5 Systemic mentoring


Systemic mentoring is a mentoring approach designed to create awareness in the mentee of how people influence on and are influenced by their environment. The mentoring approach is based on ideas proposed by Gregory Bateson and Urie Bronfenbrenner, among others. A person is always considered as part of a social system and interpersonal relationships (Skagen 2004;89-90). Central concepts in the systems theory are wholeness, human relations and circularity.

The term “wholeness” refers is used to emphasize that phenomenons are connected to each other. As a consequence people will always influence each other mutually in human relations. For instance, in an educational institution there will be relations between mentors, between school management and the mentor, and between mentor and mentee. Even though not all these parties participate directly in the mentoring, but they can all influence how the mentoring is organized. Additionally, on the organizational level there are relations between institutions involved in mentoring (cf. Bronfenbrenner). Thus, when the mentee tries to solve a problem, this may also involves parties which are directly involved in mentoring (Skagen 2004:90).

In daily interaction we have a tendency to evaluate our actions according to the existence of a cause and an effect. The result of this thinking is that we might not look at all relevant perspective (Skagen 2004:90). In systemic mentoring exclusive why-questions are viewed as unproductive as they imply the existence of one cause and one effect (i.e. “Why did you do that?”). In contrast systemic mentoring uses a more circular explanation model where all parties always will contribute to the interaction. When we explain an interaction we first punctuate the interaction. When we punctuate, we end the process of interaction, and start interpreting the interaction. We explain the reasons behind what is happening between the parties. “The teacher is yelling because the students are loud” could also be interpreted as “The students are loud because the teacher is yelling”. The term “punctuation” refers to the concept that there are always alternative ways to understand an incident. If we punctuate the interaction differently, we will have a different understanding of the interaction (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 92-94).

Question techniques in systemic mentoring

Within systemic mentoring, the assumption is that the mentee is incapable of finding a solution to a difficult situation. In order to stimulate change it´s possible to use circular questions developed by the Milan group (link?) (Carson and Birkeland 2009:102-103). The types of questions are divided into four categories. To illustrate we start by giving an example:

A pedagogical leader of a kindergarten (daycare) works with children between 18 months and 3 years. She writes the following: I have an immature assistant. Her name is Bente. The other day, Bente was sitting on the floor playing ball with three of the children. Per, 2 years old, walks over to Bente and pulls on her arm. Bente does not react even though continues to pull her arm. Finally, she pushes him away. Per starts crying and runs over to the dressing area. I “sharply?” told Bente to go to Per and talk to him. Should I have handled the situation differently? Was what I did ethically responsible? (Carson and Birkeland 2009:105)

The pedagogical leader wants mentoring related to this case. In the following section we present different types of questions which is common to use within this mentoring approach.

Questions that explore differences

These questions are divided into four subcategories:

Questions that explore differences on a personal level

These questions are based on the assumption that we all react differently to a situation. The intention is to increase the awareness of how people react differently in a situation. From the story in example 1 the mentor can ask the following questions within this mentoring approach:

– Who was present?
– How did the other children react to Bente’s behavior?
– How did the other assistant react to Bente’s behavior?

The questions will raise the mentee´s awareness of the different reactions from the people present, and may in this way lead to a better understanding of the incident.

Questions that explore differences on a relational level

These questions explore differences in interpersonal relations. The mentee is asked to describe different relationships, and explain how they are different. Questions can be:

– How is the relationship between Bente and Per?
– between Bente and the other children?
– between you and Bente?
– between Bente and the other assistant?
– Who is closest to Bente?
– How is your relation to Bente different from your relation to the other assistant?

These questions could reveal more differences in the relationships. They raise awareness around the relations Bente is a part of.

Questions that explore differences in opinions, ideas, values and motives

These questions focus on how we imagine other people perceive the situation. The aim is to stimulate us to think differently around the situation. We can ask questions such as:

– What do you think Bente was thinking when she reacted the way she did?
– What do you think the other assistant was thinking when she noticed Bente’s behavior?
– How is your way of handling a similar situation different from Bente’s approach?
– How did Bente explain her reaction?

These questions are intended to elicit thoughts regarding how the situation is understood, and experienced in different ways by the persons involved. This includes differences in values and in the perception of children.

Questions that explore differences between the present and the future

With these questions we consider the ways that different people react to new situations. The focus is on the involved parties’ reaction in previous situations, and how they might have reacted differently. Compared to the previous example, a question might be:

Has Bente previously reacted to Per in a similar manner?

All these questions can give the mentee a wider and more complex picture of an experienced situation.

Questions that explore behavioural effect

These questions try to make the mentee more aware of the mutual influence people have on each other. They focus on how the mentee experienced other people´s behavior and how we experienced other people’s behavior. The ability to understand the other person’s perspective is essential to empathy. When discussing the same case, we could ask the following question:

How do you think Bente experienced what you did?

Triadic questions

The purpose of triadic questions is to create awareness of the third party’s experience of the interaction. We can ask questions such as:

– How do you think the children perceive the relationship between you and the assistants?
– How do you think Per, the other children and the other assistant experienced your intervention?

These question also attempt to create awareness of the reciprocal relationship between people. The mentor should help the mentee to develop an ability to observe herself from the outside (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 105).

Hypothetical questions

By asking questions about different future scenarios, the mentee is encourage to reflect around alternative options. Possible questions are:

– How would you feel if Bente was to leave?
– If you were to make changes in your relationship with Bente, what would they be?
– What is required for you and the assistant to reach an agreement?
– If you were successful in making changes, what would the situation be like?
– What is hampering such a change? (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 105)

Such hypothetical questions may help the mentee to look for an alternative course of action. It´s also important to be stimulated to reflect upon how the situation might look if the problem was solved.

Example – To se oneself from the outside

Berit is supervisor in a daycare and manager of a group of employees that consists of two assistants, a learning support teacher and a special needs educator. Below are two personal narratives she has written and for which she received systemic mentoring (from Carson and Birkeland 2009: 107-110).

The mentorship conversation

Before the mentorship conversation (Personal narrative nr.1)

“I need help with my relationship to the learning support teacher. She is taking charge over us in our daily work and is even taking charge of the parents. Her only responsibility is a child with special needs. At our staff meeting we almost always quarrel about who should make decisions. The more I take charge, the more dominant she becomes. I feel very frustrated because I am the pedagogcial leader and she should acknowledge that.” In the mentorship conversation the mentor chooses to use circular questions based on systemic mentoring, such as: “How do you think the others see you as pedagogical leader?” Berit will then become more aware of her own role in the interaction. She is forced to become her own observer. A question regarding the future such as: “how do you wish the relationship should be?” makes her aware of things she has not yet considered. When you are stuck in a destructive communication pattern, it is easy to forget to think constructively and creatively.

After the mentorship conversation (Personal narrative nr.2)

“Now I am glad! I understand my own role and how I was trapped. When I was asked how other persons experienced the situation, I realized that I believed there was an alliance between the special needs teacher and the learning support teacher. I regarded this alliance as a threat to me as a leader. When the mentor asked me how I think they experience me, I also realized that they must perceive me as a an incompetent leader. Thus, I have to admit that this is how I see myself. This has been difficult to acknowledge. When the mentor asked how I wanted the relationship between myself and the learning support teacher to be, I discovered that I had not thought about it. I had been more concerned about how I did not want it to be. This is something I need to work on. I need to take more responsibility for my role as a pedagogical leader.”

The first personal narrative indicates that Berit seems to be stuck in a destructive interaction pattern. The usual assumption is that it is the other person who is the problem and needs to change. It can be difficult to see how we can make a difference ourselves. In the second narrative Berit has developed a clearer understanding of her own responsibilities as a pedagogical leader.


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