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What is Super-Vision and why is it so valuable?

Doug interviews three experienced coaches about their experiences of supervision, what they value and why they keep coming back for more.

Doug Montgomery

What is this thing called Super-Vision and why is it so valuable to coaches and potentially other professionals?

Coaches know what a supportive, reflective, learning experience coaching supervision is, but for leaders and other professionals, the term “supervision” can be misleading. It can evoke the notion of oversight by a superior, the notion of your work being assessed and checked. This is a long way from the non-judgemental space for reflecting on and learning from work experiences that Liz and I mean by “Super-Vision“. In order to convey the importance and value of Super-Vision, we asked three coaches about their experience of coaching supervision, so that other may get a sense of what Liz and I offer to coaches and leaders from any profession.

Our thanks to executive coach Jo Colville, coach Lesley and coach Lou Cumberland ACC, for sharing their experiences of supervision.*

Doug: What do you think of when you think of supervision?

Jo: So, when I think about supervision, I think about my oxygen. My sense check. It gives me energy, because it’s coaching the coach, so that’s essential really to top up of my coaching battery. Also it’s a sense check, so when there’s those little niggles or I maybe get carried away on a flight of fantasy about fixing or rescuing somebody, there’s a sense check and a safe space to be able to explore that. Knowing I’m not going to be judged is really important for me.  To learn as well… yes, I think there’s three elements:  1. it’s to top up my battery;  2. it’s a sense check to keep me safe and good for the person I’m coaching; and 3. I learn.

Lesley: For me, supervision is a safe space where I can explore how I’m approaching different challenges or, in the case of coaching, different clients. It’s somewhere that I can try things without fear of any judgement. It’s also a space where I can, if necessary, get guidance. So, it fulfils a number of things for me.

Lou: I think supervision is central to good coaching practice. That’s the first thing to say. And the reason it’s central is because coaching is such a privilege. The importance of that service never leaves me. I feel I want to present the best part of me in those coaching sessions. Supervision to me is about thinking reflectively on the coaching journey; on what the client and I have done together. So looking at coaching sessions that I’ve done; sometimes supervision is about the ones that have gone well and learning from these successes. And sometimes the focus is on the ones that leave a sense of unease. I might finish a coaching session and everything seems to have ended nicely and everything seems like it’s been really helpful…yet, there is [sometimes] a feeling that something has been unsettled or has not worked as well as it could do. There is the chance to bring to supervision the questions and thoughts that I’m a bit uncomfortable or uneasy about. The reflection helps me to explore and to unpack what happened and look at it in a different way, from a different perspective.

Putting things into perspective. (Thanks to Elijah Hiett and Unsplash for this photo.)

Coaching is a job like anything else. Sometimes I find myself feeling like an impostor; I’m in this situation, calling myself a coach, supporting somebody through a really critical issue, and asking myself, “am I good enough to do that?” I think that when it happens, it’s important to not just let it stay there, because that’s not being the best coach, that’s not being the best version of myself. If I allow myself to wallow in that feeling of not being good enough, then that’s the face that I’m going to present to my coaching clients and that’s the subconscious relationship that will develop. And it’s that subconsciousness that I’m left with that can be the focus for the supervision session.

Doug: What brought you to supervision to begin with, and what keeps you coming back? 

Jo: I came to supervision as I completed my coaching qualification. There’s something about supervision that keeps me credible. It is not just if a client is saying, “do you have supervision,” “do you have insurance,” all of that. I think it refers to that sense check that I was talking about earlier, asking myself: “am I still useful and safe for the person that’s in front of me?”

Doug: So supervision provides you with an external sense check on your usefulness to your client and the safety of the relationship you’re creating to do the work in.

Jo: Yes, and I think there’s something else in there. It helps you to sort through your own personal stuff, because supervision helps you to know what your emotional triggers are and how what your client is bringing is impacting you. It helps you to sort out what’s yours and what’s theirs. It’s that sorting process I think that’s the most important, and so if there is some reaction to the work that’s mine, supervision allows me the space to work on that, so that next time I experience that situation, I’m not as entangled.

Doug: So supervision enables that separation of your emotional reaction from the client’s experience, and for you to identify that and separate it appropriately and be fully present for your client.

Jo: Yes, exactly that. Sorting what’s mine, what’s theirs, and being fully present.

It refers to that sense check … asking myself “am I still useful and safe for the person that’s in front of me?”

Lesley: I first came into supervision many years ago when I first trained as a coach and the organisation that I was in then provided the opportunity – well, it actually was more than an opportunity – there was an expectation that you would partake in group supervision at least two or three times a year. I just found that whole experience so rewarding: being able to share challenges and learn from other people. 

Even when it was somebody else that was sharing their coaching experiences, I found that I was taking stuff away that I maybe didn’t even realise I was having a challenge with. I would learn so much just from other people in that space. So that’s what I first thought of going to supervision and I’ve kept going ever since: now because I want to be there, not just because there is an expectation that as an accredited coach that you would. For me it’s a very valuable experience.

It’s one of the few opportunities I have to really explore and maybe push the boundaries of what I’m doing to enable me to grow. It just gives me that time to really focus on me as an individual and on how I’m approaching different elements of my life. That’s what keeps me coming back.

Lou: I was doing my diploma in coaching, and it’s an integral part of the course – for a very important reason. Coaches that don’t get supervised, I think, are in danger of going off in their own direction and not really learning much about their practice. So, it wasn’t just that I had to as part of the diploma course, it was also because I wanted to; because I know that it’s an important part of a quality coaching practice.

I keep coming back because I think that quality coaching is dependent on having quality supervision. That, and because coaching is often a tough job. You know, it’s exciting, it’s dynamic, it’s a brilliant thing to be able to practise, but it’s also incredibly important to me to present the best version of myself that I can. In order to do that, I need to have time to reflect on my coaching practice and reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t, and what I’ve learned. 

I often feel that it’s lovely to have that time for me. When does that happen otherwise? When in life do I get somebody really focusing on me and noticing, supporting, and asking questions that make me think about me – not about anybody else, just about me! And that’s what makes me come back to supervision.

Doug: What’s the most valuable thing you get from Supervision? 

Jo: Space…in a role like coaching that gives a lot, and in a personal situation where I give a lot… space to be listened to deeply and to be understood.

Lesley: That’s a great question. Two things spring to mind. The first one is clarity. It helps me find clarity in my thinking, and to figure out what I want to do with that clarity.  Second is the challenge; there is sometimes a bit of a challenge in supervision. It might be that I come with something that’s challenging me, or it might be that the supervisor is challenging me to think about things in in a different way. I find both the challenge and the clarity really valuable.

Lou: The learning, the big gems, the diamonds, that, when you can see them, they shine. The things that you realise… for example, when you are coaching and something isn’t working particularly well, and there’s an unease about it… bringing issues like that into supervision and finding something shiny and noticing that that’s something significant. Usually it’s about a pattern of behaviour that has gone unnoticed—you know, that feeling of “I haven’t realised I do that”, or “I haven’t realised that’s what’s going on”. Noticing it and then being able to do something about it. This kind of learning is the best. 

When does that happen otherwise? When in life do I get somebody really focusing on me, and asking me questions that make me think about me?

Doug: What would you say to other professionals, not necessarily coaches, who are thinking about whether to enter supervision? 

Jo: It’s like the over-used adage about putting the oxygen mask on to yourself first so that you can help others on the aeroplane. It’s about valuing yourself. Attending to yourself first. That’s what it gives you. That’s the only way that we can be great at whatever it is we do, in a sustainable healthy way—whether we’re a coach or not.  

Doug: So, supervision is a form of self-care, so that you can be available for your clients or organisations or whoever you are working with?

Jo:  Yes, it’s about replenishing energy, topping up the battery. That would be the key things if somebody was looking towards supervision and wondering what it might give them.

Lou: It’s part of the whole process of learning and growing, and as a coach there are lots of things that one needs to have in place in order to practice and carry on earning and to develop and to carry on working in the best possible way. Supervision is part of the package. It’s there for a reason; because it’s the only way that you can consistently carry on learning and developing good practices as a coach. 

Lesley: I would advise them to give it a go with an open mind, just explore it with no preconceptions and see what they get from it. Because I can guarantee that they will get something useful from it. It might not be what they were expecting to get, but they will certainly walk away with something useful!

Lou: I think any “people” job—by which I mean, roles where you’re leading or influencing people—even if those relationships are going well, you will benefit from supervision. It can still be stressful, emotional, and challenging trying to work out what’s going on in relationships. We make all sorts of assumptions about what people are thinking and feeling and these assumptions can impact on how we internalise problems. It becomes subjective.

Supervision helps to deal with that because of the more objective views it offers. Supervision can help you find where you need to get to in order to be more effective and to deal kindly and humanely with what can be very difficult situations.

Lesley: Yes, I would recommend supervision actually. I’d never really thought about it before I became a coach. I don’t think I was even aware of supervision, as it’s not something that I have in my other life as a pharmacist.  I think it would be hugely valuable for anyone that’s working in a place where they’ve got those sorts of relationships. Supervision is great because it helps you to explore how you’re approaching things, challenges some of your thinking, and helps you find different ways and solutions to some of the challenges that you might be having. So, yes, I don’t think it should just be for coaches. It would be invaluable for everybody.

Doug: What are your experiences with group supervision?

Lesley: The group supervision tends to be, in my experience, a longer chunk of time, but you get that added dynamic of hearing and listening to other people and understanding what they have brought to supervision. There’s an opportunity to learn from that, but there’s also an opportunity to contribute to other people’s development and learning as well. I think this adds a different dimension.

Lou: When you bring a problem to supervision and have a think about it there with other people, their perspectives can shine light on the corners that you haven’t particularly thought about. Then you go back to the problem and have a look at it through those different eyes, and very often it doesn’t seem as tangled and difficult and treacly as it did before.

Jo: I think the group supervision in my experience has always really widened my learning because it is like a smorgasbord of input. You’re experiencing lots and lots of different approaches and ways of being. And so it’s a lovely way to tap into what’s right for you, find out what you like and what you don’t like—and of course, what you don’t like might be exactly what you need right now to give yourself the proverbial kick up the bum to see things in a different way.  I think it’s just noticing and sensing into what’s needed and what’s right for you in that moment in time.

My thanks to Jo, Lesley and Lou for allowing me to interview them and for sharing their supervision experiences with me and allowing me to share this with you.

*Interviews have been abridged for readability.

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