The purpose of coaching supervision is to support coaches in using the right tools that best serve their clients, reflect on their coaching practice and ultimately become the best coach they can be.
The success of supervision relies heavily on the material we are working with, or in other words, what the coach chooses to share with the coach supervisor.
Therefore, it stands to reason that it’s in the coach’s best interest to share all the relevant details.
…Or at least, that’s the theory.
In reality, coaches often feel uncomfortable fully opening up with their coach supervisor. Full disclosure can elicit vulnerability or bring up a worry of being judged or doing the wrong thing. This might prevent coaches from getting the full benefit from their coach supervision.
This article will explore the reasons why coaches might feel uncomfortable opening up in supervision, and how you can navigate this dilemma as a supervisor to best support the coaches you’re working with.
Not all coaches feel uncomfortable opening up in supervision
It’s important to get this clear from the get-go. Talking about the discomfort to open up in coaching supervision doesn’t mean you need to start every coach supervision session with the premise that the coach you’re working with will be holding back. That’s not conducive to building mutual trust or serving your clients in the best way.
However, having an awareness that sometimes coaches might feel worried to open up can help. If you can recognise the signs and know how to navigate them, you can feel more equipped as a supervisor to overcome this potential obstacle early in the relationship, put your clients’ minds at ease, and get some real work done within the partnership.
Some facts and figures
Although research on this specific topic in coaching supervision is lacking, there is a study done by Ladany et al. (1996) on trainee counsellors. One of the key results of this study showed that 84% of trainee counsellors withheld information from their supervisor.
Now, for the purpose of this article, there are some caveats. Firstly, it was done on counsellors rather than coaches. Secondly, these were newer (trainee) counsellors rather than very experienced counsellors/coaches with an established counselling/coaching practice. And thirdly, the feedback was based on having received a single supervision session (rather than a longer supervisory relationship).
Because of these caveats, we need to be mindful of generalising these figures and jumping to the conclusion that most coaches don’t open up in their supervision sessions. However, it’s clear that we can draw some parallels to coach supervision.
While the exact figure may not be 84% for coaches and this figure may reduce after a longer period of supervision, there are some clear parallels we can draw to coaching. If many coaches feel uncomfortable fully opening up in supervision, how do we recognise the signs and how can we address them as supervisors?
Self-doubt is a common experience
There is a lot of research on topics like self-confidence, self-doubt, or impostor syndrome. For example, a 2020 KPMG study showed over 75% of women have experienced the impostor syndrome in their careers.
It’s no surprise that self-doubt is also experienced by many coaches, especially in the earlier stages of their practice.
Consciously, we may seek to improve ourselves, grow, learn and develop as coaches. However, on another, deeper layer, we also seek reassurance that we’re doing enough already and that we are serving our clients powerfully and doing right by them.
When coaches come to supervision, it’s not uncommon for them to experience at least some degree of self-doubt about their coaching, whether they verbalise this doubt or not. This is why the restorative function of supervision is so important.
Learn More: 3 Functions of Coaching Supervision
As a supervisor, it’s important to be aware of this deeper need that coaches come to supervision with, especially in those cases when it’s not verbalised directly by the coach.
Power in the helping professions
A lot has been said about the intrinsic motivations as well as the shadow side of choosing to work in a helping profession.
A. Guggenbuhl-Craig, a Jungian analyst, was one of the first therapists to shed light on the “dark side” of helping professions. In his book, “Power in the Helping Professions”, he mentions that in addition to all the beneficial work that takes place in helping professions, there’s often an unconscious game of power, where the therapist can take the role of a saviour in the relationship.
This can create an imbalance of power which can negatively impact the outcome of the support for clients. Because it’s a shadow aspect, by definition this side of us is unconscious, so we wouldn’t necessarily immediately resonate with the idea that we’re taking the role of saviour in our coaching or supervision. This further highlights for us the reason to have our own therapy, supervision and/or coaching to shed light on these more hidden aspects of ourselves.
Dr Martin says:
“When working with trainee and newly qualified counsellors [NB or coaches] it is often useful for us to monitor our own ego states in the room. It is not unusual for inexperienced therapists [NB or coaches] to present in a Child ego state with some anxiety, and in some awe of the supervisor as being the one who knows everything.”
Whether we look at the concept of power in coaching and coaching supervision from the perspective of shadow or ego states, it’s clear that there is a potential for projection to take place and to inadvertently enter a space where the supervisor somehow has the “upper hand” over the coach.
Dr Martin continues:
“This then invites the supervisor into a Parent ego state which may be overly sympathetic – ‘marshmallowing’, or overly critical, neither of which is helpful to the supervisee. The danger here is that the supervisee, in order to avoid being shamed, may only bring their best practice and can sometimes even exaggerate their skill in an attempt to receive ‘positive strokes’ from the supervisor.”
So, now comes the obvious question: ok, so coaches might feel uncomfortable to open up to their supervisor. What do I do about it?
How coach supervisors can help coaches feel comfortable to open up in supervision
There could be many ways for coach supervisors to navigate this with their clients, and we’ll be sharing a few in this article.
Naming the statistics
When we’re caught up in self-doubt, we often feel alone in our experience and instinctively it doesn’t feel safe to express it.
As a coach supervisor, you can use the awareness you’ve gained from this article to proactively address this with the coaches you work with.
You could mention the Ladany et al. study and say to your client that most coaches feel uncomfortable to open up fully. This can help normalise the experience.
By simply bringing something difficult into awareness, it means we can navigate it consciously, together, rather than let it drive what happens in supervision.
By bringing up the potential that the coach might at some point feel uncomfortable opening up, as a supervisor you can contract with your supervisee how you can best navigate those moments if and when they occur.
What does the coach need from you in those moments? And how can the coach take responsibility and feel safe to verbalise these moments of discomfort when they do occur?
Remember you’re working on two levels
In addition to the technical, formative or ethical perspective you bring to your supervision, remember you will often be working on another, deeper level with your clients.
There’s often an inner conflict between wanting to do more (stretching/challenging ourselves as coaches) and wanting to know we’re already doing enough (receiving reassurance/positive strokes from our supervisor).
Knowing this, it’s important to find a balance together with our clients between supporting them enough to build trust and a strong supervision alliance, while also challenging them enough to stretch themselves and grow.
In the book “Challenging Coaching”, Blakely and Day refer to approaches that are low in challenge and high in support as “the cosy club” which is too comfortable. They continue by saying that approaches that are high in challenge, but low in support, often produce stress for the client.
Finally, they advocate for an approach they name “the loving boot” – a balance of high support and high challenge, where we go beyond powerful questioning and explore a higher degree of provocative challenge, pushing our clients (and ourselves) out of our respective comfort zones.
It’s not uncommon for coaches to feel uncomfortable to open up to their supervisors. Sharing details of their coaching can be a very personal, vulnerable experience.
As a supervisor, it’s important to be aware that there’s a potential for these dynamics to take place under the surface, so we can navigate these dynamics together with our clients, rather than let them drive what’s happening in supervision.
Contracting, naming the statistics and having an awareness of the ego states and levels you’re working on, are all effective methods to navigate this as a supervisor.
If you have other suggestions on how to navigate it, or if you’d like to share some feedback on this article, please leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!
References and Further Reading:
- Power in the Helping Professions by A Guggenbuhl-Craig
- Challenging Coaching by John Blakey and Ian Day
- KPMG Women’s Leadership Report 2020
- Study: Predictors of Supervisee Self-Disclosure Within the Supervisory Relationship, Chelsey Hess-Holden
- Trainee nondisclosure in supervision: What are they not telling you?, Ladany et.al
- Using TA in Supervision, Lynn Martin Psychotherapy
- What are the Ego States?
- 3 Functions of Coaching Supervision | ICCS