My enthusiasm for psychodynamic theory began over twenty years ago when I was studying psychoanalysis and I fell in love with the writings of Freud. That enthusiasm and passion has stayed with me throughout my professional life.
To me, the way that Freud understands the mind and our responses as humans makes perfect sense. As soon as I received the course handbook for the Diploma in Coaching Supervision, I scanned the session list for when we would be covering psychodynamic theory and began counting down until then. The week before the session I excitedly clicked on the link for the preparatory reading. I was hoping to find several texts to immerse myself in. I wanted to understand how a familiar mindset would align with my supervision practice. I was somewhat disappointed to discover only one article, especially as for other sessions there had been up to three pieces of reading.
I reviewed our bibliography for recommendations, yet there was nothing specific there. Following that I did a quick search online to see if there were any books explicitly related specifically to coaching supervision and psychodynamic theory, but I was drawing a blank.
Undeterred, I was the first person on the call for that session. One of my objectives was to ask our trainer, Yannick Jacob, whether there really was very little writing around this or if I was looking in the wrong place? Yannick confirmed my suspicions. There is not much written around this topic. That session reignited my passion for Freud and the application of psychodynamic theory. I began to consider how this approach could sit within the field of coaching supervision. How can it inform and support our work? Where, and what, could the benefit(s) be?
Before I continued my assumption about the scarcity of relevant texts I decided to do further research. To date I have not uncovered a vast amount of study or work on this subject.
Is there really a lack of information around this?
There are currently no books devoted to the subject of psychodynamic theory within coaching supervision. There are only several articles and short pieces.
Catherine Sandler has written a chapter on the subject, titled “The Use of Psychodynamic Theory in Coaching Supervision” found in Bachkirova T, Jackson P and Clutterbuck D (eds), (2011). Psychodynamic theory is clearly a passion for her as this chapter was written around the same time as her book Executive Coaching: A Psychodynamic Approach. Sandler focuses extensively on the application of psychodynamic theory within executive coaching. In her article on supervision, Sandler mentions how relevant areas of psychodynamics could be applied in the supervision setting. She makes particular reference to the concepts of transference, countertransference and the areas of defence mechanisms. When explored, they can become invaluable tools in the understanding of the inner worlds of the coach and their coachee. In my opinion this would imply a strong reason for their application in both coaching and coaching supervision.
Another chapter concerning psychodynamic theory within coaching supervision is by Christine Thornton’s work in the book, Coaching Supervision: A Practical Guide for Supervisees, by Clutterbuck D, Whitaker C and Lucas M (Eds), (2016).
In her chapter, Thornton is less concerned with the mechanics of psychodynamics. She only briefly mentions the unconscious and focuses on more adaptions of the theory such as the Johari window. Psychodynamics only merits a few pages in a more extensive chapter encompassing other schools of approach to coaching supervision.
Additionally, I found a section dedicated to psychodynamic perspectives by Lynda Tongue in 101 Coaching Supervision Techniques, Approaches, Enquiries and Experiments, Lucas M, (2020). Tongue does not give a comprehensive description of psychodynamic techniques and ways to apply these in coaching supervision. Instead, she leaps into her chapter by aligning it firmly in the camp of Transactional Analysis (TA).
When reading her introduction, it might appear that the concepts of transference and countertransference were relatively new concepts introduced in the 1960s, as if Freud, over sixty years earlier, had not introduced them in his Studies on Hysteria (1895). TA was developed by Eric Berne in the 1960s. Whilst Freud influenced Berne, TA does not cover all aspects of psychodynamics.
The approaches that Tongue (and others) outline are at best rudimentary and give very little depth to the methods that are being described. In my opinion, working with people at this level the outline of an exercise is not enough.
Interestingly, in the references for the section on Transference and Countertransference (merely two and a half well-spaced pages) the authors of the section cite only two references. Neither of these are Sandler’s article. Given that this book is written approximately eight years after Sandler’s (easily accessible) article, this seems a glaring omission.
While not dedicating a specific chapter or section to the theme of psychodynamics within his book, Supervision in Action, de Haan weaves the key psychodynamic concepts of transference and countertransference throughout. Transference and countertransference are central aspects of the supervisory relationship for de Haan and he describes supervision as a “unique” place to discover them. He also refers to defence mechanisms such as splitting and projection. Despite de Haan’s evident appreciation for psychodynamics he prefers to discuss what he calls “relational” coaching and coaching supervision. Unless you had understood that the origins of transference and other such phenomena were psychodynamic in nature you might not locate de Haan in such a review of psychodynamic theory within coaching supervision or coaching.
In Coaching Supervision by Birch and Welch (2019), Dr Sandra Wilson discusses the psychodynamic model relating to our unconscious mind. She then links it to research she has completed around coaches, their senses of self (idealised, authentic and unconscious) and how this can be tied into supervision. Wilson does refer to areas including transference and defence mechanisms. Yet her conclusion that supervision, despite being a “one person intervention”, is an “extension of the multi-party psychology that is coaching” seems to miss the depth of understanding that a fully psychodynamic perspective brings.
These articles are what I have so far been able to source, most of which refer specifically to applying psychodynamic theory within coaching supervision. I was slightly more successful in finding books and articles relating to psychodynamic theory and coaching. As coaching supervision is yet to become as an established discipline as coaching, this is perhaps not surprising.
As previously mentioned, Sandler devotes an entire book to applying psychodynamic theory in executive coaching (Sandler, 2011). In this book, she covers the main concepts of psychodynamic theory, links them to use when working with executive clients and illustrates with case studies. Whilst this book is dedicated to executive coaching, I would argue that the principles are the same. It is not the coaching methods that differ when coaching executive clients and life/ personal development clients, it is the context. We are all people with unconscious and conscious minds, and the applications are transferable. Sandler does reference coaching supervision within this book, although only highlighting best practice.
There are several other books including chapters on the use of psychodynamic approaches within coaching. In The Complete Handbook of Coaching by Cox, Bachkirova and Clutterbuck, (2014), Graham Lee opens with “The Psychodynamic Approach to Coaching”. Here he looks at the origins of the psychodynamic movement (not limiting himself to Freud). He then covers what makes for a psychodynamic approach and links this to several areas of coaching. He concludes by examining the strengths and the “limitations” of the psychodynamic approach to give the coach the best understanding of where this method would be appropriate. Other similar chapters can be found in books including Peltier’s The Psychology of Executive Coaching, (2010). Here he outlines psychodynamic and related concepts and links them to their potential use in executive coaching. In addition, Vera Zagier Roberts and Halina Brunning discuss the concepts in their chapter in Palmer and Whybrow’s Handbook of Coaching Psychology, (2007). This chapter is aimed at those interested in systems-psychodynamics coaching. While Andrew Day in De Haan and Sills’ book Coaching Relationships, (2012) calls his chapter “Working with unconscious relational process in coaching” the very first sentence references the psychoanalytic framework in coaching that he will be exploring.
In considering the literature available, both for coaching and for coaching supervision, psychodynamic theory does not seem to feature as strongly as other areas within coaching right now (a quick online search gave me the option of at least nine books on coaching and Positive Psychology). There is definitely information out there, but not much, and at times, it has to be hunted out
Why is psychodynamic theory not as popular as other areas of exploration?
It is true to say that Freud and other early psychoanalytic writers (Jung, Klein etc) are not currently a fashionable read. As Peltier (2010) notes, there is an unfavourable stereotypical view of the psychoanalytic psychotherapist, known to be part of “Woody Allen jokes”. Peltier goes as far as to say that such stereotypes can “seriously damage a coach’s attractiveness and credibility”. It makes sense that given so many options and other schools of thought, a psychodynamic view might not be the first choice of a new coach or supervisor. It could also be argued that some writers even try to avoid the psychodynamic label. De Haan (De Haan, 2012) and Day (De Haan and Sills, 2012) both opt for the term “relational”, despite making several references to the unconscious and unconscious processes throughout.
Another factor might be to do with Freud’s texts being a challenge for the modern reader to comprehend. He began to write in the 1890s, a different point in history to where we are now. He came from a world with very different attitudes to ones that we hold today, particularly around women. The women that he was treating lived lives that are virtually unrecognisable compared to present day. Freud trained primarily as a medical doctor and used technical terms as such. He worked with an almost mechanical description of the mind.
Simply put, it’s not an easy read.
It is a little unfair perhaps to lay all the blame for that at Freud’s door. His work was initially written in his native German and then translated into English (for The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud) mostly by James Strachey. There has been much debate over the years as to the accuracy of Strachey’s translations. For example, Strachey uses the word “instinct” rather than “drive” to translate the German word “Trieb” which completely alters the meaning for the English reader. Since Freud’s work is now not subject to copyright laws, there are updated, more readable, translations becoming available, which can open up his writings to a whole new audience.
From a personal perspective, I wonder if people have fallen a little bit out of love with Freud and his concepts because they are pretty complicated to understand? Some other areas can be more easily accessible to the modern reader. For example, TA gives us models to work with, such as the parent-adult-child ego states and the drama/ winner’s triangle. At first glance, these can seem more understandable than either Freud’s concepts of the Id, Ego and Superego or his ideas concerning object cathexis. Freud’s approach also forces us to look at some less pleasant aspects of our psyche. His writings encourage us to explore ourselves in a way that other forms of psychological work do not necessarily do. Freud argues that we use defence mechanisms to keep us psychologically safe and to help avoid anxiety. I question if, in not reading/ applying Freud’s theories, we are using such defence mechanisms to keep ourselves safe from having to look at the things we might find difficult? It is hard to recognise that we might be repeating a pattern of behaviour or responding in a certain way (adopting a position of denial/ repression/ displacement etc), so it becomes safer to not have to think about it at all.
How do we apply psychodynamic theory in coaching supervision?
Is there merit for a greater concentration in this field, or am I just drawn towards it because I have enjoyed studying it previously? I successfully applied several techniques in my coaching practice. Am I just assuming that it could work in supervision? Areas in my coaching practice that have proved effective with clients include:
- Looking at defence mechanisms; why clients are responding in certain ways and what are they defending themselves against?
- Transference relationships; why some clients are repeating similar structures within relationships over and over again, recognising patterns of behaviour
- Unconscious motivation; working with clients around their choices
- Examining what the client either consciously or unconsciously avoids
What has made this work has been that I have an understanding of the psychodynamic approach, so I am not going in blindly. Within this I also appreciate the importance of creating a safe space for the client to look at these potentially challenging and problematic areas. To refer back to De Haan and his idea of relational work, the relationship between myself and the coachee has to be right for this to work and be beneficial for the client. I am also aware that some clients respond well to this approach and some clients do not want to be in this space. It is not what they have come to coaching for. These approaches have worked when those conditions are met: the relationship is strong and psychologically secure, and the client is open and responsive to working this way.
Does this still hold for supervision?
I do not think that there is any difference in the supervision relationship; it also has to be correct, and the supervisee has to be open to working in this way. Otherwise either the coachee or supervisee will feel unheard and the agenda becomes mine (as either coach or supervisor) and not that of my client.
As there is very little written about this at length or in depth, I have drawn on Sandler’s views on this in relation to coaching (Sandler, 2011) and examined whether this would be applicable in the supervision space. Sandler strongly believes in the use of a psychodynamic approach within (executive) coaching and states that “through skilful use, it can inform and enhance the practice of executive coaching”. She outlines that Freud sees the interplay between unconscious and conscious thoughts as being continual, happening all the time and applying to each of us.
We all use defence mechanisms when being coached to protect us from anxiety. Therefore, I feel that we could adopt similar positions in supervision. Sandler highlights Freud’s assertion that we tend to push all the unpleasant and difficult feelings away from our conscious thoughts. We do not like to think about certain things. This is certainly relevant to supervision where it can be difficult to bring up areas of our work that we might not be happy with or that we feel shame around.
It would be completely understandable for a supervisee to employ defence mechanisms in these situations. A skilled supervisor, well-versed in the understanding of such defence mechanisms could safely and securely bring this into the supervision space. This would allow for the supervisee and supervisor to work through these areas, allowing the supervisee to understand themselves at a deeper level and enhance their work with their clients.
Sandler also references the repeating patterns that we have woven through our lives, whether positive or negative, all “reassuringly familiar”, namely Freud’s repetition compulsion. The reasons as to why this phenomenon happens are too comprehensive to discuss here. Yet a skilled supervisor would be able to work with a supervisee to name this situation and to look at what is happening for the supervisee in their work. Closely linked to the compulsion to repeat are the ideas of transference and countertransference, relevant to both coaching and coaching supervision by the nature of their modality. Working with the transference and countertransference are such rich areas to explore in both these relationships. It seems a wasted opportunity not to be aware of the information that they surface.
In addition, Sandler references the “hot issue” for the client, whether they consciously know it or not, being the one where they presently have the fiercest emotions. If we don’t explore these with the supervisee, we risk avoiding looking at the critical aspects of what is happening for them. The sessions could end up being superficial, which is a waste for everyone – supervisor, supervisee and their coaching client.
We all have an unconscious world which impacts us. A psychoanalytic approach gives us the tools to start to understand this with our coaching clients and, I would argue, with our coaching supervisees.
From my quick trip around the area of psychodynamic theory in coaching supervision I am left with one thought: I want to bring Freud back.
For me, the universality of his discoveries of our unconscious/ conscious minds and the dynamics that go on both for ourselves and in relation to others is too important not to bring into the coaching supervision space. I recognise that this is an area that requires further in-depth research and reading around it.
I feel that there also needs to be more structured training in this area for coaches and supervisors. It takes at least three years to train to become a psychodynamic psychotherapist, because of the sensitive nature of their work. Coaches and supervisors do not necessarily need this level of training. However, should they choose to use these approaches then a deeper understanding, including what their boundaries of working within this field are, would ensure greater psychological safety for the client.
Maybe the question for me as a supervisor – who champions this approach – then becomes: what is my part in ensuring that if these approaches are used in supervision, it is done in an appropriate professional manner ensuring the supervisee’s safety?
Bachkirova T, Jackson P and Clutterbuck D (eds), Coaching and Mentoring Supervision, OUP, 2011
Birch J and Welch P, Coaching Supervision, Routledge, 2019
Clutterbuck D, Whittaker C and Lucas M (eds), Coaching Supervision: A Practical Guide for Supervisees, Routledge, 2016
Cox E, Bachkirova T and Clutterbuck B (eds), The Complete Handbook of Coaching Second Edition, Sage, 2014
De Haan E, Supervision in Action, OUP, 2012
De Haan E and Sills C, Coaching Relationships, Libri Publishing, 2012
Laplanche J and Pontalis JB, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Karnac Books, 1988 (first published 1973)
Lucas M (ed), 101 Coaching Supervision Techniques, Approaches, Enquiries and Experiments, Routledge, 2020
Palmer S and Whybrow A, Handbook of Coaching Psychology, Routledge, 2007
Peltier B, The Psychology of Executive Coaching, Routledge, 2010
Sandler C, Executive Coaching: A Psychodynamic Approach, OUP, 2011