“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things – that’s all.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all’
Alice in Wonderland
Ever since I first encountered coaching in the very early 2000s, I have been struck by its perpetual struggle to navigate, grapple with and challenge the meaning of its own professional label.
Every coach (at least, of the humanistic-orientation) knows that coaches don’t coach!
And just like Humpty Dumpty, the coaching profession has been determined to change the meaning of the word “coach”.
The question is though, which is the master?
I’ll expand on this shortly but the reason this post is sitting on the ICCS website is that the very same dynamic is at play with the word supervision.
Supervisors don’t supervise.
And guess what…
The same is the case in counselling. Counsellors don’t counsel.
Oh, to be a mentor and do what it says on the tin!
One of the struggles this has set up within the helping professions of coaching, supervision and counselling is that we so often have to start by explaining the very meaning of our own professional title as being counter to expectations.
“I’m a coach but I won’t be giving any advice or guidance.”
“I’m a supervisor but it’s not my job to instruct or assess you.”
“I’m a counsellor but I won’t offer any counsel!”
Oh dear! Where did it all go so wrong and is there anything we can do about it?
In this article, I want to explore the challenge presented by these titles and whilst I won’t be advocating for an actual change in terminology (I think we’re too far down the road for that) I will at least offer some alternatives that are truly more fitting.
In writing this piece, I set out not so much to offer a solution, as to share my thinking on the conundrum we all face as coaches and supervisors and to offer some alternatives we could play with – if only in how we explain to a prospective client what we really do!
Firstly, however, I’m not a counsellor and nor have I had much involvement with this profession. In the interests of credibility, therefore, I won’t explore this term any further other than to say that I suspect many counsellors face this same challenge. I feel your pain!
Now let’s turn to coaching and supervision and turn to the trusty dictionary definitions of “coach” and “supervisor”. Surely, we’ll see our professions standing out loud and proud here.
- a person who trains an athlete or a team of athletes:
- a football coach.
- a private tutor who prepares a student for an examination.
- a person who instructs an actor or singer.
I think we can all agree that none of these terms describes the kind of coach represented by the likes of the International Coach Federation or the Association of Coaching. That person, for all the efforts of the coaching bodies, has simply not made it into the dictionary at all!
So what about “supervisor”?
- a person who supervises workers or the work done by others; superintendent.
- Education. an official responsible for assisting teachers in the preparation of syllabuses, in devising teaching methods, etc., in a department of instruction, especially in public schools.
Again, this does no justice to the supervision profession that has built up around psychotherapy and coaching.
It’s as if our professional titles don’t exist outside of our own paradigm.
Even a search for “coaching supervision” on Wikipedia, the 21st century repository of all knowledge, brings up a blank with just sporadic references within articles about other topics.
Is this a problem for coaching and coaching supervision?
In one way, no, it isn’t a problem.
We’ve gone 30 years with this issue and we’ll keep going. Coaches find a way.
But in another way, it is deeply problematic.
It seems to show that the work we hold so dear, and around which a whole profession has emerged, has yet to truly penetrate the wider consciousness and lexicon of those who hold the reins of semantic meaning.
My own sense is that this points to a twofold problem of sorts.
The first problem is that, even within the professions themselves, coaching and supervision are still loosely defined and practised. One coach sticks religiously to the principles of non-advice whilst another quite freely offers advice and information. There are multiple definitions all of which offer a different flavour.
When it comes to supervision, there is less understanding even within the profession itself. For many coaches, supervision and mentoring are essentially synonymous and the word carries overtones of hierarchy and scrutiny that are at odds with the coaching ethos itself.
A second and bigger problem exists though.
This is that a failure of coaching and supervision to establish a foothold in the established meaning of these words (beyond being professional jargon) represents a real barrier to wider adoption of these practices.
For all the concerns coaches have of market saturation, the truth is that the average person asked about coaching naturally thinks about sports coaching.
The word “coach” does not mean what we want it to mean yet and the need to continuously try to redefine it on our terms becomes a constant barrier to adoption. We might sit, imperiously, like Humpty Dumpty and say that a word means what we want it to mean, but the world doesn’t seem to be listening.
But perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse and the real issue is that the dictionary definitions of these words is simply a reflection of the current status of both coaching and supervision in the wider world. They are still niche. Perhaps the meaning changes after adoption not beforehand.
Nevertheless, this gives the lie to recent hubris in the coaching field that coaches are the people who will change the world. This is something I have increasingly seen within coaching with language that seems to position coaching as a panacea for the weaknesses of a self-centred world stuck in old ways of thinking.
Whilst I believe wholeheartedly that coaching makes a positive difference, both individually for clients and organisationally, it is surely hubris to use phrases like “Empowering the World Through Coaching” when we haven’t even been able to get our version of the word “coach” in the dictionary.
There has to be some recognition of our true place in the world as reflected in language.
We really have set ourselves a mammoth task by adopting words that already have a well-established meaning and that are markedly different from what we want them to mean.
If we must continuously fight the battles of meaning and expectation before doing the work we want to do then we have hobbled ourselves from the start.
What better describes coaching and supervision?
As I said at the start of this article, my intention is not to advocate for a change of language. The professional bodies, training schools, literature and practitioners have solidly coalesced around the words coaching and supervision. Let’s face it, the International Coach Federation is not going to be changing to the International Dialogic Federation any time soon, I suspect!
However, we do need to be able to convey the work we do to prospects and the world at large. So let’s think about what words actually would be more suitable. What would truly capture the essence of what we do?
For me, the heart of both coaching and supervision is dialogue.
Dig deeper into dialogue and you find relationship.
Dig deeper again and you find a relationship built on equality of thinking.
Dig down to the centre and you find a deep-rooted belief in self-actualisation; trust in the essential OK-ness of the person and a belief in their ability to grow, change and adapt.
And so coaching and supervision share both an epistemology (a belief about knowledge) and an ontology (a belief about being).
They are built on egalitarian foundations that value an individual’s personal experience and ability to sense-make and the power of relationship and dialogue to facilitate this.
The truth is that the words coaching and supervision barely scratch the surface of what these practices are about.
So, let’s play for a moment and imagine that we could rewrite the history of coaching and supervision and give them whatever labels we wanted to.
Where would we go with this?
What would we call them?
How could we break away from the legacy words from which they emerged?
This might not be appropriate for all forms of coaching (particularly the more performance-focused, plan-based coaching) but it perfectly described the kind of work our coaches do. Transformational change, recalling Mezirow, focuses on loosening and changing the internal structures of thought and belief – of how someone thinks of themselves, others and the world around them.
For us in the coaching world, these transformations are brought about through dialogue – a collaborative conversation of discovery and inquiry.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we should all tear up our business cards and have them redesigned with “transformational dialogician” emblazoned on them! I get it. We’re coaches and we’re supervisors and these words are here to stay.
But wouldn’t it be beautiful to be able to truly communicate what we do rather than what we don’t do.
My wife is Chinese and she struggles to understand why the coaching profession chose a word to describe what we do when it’s not what we do. In Mandarin the word coach is jiàoliàn (教练) and it refers to sports coaching. There is no other word that translates coaching as we mean it.
How can we truly change the world when we can’t even give a good name to what we do?
I recently came across another term which resonated with me and uses the same thread of thinking as my transformational dialogue term. This was Claire Pedrick’s transformative conversations. Again, I think this does much greater justice to the work we do as coaches and supervisors.
Claire goes one step further by challenging the use of words such as client too. For Claire, clients are thinkers and whilst you might debate whether thinking is the only process at play in coaching, it’s clear that Claire is grappling deeply with the use of words in the work we do.
Whilst we are likely going to remain coaches, I do believe it’s vital that we continue to come to terms with what we really do and build language around it.
So how does this all relate to coaching supervision?
So now let’s focus on coaching supervision.
The motivation behind this article was to surface and challenge the misunderstanding of the spirit and philosophy that underpins coaching supervision caused by the very title it uses.
It’s clear that this is something many in the coaching supervision profession are aware of. A frequently used word-trick in the profession splits supervision into two words: super – vision. This is smart and it works. But it’s also a sign of the discomfort held generally in the supervision field around its own title.
For me, supervision is another form of transformational dialogue.
What changes is not the title per se but the parameters and purpose of the work, the choice of thinking-frameworks (ie. models), the focus of attention (from the coaching dyad to the supervisory system) and, to some degree, the specific competencies that define what good looks like in this area of dialogue.
If this profession were to have a more appropriate title, perhaps it could be reflective practice facilitator. Notice how that defuses the authority that is tied up in the word supervisor.
As I said at the very start, the truth is that a supervisor doesn’t supervise. They are not, as the dictionary would have it, “a person who supervises workers or the work done by others”
What they actually do is facilitate a deeply reflective space that enables the coach to notice what’s happening mentally, somatically and relationally in order to explore their work in service of the whole system of coach, client and wider context.
The fact that we have to overcome the word supervision to get to that seems an unnecessary hurdle to engaging coaches in what is an extraordinarily positive, formative, restorative experience.
As a non-native English speaker, my wife brings a fresh eye to this, and discussing this article with me, she commented that it’s a shame coaching and supervision hadn’t created a title unique to the profession. She pointed to the word au pair as an example of a title that beautifully conveys a distinct meaning that’s different from, yet clearly related to, a nanny.
That struck me as a perfect example of how a word can embody its own meaning that communicates the nuances of its difference without trying to reinvent an existing category.
Of course, in the coaching and supervision world, that horse has long since bolted, but I’m curious what you would call coaching and supervision if you could start from scratch.