Expanding your supervision range: Using Heron’s 6 Categories of Intervention in Coaching Supervision

Expanding your supervision range: Using Heron’s 6 Categories of Intervention in Coaching Supervision

As a coaching supervisor, you have a wider palette to choose from than a coach.  

Your landscape of exploration spans a greater range.

Your duty of care is no longer just to the person in front of you but also to their clients, the system you’re part of and the coaching profession as a whole.

Your core aims are now threefold as you take onboard the restorative, formative and normative functions of supervision.

All of this places a demand on the supervisor to bring more to the game than coaching requires.

As a coach, you become adept at facilitation and being a catalyst for the client’s thinking and self-awareness.  Your client is the centre of attention and the assumption is that the client is the final arbiter of what’s right or wrong for them.

Given the new scope and responsibilities involved in coaching supervision, however, one of the biggest challenges a new supervisor faces is expanding their range beyond the core traits of humanistic coaching.  

Step in John Heron and his 6 Categories of Intervention, identified in his classic book, “Helping the Client”.

In this article, I’ll explore how Heron’s 6 Categories of Intervention can help supervisors wear different hats as needed and become more effective in their supervision by broadening their repertoire.

Writing from within the field of therapy, Heron identified 6 Categories of Intervention – essentially different styles of input – which he considered cover the whole range of possible interventions in therapy.

Often shortened to the 6 Cats, these have frequently been co-opted for both coaching and supervision, though they lend themselves to the latter more fully, as we shall see.

Used sensitively, they become a useful model for the coaching supervisor to notice where their style and approach naturally lie and how and where they can more deliberately expand their range.  

Becoming aware of our natural habits is a first step to expanding our options and the transition from coach to coaching supervisor is nothing if not expanding in terms of what we explore and how we explore it.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be applying Heron’s concepts to coaching supervision rather than therapy.

Heron’s 6 Categories of Intervention

Heron identified two fundamental intervention styles and, within each of these, three specific approaches.

His fundamental intervention styles are:

  • Authoritative
  • Facilitative

The authoritative style places a greater level of power and authority with the supervisor to intervene to enable change.

The facilitative style places greater power for change within the client, with the supervisor acting as an agent to promote that change.

Even before we look at the specific interventions that lie within these two groups, we can see the potential challenge for coaches in transition.  It can be hard to break with a deeply held commitment to facilitation in order to try on increased levels of authority.  Yet there are times when it is necessary in supervision.

In my experience, time and again, the biggest hurdle for coaches transitioning to coaching supervision is the use of, and even the willingness to accept, the authoritative interventions.  

Coaches trained in the humanistic approach are taught that the client is the source of their own answers and they build their practice muscles around facilitating the client to find, trust and act on their own ideas.

The use of authoritative interventions in supervision does not, however, undermine this.  Rather, it expands options by introducing a greater authoritative element in which the supervisor can advise, teach and share their experiences in a more guiding manner.

Let’s now explore each group in more detail.

Heron lists the authoritative and facilitative interventions as:

Authoritative

  • Prescriptive
  • Informative
  • Confronting

Facilitative

  • Catalytic
  • Cathartic
  • Supportive

I have long said that all of these intervention styles, bar one, work for humanistic coaching just as effectively, and that it is only coaching schools’s predilection for an almost exclusive catalytic approach that leave many coaches unskilled in the wider set of approaches.  

In its truest form, humanistic coaching precludes the prescriptive approach – put simply, we don’t give advice.  We don’t prescribe.

But, of course, in many areas of coaching, prescription is not just “allowed” but expected.  A business coach, presentation coach,  parenting coach or health coach, generally would be expected to give advice.  The context of coaching is all important!

Nevertheless, many coaches will come to this model and struggle with the idea of prescription as an intervention that they would use.

In coaching supervision though, all six are undeniably useful.

Before looking at how they help expand a coaching supervisor’s range, let’s first get clear on each intervention type, remembering that what we mean by intervention is simply the thing the coaching supervisor does and the intention behind it.

Authoritative

Prescriptive Intervention

As we’ve already alluded to, the prescriptive approach is one in which advice is given, a plan of action suggested, a next step proposed.  

It is predicated on the expertise, experience and authority of the supervisor who can credibly, knowledgeably and appropriately administer such advice.  The language, of course,  evokes the medical model, unsurprising given its origins in the therapeutic field, but the prescriptive skill applies as much to the business coach and the coaching supervisor as it does the therapist.  

There are times your expertise, clear guidance and advice is needed.

Informative Intervention

The informative intervention is more detached than the prescriptive.  It is merely the passing on of useful ideas, models, information and concepts that the coach may find useful and may choose to use, or not.

This is where the teaching and educational elements of supervision sit and it will typically be used to a greater or lesser extent based on the experience level, or specialism, of the coach being supervised.

Confronting Intervention

The confronting intervention is one which many coaches are familiar and comfortably use – it is perhaps the one authoritative stance that has always been a natural part of coaching.

Whether in coaching, supervision or therapy, the confronting intervention is one where we help the person we’re working with confront something they don’t want to.  We might term this “holding up the mirror”, confronting our patterns, seeing our blindspots,  or just facing reality.  

It sits within the authoritative stance because in these moments it is the supervisor who shines the light on the uncomfortable truth.

Facilitative

Catalytic Intervention

For coaches, this is typically the comfort zone! This is what they trained to do and where they are most at risk of remaining stuck as they transition to becoming a coaching supervisor.

The catalytic intervention is the supervisor as facilitator of self-awareness, thinking, ideas and decision.  It’s helping someone think through their experience, options and future through questioning and reflecting.  

Cathartic Intervention

The cathartic intervention certainly has its roots in some forms of therapy but it is also useful in supervision, especially when we consider the restorative function discussed in an earlier post.

The cathartic intervention is one which enables a release of emotion.  It is the question that taps into the supervisee’s feelings, or their response to a distressing experience.  

It is less about understanding the emotion than releasing it, which in turn can lead to a greater capacity to make sense of it through catalytic questions.

Supportive Intervention

The final intervention is one that many coaches will also be familiar with.  

The supportive intervention is the short and humane comment by the supervisor that lets the supervisee know they are not alone, that they have been heard and understood for facing something difficult, that shows empathy. It is the comment that normalises yet doesn’t trivialise.  

Comments like “That must have been difficult”; “I can imagine that was no easy decision”; “It sounds like you were doing your utmost” all sit within the supportive style.

Expanding your range in the transition to coaching supervision

Having briefly covered each, let’s acknowledge again that a coach transitioning into coaching supervision is going to be well-versed in the facilitative interventions.  Most coaches’ work is predicated upon asking questions, reflecting, listening to understand and to see what’s not being said.  

All of this is highly effective and continues to be absolutely necessary in supervision.  

It’s the stretch to the authoritative styles where coaches often struggle. Yet it’s one they must begin to make.

As they carry out supervision, they must be alive to the three core functions of supervision:

  • The restorative function
  • The formative function
  • The normative function

And each, moment by moment, might call upon a different intervention style.

I wrote in an earlier post that the normative function is one where coaching supervisors often feel least comfortable.  It doesn’t take much thinking to connect the dots that the normative function can potentially call more clearly on the authoritative stance of confronting, informing and potentially even prescribing.

An example – The use of the authoritative stance in the normative function

Imagine, for a moment, a coach who is actively colluding with the client against the organisation who is paying for the coaching (yes, it happens!) The two have become enmeshed in a belief about the organisation which means they are not acting in its interests but rather solely in the client’s.  The coach has adopted the client’s beliefs and mindset about the organisation even though, in this case, the only source is that of the client themselves.

A coaching supervisor who limits themselves to the catalytic style may know there is something wrong in the situation but feel unable to name it, hoping instead that questioning the supervisee will lead to it coming out into the open.  

If it doesn’t become explicit and the coach is unable, or unwilling, to see the risks and issues in the coaching, then the ethical issues in the case might remain unchallenged.

By contrast, a coaching supervisor who develops a broader range of responses might begin in a catalytic mode but realise that this is not moving where they believe it should.  

They might then try a confronting intervention to more boldly point out the ethical issue at stake.  Perhaps the coach can see it but feels it’s not an issue.  

The coaching supervisor could offer to share information that might change the coach’s perspective and so describe aspects of the coach’s professional code of conduct, or some information on systemic collusion.   

Ultimately, the supervisor might take a prescriptive approach by being explicit in the actions needed for the coaching relationship to remain ethical.

For many coaches, and even some coaching supervisors, this escalation up the authoritative ladder might feel alien and alienating.  Yet, the art is to be able to have this conversation in a way that remains collaborative, egalitarian and respectful.

This is not about the supervisor laying down the law but rather being clear on what the “law” is, whether the coach understands how they might be contravening it, whether they care, and what is most appropriate to happen in order to remedy it.

An example – The use of the informative intervention in the formative function

Coaching supervision is not a teaching profession but that doesn’t mean it is never helpful to use a teaching approach.

The humanistic coach rarely, if ever, involves a teaching element and so it can be hard for a coach becoming a supervisor to allow themselves this ability.

Again, if they only remain in the catalytic space they miss out on the rich possibilities of the informative space.

Imagine, for instance, a supervisor working with a relatively inexperienced coach.  They are working from a recorded session and so the supervisor has direct access to the audio element of the coaching.

As the supervisor listens to the session, she hear parts where the coach clearly feels stuck.  The coach confirms this and says he didn’t know where to go next.

The catalytic approach might be an entirely appropriate response, asking the coach what he could have done differently as he looks back, what else he might try, where the feelings of stuckness came from and more.  

But it might also be the case that the supervisor feels she has a model or an approach that could help.  Remaining wedded to the catalytic approach, and fearing an imposition of knowledge, might stifle an otherwise useful exploration and sharing of knowledge.

Taking an informative stance, the supervisor might offer to share something that could help and, assuming the coach agreed, a useful, appropriate sharing of concepts could take place. Bookended by catalytic questioning this would feel like an entirely adult approach to the authoritative style of intervention.

Using Heron’s 6 Categories as a Developmental Map

Supervision is, of course, fundamentally a reflective space for development and as a supervisor, you will also be constantly reflecting on your work.

Heron’s 6 Categories provides an exceptionally simple model for assessing your natural preferences and tendencies as a supervisor and for noticing your own blindspots.

Taking a step back and noticing what intervention styles you called upon in a supervision session can open your eyes to your habits and begin to build the muscle of awareness for what else is possible.

Do you notice you fall back on the catalytic approach almost exclusively, then consider how you might introduce another approach and explore what difference it might make.

Perhaps you notice that when you take a more authoritative approach, it triggers post-session anxiety that you overstepped the mark.  Consider how true that is and whether and how you might have done it differently or whether it’s just old beliefs about the role of a coach imposing themselves on you.

Both as reflection-on-action (after the session) and reflection-in-action (during the session), the 6 Categories allow us to expand our range as coaching supervisors.  We get to notice our habits, create more options for action, move more fluidly around issues and become altogether a more competent and confident coaching supervisor.

Author Details
Nick is the founder and CEO of the Centre for Coaching Supervision and Animas Centre for Coaching. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a traveller and trekker and journeys around the UK on his narrowboat, Vagabond, with his wife, Danni.
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Nick is the founder and CEO of the Centre for Coaching Supervision and Animas Centre for Coaching. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a traveller and trekker and journeys around the UK on his narrowboat, Vagabond, with his wife, Danni.
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