The implication that supervisors have authority over coaches can inhibit the coaching process, and the problem lies in the label itself. Henry Campion makes a case for rebranding supervision as ‘co-vision’
In her Coaching at Work article, Louise Sheppard highlighted four themes in how coaching supervisees can inhibit themselves (Sheppard, 2018):
- fear of judgement and shame
- self-limiting beliefs and habits
- lack of agency and not seeing themselves as equal partners.
Characteristics she identified included passivity, waiting to be told, asking questions that distract the supervisor and, particularly in novices, seeing the relationship as parent/child.
Most if not all of these factors can at least in part reasonably be attributed to perceptions of power, authority and hierarchy within the supervision relationship.
I call myself a coaching supervisor, yet it’s a label I don’t feel comfortable with. It immediately suggests hierarchy and ‘power over’. At work, a supervisor is someone who oversees and evaluates the work of those for whom they are responsible. To imply that I am in some way in authority over the coaches I work with risks undermining the whole process from the outset. So how have we come to accept a term which creates an unnecessary and unhelpful hurdle that we then have to explain away?
As Myles Downey has pointed out, “the notion of supervision is borrowed from the various ‘helping’ professions from psychology through to counselling”, (Downey, 2003).
In the early days of coaching when there were no trained ‘coaching supervisors’, many coaches turned to psychotherapy supervisors, whose role was to oversee psychotherapy trainees, taking responsibility for their work with patients or clients, and to provide support to qualified practitioners. At the start of the new millennium when people like
Peter Hawkins and Edna Murdoch, both of whose early careers were in the helping professions, started to provide training specifically for those wanting to work as reflective practitioners with coaches, they not unnaturally referred to it as coaching supervision training – and the term has stuck.
The problem is that coaching supervisors are not supervisors. They do not ‘oversee’ or have any formal responsibility for the coach’s work with clients, nor do coaches have any legal requirement to be supervised.
In their recent Manifesto for Supervision, Hawkins, Turner and Passmore (2019) acknowledge the problem: “The authors have agreed to use the term supervision, while acknowledging that this does not imply a hierarchical relationship between the supervisor and supervisee” [my italics]. I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty’s comment in the story, Alice in Wonderland: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Terminology is important. First impressions can be hard to dispel. Why didn’t Louise Sheppard’s findings set alarm bells ringing? I wonder if thought leaders within the profession have become so familiar with the term that they’ve lost sight of the impact it can have.
The push-back has been most marked in the US, where the ICF has until very recently stoutly resisted the notion of ‘supervision’. The view seemed to be, ‘I am a qualified professional coach, why do I need a supervisor?’ Rather than supervision, ICF accreditation requires having ‘coach mentoring’ from more experienced ICF coaches who are not required to have any expertise as supervisors. (I know from personal experience that they specifically exclude trained and accredited UK supervisors like myself.) While the term has gained greater acceptance in the UK, helped no doubt by becoming a requirement for accreditation with the UK professional coaching associations, there are still those who find it demeaning.
Using a different term would enable us to create a notion of reflective practice which is specifically related to coaching. While it may draw on learning from clinical supervision models, the need to differentiate coaching supervision from clinical supervision would be removed. It would become an entity in its own right, with its own purposes and practice.
Despite that, I have been told it’s too late to change, especially after all the effort that has been put into promoting ‘supervision’; and anyway, what’s the alternative? I seem to remember Peter Hawkins once suggested he had a bottle of Champagne waiting for the person who came up with one!
I agree it’s a challenge, particularly when you’re looking for linked words to cover the practice (‘supervision’) and the practitioner (‘supervisor’). It would help, too, not to make it so different as to obscure the connection to supervision completely, eg, Donald Schön’s ‘reflective practitioner’, which anyway already has a much broader meaning. Changing the prefix could work, though two obvious ones, ‘Metavision’ and ‘Intervision’, have already been claimed for other purposes.
My own preferred term is ‘co-vision’ and the practitioner as a ‘co-visor’. I define coaching co-vision as ‘a creative learning partnership between coach and co-visor as professional equals. It is based on an open-hearted relationship of trust and mutual respect, and committed to deepening the coach’s expertise and sense of self-and-other through ‘looking together’ at the coach’s experience of their work with clients’. The sense of equality is underlined by retaining the hyphen. You will also notice there is no ‘co-visee’. The people I work with are coaches.
I’m not suggesting we can define inequality out of existence. Every relationship where one person seeks the help of another begins with an imbalance of power, which must be dealt with as a priority if the relationship is to succeed (Schein, 2011). The co-visor must build up the coach’s status, help them establish their agenda for co-vision and avoid imposing their own. I see the shared power of the co-vision relationship as a dynamic equilibrium, a see-saw where the aim is to keep it level rather than being over-weighted at either end.
Nor am I suggesting a lack of professional accountability. Ethical and professional boundaries (including the provision of references) need to be agreed and maintained and, if breached, discussed and where necessary reported. But again, it works both ways. For example, overly directive or even bullying behaviour on the part of a co-visor is just as much an issue as a coach who is at risk of harming themselves or others.
A skilled co-visor – and there will already be many supervisors working in this way – will combine expertise in reflective and learning processes with a deep understanding of how to make co-vision relationships work, approaching the task with sensitivity, compassion and humility.
Just as coaches and their clients have different areas of expertise yet consider themselves to be equals, so too can coaches and their co-visors. The outcome will be coaches who are no longer inhibited on the scale identified by Louise Sheppard.
- Dr Henry Campion is an experienced coaching co-visor with a particular interest how coaches and co-visors can draw on the emerging understanding of how the mind works to effect transformational change. His website is (currently!) www.coachsupervisor.co.
- M Downey, Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach (2nd Edn), London: Texere Publishing, 2003
- P Hawkins, E Turner and J Passmore, The Manifesto for Supervision, Henley-on-Thames: Association for Coaching and Henley Business School, 2019
- E Schein, Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011
- L Sheppard, ‘Help or Hindrance?’ in Coaching at Work, 13(1), pp34-38, 2018