What counts in coaching supervision? Four novice coaches give feedback on their sessions
By Kim Lee-Own and Dr Adrian Myers
As a new coach, the idea of having to go to supervision and discuss what difficulties and mistakes had occurred in my first sessions with clients was daunting (Kim Lee-Own).
Despite being a qualified Adlerian counsellor since 2003, and having a Certificate in Counselling Supervision since 2005, I still found the idea of taking what felt like deficiencies and failures to a relative stranger – someone with years of experience and much more knowledge than myself – totally scary. I was worried about how I would be perceived, what would be said and whether I would be judged as unable to fulfil this role. Would I be found ‘Not Good Enough’?
In reality, my supervisor was empathetic, patient, compassionate, playful and encouraging. From our first session, he supported me to overcome my ‘stuckness’. He suggested further reading and encouraged me by celebrating my successes. He created a safe and trusting environment where it felt OK to be vulnerable to find strength.
My personal experience led me to question how other novice coaches experienced supervision and I decided to research this for my dissertation. I conducted interviews (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009) which afforded an in-depth exploration of experience from a small sample size (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2014).
An invitation to participate was sent to two UK universities providing courses in coaching and which included supervision as part of the programme. Four people, all women, offered to take part. Two had a business background, another education and a fourth, social care. One participant with a business background had around 100 hours of coaching experience while the others were just starting out. Like me, all were used to facilitating conversations in other contexts (for example, supervision in social care or in leading teams).
The interviews suggested that other novice coaches experienced apprehension ahead of their early supervisory sessions. This apprehension related to a perception of expertise on the part of the supervisor:
“As a novice, you think the supervisors are going to be the most clever and intelligent expert coaches. It seems like they’re so far ahead of us. They must have all these tricks up their sleeve, and they must be a Jedi Master.” Rosie
The participants were also worried about being found lacking:
“You don’t want to fluff it up or sound silly.” Rosie
Part of the apprehension was because they knew little about their supervisors before meeting them:
“I just didn’t know anything about her [the supervisor] and I didn’t know what she was… You don’t know what their job is, what they’re trying to do.” Rosie
The participants were also apprehensive about whether they would get along with their supervisor:
“I did have some anxiety before I met [the supervisor]. That was around would we get on, would her style fit with my style, or would she be too bossy or directive?” Amy
The participants who experienced a supportive relationship discarded their initial anxieties and felt comfortable working with their supervisor:
“The supervisor was like, ‘What do you need?’ and that’s exactly what I needed. I needed somebody to just give me space to dance around with some stuff and my insecurities. […] or it might be something I was particularly interested in… or it might be me just saying, ‘Oh, I want to tell you about this exciting thing that happened!’ So very free, and he would say, ‘Is this okay? Is this what you want?’ ” Rosie
One did not experience the same sense of connection as the other three had:
“I wasn’t very happy with mine [supervisor]. Not because she was incompetent; she was a very competent supervisor, but she did not… we did not gel, personality-wise. I didn’t find her warm enough for me, she was very, very direct. She was very cold. In that way, it was simply down to business, finish off and move on.” Brigid
Brigid was still able to benefit from the supervisory experience, if a little disappointed:
“I thought, ‘Just pick her brains, just get what you can out of this. She doesn’t have to be your friend.’ I felt I was just a client to her, and she just wanted to get her sessions out of the way. That’s how I felt.”
One supervisee also wanted more than just a supportive relationship:
“But I did sometimes think that actually, I would have liked a bit less support and more challenge. […] She [the supervisor] just sort of accepted what I was doing and said that I was very supportive; maybe she could have given a little bit of theory […] but not anything new, or um, the ‘ah hah’ thing.” Amy
For coach-supervisees, supervision can feel like a place of risk, challenge and vulnerability. Anxiety and ambivalence are evoked when preparing for supervision, in bringing difficulties or mistakes. The sense of inequality or inferiority felt by the novice coach might be amplified in relation to their subjective view of the supervisor, with their assumed years of experience and expertise.
The importance of a supportive supervisory relationship is highlighted in the literature. McMahon (2014) for example describes four principles to hold in mind when considering the supervisory relationship:
“emotional presence and sensitivity, valuing both vulnerability and competence, offering knowledge and experience with humility and developing a relationship to support continued personal and professional growth” (p.337)
In my research, it seems that these principles were experienced and valued by three of the participants. For the fourth, it was a shortcoming in the relationship which impacted on her supervisory experience although she still benefitted from supervision.
Lessons and recommendations
Initial supervisee apprehension can quickly dissipate provided the supervisor facilitates a supportive relationship and uses their expertise to guide the supervisee around the supervisee’s own agenda and allows space for creativity.
The supervisee will open up and explore vulnerabilities in the assurance that the supervisor will also celebrate their strengths while challenging them on areas of development.
Coaches should choose a supportive supervisor. As in coaching (De Haan & Gannon, 2017), the relationship is very important. Supervisors need to value the learning experience of the supervisee and challenge in the context of a supportive relationship.
Educators might also provide more background information on their supervisors when matching student-coach and supervisor, as well as making clear how supervisees might engage and learn in supervision.
- Kim Lee-Own is a graduate from the Masters in Coaching and Mentoring Practice (2019) at Oxford Brookes University. She is integrating coaching and counselling into her private practice and work as a personal development facilitator.
(Kim provides the first-person voice in
- Dr Adrian Myers is the course leader for the MA in Coaching and Mentoring at Oxford Brookes University and supported Kim in completing her dissertation and in writing this article.
- E de Haan and J Gannon, ‘The coaching relationship’, in T Bachkirova, G Spence and D Drake, (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Coaching, pp195-217, London: SAGE, 2017
- P Hawkins, ‘Coaching supervision’, in J Passmore (Ed), Excellence in Coaching: The Industry Guide, pp257-272, London: Kogan Page, 2010
- A McMahon, ‘Four guiding principles for the supervisory relationship’, in Reflective Practice, 15(3), 333-346, 2014
- I Pietkiewicz and J A Smith, ‘A practical guide to using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis in qualitative research psychology’, in Czasopismo Psychologiczne, 20(1), 7-14, 2014
- B Proctor, ‘Training for the Supervision Alliance: Attitude, skills and intention’, in J R Cutliffe, K Hyrkäs and J Fowler (Eds), Routledge Handbook of Clinical Supervision, pp23-34, London: Routledge, 2011
- J A Smith, P Flowers and M Larkin, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research, London: SAGE, 2009