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How to Think in Systems: It’s All in the Questions

What if, when you felt irritated or angry with someone, you stopped yourself from asking the question, “What’s wrong with them?” Instead you strove to ask this question. “What’s going on with me that I’m reacting this way?”

If you asked the second question, you would be thinking in systems instead of thinking in the traditional linear way. Systems thinking might then transform your work, your relationships, your life, as it has done for me.

You can train yourself to think this way by asking three categories of systems oriented questions, and avoiding the corresponding linear focused ones. This can lead to substantial long term change and greater understanding of other people and yourself.

Typical linear thinking assumes direct cause and effect based on individual factors. For example, when someone acts in a particular way, you assume they are reacting to the particular person or situation facing them, and that if the other person had acted differently things would change.

Systems thinking takes the approach of looking beneath the surface and assuming that interrelationships among multiple people and factors contribute to the way things are. Systems thinking looks skeptically at the quick fix and works to understand and address deeper issues, seeing them as the keys to lasting success.

Good Systems questions center on interrelationships and multiple interrelating pieces.

Ask, “What might be going on with the other person?” This question assumes that multiple factors are at play in this person’s life and not all of those factors are obvious and on the surface.

Not, “What is wrong with the other person?” This assumes the other person must be the cause of the problem and acting illogically.

Ask, “What else is going on in addition to the immediate situation that I see? How are other people responding? What happened before I walked in the room?” This opens you up to noticing and observing various contributing factors.

Not, “How could he or she think or say that?” This question targets one person or one factor and assumes it is incorrect.

Good systems questions focus on personal functioning and taking personal responsibility because ultimately the only person you can control is yourself.

Ask, “What is my role? How did I contribute (maybe unwittingly) to what is taking place?” This question assumes that each person has a part to play in what is happening including yourself.

Not, “Whose fault is this?” which assumes one person caused the situation and one person can fix it.

Ask, “What choices do I have in this situation?” which concentrates on personal responsibility, rather than on what other people should or should not do.

Not, “What should the other person should be doing differently?” which leads to blame.

Systems questions direct attention to possibility rather than rigidity.

Ask, “What options do we have?” and “What else can I think of that might help?” These questions assume there are multiple options and no one perfect answer. They encourage you to assess the possibilities and try out options until you find one that works well.

Not, “Why didn’t they do this?” And, “If they aren’t going to change and respond in this particular way, why should I put up with it? These questions assume there is only one correct answer and you know exactly what it is.

Ask, “What else might be going on here other than my first impression?” This assumes that situations are often more complex than they appear on the surface.

Not, “Why doesn’t this person see and respond to the obvious?” This assumes there is only one right way or one correct interpretation of each person’s actions or each situation.

I’ve developed the ability to ask these questions over the past two decades. Now I ask them of myself and also of the people who come to me for counseling and the congregations I guide in facing conflict. Learning to think in systems takes time, but it’s worth effort.

ask myself one final question, “How can I continue systems work in my life today?”

Not, “Why doesn’t everybody else think systemically?”

If you want to learn more about system thinking and how to put it in practice in your life, take this class.

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