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Coach Supervision and Vertical Development
How coaches 'grow up'
This is a collaborative post - part of our exploration of vertical development in coaching. In it, Dr. Ursula Clidière, accredited coach supervisor and practitioner in adult development, unpacks the value of adding a developmental lens to the emerging field of coaching supervision.
One of my (Alis’) coaching mentors once said: “The biggest gift of coaching others is the growth you gain yourself”. She also added: “We always have the clients we need”. It was an early reminder for me that coaching is not something you do to others, but a mutually transforming process of evolution that leaves you - the coach - changed - just as it impacts and supports your clients to actualise their potential, achieve their aspirations and grow in the process.
The meaning of ‘we have the clients we need’ is that every client presents us with a precious opportunity to discover new, unexamined corners of our own psyche. In supporting them to explore their belief systems we are confronted with our own. In encouraging them to face their limitations we unavoidably encounter our own. To remain the clean, clear mirrors our clients deserve, we, coaches, need safe spaces to process our own discoveries, fears and inner obstacles. And a great supervisor is the person who provides that safe space for us, coaches, to download, bring into awareness, integrate and do all the inner work we expect our clients to do in turn.
I have deep respect for the mastery required to be a coaching supervisor. I also believe this profession - and this aspect of coaching development - is still insufficiently understood and appreciated. So I jumped at the opportunity of inviting Ursula Clidière, a dear friend and experienced coaching supervisor, to share some perspectives I believe all of us could learn from. I am even more excited knowing that Ursula is not only a supervisor, but a developmentalist. She and I have nerded out extensively about the differences between coach mentoring and supervision and about the links between vertical development and coaching supervision - the latter being a territory that has hardly been explored. This article, written in Ursula’s voice, emerged from our conversations. It is an invitation for you - coaches, coach mentors, coach supervisors, curious minds with an interest in coaching - to take a step into the world of supervision with a developmental lens. If you’ll find it valuable, Ursula and I would love to have you join our webinar on the 5th of October, where we plan to deep-dive into this question: How can coaches ‘grow up’ just as they support their clients’ growth?
Image credits: ‘Lady of Supervision’ by Ursula Clidière
Supervision - a catalyst for coaches’ vertical development?
If you are a coach, you will likely have experienced the isolation that often comes with this profession. We most often practice in a ‘bubble’ - just us and our client(s). We might (and hopefully do) spend time after a session reflecting on what went right/wrong and, while that self-reflection is precious and necessary, it often isn’t sufficient to show us what we cannot see for ourselves. To keep learning and growing, we need external feedback and support. And that often comes with mentoring and supervision - which are related, but not identical.
“Supervision is what you think you don’t need in advance and appreciate hugely in hindsight!” (Ursula’s client - P.T. - 2023)
For internationally accredited coaches, a certain number of hours with a mentor are a formal requirement for credential maintenance. They are also an important ‘hygiene factor’ - more coaches are seeking mentors as a way to increase the quality of their practice. Mentoring is quite often pragmatic - focusing on unpacking and improving a coach’s technique. Yet, for many coaches, it’s not enough.
Less well-known than mentoring, coach supervision (often also called ‘coaching supervision’) is growing in popularity. Supervision goes beyond mentoring, working with the whole person of the coach, supporting their growth as a person and as a professional, just as it is supporting the honing of their craft. In supervision, coaches will often bring their own challenges, fears, reactions to clients, moments of stuckness, professional anxieties and a host of other emotions, beliefs or patterns that play out in client interactions. The premise of supervision is that the coach themself is the main ‘instrument’ of coaching, and that instrument needs honing and tuning so it resonates with clients at the right frequency, at the right time.
Wright et al (2019) affirm that given the increasing focus on the maturation of coaching and developmental frames, there is an increasingly critical need for coaches to engage in supervision as part of their continuous professional development and reflective practice. Also, just as the diversification and overall investment in coaching has grown, so has the need to develop and support coaching practitioners, or even entire organizational cultures using coaching approaches.
In this article, we will “toe-dip” into coach supervision with a vertical orientation- the purpose and value it can offer to coaching practitioners- be they coaches, HR professionals, or leader coaches - regardless of whether their practice is deliberately vertical or not. We invite you to consider that, just as coaching itself can be developmental for the client, supervision can be developmental for the coach.
It’s worth noting that, increasingly, corporate clients are asking that coaching practitioners be in supervision, and more and more of the professional coaching bodies are now adding supervision as a mandatory requirement (alongside mentoring), e.g., for accreditation purposes. What is emphasized in those contexts are the qualitative aspects of coaching (referring to ‘quality of work’, skills, tools, relationships, the client system, and context) and the restorative aspects (how the coach takes care of themselves). Today though, we are toe-dipping into the third offering supervision brings- the vertical development of a coach, and here we are exploring how supervision itself might enhance its impact by using adult development principles.
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The ‘vertical’ in coaching and supervision
Vertically trained practitioners (be they coaches or coach supervisors) can offer a safe container for growth and can discern the developmental voyage a client is on. Vertical development is based on reflective inquiry, awareness raising, and personal introspection and requires inner work. This in turn can heighten awareness, help deepen connections and relations, bring new perspectives to light, allow the person to engage in dialogue more effectively, and offer new pathways for self-regulation. It can also support adaptive changes, help create a greater bandwidth for dealing with complexity and for noticing interconnectivity.
In supporting the adult development of others, coaches may themselves be in need of support, energy, making sense of their client experience, seeing other perspectives, challenging their coaching approach, or simply recharging by tuning into the inner dialogue and needs. Wright et al (2019) highlight the centrality of the “self” and the role of developmental supervision in supporting an evolution of complexity in thinking, meaning making and coach maturity.
“Supervision is tuning the instrument of coaching: the coach.” (Ursula’s client - C.O., 2023)
When looking at adult development stages through a musical metaphor – different stages of development can be seen as octaves we can inhabit or ‘play’ on our ‘developmental piano’. There are octaves we ‘play’ naturally and that we recognize as our ‘Center of Tonality’ (Center of Gravity). Then, there may be other scales we find ourselves playing without fully understanding why and without feeling exactly ‘in tune’ with the scale - in other words, we may find ourselves showing up with much less maturity than we know ourselves to be capable of. Dr. Valerie Livesay (2022) would call this a ‘developmental fallback’.
A coach’ stage of development does significantly affect how they understand their role, value in life or at work, how they relate to others, deal with conflict or complex issues. Therefore, when we have moments where we feel in complete flow, like the ‘reincarnated Mozart’, noticing octaves, tunes, and keys we did not know how to play beforehand quite as easily - and, suddenly, we can- it may be a ‘glimpse’ of another octave, another way of interpreting the piece of music - noticing another viewpoint or another way of making sense of the world. We know, with practice and reflection, these new, broader perspectives become more easily available, until we eventually inhabit or “own” this new way of seeing, making meaning and sense. And we also realize, it is not only practising the piece over and over again that will bring us there - it is because a different meaning/lens has emerged, allowing us to interpret the music differently.
One of my (Ursula’s) supervisees had contracted supervision initially for the same pragmatic reason many coaches seek a supervisor: accreditation. She was seeking to be supervised for a limited period, a defined number of supervision hours as was required by the professional body. And then? She discovered an intrinsic value in the supervisory process, that made her stay on turn supervision into a practice. She asked to deepen the developmental aspect of our explorations, as she had experienced a heightened sense of agency and joy in her own coaching, better communication with her clients, and feeling more equipped to tackle some of the dynamics she kept encountering with a corporate client.
In working with her, I reflected on another wonderful aspect of our musical metaphor of development. While many times, as coaches, we ‘play’ beautifully alongside our clients, harmonizing our ‘octaves’ to theirs, at other times we may find ourselves out of tune, or out of touch with their needs, their situation, and their context. And here, supervision offers a safe space for reflective practice so that, in relationship with the supervisor, the coach can explore their experiences. The supervisee is invited into a reflective dialogue on their practice, thoughts, feelings, and actions in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. Supervision becomes a dialogue space or, what can also be called a “We-Space” (De Visch and Laske, 2018).
It is a space where both supervisor and supervisee, engage in co-creative exchange, explore emerging thoughts, reflect on practice, and invite gentle challenging of actions taken. In short, it invites us to look at a coaching setting from all angles and all stakeholders involved. It allows for space to let what needs to emerge, emerge. Bachkirova (2016) echoes this when stating that the principle of ‘coach as an instrument’ implies that the depth of practice comes from the depth of the practitioners.
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Supervision is a space for coaches to walk through Fear
Here is a quick story. One day, Robin (yes, Robin as in Robin Shohet, 2022) found himself with another traveller, a stranger, in the backseat of a taxi, being shuttled from the airport to a conference venue. Robin recalled, his friendly fellow traveller wanted to know what he did for work and when Robin mentioned ‘supervision’, his travel partner had no idea what ‘supervision’ was and wanted to know more. Robin hadn’t expected to have to summarise what he did - and his first thought was:
“It [supervision] helps to reduce the fear at work”
With this, Robin offers a unique perspective on supervision that few definitions, supervision models, or supervision research offer up as readily. Indeed, looking at my supervision session notes from the past years, every single one mentions ‘fear’ in one way or another.
Fears may be camouflaged by deep-rooted assumptions and conflicting commitments (Kegan and Lahey, 2009; Helsing, 2019) and they may be so entrenched that they are unconscious. This can cause disequilibrium, which in turn can lead to falling back or regressing (Livesay, 2022; Laske, 2020).
Fear, indeed, is everywhere - in us, around us, in others, embedded in relationships, organizations, cultures, and so many life contexts. Robin went even so far as to say
‘I just find fear behind all [sic] everything’ (2022)
Looking at ‘fear’ from an adult developmental perspective we might discover it can be experienced very differently by different developmental stages.
In her work at VDI, Alis often speaks about ‘edge emotions’ (Mälkki and Green, 2018) - the challenging feelings that arise at the end of our comfort zones - and then of contrasting emotions, as a gateway to vertical growth:
When people experience edge emotions - such as fear, anxiety, or confusion – they generally want to get rid of them as soon as possible. What Alis’ research has shown is that when we add curiosity on top of an edge emotion, (creating a ‘contrasting emotions space’) this makes the discomfort bearable, facilitates deep reflection and makes bold experiments more likely.
What I have found is that edge emotions do have a prominent place in supervision, as they often compromise the capacity of practitioners to fulfil their roles - preventing them from feeling competent, capable, and at full capacity in supporting their own clients. Supervision is a space where these emotions can be surfaced, expressed, met with curiosity and turned into fuel for the coach’s growth.
Let’s stay with fear for a moment longer.
Concretely, for someone being “perched” at the ‘Diplomat’ stage, belonging is likely very important, and the person may experience fear of being singled out or rejected while for someone inhabiting the ‘Expert’ stage, fears may manifest more around making mistakes. At the ‘Achiever’ stage people may be fearful about not having a choice, being helpless, or failing at accomplishing a set goal. At the ‘Redefining’ stage, there is often a lot of fear around changing identity or loss of meaning. While at the very late stages - ‘Transforming’ or ‘Alchemist’, fear may start turning into a valuable resource in itself and invite a rich inquiry. Hence, the perspective and ‘meaning’ of ‘fear’ are very different at different developmental stages. If you’d like to explore the stages and reflect on your own, this short podcast episode is a good start:
When coaches bring Fear into Supervision
Another supervisee, an Executive Coach, presented to supervision with the intention to explore her professional practice and a sense of ‘stuckness’ she had been experiencing for some time. After engaging in a brief check-in and centring exercise, I almost innocuously - as we were just both arriving at the session - invited her to share what came up in the brief check-in exercise. The response was unexpected, fast, short, and in the middle of the room: Fear.
In exploring this further and by contracting to take a vertical lens to the inquiry, we worked through several polarities and identified various misbalances between poles, such as one pole being ‘meaning’, and the other ‘financial security’. Another pair was ‘being-in-service’, poled by ‘success’, and a third pair was ‘purpose’, poled by ‘profitability’. As we were reflecting on how to consolidate and equally consider the pairs, the client already expressed relief from the pressure.
Becoming aware and seeing what had created some of the tensions that had held her captive and becoming aware of her options, helped her to regain a sense of autonomy and choice. In several of the subsequent sessions, we also did work using the well-known developmental process - Immunity to Change (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Through that, the coach could identify a deep-rooted assumption of ‘having to’ succeed in a financially measurable form or risk being/feeling ‘rejected’ by her family of origin. It had a profound impact on her own coach-client relationships.
This client’s story served as a reminder of the value of bringing developmental tools such as polarity work, or ITC into a supervisory process. It also showed how powerful it can be for coaches to work with (and through) their most uncomfortable emotions.
As mental growth through the octaves is represented by shifts into consecutively more complex frames of reference, this process of making emotions ‘object’ - looking AT them - (instead of simply being ‘subject’ to - looking THROUGH them) can change the way one experiences strong emotions. For coaches, this may mean they discover new ways to utilize their own strong emotions in service of the coaching process, instead of them becoming triggers for fallback.
Lines of development in coaching supervision
In similar ways, supervision can help a coach explore other lines/vectors/markers, of their own development and how they impact their behaviour and impact on the client, depending on the developmental stage at play. Such aspects include relationships, time, space, use of power, feedback, a coach’s identity, dealing with conflict, influencing others, decision-making, or motivation. We are using the term “line” here in the sense of a marker or aspect of maturity across octaves. They are themes that appear when you ‘double-click’ on a developmental stage - like notes that make up an octave on the 'piano’. Each of the above-listed lines, or markers, manifests differently from the different octaves’ vantage points. You can read more about these markers here:
Lines and Stages in Vertical Development: Why Assessments and Coaching Models Are Valuable Maps, But NOT The Territory
At another time, we will come back to discuss the more established adult developmental lines - as captured in Ken Wilber’s integral theory - such as ego-maturity, self, cognitive, values, morals, or spirituality.
When bringing the concept of ‘lines’ into supervision, the coach might be invited to reflect on how their own preference for cognitive processing (versus somatic processing) impacts the way they engage with their clients. Could the coach’s discomfort with being fully present in their own body, with their feelings, interfere with their capacity to hold space for a client in a moment of intense emotion? Could their preference for intellectual ‘unpacking’ stem from an overdeveloped cognitive line and could there be an opportunity to tease out other lines which might help round the coach’s repertoire of meaning-making?
The core tenet of the developmental view is that our ability to act and connect is driven by how we individually construct, interpret and apply meaning to the relationships and contexts we are in. The more sophisticated our meaning-making becomes, the more choice we have. This means that in a coaching process (and in a supervisory process for that matter) our own maturity (from an adult development perspective) is at play (Sharma, 2018; Cooke-Greuter, 2004). To add to the complexity - in supervision we also explore how a coach’s ‘octave’/stage might interact with the client’s ‘octave’ - and how those ‘notes’ may or may not harmonize.
Food for thought
We’re offering this post as a first step in a broader exploration of vertical development and its value for coach supervision. Supervision is, at its core, a reflective dialogue and we believe that, when done through a vertical lens, it opens up new ways for coaches to build their capacity to access more ‘octaves’ and, ultimately, more wisdom.
Developmental supervision offers us, coaches, a safe, quiet, and patient space to step into bigger versions of ourselves. It can support us to shift our relationship to time - from scarce to plentiful - or it might offer courage to experiment with new approaches that might then lead towards further growth for both ourselves and our clients. It might help us gain alertness and awareness to gauge our own octave and whether we play it (or it plays us…) in the right pitch (or not) - at the right time, in the right way, for the right purpose.
We’ll invite you to continue this exploration of the value and potential of developmental coach supervision in future posts, a planned academic publication, and in our upcoming webinar scheduled for October 5th, 2023. Enrol to join us live or watch the recording - we’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on all.
In all of this, we are holding one central question: How can coaches continue to grow, just as they help their clients grow in turn?
We’re looking forward to your thoughts, questions, and perspectives as supervisors, coaches, HR practitioners, leaders, or curious explorers. Through them in the chat, come in with your own beautiful tune and join our orchestra!
For the nerdiest of you, here are a few references to help you dive deeper:
Anagnostakis, A (2022). Fostering conscious leadership: Exploring leaders’ experience of vertical development during an Executive Leadership Program. PhD Dissertation.
Bachkirova, T. (2016). The self of the coach: Conceptualization, issues, and opportunities for practitioner development. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 68(2), 143-156.
Bluckert, P. (2019). A comprehensive guide to vertical development. Expand the possible.
De Visch, J. and Laske, O. (2020). Practices of Dynamic Collaboration. A Dialogical Approach to Strengthening Collaborative Intelligence in Teams. Springer.
Ellison, S. (2020). Understanding Vertical Development. Ellison Consulting Group.
Helsing, D. (2019). The Immunity-to-Change Process: When Change Is Hard to Make, in Professional Coaching, edited by English, S., Manzi Sabatini, J., and Brownell, P., Springer Publishing Company
Kegan R. & Laskow Lahey, L. (2009). 'Immunity to Change,' New Haven, CT.: Harvard Business Review Press
Mälkki, K., & Green, L. (2018). Working with Edge Emotions as a means for Uncovering Problematic Assumptions: Developing a sound theory. Phronesis, 7(3), 26–34.
Laske, O. (2020). Mentoring a Behavioural coach in thinking developmentally: A dialogue. Conference paper
Livesay, V. (2022). Leaving the Ghostlight burning. Illuminating Fallback in Embrace of the Fullness of You
Petrie, N. (2015). The how-to of Vertical Leadership Development- part 2.
Petrie, N. (2014). Vertical Leadership Development- part 1.
Sharma, B. (2018). Maturity Coaching: Enabling Vertical Development in Leaders. In Professional Coaching. Springer Publications.
Shohet, R. (2022) In Love with Supervision. Retrieved from: Robin Shohet presents on his book In Love with Supervision. - YouTube
Wright, A., McLean Walsh, M., and Tennyson, S. (2019). Systemic Coaching Supervision: Responding to the Complex Challenges of Our Time. Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal Vol. 4, No. 1, May 2019, 107-122.