Sarah Gilbert, Michelle Lucas and Eve Turner share their peer supervision research, reflect on their experiences, and raise questions for future debate
Imagine our confusion when three qualified supervisors in a peer supervision chain received conflicting views about the appropriateness of this form of reflective practice for coach and supervisor accreditation purposes from three different coaching professional bodies. In the current market, with many more coaches than supervisors and few supervisors who have experience of supervising supervisors, what ‘should’ best practice look like?
In writing this article we wanted to share our own experiences and learning from being part of a chain, and bring attention to what we see as an important form of supervision.Imagine our confusion when three qualified supervisors in a peer supervision chain received conflicting views about the appropriateness of this form of reflective practice for coach and supervisor accreditation purposes from three different coaching professional bodies. In the current market, with many more coaches than supervisors and few supervisors who have experience of supervising supervisors, what ‘should’ best practice look like?
The authors of this article are three members of a group of 11 trained supervisors who give and receive peer supervision to each other 9-12 times a year in a ‘chain’ that has been operating since 2010.
By ‘chain’ we mean that A supervises B, who supervises C, who supervises A, and so on. The pairings change three times a year. In 2013, we carried out a confidential survey to understand how we were using the chain within our wider reflective practice, to identify what it was about the chain that seemed to be working well and how we could improve it, and to compare our experiences of it being acceptable as a form of supervision externally.
We presented our findings at the 3rd International Supervision Conference in 2013 and then updated and expanded our survey, presenting the results at the 2014 conference.
What is peer supervision?
We have come across many descriptions, all of which could potentially be described as peer supervision (see: Ways that we describe peer supervision).
For us, peer supervision means supervision with someone at a similar level of both coach and coach supervision training. Also, our initial chain began as the original eight members finished their postgraduate supervision training – so there was a sense
of equivalence in our developmental journeys.
The 2013 survey asked chain members to articulate what was different about working with a peer (who happened also to be a trained supervisor) in a chain over and above working with a ‘regular’ trained supervisor.
Three main themes emerged. First, the equivalence of training seemed to offer a sense of ‘quality control’ for the supervision received, and supervisors could ask for feedback on their work from an appropriately informed perspective. Second, members identified ‘working in the spirit of reciprocity’ with a genuine motivation to share learning.
Third, there was a deep sense of collaboration that came from the relative absence of role power between supervisee and supervisor.
All of this is expressed by Gillian Curtis, a chain member: “The value of the chain to me is that I enjoy regular and frequent supervision, which is always of the highest professional standard. It offers new light and a fresh perspective on any situation or issue that I bring, encouraging me in my work to feel part of a larger community of supervisors and mutually supported by them.”
What could be ‘too near’?
There is relatively little written around peer supervision, although it is discussed by St John Brooks; Hawkins and Shohet; Carroll and Gilbert; Hawkins and Smith, and Grant, among others. Bachkirova and Jackson examine three forms: one-to-one, peer supervision in a group and chain.
For this latter type they suggest: “There is a much better chance for success if all members of the chain are experienced and knowledgeable as supervisors as well as coaches” (p232).
They believe members need to pay particular attention to contracting. These suggestions reflect the experience in our chain.
When we presented in 2013, some of the audience observed that such an arrangement felt “cosy” and anticipated the potential for collusion. Grant (2012, p26) writes: “Although peer group supervision can be seen as a cost-effective way to deliver or access supervision, those who organise such activities have a duty of care to ensure supervision quality.”
Bachkirova and Jackson believe: “There is a risk of collusion and …valuable insights into issues of quality might be missed” (p233).
But they also believe it is worth persevering because, if sufficient attention is paid to dynamics and contracting, it can add more perspectives and diversity and hones supervisory skills.
Our experience wasn’t one of collusion. We designed the chain so we never supervised the person who was supervising us simultaneously. There are significant differences among members who work in different fields, represent a diverse range of professional bodies and use varied coaching approaches. Importantly, one of the main benefits cited in our survey was the sheer breadth of the approaches we experience. As we do not choose who we work with, we find ourselves stretched in a way we might not actively seek. Far from being cosy, this can at times be quite uncomfortable!
In our view, it is the responsibility of both parties to work rigorously; even a traditional one-to-one supervision relationship has the potential to be collusive if those involved let it. Indeed chain member
Gilly Rutherford believes “because everyone…is qualified and experienced it carries a high level of credibility and integrity”.
As we considered this challenge, we also realised there is another important difference to a prolonged one-to-one supervision relationship. The chain gave us the opportunity to ‘triangulate’ the feedback we received as a supervisee or as a supervisor.
Lesley Matile, one of the chain members, believes it works well for her: “The chain, with its range of qualified and experienced coaches, helps me scrutinise my practice from many angles and perspectives and asks me a range of helpful and developmental questions that I was unlikely to get from one supervisor alone.”
Indeed, when she went for Master Practitioner Coach accreditation, the issue of “continuity (ie, of having one supervisor over an extended period) did not arise. Instead, my responsibility as a supervisee to ensure I used the supervision well was embraced”.
Lesley, for example, writes logs of each session.
And Gilly continues: “So using the chain as part of my supervision… has always been readily accepted in renewing my accreditation…the most important consideration is how I used my supervision in service of my practice.”
Nevertheless, the reaction in 2013 did prompt changes; we extended the chain beyond its Oxford Brookes beginnings to include some alumni from Bath Consultancy Group. We also arranged external supervision to review our group processes.
Putting the chain in context
Our 2014 survey explored how we used the chain in relation to other forms of reflective practice. For some, the chain was their only form of reflective practice involving other people, while for many it was part of a wider mix. On average, the chain accounted for only 30 per cent of our total reflective practice.
However, we all consistently rated the peer supervision chain as being just as effective as traditional one-to-one supervision. Lesley’s response in our survey supports this: “I see it exactly the same as any other individual supervision, paid for or not. It’s a place to use the supervisor as a sounding board
to develop practice, receive challenges, be supported professionally and to be held accountable for practice.”
Figure 1 also reflects the wide variety of reflective practices that chain members engaged in. This lends weight to views expressed in previous issues of Coaching at Work by Tatiana Bachkirova (2011) and Alison Hodge (2014) that traditional one-to-one supervision is not enough for fit-for-purpose CPD. They both encourage the voluntary commitment of coaches to a range of activities with diverse others. We acknowledged that being part of the chain increased the amount of reflective practice we engage in.
So what’s the hitch?
Our overriding experience of the chain has been positive. However, we also identified a number of limitations and drawbacks. For example, there is a lack of continuity (only four consecutive sessions with one supervisor each rotation) and there have been differing levels of availability to share the chain ‘admin’. Naturally, we are concerned with our experience that not all professional bodies recognised our practice for accreditation purposes and with the external perceptions of cosiness.
So to return to our opening point: what is it that is making the difference in how professional bodies view the appropriateness of peer supervision for accreditation?
In relative terms, the coaching supervision market is still in its formative stages and it’s perhaps not surprising that we have yet to reach a common understanding. We sought clarification from each of the professional bodies on their current position on peer supervision for accreditation purposes (see box: Questions for professional bodies).
To date there is no clarity on the acceptability of peer supervision and there are implicit and explicit assumptions:
- That peer supervision is normally done on a directly reciprocal basis
- That payment of money rather than exchange of time may be seen as the valid ‘currency’
- That the qualifications and experience of the peer supervisor are more important than the qualifications and experience of the peer supervisee
- That the relationship needs to be free from a dual role, such as line manager or business partner
- That peer may imply that neither party is a suitably qualified practitioner of supervision
- That peer supervision may not be formally contracted for.
As the coaching and supervision professions evolve, practitioners need clear guidance on fit-for-purpose supervision and more consistent requirements for recognition of supervision arrangements. We hope the professional bodies lead the debate, reviewing and refining their position (see box” Professional bodies’ perspectives).
So what do practitioners do in the meantime? While we wait for greater clarity to emerge, we have highlighted the top four features we believe contribute to the efficacy of any similar chain (seebox: Top tips). Further information about setting up a peer chain will be shared in Toolbox, in the next issue of Coaching at Work.
Our survey also asked members how they ‘knew’ the supervision they received was of value. Responses fell into four clear categories:
1. Impact on our practice
2. A deepening of our awareness
3. Our sense of personal mastery
4. Our continuing commitment to work with each other.
We think this is a useful means of evaluating whether supervision, of any kind, is delivering value.
We would like to hear your experiences of working with peers and where they sit in your reflective practice activities. In writing this article, a number of questions have emerged and we will be posting these questions on the Coaching At Work LinkedIn Group (linkd.in/1yPE23w). We look forward to reading your reactions there or by email. n
With thanks to our other chain members: Jill Ashley-Jones, Amanda Cunningham, Gillian Curtis, Janis Kent, Lesley Matile, Gilly Rutherford, Georgina Woudstra and Ian Wycherley.
Sarah Gilbert is an accredited coach and certified coach supervisor and has an MSc in Workplace Counselling. firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle Lucas is an applied psychologist with an MBA. She is also an accredited coach and coaching supervisor. email@example.com
Eve Turner is an experienced senior BBC leader and an accredited master executive coach and coach supervisor. firstname.lastname@example.org
Ways that we describe peer supervision
- Reflective practice label Description (with thanks to BPS SGCP and Bachkirova and Jackson)
- Co-coaching Two coaches usually observed by a third
- Co-supervision Two supervisors usually observed by a third
- Peer supervision conversations Two qualified supervisors, organised on an as-needed basis without a formal contract
- One-to-one supervision with a peer Two qualified supervisors with a formal contract. Only one acts as the supervisor of the other on a regular basis for the contract period
- Group peer supervision A number of qualified supervisors who meet regularly as a group. There is a formal contract and only one of the peers acts as the supervisor of the others for the contract period
- Chain peer supervision As in one-to-one: sometimes the chain rearranges the order to benefit from working with different people
Questions for professional bodies
Questions for professional coaching bodies in developing criteria to identify when peer supervision would be appropriate for accreditation purposes
- What characteristics in any supervision relationship would make it invalid?
- What characteristics are required of the ‘supervisor’?
- What needs to be in evidence in the supervision contract and process?
- When might the experience/characteristics of the supervisee supersede the experience/characteristics of the supervisor?
- Is continuity in a supervision relationship important? And if so, for what purpose?
- What differences, if any, are there when we are considering coach or coaching supervisor accreditation?
Professional bodies’ perspectives on peer supervision
Lynne Cooper, vice chair, AC UK
“The AC believes that making supervision accessible to all coaches is a key contributor to raising coaching standards, and so offers monthly group supervision calls to members. One benefit of peer supervision is that it lends itself to service exchange without payment, which encourages take-up. The AC is continuing to review supervision requirements as new practice, such as peer chains, emerges. For coach or coaching supervisor accreditation, peer supervision is now acceptable as long as the peer supervisor meets key criteria, including qualifications, experience, the nature of the relationship and that it has some consistency and longevity. Peer supervision will generally be considered on a case-by-case basis.”
Peter Welch and Erik de Haan
“At AOCS we recognise that, in practical and economic terms, a blend of support for internal coaches is often provided – peer, group, action learning set, mentoring and external – however, we do not recognise ‘co-coaching’ peers as a substitute for access to a qualified and experienced coaching supervisor.” Peter Welch
“I think it is good to keep a rigorous procedure in place which in my view is very ‘light’, not tough. I would not acknowledge peer supervision, only properly contracted and paid-for supervision.” Erik de Haan, AOCS chairman
Patti Stevens (director) and Jeremy Ridge (chairman)
“Applicants need to accept and abide by the APECS Ethical Guidelines; and the need to continue to engage in appropriate supervision and CPD is part of that. Each case is looked at individually and peer supervision conducted with rigour could be deemed appropriate. This would be explored with the applicant by the executive coach accreditation team. The quality of the one-to-one is still what ought to always add value.”
Jo Birch, past chair BACP coaching
“BACP doesn’t recommend peer supervision for trainees or newly qualified practitioners. It does, however, accept suitable peer supervision for both accreditation applications and renewals, accepting one-to-one and group formats. The accreditation team would consider whether what was being offered was suitable on an individual basis.”
- BPS SGCP
Professor Sarah Corrie, chair; also supervision guidelines: bit.ly/1CGLMdf (section 4)
“We recognise there are a number of legitimate forms of supervision and the focus and format may change as a function of a coach’s career stage and growing experience. There are BPS guidelines with questions about which peer supervision format is appropriate for whom. Co-supervision, involving peer dyads alternating the role of supervisor and supervisee, can be effective where the peers are already experienced coaching psychologists and both are competent as coaching supervisors. …. It is recommended that peer and group formats without an assigned experienced supervisor are reserved exclusively for those who possess the full range of psychological knowledge and practical skills relevant to their field and have the competency to act as coaching supervisors.”
Provided by David Sleightholm, international vice president, Standards
“The key is the skills and approach of both supervisor and supervisee, and the discipline that each brings to the process. Personally, I am more anxious about mentors and coaches practising without supervision, and some organisations setting up schemes without providing supervision. A reluctance of some coaches and mentors to engage in supervision may be financial – and peer supervision with a suitable colleague using a sound process may therefore help overcome this. However, the EMCC’s guidance is clear: there must be no dual roles (ie, supervisor is not also line manager, business partner).”
Tracy Sinclair, UK ICF president, 2014
“The ICF’s position is evolving. In 2013, ICF adopted a definition of coaching supervision, developed suggested qualifications for those serving as supervisors and offered guidelines for selecting a coaching supervisor. At the July 2014 global board meeting, a taskforce was approved to publish more specific guidelines and make recommendations for future policies in the area of coaching supervision and continue in their work to ensure ICF’s role as a global thought leader and standards-setting organisation. Supervision now counts towards continuing coach education requirements for credential renewals.”
Top tips for a peer supervision chain
- Members of the chain need to be qualified to similar levels as a supervisor
- Contracting is self-managed each time by the pair concerned
- The pairings are not reciprocal at any one time
- The chain is ‘shuffled’ in each iteration to keep relationships ‘fresh’
T Bachkirova, ‘Guiding light,’ in Coaching at Work, 6 (5), pp46-9, 2011
T Bachkirova and P Jackson, ‘Peer supervision’, in T Bachkirova, P Jackson and D Clutterbuck (eds.), Coaching and Mentoring Supervision, Maidenhead: OUP, 2011
M Carroll and M Gilbert, On Being a Supervisee, London: Vukani Publishing, 2005
A Grant, ‘Australian coaches’ views on coaching supervision’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 10 (2) pp17-33 bit.ly/1zlk686
P Hawkins and R Shohet, Supervision in the Helping Professions (4th ed), Maidenhead: OUP, 2012
A Hodge, ‘Pillars of support’, in Coaching at Work, 9 (4), pp35-38, 2014
G Schwenk and R Jack, ‘Leading the way’, in Coaching at Work, 8 (5), pp32-6, 2013
K St John-Brooks, Internal Coaching, London: Karnac Books Ltd, 2013