You have been coaching for years , and have plenty of clients. Why do you need a supervisor? You have just completed a coaching course and are eager to go it alone without being constantly assessed. Why would you want a supervisor? These are challenges which are often put to coach supervisors. The easy answer is because many of the major purchasers of coaching demand that those they work with have a supervisor. But, that response feeds the idea of the coach supervisor as either a tick in the boss, or an external figure of authority. It promotes the idea of the supervisor as the looming presence checking that the coach is doing it right, or at least doing no harm. It draws attention away from the real role of the supervisor in increasing the awareness of the coach, so that they are better resourced and supported to do great work with their clients.
Now that I supervise internal and external coaches, I see the role of a supervisor as very different from that figure of judgement I dreaded at the beginning of my coaching career. I know that all of my supervisees are talented able individuals – some with a wealth of experience in coaching, others with a wealth of experience from other areas of their lives. They know more than they imagine, but they need space to think about their thinking.
Immediately after a coaching session individual reflection captures what went well, what we wished we had done differently, how resourced or stuck we felt, and what we noticed. The role of the supervisor is to increase that lens of attention so that the coach sees more and can take more back into their work.
What we do in coaching sessions is never random. It is based on how we see the client: analytical or playful, accepting or sceptical, reflective or activist. It is equally based on how we see ourselves, and what we think is possible for us. A supervisor is there to increase our capacity so that more becomes possible. As a supervisor I am less interested in the content of the session than in the dynamics:
- How does the coach bring themselves to this client. Does the fact the client is a CEO make the coach sound deferential when they speak of them? Does the fact the client is much younger make the coach become maternal or paternal in how they respond to them?
- What happens when the two of them are together? Does the coach get caught up trying to out-think the intellectual client? Does the coach fail to name what they are sensing the real issue is?
- What is the unspoken psychological contract that has developed between the two of them? The client expects to have lots of space to think but without any expectation of take action? Or the client expects they can cancel sessions at short notice because their work is more important than that of the coach.
- Is the client transferring their dislike of authority into positioning the coach as a figure of authority to be resisted.
- Does the issue which the client brings to the session play out in parallel within the session e.g. the coach complains that they don’t feel they are impacting on the client, in the same way as the client talks of not making an impact on their boss.
- Is the coach labelling the client as difficult or uncoachable without exploring what they are evoking in them?
Because the supervisor is not caught in the detail of the coaching conversation, they can listen differently. They are then able to use what they hear in how the coach talks about their client in the service of the coach’s need. The supervisor can share what they are feeling, sensing or noticing in the context of the question which the coach is bringing. The supervisor can also support the coach in finding what is the real question that needs to be addressed. Often this is not – what technique do I need to work with client A, but what am I not seeing or bringing to A’s attention that would make the difference?
The supervisor’s role is primarily to create the safe place where the coach can bring their uncertainties, mistakes and vulnerabilities. . The things which we do not want our clients to see, but which will get in the way if they are not dealt with . The supervisor’s role is not to sit in lofty authority bestowing wisdom, as though they do not also have clients who can challenge and undermine them. Their place is sitting alongside the coach: a partner in enabling insights to emerge that will increase effectiveness in the next coaching session and for future clients.