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Encounters with reality - perspectives on coaching supervision

So you're a professional coach - maybe a life-coach, or a performance coach, business coach or in one of the many niches and specialisms that have developed in recent years. Do you have supervision? Have you thought of having supervision? Why should you? After all, the research shows that most coaches don't have regular supervision.

Of course, supervision may one day become a mandatory requirement for coach accreditation. But coercion is far from the best reason for having a supervisor.

As a coach, I've gained hugely from supervision.  This article explores what supervision is - and isn't - through the experiences of coaches and supervisors working with the Coaching Supervision Academy. Hopefully, you will be encouraged to embark on this fascinating and rewarding journey,

So first of all, what is supervision in a coaching context? There are many views and definitions. Here's the CIPD's definition:

.....a structured formal process for coaches, with the help of a coaching supervisor, to attend to improving the quality of their coaching, grow their coaching capacity and support themselves and their practice. (CIPD: Coaching Supervision - Maximising the Potential of Coaching, 2006)

Miles Downey puts it this way:

"The purpose of supervision is to ensure the best interests of the coach and the client are protected, and to provide an educative and restorative support for the coach" (Miles Downey  An Approach to Supervision for Practising Coaches - The School of Coaching  2001)

So those are two of many definitions. They sound harmless enough - but they're also a little formal and didactic - unlikely maybe to attract members of a profession populated by individualists who place a high value on their personal autonomy.  This kind of description may go some way to explaining why so few coaches voluntarily take up supervision. So, before looking at some real experiences, it may pay to explore some commonly held beliefs.

Supervision - a few myths

It's a way of policing my practice and making sure I comply with ethical standards and other rules....

Well - to an extent, this is true. Though the word "policing" is a little value laden. It is part of a supervisor's role to ensure the integrity of the coaching offered to a client. But it is truer to say that a supervisor helps the coach monitor their own ethical and professional standards and develop a deeper understanding of their implications.

It's a way of managing me. I start to lose control of my own practice.

In many ways, the word "supervision" is an unfortunate one. Its use in coaching derives from educational/social work/ counselling/psychotherapy worlds. To someone (like me) from the organisational/management field, it's about close management at a junior level. That suggests being instructed, performance managed, evaluated and assessed. None of these are essential to the coaching supervision relationship. Coaching supervision facilitates a learning journey, enabling collaboratively generated insights to support and develop the work of the coach.

I'm a highly experienced coach - I don't need supervision

That may be true. But try this: "I'm a highly experienced human being. I don't need coaching."  Your coaching clients probably include many intelligent, competent people. But coaching gives them access to another perspective - and an opportunity to reflect effectively on issues. Supervision does the same - and much more - for the coach. It is often referred to as 'reflective practice', thus highlighting a core feature of Coaching Supervision

I get peer supervision/have my own coach/mentor

As a coach provides something other than friendship, a supervisor provides something different from coaching. Supervisors are trained to work with a wide range of professional and developmental scenarios. Supervision is about your practice as a coach. Coaching is about you.

I don't want to pay for something I don't have to have

Coaching can be an isolated role - working one-to-one with individuals in an envelope of confidentiality. If you are also self-employed, that isolation is increased. The opportunity to reflect and examine your practice, explore issues and other ways of working with a skilled professional is something that you - and your clients - deserve.

So - those are a few myths. What about the realities? The following themes are drawn from case studies of work done by supervisors from the Coaching Supervision Academy. Some details have been changed and stories merged to protect confidentiality.

Developing insight

"I would not miss supervision for the world. It gives me insights that I would not get anywhere else." (a coach)

Most coaches I know are motivated by a desire to help their clients - to the best of their ability. But however conscientious we are about our CPD, we all work within the limits of our repertoire of skills, models and techniques. Above all, we can't see what we can't see.  One supervisor reflects "The issue was not only that (the supervisee) could not see these processes at work, but was also unaware of their relevance."

By adopting a "3rd position", a skilled supervisor can lead a coach to a different level of insight about a client and the client's situation, and about the coach's own themes, habits and limitations. Here are some examples:

  • Sometimes the most important and empowering gift we have to offer a client is the quality of our presence as coaches. But to trust in that, requires the confidence to put down our "bag of tricks" - this model, that technique etc. We enter into a journey with our clients, where in reality, neither of us has a route map. It's an exploration, where both client and coach can sometimes be creatively lost. If we constantly feel the need to be the "expert", having all the answers, we can become rigid and superficial and miss opportunities for a deeper understanding.

Helping the coach to have the confidence to "let go" is a repeated theme in accounts of supervision. For example, a coach in supervision reports that she "let go of a need to "fix" her clients and became more comfortable with not knowing". This allowed her to respond to her clients in more flexible, innovative ways.

  • If, as coaches, we see ourselves primarily as helpers, we run a number of risks. One is to be caught up in wanting to be liked, wanting to feel we're helping. And if we challenge the client, they may not like us - and they may stop wanting to pay for coaching!

For some coaches, this leads to a tendency to collusion and a lack of challenge. The client and coach, while they may appear to be satisfied with their sessions, actually never move out of their mutual comfort-zone.

One supervisor working with a coach around these issues reports the following: "When I asked X to describe her coaching style and approach, she described it as "warm and cosy" and that she "liked to be liked". ... In our meetings we identified that some suitable opportunities for X to challenge her client had not been taken."

A  breakthrough occurred when the supervisor and coach  ".... agreed that the difficulty incurred in trying to please people is that a coach may avoid the risk of upsetting the coachee, and therefore may not challenge their thinking..."  From there, the coach went on, with her supervisor's support, to take more risks in skilfully confronting clients and managing her own fear of not being liked. X's clients gained more impact from the coaching, and X herself gained in confidence and satisfaction in her work. It was important in this instance, that the supervisor did not get caught in a parallel process and thus failed to challenge the thinking and attitudes of her supervisee.

These are just two examples. One could also quote instances of coaches who need to develop more structure, or be less challenging! Whatever the issue, supervision can help us find and challenge our limitations, and develop confidence in our resources. It brings depth and power to our coaching and greater insight to our clients.

Ethical dilemmas

"Supervision deepens my thinking about coaching"

Most of us encounter ethical issues in coaching. Well constructed contracting and clear ethical guidelines are often sufficient to help us resolve them. But some issues are more subtle - sometimes so subtle that we are barely aware of their ethical implications.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • The coach is finding it difficult to get specific feedback from the client. As the supervision explores this issue, it becomes clear to the supervisor and coach that they are not really pursuing the feedback. Their fear is that, if asked to reflect too deeply, the client may conclude that the coaching is not really helping them. They may cancel the coaching  - incidentally, leaving the coach with a big revenue gap! The coach in this case is an experienced, competent practitioner. But any of us may sometimes - consciously or unconsciously - allow our own needs to subvert those of our clients.
  • A coach is contracted by an organisation to work with an individual. It becomes clear during the sessions that it is in he individual's best interests to leave the organisation. This is not the outcome the contracting organisation expects or desires. Not only does the coach face a dilemma of conflicting priorities, but also a risk to their own reputation and further work with the client organisation. In this case, supervision would enable a coach to work competently and intelligently within the system, which might require conversations with several stakeholders in the organisation.
  • The coach has contracted to work with a client on career and professional issues, but the client appears in frequent distress around an on-going family crisis. Where are the boundaries here? Is it appropriate to take these issues on, or should they refer the client to a counsellor or psychotherapist? And how can this be managed without the client feeling betrayed?

It may be that, as a coach, you would be very clear what you should do in these situations. But ethical issues are situational and not always clear cut. A supervisor will work through clarifying the issues and enabling the coach to develop a strategy with ethical integrity.

What supervision can do for you

Developing skills

"We all need to keep on learning so we can support our clients better..." (a coach)

As coaches, we have a responsibility to our clients to keep developing and refreshing our skills. Most of us attend workshops, conferences etc. But the parallel with our own coaching clients is also useful here. They may be able to develop their skills, understanding and confidence by attending workshops, courses etc. Why have coaching?

Development is a major aspect of supervision. It has, to some extent, a didactic function. Most supervisors can and will offer models, techniques, avenues of investigation to help develop the coach's abilities. The supervision case-studies I have in front of me here show supervisors introducing coaches to:

  • Transactional Analysis  models, like the Karpman Drama Triangle
  • Psychological mindedness - especially around issues of parallel process and transference
  • Practical information about contracting
  • The Internal Supervisor - using cognitive, somatic, intuitive awareness
  • NLP models like logical levels, third position
  • Models of coaching and supervision like Hawkins' "Seven Eyed Model"
  • Techniques in questioning, re-framing, deepening understanding of the GROW Model
  • CSA's Full Spectrum Model of Coaching Supervision

Supervisors also helped by referring coaches to useful reading, workshops, conferences and courses. There is also a directly "coaching" element in supervision, where the supervisor coaches the coach in developing, practising and applying a new skill set.

In this developmental role, supervisors introduce models for two main purposes:

  • For the coach to use to empower their coaching sessions with clients
  • As frameworks the coach and supervisor can use to give different perspectives to the coach's practice and development

One last thought in this area - from a supervisor:

"... if we as supervisors create the right  conditions for our supervisees to feel supported and safe, if we hold them with unconditional positive regard, supervision  does not just provide a quick fix for whatever is currently happening - it provides an everlasting opportunity for growth and development."

Managing yourself and your practice

Not all aspects of supervision may relate directly to clients. Other areas supervisors may explore include:

  • How a coach operates in relation to their employing/contracting organisation. Confidentiality can be a particularly tricky issue here.
  • Taking care of one self. As coaches, we are own greatest resource. We can't develop our clients' resources unless we take care of our own. As well as CPD, supervision may include elements of time management, keeping client records, keeping a work-life balance etc.  Here's an example from a supervision:

"With careful probing and encouragement she came to realise that her skills and ability were not in question (this gave her confidence and self-belief,) only her time-management, lack of clear boundaries and organisation."

  • What are we worth? If you are working on a fee basis, that can be a particularly difficult subject, contaminated by issues of self worth and lack of market knowledge. One supervisor, dealing with this issue brought by a coach, says:

"I asked her to imagine herself as a coach as if she were an advert which had been given the chance alongside other 'coach adverts' to say what she could bring to the 'potential clients'' lives.

The use of this imagery helped her identify '6 selling points', which in turn had the effect of affirmations in helping her recognise her value as a coach."

Where next?

I hope this article has given you some insight into what supervision can do for you. Of course, this is only one view - mine, based on my training and experience with the Coaching Supervision Academy. Other professional bodies may emphasise different aspects of supervision.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, regular supervision may become essential for registration before too long - and a key differentiator in marketing coaching services.

But I hope you've seen enough to recognise that supervision is an investment in your practice and your ability to support, challenge and develop your clients.

Supervision can be undertaken in face-to-face, one-to-one sessions; in supervision groups; over the phone; by e-mail or on-line "chat" facilities. Find the supervisor and the process that works for you. If you work with a Coaching Supervision Academy "trainee", you may be able to get very competitive rates. And remember - they may be a "trainee" - but if they are training in supervision, they are already an experienced and successful coach.

To end - some words from coaches on supervision:

"Supervision is affirming and inspiring. It helps my clients, as I always come away with intriguing ideas to try out with them. It's an opportunity to share my issues and thinking about coaching"

"I have the privilege of being a part of a unique group of Coaches that meets once a month for supervision. Under the insightful eye of our Supervisor I have the opportunity to air issues, learning from my colleagues and sharing my stuff, all in one evening! This non-judgmental and nurturing environment helps me to feel validated and gives me a very strong positive energy. The calibre of my fellow Coaches is very high not to mention the supervisor's skill and caring (she does ask some brilliant and incisive questions!). This all adds to the value and experience of being in the group."

"Regarding actual supervision, I always feel I can raise challenging issues within the group and that the supervisor and the others will respond supportively and effectively. There is always something positive and developmental to be gained from our sharing sessions."

Ian Mackenzie;


Published by Peter Welch on 17/12/2009