Coaching supervsion, the missing link in coaching excellence

For many coaches working in the developmental coaching space, much of the coaching dialogue is aimed at creating breakthrough insights. Coaches work with clients to become aware of limiting patterns of thinking and behaviour.

These are patterns of thinking and being that get in the way of who, and where clients want to be. Coaching may also bring to the fore previously unrealised strengths or strengths that are overplayed or overused, which can ultimately limit performance and overall wellbeing.

For many clients these breakthrough moments are uplifting, for others quite the opposite, sometimes this is dependent on how long the ‘not knowing’ has been an issue. For some, a period of regret or grieving may follow, “why didn’t I see this ten years ago”? For some jubilation that they have found a way forward and sometimes a combination of both.

In many frank and honest coaching conversation, coaches may ask clients what barriers are in the way of moving forward? Many insightful and self-aware clients will reply, “I am, I’m what’s getting in the way, I’m what needs to change”. For many of us we instinctively know this, the hard part we don’t yet understand or have worked out how this might be achieved. That’s why our smart clients engage us, as a partner to assist in working out how to enable this.

At first, this noticing and growing self-awareness is the first step towards understanding and change. More in-depth work and ongoing reflection can, over time, combined with skilful coaching, uncover the origins of self-limiting belief systems and begin to develop new ways of thinking that serve us better.

If nothing else, we are ongoing updates of an iterative self. A painting that is never complete, an ever-evolving image that develops with us, as a partner, across both time and context. The picture we created at twenty-five is far different from the image we see at forty, fifty, sixty or further.

What is the gap? What does this mean for coaches?

Despite coming from many differing coaching approaches, cognitive behavioural, solution-focused, psychodynamic, narrative, many coaches agree that the gaining of insight for clients is a key desired coaching outcome from which growth and progress can occur.

The same blindness or not knowing that affects our clients is also a factor that gets in the way of coaches delivering outstanding coaching outcomes. As coaches, we are hampered by the same limitations are clients experience. The hope is that we are more open to noticing and acting on this feedback to enable us to be better coaches. The aim of supervision is to make the subject, object, too see through, rather than see with.

It seems that in some ways coaching supervision is the cart that came after the horse, many years after the development and acceptance of coaching as an effective mechanism of change. In many ways, as an industry, we seem to be playing catch up from a quality perspective.

The positive news is that many professional coaches are engaged in coaching supervision, also the number of trained coach supervisors is steadily growing. As an industry we are also benefiting from this, so are our coaching clients, from both an outcomes perspective and from a reputational standing.

Engaging in coaching supervision demonstrates a commitment to developing professional and ethical coaching practice.

What gets in the way of coaches working with a coach supervisor? What are the pain points?

Lack of understanding

Isn’t coaching supervision just more coach training? I’m a certified and trained coach. It’s the coaching client that needs to change, not me. I’m not the barrier to progress and moving forward. Clients see me because I’m an expert in coaching. I don’t need any more coach training.

Justification/minimising

Of course, I understand I have blind spots, I’m only human, who doesn’t, I think my idiosyncrasies are part of my appeal. I’m the expert here, I don’t need to change, and grow I can see I might get in the way, but I don’t think I need to navigate what is a side issue.

Discomfort

I know or suspect my own thinking and reactions to my coaching clients are getting in the way of me delivering great coaching. However, thinking about this makes me feel like a failed coach, I’ll never be any good at this. If I reach out for help, my coaching colleagues/competitors might think I’m no good. I’ll keep my feelings of inadequacy to myself.

It’s too expensive

Many new coaches are not making much money and pour their hard-earned money into creating new business and keeping their heads above water. Coaching supervision is just another bill. I can’t afford this now. Maybe later in the future when business is thriving.

What is coaching supervision?

Let’s define what coaching supervision is, noting that this is a growing area of coaching psychology research, and this definition will likely to expand and change over time as the body of research grows.

“Coaching supervision is a formal process of professional support which ensures the continuing development of the coach and effectiveness of his/her coaching practice through interactive reflection, interpretive evaluation and sharing of expertise“. (Bachkirova, Stevens and Willis, 2005)

In the same way, clients seek out coaching to improve their leadership and their lives, coaches can engage in coaching supervision as a practical and effective way to improve their coaching practice.

Coaching supervision fulfils three essential functions (Proctor, 1987).

Normative

It ensures that the coaching delivered is professional and ethical. Supervision provides a confidential space to discuss ethical concerns such as conflicts of interest, or where the coach feels the quality of the coaching is being compromised by power dynamics with the coaching setting. Many of these issues are highly complex and are without a black or white solution.

Formative

Supervision provides a space for feedback and direction to develop coaches further. Coaching cases are reviewed in detail. Supervision assists the coach in becoming more aware of the effects of the self within the coaching relationship and a part of the system that the coach has now become a part of. Supervision creates a space to discuss the coach’s interventions with the client and develops a more systemic view of the coaching engagement to improve coaching outcomes.

Restorative

By listening and supporting coaches to support growth. This is also extremely important as many coaches work with clients who have suffered trauma. Having a safe, confidential space to unpack this is critical in preventing coach burn out. Coaching supervision is also a space to support coaches wellbeing.

It’s highly doubtful that any coach can deliver coaching with empathy if they have not taken care of their own wellbeing first. Coaching supervision provides a safe space to discuss these important issues of self-care.

How is coaching Supervision delivered?

Coaching supervision can be delivered either one on one with a trained coach supervisor or in groups. One on one supervision provides in my experience creates a more personally focussed space to talk more deeply about the self as instrument. Some supervision groups who have met for long periods and have built high levels of trust may do this, but I suspect these are in the minority.

Group supervision has the added benefit of providing the experience and diverse exposure to other coaches’ clients and multiple views regarding what coaching cases require to move forward. This can be a valuable development opportunity. Many savvy coaches gather the benefit of experiencing both modes of supervision, one on one and group.

Sitting between under individual and group supervision is peer supervision, where another coach ‘supervises’ another coach. My personal view is that this is not supervision, if this is all that’s available, it’s better than nothing, but it is not ideal.

Again, my personal view is this constitutes the partially sighted guiding the partially sighted. I’m not saying trained coaching supervisors have all the answers. They do however follow a trained methodology to promote and nurture coach development and performance. Without these applied approaches coach development is not likely to occur.

Coaching a coach is not the same as supervision. Many peer supervision sessions I have been privy to end up as a discussion about solving the coachee as if they are some puzzle, to which there is an answer.

There is usually no discussion of the self as an instrument during these conversations. The contracting and trust to explore this is a key element within supervision and is usually lacking in these coach to coach interactions.

Beginning to think differently about supervision

These are examples of thinking and experiences that curious coaches have and occur over time. This growing curiosity moves them towards embracing coaching supervision to develop their coaching practice.

Curiosity

I’m uncomfortable, but I think this discomfort is telling something of value. I know I could develop my coaching practice further. I’m curious about what this might look like, I’ve begun to explore options for development by talking with other curious coaches. I want to expand my perspective and thinking about how I can develop my coaching practice further.

Increased perspective-taking capacity/growth

I understand that my own development is an ongoing process, as well as my client, my learning journey is work of ongoing progress. I’m comfortable knowing that being a great coach is a lifelong goal. I am a better coach than I was five years ago and that will only improve with time, in another five years I’ll be better than I am today.

Partnering with a professional coach supervisor is my commitment to delivering the best coaching I can for my clients and is an investment in my own development as a coach.

Gaining feedback on my practice is part of being a great coach. It creates excellence and is not about countering a deficit. Coaching supervision energizes me, my coaching has taken on new life and energy.

The financial cost

I’m making greater progress with my clients since I began more in-depth work on my coaching practice. I’m getting better outcomes and more word of mouth referrals as a result of my client’s positive feedback about my coaching.

I joined a supervision group. It’s an affordable option while I only have a few clients, its also a great way to develop with other coaches. I’m getting the support of a professional supervisor and exposure to other coaches’ cases which is fascinating and has made me a better coach.

What does the research literature say?

The vast body of coaching psychology research literature centres around coaching theories, frameworks, approaches and models of coaching. If we reflect for a moment on what the crucial actual instrument of coaching is, it is, in fact, the self, which acts as the instrument of change.

The interesting point here is that there is very little focus within the coaching psychology literature on what is a crucial factor of coaching success.

Perhaps in the drive to establish coaching as a stand-alone profession from other therapeutic modalities, we have either consciously or otherwise rejected or neglected to include such an important focus in coach training and development?

This is an area that has a direct bearing on coaches’ development and client’s outcomes. Coaching supervision is an effective way of addressing this golden opportunity to develop excellence in coaching practice.

If we agree that self as the coach is the key instrument of change, it then follows that three conditions need to be met to if coaches really want to perform at their best for their clients and themselves.

I. Understanding the instrument

II. Looking after the instrument

III. And checking the quality of the instrument for quality and sensitivity(Bachkirova, 2016)

Embracing the self in coaching supervision to develop coaching Supersight?

The term supervision literally means to gain a view from above in order to see to a more holistic perspective. I am coining the term Supersight, as I believe this is something coaches need to develop if they want to deliver outstanding coaching outcomes for clients and to care for the instrument of practice, the ‘self’ at the same time.

Supersight is the ability to look above and beyond the self to see where you have strengths and where you are potentially blind or unable to see either at an individual or a systemic level.

Supersight is an orientation towards coaching practice that understands that what is being seen is always never quite the entire picture, rather a series of incomplete data points from which we create connections. We do this to make sense of our own and our client’s behaviour as we believe we experience it.

Supersight is also a knowing, understanding and acceptance that in many ways we remain blind or unaware to all that is – Supersight means continuing to work in the darkness knowing that light and a path ahead will eventually emerge. Supersight is a growing comfort with darkness until the light and way ahead emerges.

Supersight is not just a view from above. It is a view from both above and from various vantage points in the landscape. Supersight is about seeing these disparate perspectives and artfully combining them to create a greater perspective and world view.

We unable to see around corners, think about how our beautiful harbour city looks and feels from different vantage points around the city. The city you see from one point is a far different city you see from another, even though it’s the same place.

From where you take a stance during one point in time influences the view you have and hold. Change the stance and where you stand and you change the view.

These are some of the insights that develop within supervision. A supervisor, just like a skilled coach focuses on the tension within the subtext of the story, the coach re-tells about the client. This develops new perspectives that enable the coach to be more effective for the client.

My own journey with coaching supervision

I compare my own coaching practice before I began working with a professional coach supervisor to at times driving down a dark road with only one headlight working. Seeing ahead was sometimes strenuous and hard work. When something unexpected arose within the coaching conversation I had little time to prepare or respond effectively.

Sometimes when encountering highly complex issues I would at times feel out of my depth, wondering into dark woodland only getting further lost the deeper I ventured in.

I thought many times that this was unfair to my clients. They were paying me for guidance, I had lost the compass and was relying on whits and luck to find a way forward.

Supervision changed my coaching practice and me as a coach, in fact, I was so impressed with supervision as a means of developing coaching practice I trained and became a coach supervisor at Oxford Brookes University in the UK.

Like coaching, coaching supervision is a lifelong journey of learning and discovery only now, I have a map a compass and two working headlights.

Developing the self to build coaching excellence

The great news is that coaching supervision sees the self as an integral and a key agent of change within the coaching process. For many self-employed and many internal coaches working in a vacuum of feedback is commonplace, many self-employed coaches work alone and have few, or no colleagues, many internal coaches have a lack of access to paid professional supervision.

Beginning to work with a coach supervisor is a great way to build feedback loops into your coaching practice and develop further. Many coaches work in selfless service of their client’s day in and day out, their work always being focussed on others.

Supervision provides a space that allows coaches to grow and flourish, it helps coaches to recharge and prevent coach burnout. Coaching supervision is about working on ourselves so that we can in better service to others

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