Anyone who has considered seeking out coaching supervision or training as a supervisor will have asked themselves a variation of the following question:
What exactly is coaching supervision?
Like coaching itself, there are so many individual definitions of coaching supervision, that it can be hard to pin it down.
Yet, despite this, those in the profession certainly have a shared sense of it. We know it when we’re seeing it and we know it when we’re not seeing it!
In this article, then, my aim is not to give some final word on defining coaching supervision – indeed, that would go against the very values that supervision is based on. Instead, I will try to offer an explanation that encapsulates the many variations that exist.
Whilst recently re-reading “Effective Supervision for the Helping Professions” by Michael Carroll, I was particularly struck by this definition he quotes from Sheila Ryan:
Supervision interrupts practice. It wakes us up to what we are doing. When we are alive to what we are doing, we wake up to what it is, instead of falling asleep in the comfort stories of our clinical routines and daily practice…the supervisory voice acts as the irritator interrupting repetitive stories (comfort stories) and facilitating the creation of new stories.” (Ryan, 2004: 44)
Michael Carroll, Effective Supervision for the Helping Professions
This really speaks to me, not least because it focuses on the purpose of supervision rather than the process. When we define supervision by the process, it risks blinding us to new and creative ways to achieve the aims for which it is designed.
And whilst Ryan was writing from the perspective of homeopathy, coaching supervision aims at the same thing.
Yet it is also far more than just avoiding complacency and comfort zones.
It’s about enrichment, challenge, boundaries, ethics, client welfare, better outcomes, systems thinking, emotional release, new perspectives, putting things in perspective, ensuring professional standards, and much more.
In his foreword to “In Love with Supervision” by Robin and Joan Shohet, Ben Fuchs describes supervision as:
…the practice and discipline of self-reflection and facilitated inquiry into the dilemmas that can arise whenever human psychology plays a part. In this regard, supervision can be seen as a lens, a way of looking at any situation and oneself; a way of being in the world; a way of seeing with new eyes.
Ben Fuchs in Robin & Joan Shohet’s In Love with Supervision
Indeed, a frequently used reframe of the word supervision by those involved in this field, in a bid to overcome the notions of hierarchy and power, is that of super-vision; a higher way of seeing.
From a more prosaic but more actionable perspective, we can think of coaching supervision being a process of reflective practice within a collaborative relationship.
The coaching supervisor and coach (supervisee) explore the coach’s work through a range of approaches, lenses and subjects of inquiry in order to bring about better outcomes for the end-user, the system in which they are working and the coach themselves.
In a similar vein, Hawkins and Shohet in their classic book, “Supervision in the Helping Professions”, describe it as:
“…a joint endeavour in which a practitioner with the help of a supervisor, attends to their clients, themselves as part of their client practitioner relationships and the wider systemic context, and by so doing improves the quality of the work, transforms their relationships, continuously develops themselves, their practice and the wider profession.”
Peter Hawkins and Robin Shohet, Supervision in the Helping Professions
This definition introduces a new element, namely the responsibility of the coaching supervisor to the profession as a whole. Whilst coaching supervisors are not appointed gatekeepers to the profession, they do at least have copies of the keys and hold a responsibility to be aware of the ethical soundness of their supervisee’s practice.
Bringing in the relational dynamic, de Haan in Supervision in Action describes it as:
…disciplined reflection-in-relation wherein case history and principles are transformed into new possibilities for action and skills.
Erik de Haan, Supervision in Action
Another way in which supervision in the helping professions, has been usefully understood is through the lens of three core functions:
Let’s briefly examine these:
The formative function seeks to help the client grow by developing new skills, strengthening critical reflection, gaining wider theoretical knowledge and so on. In other words, the formative element could be considered the growing part of supervision.
The normative function focuses more on ensuring the appropriate quality, ethical integrity and professional standards of the coach, raising questions where boundaries are breached, practices stretched, or ethics questionable. This could be seen as the guardian element.
The restorative function is focused on the coach’s own sense of wellbeing, recognising the potentially draining, challenging, destabilising and upsetting feelings that coaching can create. Creating a safe space for release, regaining a sense of self or putting things in perspective, this can be seen as the recovery element of supervision.
Depending on your experience of either receiving or providing supervision in other fields of work you may have found yourself assuming that one or other of these was more dominant in coaching supervision. Supervision in the medical profession, social work and psychotherapy have traditionally had distinct and different qualities, for instance.
Perhaps your experience of supervision is one of command and control in which the very idea of a supervisor conjures up notions of clip-boards, assessment and risk of failure and judgement.
Or perhaps your experience is born from an approach to a therapeutic form of supervision that is more focused on enabling the processing of strong emotions from distressing clinical work.
Or maybe your experience has been more of an educative, mentoring process in which the supervisor teaches new skills and encourages experimentation.
The reality of coaching supervision is that the supervisor wears all three hats and must remain alert and sensitive to which is most fully needed in the moment whilst being present in the ever-developing relationship.
What’s clear from all this is that the coaching supervisor is first and foremost concerned with the coaching practice rather than the coach in all aspects of their life.
One misconception, however, is that coaching supervision then is just coaching but focused on one key subject – the supervisee’s practice. But this is far from true. Whilst coaching skills remain a core ingredient of coaching supervision, there is more besides this layered into the supervision conversation.
The supervisor is no longer confined to being a facilitator of thinking and sense-making. Instead, they may inhabit the role of educator sharing new practices and skills, of guardian drawing clear lines between appropriate and inappropriate behaviours, or of counsellor allowing for moments of cathartic release.
Indeed, for many coaches transitioning to becoming a coaching supervisor, stretching themselves beyond the normal behaviours of coaching can be both the most challenging and, at the same time, most liberating aspect of training in coaching supervision.
To sum this up then, the definition we created at the International Centre for Coaching Supervision is:
Coaching supervision is a collaborative, reflective conversation in which the supervisor and supervisee engage in an exploration of the supervisee’s work with to help them grow, flourish and enjoy their work as a coach whilst also ensuring the quality and integrity of their work for their clients, the systems they work within and the coaching profession as a whole.
International Centre for Coaching Supervision
Of course, the devil is in the detail and so whilst this definition offers a high-level description of the coaching supervision, the beautiful complexity and methods remain to be explored, understood and mastered!
Finally, in closing, I’d like to bring us back to supervision as something more than processes and outcomes and frame it as a way of being.
In “In Love With Supervision”, Robin Shohet offers his own sense of supervision when he says:
…supervision creates a space in which we can inquire into human behaviour on many levels; intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, intergroup, organisational and societal. All of these are, I believe, encompassed by a spiritual approach in which we have the opportunity to go past separateness, path the problems by which we and others are defined, and reach a deeper truth where we recognise our interconnectedness.
Robin Shohet, In Love with Supervision
What’s clear then is that are innumerable ways to think about, define and practise supervision but that it is underpinned by values, assumptions and attitudes that create a space of connection, inquiry and the desire for growth.