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How best to organize professional practice when Existing solutions are insufficient?

Systems Coaching

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What is

Systems Coaching?

A broader approach to complex human problems, including…

Clinical Psychology

As an alternative to psychotherapy, systems coaching provides a broader view of the full range of psychiatric diagnoses, including social isolation, anxiety, managing business relationships, adapting to death and loss, dissatisfaction with life circumstances, conflict with loved ones, etc.

Family Research

Bowen Theory lays out facts supporting the impact of viable family relationships on personal and professional life outcomes. Systems coaching, along with the Family Diagram app, helps you assess where to focus your effort to make the most of family relationships.

Business Consulting

Most business problems are solved by finding the right people to develop and execute solutions. For all other problems, a systems coach: 1) Helps you organize how you approach problems in general, and 2) Address the impact of human relationships on business outcomes.

Scientific Consulting

Doctoral-level consulting for scientific research with systems thinking. The more complex a problem, the more difficult it is to make sense of it. Systems thinking helps manage that complexity holistically while staying factual.

Systems coaching is the application of Bowen theory to the dilemmas of life. It is the combination of an outside perspective along with knowledge of the predictable ways that all human systems adapt to the stress of life.

The goal of systems coaching is to become a better observer of one’s relational environment and one’s part in it. It is to see what stress and urgency has obscured; to increase choice and grace in important decisions. It is not a quick fix or a tool to feel a certain way, but the development of a broader and more realistic view of one’s goals.


Next: The Research Attitude

Frequently asked questions

Most Frequent Questions about Systems Coaching

How is it different from Psychotherapy?

Some ways that systems coaching is different from psychotherapy are that it: 1) Is focuses on an individual’s problem as a function of the broader family system, 2) contains no clinical intervention aimed at the individual, 3) is aimed at observing and modifying one’s self in the context of the relationship system as opposed to modifying the behavior of others.

How is it different from Family Therapy?

“Family Therapy” is a set of techniques for fixing “family problems.”It sees “family problems” as separate from individual problems. A systems coach sees psychological problems as a product of how individuals relate in a total biological system. “Family therapy” occurs when family members are present, while systems coaching only only requires a motivated member adopting the “family view.” “Family Therapy” orients the family toward the clinician to provide solutions, while a systems coach provides 1) expertise in systems thinking, 2) graduate-level knowledge of appropriate scientific research, 3) an outside perspective on the problem while leaving responsibility for the problem completely with the family.

How many sessions does it take?

All things being equal for a someone new to Bowen theory, the first 4-5 sessions are weekly. The first two sessions are focused on collecting a multigenerational family history and family diagram. The remaining weekly sessions investigate the problem through that broader family lens. A goal is for the client to begin to develop their own questions and homework including observing self and exploring the many literary and video resources available. After 4-5 sessions clients typically move to every 2-4 weeks. Remaining weekly for long is typically counterproductive, as it takes time to observe self and practice thinking systems. In the longest term, sessions are as-needed where the client presents their efforts at differentiation in their family and the coach continues offers their own thinking from the sidelines.

What does this have to do with business?

An auto shop can have the most skilled mechanics and remain unprofitable. Another shop can have moderately skilled mechanics and run smoothly. The hidden variable is “differentiation of self;” the efficiency and clarity of decision making and leadership, which can optimize an average system or regress an excellent system. Systems coaching has two functions in unrelated work systems; to 1) provide a new perspective on how a person is thinking about a problem through “systems thinking,” and 2) help clients investigate for themselves the impact of human relationships on their business goals.

Why is it called "System Coaching"?

“Coach” is as in sports where one consults from the side instead of playing expert who solves problems. The most innovative sports teams have players to struggle to lead themselves under consultation from a coach. “Systems” refers to systems thinking, which has to do with developing a broader, factual perspective of the problem over a timeline. “Systems” also means family systems, as Bowen theory is the basic theoretical orientation and views individual functioning as a product of system functioning, and vice versa.

What is the Family Diagram app for?

Systems coaching is organized by Bowen Theory, which describes the universal and predictable processes that the human family uses to adapt to stress. Understanding how this plays out for a particular family requires a multigenerational family assessment. While this is more in-depth for psychological symptoms than business consulting, each individual’s functioning in a business system occurs while intimately linked to their family context. This is the case regardless of adoptions or whether the family is present. Family Diagram helps a person lay out the facts of important relationships into view to get beyond subjective impressions and make better long-term decisions.

A Principle For Research and Practice

The Research Attitude

The human will ignore more and more parts of a problem the more urgent the problem becomes. Solutions that are partially thought-through often make problems worse. The more urgent the problem feels, the more the human will insist that they have the full view when they only have a partial view.

A person seeks help from a professional once a problem has become urgent enough and previous efforts have failed. A professional can certainly fix a mechanical problem like a broken computer or broken leg. But no professional can fix a human problem like a behavioral symptom or managing a more successful business.

Human problems have to be solved by the people who have the problem. If a person has a problem then they also play a part in it. If a solution actually exists, then they can play a part in that as well. This is not a philosophy but a fact.

To see new solutions that were previously out of view, a person must get beyond urgency and assumption and begin to test what they think they know. This mode of problem-solving is called the “research attitude.” If the problem is adequately understood solutions will automatically emerge. If no solution exists, then priorities can shift to be in line with reality.

The research attitude principle integrates practice and research. A systems coach is not a mechanic, but like a research committee who oversees how a person thinks about their problem, not what they think about their problem.

Key in systems thinking is stepping back to not just see the forest for the trees, but to investigate for oneself exactly how the forest is for the trees.

An Integrated View

3 Practical Hypotheses

Three hypothesis comprise the foundational principles of systems coaching as well as medical research from a systems perspective. Together, they are “practical hypotheses” which integrate research and practice. They are to be refined over time with the accumulation of evidence.



All three hypotheses are combined into a master hypothesis for use in professional practice under a “research attitude.” A day may come when human behavior and adaptation is so well understood that straightforward interventions can be deployed for behavioral problems in the medical sense. But until that day comes, a well-organized research attitude is required to expand knowledge about each separate problem at hand. Change is a byproduct of the research effort itself.

Consider the example of an easily diagnosed symptom: Joint pain.

Joint pain is a medical problem. Joint pain might change with diet, and diet might change with the weather. Joint pain might also change with stress, and stress might change along with work or family. The urgency of the pain symptom itself might push such contextual factors out view. Even a simple symptom like joint pain operates in a complex, but factual context.

There is currently no proven model in medicine to broadly organize interdependent factors of a symptom or syndrome. With some exceptions, medicine is comprised of somewhat isolated specialists who see an important but limited slice of the pie.

What does it mean when an hour of simply gathering facts of context can shift a patient’s priorities for treatment?

The following hypotheses formalize a practical approach to this problem. In addition, they formalize the impact of “behavioral” facts without relying on subjective, i.e. non-factual, psychological concepts. This is made possible by a broader definition of “anxiety” that extends beyond psychiatry and is consistent with Biology.

Each hypothesis is tested in a systems assessment interview. A systems assessment constructs a timeline of shifts in the symptom along with any factual shifts in context. No factual shift is off limits. The interviewer simply offers an objective, outside view and experience in thinking systems.

The hypotheses are listed in order from broadest to most specific. Each builds on the previous, but are separated so that any one can fail without affecting the others.


A systems assessment of a specified medical symptom ought to uncover important contextual factors not previously considered to the patient or specialist.


One such important contextual factor from Hypothesis #1 ought to be the level of anxiety, defined as any response to a real or imagined threat.


Shifts in anxiety from Hypothesis #2 ought to occur in conjunction with shifts in the family system.

Hypotheis 1

Role of Context in A Symptom


A systems assessment of a specified medical symptom ought to uncover important contextual factors not previously considered to the patient or specialist. If this is the case, then consideration of such factors ought to reprioritize a patient’s treatment goals.


Seeing a specialist for a problem can make it easy to ignore broader contextual factors that play an important role in the problem. A patient is more likely to ignore more of the problem the more urgent the problem becomes.

The more that is known about factors that modulate a symptom, the more effective treatment can be planned and unforeseen side-effects can be avoided. It is hypothesized that increased specialization of medical care ignores the broader view. Organized, fact-based attention to the broader view ought to produce important information used in the treatment recommendations for the medical specialist and/or a refinement in treatment priorities for the patient.

Hypotheis 2

Role of Anxiety in Context


A systems assessment of a specific symptom ought to reveal that anxiety is one of the potential contextual factors. Anxiety ought to modulate either the expression of the symptom itself or the person’s ability to manage the symptom.


Anxiety is defined here as response to a real or an imagined threat. It is not pathology, but an effort to mobilize energy in the discovery of solutions to a problem. Anxiety is adaptive when it is directed to reality. Anxiety is not adaptive when it is directed toward an imagined threat. Undue suffering occurs when energy is mobilized to solve a partially or totally imagined problem.

The level of anxiety a subject exhibits at any given moment is the sum of acute anxiety and chronic anxiety. Acute anxiety is a short-term response. Chronic anxiety is the baseline pattern. Theory hypothesizes that chronic anxiety is mostly a relationship variable. It is undue when unreality interferes with a relationship system’s’ ability to solve a problem. 

Hypotheis 3

Role of Relationship in Anxiety


A systems assessment will reveal shifts in anxiety occurring often in conjunction with shifts in the management of tension in the relationship system.


Human relationships function in part to balance the responsibility for basic survival challenges among members of the group. While mostly instinctual and automatic, this responsibility is not always distributed equally. One person may pass anxiety off to another at times, and at other times it may be passed back. Theory determines what constitutes such “shifts,” and predicts that these shifts are the most reliable determinant of the level of chronic anxiety in the subject.

The hypothesis predicts that shifts in the relationship system coincide with shifts in anxiety in the subject, which coincide with shifts in the subject’s symptom or in their ability to manage or overcome that symptom. Data supporting this hypothesis ought to help organize an effort to determine exactly how the shifts in relationship systems work.

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Resources on Bowen theory

The Bowen Center

The Bowen Center offers many literature and audio video resources and training programs in Bowen Theory. The website also contains a brief overview of the theory to wet the palette.

Family Matters Videos

Faculty at the Bowen Center have produced over ninety half-hour videos on various topics on Bowen Theory. These are a wonderful resource for any level of expertise. Many can be listened to while doing something else like driving to work or going on a walk.

Annotated Bibliography for New Students of Bowen Theory

This is a list of seminal Bowen Theory literature intended to help choose where to start. Each book has a brief paragraph, and is listed from easiest to most difficult.

An accepted science of human behavior, rooted in biology and complex systems, would predict shifts in processes under specified conditions. Psychology would be an effort to account for the content of those processes. If psychology is to become an accepted science, it will have to make conceptual contact with whatever part of nature computer science is attempting to study.

Patrick Stinson, Psy.D.

alaska family systems

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