The role of Systemic Questioning in Coaching

This is the second of three articles written in response to a question from a colleague about the role of systemic questioning in coaching.  Why three?  Personally, I have tended to use Socratic Questioning in much of my work.  It is particularly popular among the teaching community in further and higher education.  So, I felt it would be useful to answer their question, pose the same question of the Socratic approach, and to explore their differences.

Systemic questioning in coaching is a valuable tool for facilitating personal and professional growth by exploring the complex web of relationships, behaviours, and perceptions that influence an individual’s actions and experiences. This technique helps coaches and clients uncover the often-hidden dynamics that shape one’s life and decision-making processes.

Understanding Systemic Questioning

Systemic questioning originated from systemic and family therapy disciplines. It focuses on the relational aspects of a person’s issues rather than viewing them in isolation. In coaching, practitioners use this approach to help clients see the patterns and connections in their personal and professional relationships (Hawkins & Smith, 2013).

Applications in Coaching

In coaching, systemic questioning serves to open up thinking about how various systems (e.g., family, work, community) interact and affect the individual. It enables a deeper understanding of how these interactions either support or hinder personal growth and goal achievement. For instance, a coach might ask, “How do you think your role in your family influences your leadership style at work?” This type of question encourages clients to consider the broader influences on their behaviours and attitudes (Palmer & Whybrow, 2019).

Techniques and Examples

Circular Questioning: This technique involves asking questions that help the client consider a situation from multiple perspectives. For example, a coach might ask, “What would your colleague say about how you handled that meeting?” Such questions encourage clients to step outside their own viewpoint and consider others’ perceptions, which can lead to new insights.

Reflective Questioning: Reflective questions help clients reflect on their feelings and thoughts about their interactions within different systems. A question such as, “What emotions do you feel when you think about your team’s response to your feedback?” helps clients explore their internal reactions to external events (Lancer et al., 2016).

Hypothetical Questioning: Hypothetical questions allow clients to explore potential outcomes and alternative realities. A coach might use, “How might your team’s productivity change if you adopted a more collaborative leadership style?” This encourages clients to think creatively about future possibilities (Palmer & Whybrow, 2019).

Impact on Coaching Outcomes

Systemic questioning can significantly impact coaching outcomes by fostering a comprehensive understanding of the client’s life context. This approach supports clients in identifying and changing patterns that are unhelpful or destructive, promoting more effective behaviours and strategies for handling personal and professional challenges (Law, Ireland, & Hussain, 2007).

Evidence-Based Benefits

Research demonstrates that systemic questioning enhances self-awareness and promotes greater emotional intelligence, as clients begin to see how their actions affect others and vice versa. This increased awareness can lead to improved decision-making and interpersonal relationships, both critical to personal and professional success (Grant, 2014).

Ethical Considerations

While systemic questioning can provide deep insights, coaches must use this technique ethically. It involves exploring sensitive areas of a client’s life, which requires a high level of empathy and respect for confidentiality and boundaries (Stober & Grant, 2006).


Systemic questioning is a powerful technique in coaching that helps clients explore the complex interdependencies within their lives. By using questions that uncover these dynamics, coaches can assist their clients in achieving deeper insights and more sustainable change.


Lancer, N., Clutterbuck, D., & Megginson, D. (2016). Techniques for coaching and mentoring (Second edition). Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-317-42956-2

Grant, A. M. (2014). The efficacy of executive coaching in times of organisational change. Journal of Change Management, 14(2), 258-280. DOI: 10.1080/14697017.2013.805159

Hawkins, P., & Smith, N. (2013). Coaching, mentoring and organizational consultancy: Supervision and development. 2nd Ed. Open University Press. ISBN: 9780300126093

Law, H., Ireland, S., & Hussain, Z. (2007). The psychology of coaching, mentoring and learning. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-470-06044-5.

Palmer, S., & Whybrow, A. (2019). Handbook of coaching psychology. Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-317-63639-7.

Stober, D. R., & Grant, A. M. (Eds.). (2006). Evidence based coaching handbook: Putting best practices to work for your clients. Wiley. ISBN: 978-0-471-72086-7.


[Written and illustrated with the help of ChatGPT 4.]

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