I recently supervised an experienced coach for the fifth time who, at the beginning of the session, gave me some specific and constructive feedback.
She told me that when reviewing our previous session she had been uncomfortable, she felt like a student and that I was like a teacher telling her what to do.
She felt that I was taking an authoritative stance, and she felt judged by that. My note taking during the session was also perceived as me noting what she had done wrong.
We had a very open conversation around this issue, which had in truth come as a surprise to me, as I had never received feedback that was even close to how she was experiencing our supervision relationship.
In fact, my other feedback had told me the opposite: of supervision clients feeling unconditionally accepted and listened to, never judged.
What was different in this session or this relationship that resulted in my client feeling the way she did?
I was very curious about this and had a desire to investigate and assess my own approach, not only in this session with this coach, but in all my sessions with other supervision clients, and perhaps with coaching clients too.
This thought led me to question the place of authority in the supervision relationship: where are the lines, what does it mean to be in the ‘super’ position, how is this experienced by different supervisors or supervision clients?
In this reflection piece, we’ll take a deeper dive to understand the relationship between a supervisor and a supervisee and what authority means in the supervisory relationship.
Clearing the Lines of Supervision
The word “Supervision” can translate as overseeing, guidance, control, direction among many other synonyms. There are subtle differences in each of these words, and their meaning will also vary according to the perspective as well as the personal experience of whoever is using or hearing the word.
The mindset of both participants at the time of the specific session may also play a part, as can the outcome of previous sessions and whether these were admitted, explored and understood in the best possible way between the parties.
As a supervisor, it can be all too easy to bring one’s own biases, working style and approach or even expectations into the supervisory relationship. The supervisor must be alert to the possibility of encouraging or expecting deference from the supervisee, due to the roles both parties are playing.
The supervisor’s willing self-awareness and openness to the feedback from the coach are essential when this happens. Acknowledging one’s own part in any challenge that may arise is always key learning for both parties, irrespective of the individual roles.
Authority in the relationship needs to be accessed as an enabling factor to allow the supervisee to tell their story without feeling judged, in safety and with the benefit of being heard, understood and seen. It can then result in the relationship existing in a sphere of shared meaning and trust.
This means supervisors are keeping sight of the goals of the supervisee in delivering competency and effectiveness to their clients, while highlighting the supervisee’s growing edges and supporting their own growth at the same time.
In the Stance of a Coaching Supervisor
The authority of the supervisor can be demonstrated in multiple ways, particularly as a supervisor brings observation, interpretation, intervention and personal focus on the supervisee to the relationship.
These elements combine to result in improved competency in the relationship of the supervisee, with their own clients and their issues, as well as the competency and relationship between supervisor and supervisee.
However, the way in which they are delivered has a huge impact on the arrival of both supervisee and supervisor at a beneficial outcome.
In order to observe, the supervisor is necessarily at a remove in order to be more objective. At times, a removed stance may be perceived by a supervisee as authoritative distancing, and hence judging.
As one observes, one interprets – sometimes unconsciously, sometimes with focus – and at this point, a supervisor may start to formulate their own interpretation around what may be happening for the supervisee.
The supervisor can then choose to investigate and gain clarification on any interventions they are witnessing from the supervisee/client relationship, while simultaneously making their own choices (again consciously or unconsciously) on the interventions they may be planning to use themselves with the supervisee.
The reception and the results of these interventions may be affected by how the observation has been perceived and received by the supervisee. Questioning the interventions made by the supervisee could be received negatively and as coming from an authoritarian rather than collaborative position.
An awareness of the subtle shifts that may occur in each relationship at these times, and the reinforcement of the trust engendered from the outset of the supervision relationship, are key to navigating successfully through these moments.
Without the awareness, the relationship may fall into a transactional pattern of Critical Parent and Adapted Child without this being recognised.
In the Perspectives of a Supervisee
Personal focus on the supervisee is essential in multiple ways. The supervisee’s main tool is him or herself, so acknowledging how the supervisee shows up, what is going on for them and what they are bringing to the client session are vital to understanding any issue or topic they are bringing to supervision.
This can become a sensitive area depending on the individual supervisee and how deeply they are willing to explore what may be going on for them at that moment or previously, how much safety they feel in the supervisory relationship or how relevant they think the focus is.
Lightness of touch is crucial to providing ongoing supportive holding of the supervisee in a positive regard and to prevent their inner critic from surfacing and becoming disruptive.
Slipping into driving an agenda that suits the working preferences of the supervisor can be a danger too.
It is important to bear in mind that, for example, if on an occasion the supervisor brings their focus to the supervisee’s subjective feelings, the supervisee may have already done a lot of work on their own personal awareness via another method, and would rather, at least in this instance, experience a more theoretical focus.
The psychological contract containing each party’s unspoken expectations is at play here. Therefore, it is crucial to create an exploration space so that if the supervisee starts to feel that the relationship is uncomfortably authoritarian, it can be addressed in an open, constructive and positive way.
By the way, in case you were wondering, I did explore this subject with my own supervisor too.
Creating a Safe Space for Awareness and Dialogue in Supervision
Addressing this possibility at the outset of the relationship, and re-contracting during the sessions when it has become apparent to either party means less chance of misunderstanding or dissatisfaction within the supervision relationship.
Within a space of awareness of self and other, an acknowledgement of the experience and training of the supervisor by the supervisee can be handled with delicacy and balance to avoid this being perceived as superiority, authoritarianism or criticism.
As long as the issue is raised well it can become a learning point. The new knowledge and experience that springs from this, for both the supervisor and supervisee, brings yet another opportunity for deeper self-awareness and growth.