Family Therapy Meets Team Coaching: What Can We Learn From 60 Years Of Practice?

One of the trends I have noticed in recent years is the number of psychological therapies that are being re-purposed for coaching. In the past week alone I have seen narrative therapy, ACT, RET, CBT and grief counselling principles offered as part of coach training. 

 Of course, as the coaching industry has become more sophisticated and workplaces have become more challenging, coaches are finding themselves working with people who need a boost to their well-being and resilience. The overlap between therapy and coaching will always be there. Even as an experienced psychologist, I still refer clients to my clinical colleagues when I am faced with issues outside of my competence. I know that my coaching colleagues are mindful of their professional strengths and limitations and refer to others and seek supervision. 

 With these trends in mind, it was interesting when I came across an article by Elisabeth Shaw in our Australian Psychological Society Inpsych magazine. Her synopsis of the evolution of family therapy struck me as having a lot of synergy with my work in systemically building team resilience. Given this area of coaching is becoming popular and more teams are experiencing dysfunction due to pressures, it makes sense to explore what we can take from 60 years of family therapy.

 So what are the synergies?

When family therapy began in the 1960s it was seen as a significant paradigm shift from working with individuals to a focus on ‘the space between’ people – that is the patterns and processes and connections. Attention became focused on the ‘here and now’ rather than the past and people were supported to find their strengths and creative solutions. All members were engaged to elicit the unsaid (for us, ‘elephants in the room’) to enable change to occur. It made sense, at that stage, to coach family relationships as when connections are not solid there is fall-out emotionally and psychologically on individuals.

 Does this resonate for those of you who have started to coach teams? It certainly did for me and so based on Elisabeth’s article, this is what it seems we can take from family therapy and apply to coaching teams in trouble:

 Consider a team as more than the sum of its parts. While each person needs to be understood, the team is part of a sub-system within the organisation and the wider world in which it operates. These sub-systems interact dynamically.

Discuss how the team’s external stakeholders will be considered and managed as these relationships are critical in creating change.

Combine relevant evidence-based practices with artistry in your implementation.

  • Adopt curiosity not blame. Problematic behaviour by a member is often a symptom not a source and addressing this behaviour without understanding that may not be useful.  As an example, undermining others may relate to role conflict or ambiguity not maliciousness.
  • Start from a position of respect through emphasising that that the team is doing the best it can, even if behaviours do not seem helpful.
  • Ethical practice is more challenging than when working with individuals. Consider in advance protocols around sharing and disclosure. Seek supervision and support when you need it.
  • Build rapport with all members and demonstrate appropriate partiality to all in some way.
  • Team processes can promote or prevent change. It’s important to identify what gets in the way of where the group needs to go. Roles, routines and rituals illustrate how the team functions. Flexibility, responsiveness and cohesion enhance effectiveness while collusion and negative polarisations such as demand or withdrawal can bring it unstuck.
  • Avoid taking on the expert role. Instead help the team develop plans and identify past successes that can be built upon. Draw on the collective wisdom and ideas. There is no right way to achieve team goals, rather more or less effective ways.
  • Working individually with members and reporting back to the group is not team coaching. It’s the team that needs to connect not the coach and team members. 
  • Bravery is needed. It can get messy and difficult but separating people to make it more manageable, or trying to divide and conquer, takes away something the team itself should be dealing with.

 Years of empirical studies and metanalyses of family therapy have demonstrated its effectiveness. While we need to be careful not to apply a clinical lens, drawing on this evidence may be useful for team coaching – in the same way that the profession is now drawing from other therapies.