We continue our exploration of themes in coaching supervision along the ethics axis by addressing an issue that is more common that one might suspect: collusion in coaching.
Collusion between coach and client.
What do we mean by collusion and how is it problematic? And, for the purposes of this article, what does a supervisor do with it – particularly if they do not want to fall into a further level of collusion?
I’ve written elsewhere about collusion in coaching, with a particular focus on the line between it and empathy – something that can that can lead to collusion if left to its own devices.
For the purposes of this article in which we are specifically interested in the supervisor’s response, let’s simply say that:
collusion in coaching is the act of the coach entering into the client’s paradigm of thinking in a way that limits the scope of new ideas, fresh thinking and alternative meaning-making whilst creating a shared narrative, emotional response and even, sometimes, behaviours.
In other words, the coach is no longer acting as effectively as possible in providing a thinking partner that catalyses new possibilities.
One might wonder what would lead this to happen. Surely, the coach can see what’s happening and avoid it?
Well, in a sense, that’s where supervision comes in. But before we go there, let’s acknowledge that the coach is human and therefore as vulnerable to the same emotions and cognitive traps and patterns as the client. This means that, given the right conditions, collusion is a natural and ever present risk in coaching.
No coach will start off colluding, but as they work with their client over time, they may feel drawn into this person’s way of seeing things either because the client is persuasive, the coach has a propensity to over-identify, or because the evidence that stacks up around the coaching suggests the client is accurate in their assessment and response to whatever issue they are bringing.
This will often show up in supervision when a coach says something like, “To be honest, his boss is a complete #@$*!” or “Her partner treats her so badly!” or even something more abstract like “He works in a really toxic environment!”
In all these cases there is a clear sign that some level of collusion is taking place.
The coach is no longer relating the client’s experience to me as a supervisor but instead telling me it as though it were a truth.
The boss is a #@$*!
The partner does treat her badly.
The workplace is toxic.
How is the coach to effectively challenge or support the client to think when they have lost perspective?
This is not to say that the things being said are not partially or wholly accurate – they may well be – but coaching thrives on enabling the client to think critically by having their ideas and assumptions questioned rather the reinforced.
So what is the discussion that needs to happen in supervision when this comes up?
Questions for the supervisor exploring collusion in coaching
As always, there is no single pathway for a conversation like this – it is dialogic but what follows is a loose guide for a structure.
The supervisor’s own awareness.
The supervisor needs to maintain their own distance through self-awareness.
We would call this Eye 6 in terms of the 7-Eyed Model but essentially it’s about the supervisor disentangling their own response and being sure they themselves are not at risk of collusion.
A supervisor who has had experience of a “toxic” work environment might well find they unconsciously join in a “toxicity conga” with client, coach and supervisor holding each others hips, flinging their legs in the air and hollering “toxic!”
Terms like these become so common place that it can be easy to fall into lending them immediate credence, thus short cutting the need to think.
So the supervisor must be sure to retain the distance needed to bring fresh thinking.
The coach’s own awareness.
With the supervisor sufficiently aware of any parallel process, they can explore the coach’s own awareness of the potentiality that collusion is happening.
In other words, do they know they are colluding?
This might happen in a number of ways and supervision typically allows for a more full and frank sharing of sense-making than coaching and so the supervisor might share what they are seeing, describing the patterns they have observed and seeking to gain the coach’s perspective.
Alternatively, they might facilitate the coach to their own awareness without any direct input from the supervisor.
This might involve questions such as:
- What do you see going on here between you and the client in relation to the organisation/boss/partner etc?
- How do you feel when you’re talking about this with your client?
- Where does that feeling come from given it’s not your experience?
- How would you describe the relationship with the client around this issue?
- Or, should you want to be more metaphorical, you could ask a question like, “If you were to make a movie about you and the client facing this issue, what would it be like?”
In other words, we are beginning to focus here on:
Eye 4 – the coach’s experience
Eye 3 – the coach and client relationship
What’s a coach to do?
It goes without saying that awareness without change is somewhat pointless in a case like this.
The coach needs to do something differently.
Collusion can become so entrenched, so gamified in its emotional rewards, that any sudden change of behaviour might rupture the coach/client relationship.
As a result, a key conversation in the supervision is what the coach can do to begin to unpick the ties that bind and to dissolve the collusion.
Perhaps this is a respectful broaching of the subject by the coach with the client so that they can explore this together.
Or maybe it’s the incremental introduction of a more questioning perspective that acclimatises the client to a newly emerging relationship.
The focus has moved to Eye 2 – the intervention.
The client’s awareness and needs.
And what about the client in all of this?
What do they need from the coach? Yes, it might be comforting to “have someone on your side” but is it what they actually need?
What might the client say if someone asked them what they need from the coaching?
The supervisor might ask questions like:
- How useful do you think the client finds the coaching right now?
- What’s it achieving?
- What might they be thinking or doing differently that’s being missed?
At this point, of course, we have moved finally here to Eye 1 – the client.
Wrapping all of this might be some wider systemic issue in which individuals feels powerless and seek to form alliances of power against greater forces.
Or perhaps collusion runs through an organisation or family system such that the client naturally seeks collusion. Maybe powerful cliques are how people survive and thrive in the relevant context of the coaching.
By approaching this from an Eye 7 perspective, we might notice how the coach has been drawn into a wider web of collusion from which they need to extricate themselves.
Being the voice of dissent.
The critical thing in all of this is for the coaching supervisor to be the “voice of dissent” that asks – “What if this were not true?” or “If it is true, what remains unknown?”
In so doing, the supervisor models the very behaviour and mindset that the coach needs to find their way back to – being a catalyst for new thinking and critical self-reflection.
The coach, though, is not always willing to do this.
I have come across coaches so disillusioned by the work they do, or the organisations they do it in, that they are truly treading water and playing the game of coach as they collude ever more knowingly with their clients against the organisation.
This is dangerous stuff. The coach is not only not helping the client think afresh but is likely actually reinforcing the very beliefs that are keeping them stuck and unhappy.
It is incumbent upon the supervisor in these situations to point this out – that is the moment of courageous authority in supervision: to be strong when needed in your own beliefs, values and professional appraisal whilst always seeking to facilitate the coach in being part of that exploration.
Collusion is antithetical to coaching and the supervisor that lets it pass unremarked upon is not serving the coach or client in the long run.
The process I have mapped out here is not a fixed roadmap but simply one of many maps you might use to explore collusion in coaching.
What’s clear though is that this is a multi-dimensional issue and the greater number of perspectives we open up the more we can support the coach to look at their work anew and develop better coaching approaches.