My Supervision Story
Updated: Mar 19, 2018
I’ve had many coaches ask me to explain what supervision is and what draws me to the work. Here’s the story, from my early days as a coach to the present day.
Initial Misunderstandings of Supervision
For years, I would periodically hear from coaching colleagues, praising the value of supervision, attributing much of their professional growth to their conversations with their supervisor. I would nod politely, while internally questioning how this could be so. The term “supervisor” was a complete turn-off for me: I chose coaching in part because it offered autonomy, the absence of any managerial authority figure observing, evaluating, and (inevitably) criticizing me and my work. How on earth could that kind of “supervisor” be a good thing?
A hyphen made all the difference in my perspective. In an online article, I read a reference to “super-vision”, which framed the process as being a way to enhance my vision seeing more and seeing differently of myself as practitioner, more of my client, more of what’s possible in the sacred space of coaching. That, I had to admit, sounded good.
When I first took on private clients in 1998, I tried diligently to apply the practices from my training. Even as the techniques became more familiar and natural, I couldn’t yet determine why some coaching conversations seemed effective, and some were decidedly less so. It was a delightful mystery that I was eager to solve.
During certification, I gained a new level of clarity about this mystery. I was required to submit recordings of several of my coaching conversations to my mentor coach. The input of this masterful, experienced coach took my clarity and confidence to a different level. My mentor coach helped me see what was working about my coaching, and what wasn’t. I got to see where I was using coaching techniques to serve the highest interests of my client, and where I was falling back into old habits which reflected my time as a teacher and consultant. The focus of those conversations was mostly coaching technique, and without a doubt, they made me a more conscious and skilled coaching technician. I was no longer experimenting on clients, but intentionally applying what I’d been taught... and it worked! Mentor coaching helped me cross the bridge between educated amateur and emerging professional. It was the perfect intervention for that period in my professional growth.
Fast forward fifteen years, and chalk up a couple thousand hours more practice with all kinds of clients in all kinds of settings...
I no longer think about technique when I coach, any more than I think mirror-signal-maneuver when I’m driving my car. I’m simply in a conversation with my client, and the techniques of coaching weave naturally into the topic at hand. It doesn’t require the effort it once did, nor the same quality of attention. It’s easy to get lazy, and interact with my client with an ‘autopilot’ level of presence. I’m not as fully present as I aspire to be, perhaps missing nuances of what’s emerging within my client, or in myself. These conversations may be effective enough at a certain level, but I cannot think of a single example of an “autopilot” coaching conversation evoking transformation for my clients, or deep learning for myself.
If I’m brutally honest with myself, the gap between what I know is possible in coaching, and what I often experienced, has grown over time. My dedication to give my clients the best of what I can offer as a coach hasn’t changed. With some of my clients, this happens naturally and easily. But with others, I admitted to myself that I was sometimes bored, distracted, impatient, even judgmental. It took the shock of being fired by a client before I could face the drift that had occurred over time, from work that started out as precious and personal, but had become routine and flat far too often.
This uncomfortable realization triggered a period of soul-searching. What was I doing wrong? Had I forgotten some essential element of coaching technique? Was I burned out? Did I need to quit the profession altogether? I found few clear answers to these questions, except the certainty that I wasn’t ready to give up. I re-dedicated myself to giving my full attention, presence and effort to every client. But this effort of will didn’t restore the feeling of delightful surprise, fascination and adventure which had made me fall in love with coaching in the first place.
A First Taste of Super-vision
I consulted colleagues, hired a coach, journaled, meditated, visualized... everything that I would advise someone else to do in my situation. I had moments of insight, the emergence of some new perspectives to try on. I reacquainted myself with models, tools and approaches which had been gathering dust on my bookshelves.
To my great disappointment, I couldn’t figure out what was blocking me from being the coach I wanted to be, more of the time. So, at the recommendation of a friend, I hired a supervisor, and asked her to help me figure out what was going on, and what I could do about it.
I’m not sure what I expected. I know I hoped for a flash of insight, a sudden realization that would metaphorically switch the lights back on. I was willing to explore deeply, ask the hard questions of myself, challenge my preconceptions... anything that might be conducive to the breakthrough I sought.
What I received from my supervisor was of a completely different order. She listened patiently to my story, but instead of trying to analyze what had changed, she shared how she was experiencing me, in that moment. She described how she felt as I analyzed my experience with clients, and at one moment, shared how she’d lost a sense of connection with me as I talked.
I was a bit nonplussed: I thought we were there to talk about my relationships with my clients, perhaps my relationship with myself. It shocked me into the present, as we explored the ebb and flow of my attention, the way I “disappeared” from relationship as I talked, and most particularly as I theorized and tried to explain my experience.
There was no burst of clever insight, only a witnessing of who I was being in relationship. I could see something that had been invisible to me before, and that was all that was necessary for the pattern to shift. There was no need for an action plan... I’d experienced a level of presence with my supervisor, in her modeling and what we’d created together, which gave me the template for what I aspired to bring my clients.
This shift generated the next set of questions and explorations in our work together, which played out over several sessions. We explored the triggers of my presence or absence in relationship, with my clients and others. My curiosity about my work re-kindled, and I found myself experiencing curiosity about the moments of boredom I felt with certain clients, rather than my reflexive self-shaming about my deficiencies as a coach.
What I’ve Come to Treasure about Super-Vision
I found that supervision has allowed me to paradoxically stand fully inside my experience of my practice and my clients, and also somehow cultivate a view from the outside. It’s become the place where I reflect, explore, and more often than not, laugh about myself and my work. What I could not have seen on my own seems to come into focus.
As I began to train as a supervisor myself in early 2017, I began to understand more about how this process works, and the tools and ways of seeing which enable it. It’s all still a great mystery how super-vision allows learning to occur in such an effortless and beautiful fashion. The difference now is that this mystery is a delight to experience rather than a problem to solve.
Paul Wyman, February 2018