Adaptive Coaching: Finding the Fit Response

In HSD we believe that the tension in a system is what drives its decision making and action taking. For instance, individuals take action to relieve or shift tension as it builds in response to events around them. Harsh feedback creates tension as an individual balances that against a personal desire to perform well. Conflict in a system, whether it is between individuals or among groups in an organization, will build tension in the system. In a conflict scenario, if the individuals or groups don’t attend to the conflict, the tensions can continue to build until something unpredictable happens. Someone lashes out at a colleague. One group refuses to work with another. Patterns of competition and isolation emerge across the whole system. This may seem like an extreme example, but wherever you are in an organization you see similar scenarios.

Adaptive Coaching
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One role of a coach is to help individuals and groups manage tension in productive ways.  In HSD-based coaching, the job of a coach is to work with individuals to help them identify the patterns of interaction and decision making that create unproductive tension for them or in the system around them and provide models and methods that help them see, understand, and influence those patterns. The goal is to help them shift the tension to a point that allows for greatest coherence and resilience at all scales.

So how can coaches use HSD to make sense of the patterns and find the most fit plan, regardless of any formal coaching approach? When coaches work together, how can they make the best decisions about assigning the work or building shared services? How can they explain what they do so everyone sees the value and potential in coaching relationships?

Glenda Eoyang, the founder of human systems dynamics, and I recently explored this question and identified two factors that seem to shape broad categories of coaching approaches.

First, patterns in coaching decisions are often shaped by whether emotions are implicit or explicit in the coaching model or approach. Some approaches highlight the emotional content in a given situation (feelings); other models highlight behavioral patterns (acting); still others may focus first on cognitive patterns (thinking). Coaching approaches, in general, consider all of these, but some focus their work more in one than the other. None of these approaches is more important, useful, or necessary than the other. What is important is the degree of fitness between the client’s situation and the particular approach in that moment.

Second, the response of a coach is shaped by the amount of structure in a coaching model. Structured approaches are more predictable and protocol driven. Unstructured responses, on the other hand, allow for emergent interactions over time and place. Again, models of coaching and consulting offer a multitude of options for variable degrees of structure. High structure is not better or worse, more or less useful, or more or less appropriate. The same is true for low structure. The degree of structure in the response just needs to fit the client’s need for coaching. For example, conflict between two employees may call for a more structured response than a client who has asked for coaching to increase interpersonal skills, in general. Coaching about how to write technical reports is much more structured than coaching about sharing information in engaging ways across a variety of audiences.

Glenda and I placed these two factors on a matrix to see what types of patterns we might see. The matrix we designed is today’s model/method. As you read the descriptions and consider the options, please consider the following:

  • These suggested patterns of coaching activities are broad descriptors, emerging as a spectrum of possible activities and approaches. None of them is all one or the other, and they shade from one to the next across the boundaries of our matrix.
  • These patterns are scale-free, describing a coaching approach at all scales of interaction: individual, group, family, organization, and community.
  • Whatever the scale, these general patterns of response describe different ways of resolving system tensions, regardless of the source.
  • Whatever the scale, these general patterns of response can inform your behavior, whatever your role in engaging in informative and supportive relationships. Supervisors, mentors, parents, and caring colleagues and friends can also use this matrix to consider how to engage in ways that fit with others’ needs in any given moment.
  • Coaches have preferred approaches that have proven effective for them in the past. So a coach or consultant may use models, methods, and approaches that come from any of the quadrants. Most likely, any coach will have one over-arching pattern will be the more preferred.
  • None of these approaches is better or worse than another. Each is as viable as the next. The question that would call for the use of one approach over another is the question of fitness. Is it likely that one approach would have more success in relieving system tension for a given situation or with a particular client?

What emerged as we worked is a matrix with the dimensions of visible emotion and structure. The vertical axis is “Emotion”, moving on a continuum from Implicit Emotion at the bottom to Explicit Emotion at the top. The horizontal axis represents the degree of “Structure” inherent in the coaching model, with Structured Response at the left end, and Unstructured Response at the right end of the continuum.

Each of the resulting quadrants addresses a different combination of those four possible perspectives.

Quadrant 1: Implicit Emotion, Structured Response shows up as behavioral supports. You know that emotions are present, you know that they matter, but you also recognize when a particular situation really just requires some rational action. You work with people to identify what has to happen, agree on specific steps to move forward, map an Adaptive Action plan, and take action. Behavioral supports may be as constrained as strict rules that guide behavior or as unconstrained as helping people remember behavioral cues that inform their decisions. Quadrant 1 questions might include:

  • What would you like to accomplish?
  • How will you know it’s done?
  • What timeframe will you need?
  • How will you report your progress and to whom?

Quadrant 2: Implicit Emotion, Unstructured Response shows up as a broader infusion of information and reflection. You see the involvement of emotion in much the same way as Quadrant 1, but you tend to move forward in a much less structured way. At this less structured end of that spectrum you may help people watch for the emergent questions as the cue for how to respond. You question with no expected sequence or expectation of a “right” answer. Quadrant 2 questions might include:

  • What are the patterns you are noticing?
  • What is working? What is not working?
  • What opportunities might you see?
  • What would you like to explore?

Quadrant 3: Explicit Emotion, Structured Response looks more like mediation. The coach or consultant uses the power of emotion to work with people, knowing that feelings shade how people see their worlds. Mediation, whether it’s formal or not, brings together parties to present their claims and come to mutually agreeable compromises. Quadrant 3 questions might be those that come from mediation protocols, both interest- and position-based mediation. Coaches in this quadrant focus on the different views of reality that might exist in a conflicted situation.

  • What pieces or parts of your story represent facts and “objective” reality that others would see?
  • What parts or pieces of your story are your own impressions that might or might not match what others saw?
  • How can you move toward resolving the differences you identify?

Quadrant 4: Explicit Emotion, Unstructured Response recognizes the implications of emotion in the multiple dimensions that shape patterns, but uses less structure to inform the coaching response to focus on the need to build efficacy. The work is emergent, but may start with specific skills sets or competency descriptions. Or it may respond with supports as the need for skills, knowledge, and attitudes emerges and clarifies across space and time.

  • What seems to be happening now? How can you tell your story?
  • What are the dimensions or pieces of your story that we need to examine?
  • Given what we are finding, what steps do you need to take to move forward?


In any interaction, a coach stands inside this matrix to engage in Adaptive Action, asking:

  1. “What?” patterns do I hear in what this client says about the world?
  2. “So what?” is the impact and implications those patterns have for my client, and what are possible options for action?
  3. “Now what?” can I do with this person to help relieve the tension and find best fit?


As Glenda and I talked, we identified ways this model could be useful in a coaching practice.

  • It could help explain an approach to a client. In a world where answers are at a premium, it may be a challenge to help clients understand the underlying need for adaptation and varying responses. This visual perspective of variation along the two dimensions may be helpful in such a situation.
  • We also believe it could be useful for coaches and consultants who work together to consider their own strengths and preferences and to build asset-based agreements about client assignment and decision making.
  • Finally this model can help an individual coach or consultant reflect on what they see and to plan for viable, actionable interventions.

We trust you will find this model useful in your role as a coach, mentor, or other supportive helper, and we hope that you will share it with others. Share your HSD story with us to let us know how you use it to find fitness and productivity.


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