Alison Hodge has a passion for learning, both for herself and her clients. It’s at the heart of everything she does as an award-winning coach supervisor. Liz Hall reports
Adventurous, playful and provocative, award-winning coach supervisor champion Alison Hodge has found learning gold in many ways, including on a group trek in Nepal, practising Tai Chi and through bereavement and in developing Bell’s Palsy. And she’s made it her life’s work to help others learn too.
A big player in the development of coach supervision in the UK, Hodge won the Contributions to Coaching Supervision award in the Coaching at Work 2017 annual awards. She’s been supervising internal and external executive coaches and OD/HR consultants all over the world, individually and in groups, since 2000.
She’s an EMCC master practitioner accredited executive coach, an APECS accredited executive coaching supervisor, an associate lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and a faculty member of the Coaching Supervision Academy (CSA). Areas of specialism and interest include group supervision, creative supervision and ethical awareness.
For Hodge, it’s all about the learning.
“If the client isn’t learning or changing, what are they doing? Sometimes I’ll ask a client what underpins their coaching model and what’s the purpose of their coaching. They don’t always have the language to describe the map enabling the client to transform. But I’m looking for them to acknowledge that it’s about identifying and facilitating sustainable change and learning.”
Of course, people learn differently, as Hodge knows well. She realised that being talked at in conferences didn’t suit her, nor did reading books on an approach she hasn’t yet tried, and she doesn’t enjoy journaling, for example.
“So I thought, how do I keep learning? After much exploring, I enrolled to do a doctorate. It was transformational. My main motivation was to find a way of learning that was really congruent with how I am and how I want to grow.”
It “heightened my awareness that I’m an experiential learner rather than theoretical or reflector.”
Working with external examiner, Peter Critten, a key influence, she developed a project titled: An action research inquiry into what goes on in coaching supervision to the end of enhancing the coaching profession – “collaborating with participants so they weren’t being researched on, we were enquiring individually and together.
“I was learning every step of the way, which, of course, feeds into how I work.”
She’s part of what we might call a new breed of scholar – a ‘scholar practitioner’ which privileges practice and experience in research. She also identified that she’s a social constructivist. “I create my reality through dialogue and relationship.
“Give me a recording of a conversation and I get a huge amount out of it. So I recorded and transcribed all of my conversations and out of that experience, gained insight, awareness and learning.”
She completed her Professional Doctorate in Coaching Supervision at Middlesex University in 2014. To her knowledge it was at that time only the third doctorate in the field of coaching supervision in the world.
Hodge was 64 when she graduated. “If someone had said to me when I was 20, don’t you want to have a PhD?, I’d have said, ‘you must be joking!’ It’s something to do with needing the accumulated experiences, highs, lows, pitfalls, successes, bumps in the road that [then meant] I felt ready to learn in this way.”
She values encountering other mature practitioners along the way.
“What’s absolutely gorgeous is how many are engaging with research in all sorts of different ways as mature practitioners. There’s a richness that’s coming out in our field from us as mature practitioners bringing our experience, our learned knowledge
“I suppose it feeds into why I love what I do because what a privilege [it is] to sit with folks who have a huge life experience, many of them, before they even come near coaching, so the coaching is an extension and an enlargement of who they are rather than the bedrock. They come to this work and thus to supervision with curiosity and wanting to learn, wanting to take care of themselves and valuing and respecting this gorgeous work of facilitating individual, group and organisational change.”
Led by her own preferences, she’s developed a popular alternative learning approach for conference sessions, offering live group supervision sessions, a move which others have called trailblazing. We’re now seeing more calls for speakers offering the option of live sessions.
“I don’t know if it’s pioneering but it is for me!” acknowledging that other coaches such as Philippe Rosinski have run live sessions too.
She’s being increasingly creative around the use of environment in which group coaching supervision takes place. She experimented recently with taking a group supervision cohort to a tapestry exhibition at the Tate Modern, London, “using the experience as a metaphor for reflection on being in the group and in the practice over the prior year”.
Its success prompted her to invite her next group starting next month (April) to choose locations where “we’ll be noticing what the environment does to our capacity to be in relationship, to be together, to support our learning individually and collectively, and [to ask] how does it inform our reflection, awareness and development?”
An Australian, Hodge has been living in London since she backpacked around Europe 40 or so years ago. She joined publisher Haymarket’s “fabulous” sales and management graduate training scheme, rapidly demonstrating a “capacity for helping others to sell, so I was trained to manage.
“We didn’t call it coaching in 1974 but our function and responsibilities were based on the work of [management expert] Peter Drucker so the language of management was not for me to be the best salesperson but for me to recruit, develop and manage the people who could do the selling.”
After around 15 years in publishing, in roles ranging from sales management and advertisement director to head of training at VNU, and various short moves including into exhibition sales and recruitment, she set up her own business offering sales and leadership training primarily in communications and publishing. By then, she’d worked out that “helping other people to learn, training people to do a job to the best of their ability was where my aptitude and passion lay and where my capacity seemed to flourish”.
She grew that company for about 15 years working in turn as a sole trader, in business partnership, with associates and with employees. Near the end, she embarked on a “transformational” MSc in Change Agent Skills and Strategies at Surrey University.
“The strategy on the Masters was that unless you understood your own process of change, how could you enable or facilitate it with another?
“I came out in 2000 saying, I want to consult to consultants, whatever that meant… . I hadn’t realised there was this new thing called coaching.”
As she’d been in group therapy for some time, “I knew that supervision was integral to the helping professions in terms of practice and somehow I was evolving my identity to supervise.”
So off she went to Metanoia Institute, “the only organisational practitioner alongside psychotherapists”, completing in 2004 a Certificate and in 2006 a Diploma in the Theory and Principles of Supervision.
“The people I worked with, like Brigid Proctor, Michael Carroll and Charlotte Sills, were all highly impactful in terms of who they were and how they showed up. I learnt a huge amount from them in how to be, not do.”
For Hodge, coaching and coaching supervision “is work that’s challenging, demanding and exciting. And we need to take care of ourselves in the doing of it. That’s the shift I’ve seen in the last 10 years. In the early 2000s, there was such a lot of resistance to supervision and apprehension and ‘why do we need it; I’m qualified?’
“I don’t hear [that] now. Now it’s, ‘because it’s a safe reflective exploratory place where I can take care of myself, recharge my batteries and reflect on what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it with an acknowledgement of our fallibility as human beings, let alone practitioners.’
“The people I enjoy working with and vice versa are owning their own humanity and their vulnerability and knowing and not knowing … [they’re] coming saying, ‘I don’t know what I was talking about, how can we explore this, expand perspectives, gain insight and awareness?’ ”
Hodge has been in formal supervision with integrative psychotherapist Diana Shmukler for 12 years. “I continue to learn from her.” She also has peer supervision relationships and professional colleagues she meets with.
She’s been working on and off with Tai Chi and mindfulness teacher Ad Brugman since 1995 “when I was exhausted running a training company.
“I associated myself with being left- brain, logical, decisive, probably driven, and at some level steeple-chasing through life, headfirst, high-speed, bumping over the fences, picking myself up, and off I go again.
“And off I went to Turkey to [Brugman’s] extraordinary workshop called ‘Touching Stillness’ about being in balance, noticing my breathing, walking slowly, noticing that when my attention went off to the olive trees, I got out of balance. It was a life-changing shift. If I’m coming from my centre, I’m not out of balance and can choose how big the step is and in which direction.”
In 1998, came the “life-changing” trek. Leaving her camera behind so she could focus on the experience, she went to Nepal with 12 others, including two fellow Masters students. There was plenty to learn about group dynamics and two of the students, including Hodge, were inspired to write their assignments on the return flight.
“I [learnt I] could only take one step at a time – you only get to the top when you get to the top, you can’t get there any sooner and it’s very seldom that you go in a straight line. You tack across the mountain and probably walk five times further but you don’t exhaust yourself.
“We all had different patterns, for example, the young lad who always wanted to be at the front. Some days I wanted to be at the front, or the back, or on my own or with another, so I was noticing myself in the group.”
Looking at groups has recently led Hodge to explore her family of origin –“crikey, you learn a lot by being in a family!” One of five children, Hodge has been doing lots of personal work around her childhood story, including with Sarah Hill, who trained with David Kantor in Structural Dynamics.
“I hold a strong belief that I’m working with the whole person. We all have a family history and childhood story. And when folks come to supervision, we’re not trying to repair the story, and it may inform how our client’s showing up now and thus what choices and new ways of showing up might be available to the adult in the room, notwithstanding taking care of the young child part of the story.”
“Let me throw out another area possibly of provocation, and I know I met with a certain aghast when I said this at a workshop recently. What I love about supervision is that it’s an ongoing emergent developmental phenomenon and process. We’re not trying to calibrate or score the change the client may have made.”
The idea of “beyond goals” (a term coined by David Clutterbuck and David Megginson) resonates.
“Maybe it’s my stage of my life, development and preferences, not wanting a measurable goal. But there’s something about respecting us as experienced and learning, the both/and, which means we need a place to explore, reflect and consider in, not where someone pushes us to a goal.
“Some of the learning comes through the dialogue, and some through the modelling of how we are together in the relationship, and often the client takes it on unconsciously… I hold that, at the heart of the work – and this is becoming more prevalently described – is the relationship.
“As practitioners, we learn a glorious capacity to listen. I think sometimes my coaching supervision clients may underestimate how valuable that is for their client, because most of us aren’t listened to; it’s such a privilege and is so powerful. Human beings have great capacity to identify and gain insights if they’re heard.
“I think we need to be really careful in the ‘professionalisation’ and accreditation of coaching that we don’t lose sight of the whole person, that coaches are encouraged to notice their whole selves, not just their capacity to ask a question or listen actively. There’s a danger that in the process of accreditation, the practitioner thinks they have to go on another course and get another badge and the badges sometimes can be a wonderful mask for who is the person sitting in the room.”
She credits CSA founder Edna Murdoch and colleague Miriam Orriss for how much she’s learnt from them and their trademark philosophy summed up as “WHO you are is HOW you coach, supervise or work.”
Hodge calls herself an “integrative person-centred practitioner, informed by psychodynamic principles, and humanistic philosophy.”
Influences include Annette Filery-Travis (formerly of Middlesex University), Proctor, whose book (Proctor, 2000) is “a bible”, Hawkins & Shohet’s (eg, 2012) Seven-eyed supervision model and Irvin Yalom (on group psychotherapy). She also loves Immunity to Change (Kegan & Lahey, 2009).
She’s informed too by John Heron (author of Helping the Client), who describes six types of interventions grouped under the authoritarian style (prescriptive, informative, confronting), and the facilitative style (cathartic, catalytic and supportive). Coaching is typically facilitative but we sometimes need to be flexible, believes Hodge.
“It’s not just about open-ended questions or curiosity. Sometimes we could get there quicker, open a floodgate, or turn a light on if we just made a comment, or shared an insight.”
Looking at some conference slides recently, the phrases ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘vicarious trauma’ jumped out for her.
“I want to revisit this in the context of where we are in the world today. I think we’re being ‘tsunami-ed’ by information and activity that’s potentially absolutely exhausting. How do practitioners take care of themselves so they don’t get washed away with it all? All my clients in December were overwhelmed and exhausted. I think we underestimate for coaches going into organisations how much corporate trauma there is, and the trauma of individuals in cultures which may not be able to support them in ways that are restorative.
“The tension I hear from clients saying they’re not moving their client along whose mother just died or who’d just had significant surgery and so on… there’s something about us not skimming the surface and saying everything’s fine and acknowledging that holding it together when living that, when hearing about it, takes a lot of energy.”
Hodge had a painful experience losing a sister, and was just coming up to the second anniversary of her mother’s death when we spoke. In therapy, she’s been exploring loss and the ‘reshaping’ now there are just three family members left from the original unit of seven.
The return of Bell’s Palsy four years ago, a condition Hodge first had in the 1980s, was challenging too. “I left a client meeting thinking my face felt funny, and by the time I got home, I couldn’t blink or move the right side of my face. When your face doesn’t work properly, it’s pretty confronting.”
Working with Brugman, her Tai Chi teacher, was restorative and healing. “He said, ‘Ah, yes, this is one of the Eight Worldly concerns – our fear of how others see us (fame vs insignificance – the others are happiness vs suffering; praise vs blame and gain vs loss).
“It was so timely and so beautiful to help me say, OK, my face doesn’t work. I may sound a bit funny and I may not smile the way you expect me to and I am here and mentally well, and the rest of me is healthy.”
Painful experiences and traumas have awakened “deeper compassion and understanding for the possibility of how my clients might be experiencing something similar.
“I think I [now] have a better understanding of compassion for self and others. I encourage the client to acknowledge the impact of a life experience such as this, not to brush it away and put a brave face on it, and therefore being kinder to self.
“I [now] have a deeper capacity to suspend judgement… [which helps] my clients feel safe, to dare to be vulnerable more often, more quickly and more deeply, and be able to bring more of themselves to us and the work and thus grow.”
When Hodge works with supervision clients who share frustrations that their clients won’t go deeper, she’ll ask them how much of themselves they’re bringing into the coaching – not inappropriate self-disclosure, of course. And she’ll ask them how much of themselves they think they’re bringing into the supervision, too.
In our conversation, Hodge has modelled bringing herself into the relationship beautifully, being open, sharing vulnerabilities, and a willingness to go deep.
But typically, she reminds me,“Life is pretty serious. And there’s something about, we learn a lot through laughter. You’ve got to have fun and laugh too!”