Edna Murdoch, one of the founders of Coaching Supervision Academy, and an early mover and shaker in the field of coach supervision, tells Liz Hall why who you are is how you work
Edna Murdoch is one of the world’s most renowned coach supervisors and co-founder of the coach supervisor training organisation, Coaching Supervision Academy (CSA). Core to the CSA’s philosophy is the idea that, ‘who you are is how you coach and supervise’. So who is Murdoch?
She’s eloquent, wise and very present, practising what she preaches to students about attending to what’s unfolding in the moment. It makes for a spacious, fascinating and rich interview. When I ask her who she is, she responds:
“I’m someone deeply engaged in process, someone who’s very excited about learning, and learning with others,” she says.
She’s been contributing to the learning and development of others for decades. Having moved to the UK from Ireland, she started her career as an educator teaching English in a grammar school until she was 34, before moving into psychotherapy and clinical supervision, then coach supervision. Last year Murdoch received the Coaching at Work Lifetime Achievement award for her contributions to the field of coaching supervision – one of its early movers and shakers – setting up one of the first coach supervision training programmes with Miriam Orriss and Fiona Adamson.
“By who we are is how we work I mean everything in our life that has contributed to learning and awareness and development. In mine, there’s been a lot that has encouraged me into what I understand about the hugeness of the supervision conversation and its importance in the field of coaching.
“I know the potency for personal and professional growth of having that level of conversation, of having someone supporting you to look in the dark, tricky and unknown areas and to be absolutely at your back in terms of your development as a practitioner.
“And actually as you go deeper into the entanglements, it’s a bit like the old alchemists – the more they looked into the dark, the more they saw pricks of light. The whole alchemical process of actually attending together in the expectation that new information, new ideas will come – that’s really how the field works. And I think it’s a very practical way of looking at supervision and a way that runs alongside our models, because the models do give us a kind of scaffolding and support. [We ask], have I checked that territory, am I getting too stuck here in my own supervisor reflections?”
At 29, she was given permission to take a term off from teaching to go to Winchester College, UK, to learn about counselling and guidance for adolescents.
“It completely blew me away – doors opened everywhere. I was immediately attracted to the internal world. I went straight back and set up a counselling service for 300 sixth-formers, and a programme for working for change and transition. That was in the 1970s!
“It started a process of delving and I became a psychotherapist as soon as I could. I just got so excited about human life and like most other therapists in training, I thought I was there to help others, but of course I was the patient on the table. You have to learn by healing your own wounds and that took quite a long time!”, she chuckles.
She trained for four years in Gestalt, and another four in transpersonal psychotherapy. At that stage there was no training for supervisors in psychotherapy. After being trained as an apprentice by another supervisor, she supervised therapists, stress management consultants and senior managers for some years.
“Then in 1999, I found coaching. That was really very exciting. It had a new energy and focus, and wasn’t that far removed from transpersonal psychotherapy, which looks at the whole person. I was living in Brighton [UK] and I heard of someone doing life coaching. I thought, what’s that? I was always interested in how we move on, what are the conditions necessary for that, and here was a new technology coming over the airwaves.”
She trained with CoachU but realised that when she was mixing with coaches, she was actually supervising them.
“I was asking, have you noticed that? Have you wondered if? I looked around and didn’t see anyone else doing this.”
Around the same time, although she didn’t know it, Michael Carroll and Peter Hawkins were offering coaching supervision. She set up a one-year pilot. “I picked six ‘hot’ UK coaches and offered them free supervision in exchange for feedback because I was trying to transition from clinical supervision to attending to coaches in their world – in the world I was now involved in.”
After ‘launching’ herself as a coach supervisor, things quickly took off.
“And with valued colleagues and friends Miriam [Orriss] and Fiona [Adamson], we said, we need to start training, which we did in 2001. Now we have training all over the world.”
She did at one point think about stepping away from having a core role but the pull was too strong.
“When I look back to when the CSA was just a smile in the mind’s eye, I was in Ireland because my brother was dying and I was maybe going to stay there. But the pull back here into this work, and the uptake, was so encouraging that I felt I had to get back and do this.
She’s “very interested in supervision getting beyond the foothills of models, these good guides we have. I’m fascinated by the whole world of connectedness.
“I don’t just mean the internet, I mean our whole impulse for connectedness and ‘the world as a living sea of energy’, as Ervin László talks about in Science and the Akashic Field (2010), and what that means for us when we’re sitting with another. So when we come together, I’m both interested in the practical outcomes of supervision and the learning dialogue of supervision, but also in the environment in which that happens.
“We talk merrily about systems and of course systemic work is the core to any supervision conversation. When a supervisor is stepping into a system that’s already there and is constantly in flux as everything is, I’m not just interested in the system of the organisation – which is complex enough – but in the economic, political and spiritual system, in everything that touches us as we sit with another and everything that is available as we attend fully in that conversation.
“My sense is that as we do that with care, with our hearts, and minds and we become entrained in the way our bodies do naturally, with that deepening attention, we also open the doors to new information emerging, to learning, to imaginative processes.
“I’m completely fascinated by what happens to me in a supervision session, what my little enquiries are, ‘what I’m noticing?, What have I picked up?, What has just flown into my awareness? And of course that’s happening to the person or team I’m working with as well.
“So I’m very interested in supervision not tying itself down to working with models, and I include our own, the Full Spectrum Model. We train students in all the models, including the Seven-eyed model (Hawkins & Shohet, 1985), but they really begin to get excited when they understand what they often refer to as the range and depth of the supervision conversation and the way in which it can surprise them as they learn this embodied presence way of working.
“We train our people very early to embody profound attention – that sense of what [Zen monk] Thich Nhat Hanh describes as ‘nothing to do, nowhere to go’.
“As William Isaacs writes in his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (1999), ‘We listen from the silence within ourselves….In dialogue, we look at the dynamic fields that arise in each moment, continually shifting…. an ever changing and developing pool of common meaning’.
“It’s about learning to respect these more subtle aspects of a learning dialogue and how potent it is that we are able to sit there in the unknown, engaging with the mystery of learning, not attached to being a super-anything but being a person in a process that is alive, and finding ways energetically to encourage that vitality, that living-ness of the conversation.
“In coaching supervision you have a real eye to complexity, to systems, to the very complex context in which coaches work. Nora Bateson has some wonderful new insights into that when she talks about ‘warm data’, about all the relational pieces in the spaces in between the hard data in the world, in organisations.
“I sometimes think supervision is a conversation about other conversations which have already occurred and are continuing to occur and whose meaning shifts and changes. So you’re in this complex moving situation as you sit together and of course you’re looking at relational and unconscious stuff but equally attending to a very shifting environment, which is part of the fascination.”
She recalls that after training in transpersonal psychotherapy with Barbara Somers and Ian Gordon-Brown at the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology, London – “stunning people”, she studied archetypal psychology for a year with Noel Cobb. “He would never talk of an archetype but would speak of this flowing world and archetypal energies, and beginning to notice if I’m, for example, in a rage, he’d be thinking what are you suffering from, what archetypal thing has got hold of you? So it looks at a bigger picture all the time.
“Also I work closely with Miriam Orriss, who is very skilled at understanding quantum physics and I’ve learnt from her and now others as well. Working in the world as it is, is the most practical way to work, and the world as it is is not a world of things – there’s no such thing as a thing. So this fluidity and our capacity to work in a moving field and engage with people in such a way that we really embrace this is something I have come to respect.”
How do we do this? Mindfulness helps. “Once we become still in ourselves and connect with ourselves through our hearts and through stillness and really experience and work with our own energy in such a way that we’re truly open, then we’re much more capable of perceiving, understanding, imagining all those processes that really make our work easy. You don’t have to think. We’re constantly saying to all our students, yes, read all the books. Learn this, that and the other but the power is in you and in the space in between you and the other and the wider system. There really is nothing to do and nowhere to go.
“I’m talking this way right now because I’m in flow – actually when we engage and get in flow, we don’t have to work hard, which is fascinating.
“Coaches are wonderfully prepared. They’re great learners, always adding and seeking. It’s wonderful and then they come into supervision and say, ‘what did I do wrong? I’m not sure what happened’, and then they begin this in part valuable process of self-reflection but coaches can get stuck in it. And when we’re stuck in it it’s because we’re not trusting what we’re actually experiencing as part of what’s going on in that field of the conversation. In other words, what’s coming towards us as data. Rather than thinking something is wrong with me, it’s more, ‘what’s the client doing to me right now and what is their presence on me?’
“The gorgeous thing when supervising is that you can see the bigger picture because you’re not in it. You’re holding up the mirror and trying to get the other person to understand it’s not just about them and how, on that day, they’re weren’t working well. Yes, we can look at that, but also look at what was in the field that was deskilling them, that was separate from their own sleepiness or whatever. So that’s a really interesting move of turning their attention back to what was actually happening in the room when they were working with that client and this becomes data for them.”
Murdoch is finding that more and more coaches are struggling to support their clients.
“We’re in these extraordinary VUCA times and I see only that the pressure is intensifying at a time of enormous transition and change. I find more and more executive coaches who are saying, ‘I’m not sure what I’m doing any more, this is not quite what I was trained to do. I seem to be holding my clients so they can stand up and go back in there, more than actually developing them’.”
She applauds the fact that more coach training programmes are building coaches’ “capacity to sit with what’s happening and really work intelligently with it and to ask ‘what should I take on, what should I not take on?’ That’s a really important consideration, ‘what do I feel I can hold and how do I know that and through supervision can I learn to hold more?’ because there’s quite a bit of distress coming through.
“The attraction towards working with suffering is there in our field – we’re compassionate souls. But it’s an attraction which can be beguiling and can deceive us into thinking we can help where sometimes we cannot. Interestingly, and oddly as an ex-psychotherapist, I’m pretty rigid about not working with some things. I think, ‘No, you need two sessions a week with a therapist’.”
She’s currently influenced by neuroscientist and “literary giant” Ian McGilchrist. “I’ve been on some of his workshops and I really like his work on connectivity, his take on the world and how we pay attention to it, and how currently the world is bedevilled by left brain perception and thinking, what he calls the Emissary, and how we really need the right brain, the big picture, what he calls the Master in charge, and the left brain picking up the details and figuring things out.”
She’s also very interested in Jungians and post-Jungians, particularly James Hillman, author of Re-Visioning Psychology (1992), and his understanding of archetypal psychology, and how the heart works with the imagination for new ideas, information and insights. She’s also a fan of John Welwood, “a mindfulness practitioner, psychotherapist and all-round good guy”.
“He says ‘unconditional presence is the most potent transmuting force there is’ – isn’t that delicious?”
From attending Welwood’s workshops many years ago, she’s adopted the Buddhist principles of “surrounding something with interest”.
“In other words, the supervisee says, ‘this is happening, my enquiry is this, I’m stuck here’, and you put that in the space between you, surround it with interest rather than attack it in your head. Then you have the spaciousness to reflect in a deep way from different perspectives so you’re both attending fully to all phenomena that are present in what’s in the space between you, metaphorically speaking. You walk around it and enquire and use the whole refractive process. And it’s in that attending by both of you together that the mystery unfolds and the learning happens.”
Other inspirations are Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations, Nora Bateson’s work on warm data, and she’s currently reading Lynne McTaggart’s The Bond (2006).
“She talks about how the world ‘essentially operates not through the activity of individual things, but in the connection between them – in a sense, in the space between things’. How all matter exists in a vast web of connection, and for me that’s eminently practical in our work. This is supervision about what’s really happening second by second as you and I are attending, and uplevelling the supervisor’s skills to attend to that. I think skilling people to work at that level is really going to serve the world as it is at a time of great complexity.”
Another great influence is Gestalt, “that attention to detail, to noticing, noticing, noticing, every little flicker, what’s there, what’s around, what’s in, what’s through. I remember watching an early film of Fritz Perls [founder of Gestalt] and how he cut across the narrative, saying something like, ‘Oh, what’s happening to your foot right now as you say that?’ and that would carry the whole story that was unknown and not in awareness.
“It’s important we don’t get attached to our story, that we allow it to shift and be intrigued by it. Everyone’s story is in motion. We’re working with change all the time. So it’s, ‘what does this mean for me? How do I make this shift? How do I see myself slightly differently? How do I not get stuck in thinking I’m this or that?’”
Bugbears include how so many coaches come to supervision only because it’s a requirement for accreditation.
“And I’d like to see more supervision – there needs to be more of it globally. I say that respectfully as it’s one among many forms of CPD. In the UK and rest of Europe there’s a high uptake but we train in APAC and Australia and there’s still fierce resistance. I think the market will determine that as it has in Europe where the effects make sense in terms of ROI for individuals and organisations buying in supervisors. Supervision sustains a high level of practice and develops practitioners.”
Another is how people limit themselves in terms of psychological profiling. “When people say I’m an XYZ, I think no, don’t limit yourself! They are more possibilities and emphases in the moment – they’re just temporary and they’re ours to work with and develop.
“And competencies drive me mad. I find that people hang on to competencies sometimes at the expense of their own profound presence. Competencies, like models, are useful guides for us to develop. And then when we’re in the conversation, we mustn’t think about them. When I sit down with someone it’s important that I’m empty in that Buddhist sense of empty.”
Murdoch’s Quaker practice helps her with this too – she’s been a Quaker since she was 26. “There I’ve learnt to undo fear and to be in relationship. The essence of Quaker practice is sitting together in collective silence. When I first went into this environment and really learnt about how people meld together even without saying a word, it was a powerful learning and it’s still a deep pleasure. I sometimes think of my work as sitting practice. If you go in with what systems scientist, Peter Senge, calls, ‘open mind, open heart, open will’, it’s a sitting practice.”
In terms of maintaining presence as practitioners, she’s concerned about the impact of digitisation.
“I think we need to be more cognisant of how digitisation is impacting our attention, our presence, our capacity to think clearly and perceive accurately. We need to be intelligent about how to simplify all of that and to undo the addiction which we now know was deliberate with all the little enticements which bring us back to our phones. As coaches, we really need to attend to our stuff around that. It’s immensely seductive.
“For us as coaches and supervisors, our attention needs to be on what keeps us resourced. We must be guardians of our wellbeing more than ever.
“For me [this means] simplicity, quietness, delight with people and the arts. I live in Sussex and walk a lot on the Downs with my little dog. I’ve moved into more simplicity as I’ve got older. It’s a simple life that I’m very grateful for.”
Any final words of wisdom? “I’ve worked with so many coaches over the last 20 years, and if I was to say one thing to them all, it’s trust yourself, trust the process!”