Coaching Supervision: An Opportunity to Stop, Look and Listen
I began studying, teaching and providing coaching supervision in 2010 and have found it a particularly rewarding and supportive aspect of my long coaching career. My coaching clients are better off because of this ongoing work.
During a recent session of group supervision with 10 Leadership Coaches, it became clear that a significant aspect of our interaction was simply stopping. My task as a coach supervisor was primarily holding the space in which the coaches could catch their breaths.
In Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, Margaret Moore and Dr. Paul Hammerness describe an epidemic of distractedness. Vast numbers of people in our modern world are overwhelmed by too many things happening at too rapid a pace. They describe the effect of this individual and systemic problem with case studies and reports on brain imaging. It is not a pretty picture.
During these past 10 years, I have encountered many coaches who are working so hard that they fit the description Moore and Hammerness offer. Just recently, a coach came to me concerned that he had a negative reaction to a new client. (He gave me permission to use the case.) He wanted to understand this very unusual response. During our time together, looking at the case from a variety of angles, he discovered that there was nothing unusual about this client. The reaction stemmed from the fact that he had reached a point of exhaustion and needed to step back.
This case illustrates a key contribution of coaching supervision. The coach’s competencies were top notch, but the health of the coach—his very humanity—was jeopardizing his professional capability. How sad it would have been if he attributed his initial reaction to something about the client.
Coaching supervision provides a quiet place for the coach to stop, look and listen.
By taking just one hour, the coach regained access to his competence, his ability to be present and his ethical attention to his work. Distractedness diminishes our capacity to be ethical!
In stopping and listening, we can hear our own voice—the one chattering away in the background.
A couple of years ago, an Executive Coach born in South Africa expressed concern that her clients, managers at a company in Nigeria, were not making progress. (She gave me permission to use her case for teaching while disguising her name.) We explored the client’s situation in the first meeting without any conclusion. She arrived at our next meeting in a tender emotional state and shared that she believed an old pattern was limiting her coaching. Notice that the discovery was about her and not about her client.
Growing up during apartheid, she and her white family worked against those devastating policies. As a result, she discovered, she went out of her way to avoid hurting any black person. This became a core principle for her as an adult. However, she discovered that her deep ethical conviction was working against her and her clients in this engagement. Her long-held principle not to cause harm to any black person prevented her from appropriately challenging her clients.
In a subsequent conversation, she shared that she stood up in a meeting and told the group of managers that she was afraid. (The details of her fear don’t matter here.) What an amazing demonstration of presence and of courage to be vulnerable! A man in the client group then stood up and said that he, also, was afraid. The work began to unfold toward the coaching objectives.
Coaching Supervision expands coach awareness and access to more subtle and powerful coaching.
The pattern seen in the second case is called parallel process: What happened in the supervision context was also happening in the client context. In both cases, the coach arrived in the conversation with a statement about the client. Coaches often begin an exploration with a focus on the client and end with a discovery about themselves. Our efforts to develop awareness of the client, the client’s issue and coaching approaches are vital; so is the coach’s awareness about the coach, and of how the coach and client are interrelated.
Through the reflective practices available in supervision, we can discover internal dynamics of the coach and parallel process. This gives the coach more options for engaging the client and sorting out exactly which emotions, resistance or challenges really belong to the coach and which ones belong to the client. Doing so allows the coach to intervene with the most appropriate questions, provide skillful feedback and manage the complex ethics often present.