As a coach, I use metaphors and imagery as part of my work with clients. I’m delighted when a client drops a metaphor into the conversation and we can explore it together. I’m fascinated by stories, assumptions, perceptions, and the idea that ‘the map is not the territory’. I studied NLP before studying coaching and I often borrow elements of NLP and bring them into my coaching to enable a different level of exploration.
My supervision style developed in a similar way to my coaching, with the metaphor and imagery elements showing up mostly when exploring Eyes 1, 2, and 4, and to some extent Eye 7.
As I continued to develop as a coaching supervisor, I began to wonder to what extent the supervisor’s perception of imagery and metaphor influence their opinion or assumptions about the coach, client or situation and, by extension, the direction of the session?
But then I realised I was asking the wrong question.
With metaphor or imagery, we’re not actually looking at anything in the true sense of the word, so it’s not how we perceive what we’re seeing, it’s how we imagine what’s being described.
So my question was less about perception and more about imagination, which then leads to perception.
So, what follows is an exploration of the question:
When metaphor or imagery is used in supervision, how does the supervisor’s or supervisee’s imagination influence their perception of the client, challenges and systems?
Landscapes: The Map is not the Territory
(and whose map is it anyway?)
This example comes from a supervision client whom I’ve been working with since I began the training as a coaching supervisor. She often brings metaphor and imagery into our sessions and this creates some fascinating explorations and insights. It was with this supervisee that I really became aware of the difference between our perception of her metaphors.
She was describing feeling ‘blocked’ in her coaching, and named it as being like one of the large round concrete boulders that people have at the end of their driveways. The ones carried by weightlifters in ‘Strongman’ competitions. Fairly easy to visualise, and not much room for different interpretation.
But when she started to describe it as blocking her path and expanded her metaphor a bit more, I began forming an image in my mind. We explored questions which came from me visualising the scene. Where she was trying to get to? Who put the boulder there? What needed to happen to move it? What’s on the other side of it?
I’d been imagining, or maybe remembering, the woods in the town where I live.
I was ‘seeing’ a scene like this, but with the client’s concrete boulder blocking the path, and no way around it.
I shared this mental image with my supervisee and she told me she was imaging a very different landscape. My supervisee, we discovered, was seeing something more like this.
When I asked where her client was in relation to the boulder she realised, ‘this isn’t my landscape, it’s my client’s landscape’. She explained that the landscape she was imaging wasn’t a place that meant anything to her, but was the moors often described by her client.
Once she described the landscape, and how there was so much space around her, and not the overgrown forest path I was imagining, it took our conversation in a different direction as I asked why, when there’s so much open space, does she not just go around it. This opened up some thinking about wanting help to move it, and what was being gained by staying behind it.
If I had stayed with my image, would I have asked that question? No, probably not. Because in my image her boulder was totally blocking the path as she had described it to me. I wouldn’t have imagined the huge space around it, and would have bought into the story that her path was completely blocked.
The realisation that she was in her client’s landscape and not her own also enabled some thinking about how much of her clients’ challenges she was taking on herself, and where confluence could be showing up in her coaching space.
Creating the Fantasy Version of the Supervisee’s Client in our Minds Eye
(Or The Game of Thrones Effect)
One element of the Seven Eyed Model that fascinates me is Eye 6a, the fantasy relationship between the supervisor and the supervisee’s client. This fits in with my ponderings about what we imagine, and whether it’s anything like the reality. And if it’s not, then how does this affect the supervision.
Once you know something about the client that’s different to how you imagined them, does this change how you perceive them? Do they now remind you of someone? I wonder if there’s a possibility of transference. How do you feel about the client now? Does bias come in (or shift from one bias to another) at this point?
I’m calling this the Game of Thrones effect simple because this was an example that I used to describe it to one of my fellow supervisors. I read the Game of Thrones series of books long before it became a TV show. In reading the books I had created images of the characters in my mind, rather like we do with our supervisee’s clients in Eye 6a. Some I liked more than others, regardless of their behaviour in the stories.
When the TV show was released and I saw those characters (embodied by actors, of course) they weren’t as I imagined them, and some who I really liked in the book I felt quite averse to once I had seen them in the flesh. Bias, transference, and a preference for a certain type of person over another, had definitely come into play and changed my relationship with those fantasy characters.
Throughout the coaching supervision training I’ve been practising supervision, discussing theory, and receiving or sharing feedback with my supervision triad. After one of these practice sessions where I was the supervisee, we talked about Eye 6a, specifically how the supervisor perceived my client, and the image they had formed of her in their mind while we were talking.
While there were some similarities, my supervisor hadn’t imagined that my client was Asian. While this didn’t change the supervisors’ regard for my client, it might have brought a different context to her experiences, and perhaps could also have changed the imaginary relationship in 6a.
Supervisees and Clients as Movies Stars
(The Perception of Self in Relationship to Clients and their Stories)
Whilst I never actually practice NLP in its purest sense, there are some methods and practices that have definitely influenced my coaching and supervision style. One method that I like to play with in coaching when exploring the client’s narrative is to bring in some elements of an NLP Phobia Cure technique, and view their story with them as a movie scene.
Observing a supervisee creating the characters for their clients, the other players in the story, and of course themselves as a coach, is fascinating for me and usually very insightful for them.
I recently brought this into a supervision session with supervisee who will also be my case study for the course. We mostly work together to explore her professional development, and her coaching and wellbeing practice in a more general sense. But on this occasion, she wanted to talk about a specific client and a situation that had come up. After intentionally taking a tour through the Seven Eyes, we started to create a movie, building up the characters of the story a little more, and watching the scenes unfolding.
A theme that had come from viewing the situation through the Seven Eyes, was the frustration that my supervisee felt about the systemic issues, and specifically, the healthcare service that she felt was failing her client. In fact, this came up often in our sessions as this was the area in which she coaches and provides wellbeing services.
Developing the supervisee’s character, she defined herself as a ‘Crusader’ who wanted to take on the system and fight for her clients.
This opened up a conversation and some reflections on seeing some of her clients as being powerless, and her feeling that she had to be the one who had to take up their battles for them.
As she started to challenge her assumptions, she was also able to view the healthcare service differently, rather than seeing them as the enemy to be fought against, she saw them as part of a larger system where they may also feel powerless.
A second example of how the coach’s self-perception in relation to the client can be uncovered in this way, was during a supervision session where I offered the option of the supervisee and myself sitting and viewing the client’s situation as a movie together.
To set the scene I asked my supervisee to place their client, and in this case their father, in the movie and talk about the roles that they play. The client’s father was cast as the villain of the story’. We explored the origin story of the father to try to understand his character a little more. A couple of additional characters were brought in, and I asked my supervisee to tell me how the heroine and her father got to this point in the story.
The unexpected element for the coach was when I asked her to place herself in the movie, and tell me what her role was in the story. She hadn’t yet thought about this, and cast herself as the ‘trusted friend’. This enabled her to reflect on her relationship with her client, and also how she felt about the father, who she had cast as the villain without really considering the other aspects of his character, and what his intentions might be.
Bringing this example back to the original question, I feel that the characters this supervisee had created in her imagination certainly had an influence on how she perceived her client’s situation.
I’m still researching and pondering the original question as I continue to work with my supervisees and their metaphors and imagery. I do think, though, that the images and scenes we create in our minds when hearing our supervisees (or clients) descriptions and metaphors must have an influence on our perception of the client, their situation, and the systems that exist around them. I feel like this overlaps with the Seven Eyes, and also as I reflect on this more, with Gestalt.
Our experiences, biases, preferences and assumptions that enable us to create those images in our mind’s eye, must surely influence our perception.
I believe there’s value in sharing with our supervisees what we’re imagining, as the difference in our imagery can provoke new directions in questioning, as with the woodland path vs moors example earlier. This sharing also gives us the opportunity to acknowledge our assumptions and biases with our supervisees, for more transparency in the relationship.