Eve Turner shares her ‘Halos and Horns’ model for exploring our practice and client systems systemically

The purpose of this tool is to look at our coaching, mentoring, supervision or consulting practice systemically, rather than considering individual elements, cases or clients.

I devised it a few years ago, partly because I felt that some clients were rarely brought to supervision, staying ‘in darkness’ instead – and I strongly believed all our clients deserved their time ‘in the sunshine’.

Also, I believed that when we look at clients individually, we may miss the patterns and themes: for example, what sort of clients are we drawn to, are there patterns in the challenges we experience with certain issues, are we attracted to particular sectors and so on. Therefore, what does this mean for our practice?

This exercise can be done with groups collectively, but it can also be done individually. It is useful as a means of self-reflection on our entire practice.

There are many elements that can support this reflection, including approaches drawn from Transactional Analysis (TA) and focusing on metaphors.

The phrase ‘Halos and Horns’ refers to an effect I studied as a leader that was known to happen in selection and recruitment interviews. It suggests we make quick judgements (possibly due to unconscious bias and counter-transference) about a candidate and then seek out the information that supports our initial view.

Studies have shown that interviews are not a very good predictor of employee performance. These quick judgements could be linked to appearance, voice, someone they remind us of, etc. Turning to coaching, mentoring, consulting or supervision, what are our reflex reactions to our clients? What is it that makes us find some clients easier to work with, or means that we may particularly look forward to some client sessions and less to others?

As my own supervisees have noted (two of whom have written about the tool), as practitioners we have the tendency to place metaphorical horns and halos on those we meet, and that they can emerge at any time. We need to develop an awareness of their presence by consistently looking at our practice systemically to ensure that, as far as is humanly possible, we don’t make instant judgements that might affect our interactions, relationship and regard for others.

In fact, my supervisees believe we need clients who we see as having horns to stretch us, even though we may feel we do our best work with those we bring out our halos for. So, we’re caught on the horns of a dilemma, hence the need for developing our understanding of our practice as a whole!

While the two examples from practice are of supervision, this tool has also been successfully used with coaching clients. For example, one supervisee found that a client thinking of the team she led in this way helped her understand why there were problems with relationships in it. She realised she’d been showing “prejudice” against some team members (Hawkins & Turner, in press, 2020).

Overview and aims of the exercise

  1. This is a macro exercise – often in supervision we bring individual clients; this exercise treats our client work on a systemic level, too, seeing our portfolio as a whole.
  2. It can be done in quiet, allowing reflection and thus is particularly good for coaches, supervisors or clients who have an introversion preference.
  3. It acts as a form of reflective journaling and is something we can do ourselves as a written exercise.
  4. It has the ability to bring up more unconscious elements, so allowing us to go deeper and consider, for example, our unconscious biases and counter-transference.
  5. It offers an opportunity to consider themes and patterns, and there may be some that we don’t normally notice.
  6. It may bring to the spotlight clients we neglect; it’s an approach that means all clients will get supervisory time.
  7. We can look at any preconceived thoughts/views that emerge through this exercise prior to our next meeting with the client and prior to chemistry meetings with potential new clients.
  8. The exercise is of value to our clients when they consider the teams they lead, for example. Do they find it easier to work with some people and harder with others and have they unconsciously applied halos and horns?

Doing the exercise for yourself

Think of your client list – make a note of clients’ first names or initials (nothing that identifies them fully) and leave sufficient space to add brief comments/notes as in Table 1 (adapt as needed).

  1. Think of a sentence that sums up how you feel about each client; what physical sensations arise for you, and what images come to mind for them? This might be abstract, or perhaps they remind you of an animal, magical creature, someone from history, etc.
  2. Notice what is emerging; sit with it for a while. Are there any groupings between clients, any themes, anything that you are experiencing?

III. Share your themes and anything else that’s emerged with the group when doing this in supervision.

  1. Take a moment to consider which clients you might be applying halos or horns to. You can also indicate if you
    are unsure.
  2. Taking the themes and any additional data from the halo and horns element, consider what this means for you, your portfolio of clients and for their clients. Share with the group when doing this in supervision.
  3. Are there particular types of clients you find easier, harder? Are there particular sectors or types of organisation that you find easier to work in? What does this bring up? Consider, what makes a good client (individual or organisational) for you? What makes an effective relationship? What do you notice when you consider these questions? What might this mean for our practice and our effectiveness as coach, mentor, supervisor, consultant or facilitator?

VII. If the clients had a collective voice what might they say to us? Again, what might this mean for our practice and our effectiveness as coach, supervisor or facilitator?

VIII. What is your learning edge from doing this exercise?

  1. What, if any, implications are there for our contracting and our chemistry sessions? Share your thoughts with the group when doing this in supervision.

Additional elements as required (drawing from TA)

Option 1 Use the ego state model: Parent, Adult, Child (Stewart & Joines, 1987) and consider each client. Where are you mainly working from as coach (or client) in your relationship? Where do you believe the client to be operating from – or where are you placing them?

Option 2 Consider the Drama Triangle, developed by Karpman to analyse games, using three roles: Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer (Stewart & Joines, 1987, p236). Do these roles play out with any of your clients – if so, is there a pattern?

In Practice

Below, Gregor and Carole share their thoughts on using this tool in our group supervision sessions and how it has helped in their practice.

Carole’s view

Carole Davidson is an executive coach, supervisor, author and EMCC assessor who trains coaches and supervisors.

Working in a group supervision session recently we were invited to reflect on our whole coaching practice and consider the range of clients we work with through a process called halos and horns. It’s not often as coaches we take time out to consider our coaching practice as a whole and the different clients with whom we choose to work.

My reflection took me in two directions: as an external coach, do I instinctively choose to work with people I recognise as having similar values and beliefs? Am I more comfortable in this environment? Also, what about in the role of an internal coach, when I am presented with a client who has sometimes been ‘sent’ for coaching?

We were encouraged to reflect playfully on a number of our clients and bring to mind the relationship we had with each. Were we perhaps inadvertently pulled to those with a halo effect who we really enjoyed working with? What about those clients who were more of a struggle? Did we think of them in the context of a horns effect, as tricky to work with? Perhaps these were the clients we needed to bring more into the sunlight. What then are the implications in my initial chemistry session – how do I respond when meeting clients for the first time?

When thinking of those clients who came to mind with horns, this process encouraged me to consider how in future I would give equal attention to all my clients. If we consistently choose to work with clients who share our beliefs and values, how do we stretch our learning and development as coaches?

This innovative supervision model proved extremely useful in bringing all my clients ‘into the sunshine’ and it left me with a smile on my face thinking of the many characters I have encountered in my practice.

Gregor’s view

Gregor Findlay is an APECS-accredited executive and team coach with a background in psychology and specialism in change.

“I found the tool hugely beneficial for my practice in a number of ways. Merely asking the question: halos or horns? got me thinking about these clients in a new way. Do I look forward to halo sessions more and do I challenge less? Do I fret more over the horns? Do these clients more easily trigger me into unresourceful states? What can I do differently in my preparations?

I think that the biggest benefit comes from considering my practice in the round. I created a spreadsheet so I could see overall patterns and have average scores for TA ego states.

As I suspected, I spend more time in Parent than is best, in my opinion. Where I worried I was spending too much time in (playful) Child, it was less than I thought and actually appropriate in the way I used it. Use of Parent (negative nurturing in the main) was too high. Seeing it there in numerical form brought it home to me more and I see now where it’s been coming from and have a plan to tackle this.

Take client X. They are a horns, a Nervous Dog in animal terms and the dance we’re doing is Strip the Willow (fast, high energy and fun) with an existing Parent: Adult: Child ratio of 30:55:15. In consideration, a ratio of 5:75:20 is probably more effective. I think they need to feel safer with me, our coaching can be calmer and slower paced and even though they managed to tempt me into Parent this is really counter-productive. Child has actually gone up in this case as this is how I think we get to more Adult. I can only test this in our next session.

Client Y is a halo. I’d love to go to the pub with them as their area of expertise is fascinating to me. A Sea Lion in animal terms and a Foxtrot is the
dance we do. Very civilised but still playful (think of the sway in a Foxtrot).

The last session was a bit different for a number of reasons, and this client is extremely pleased with their results, but I wasn’t pleased with the Parent: Adult: Child ratio in our last session, at 20:40:40. In consideration, a ratio of 10:70:20 will be more effective as we move forward. The Child may seem high at 20% but their animal is playful in nature and I’d rather use this energy positively rather than try to block it.

Eve Turner is a visiting fellow at Henley Business School and the University of Southampton and an accredited master executive coach and supervisor, who was the EMCC’s Coach of the Year, 2015. She holds awards and nominations for her writing, research, coaching and supervision work


  • P Hawkins and E Turner, Systemic Coaching – Delivering Value Beyond the Individual, Abingdon: Routledge, in press, 2020
  • I Stewart and V Joines, TA Today – a New Introduction to Transactional Analysis, Nottingham: Lifespace Publishing, 1987


Table 1: Thinking of your client list