Themes in Coaching Supervision – Coaching or Therapy?

Coaching or therapy

Themes in Coaching Supervision – Coaching or Therapy?

I’ve written elsewhere on the three key functions of supervision – the normative, formative and restorative.

I’ve also shared how the normative function is often the one newer (and perhaps more experienced) supervisors shy away from for fear of seeming authoritarian, prescriptive or imposing.

As a reminder, the normative function focuses the supervisory dialogue on ethics, standards and norms of the profession.

In this article, we explore a theme from coaching supervision which, as well as being very commonplace, helps shed light on the normative function and shows that, far from being prescriptive, it can be immensely exploratory and catalytic.  

The topic comes up when a coach is questioning whether their work with a client is veering into the territory of therapy.  

The question may also come up where the coach hasn’t perceived this potential boundary breach but the supervisor has.

In either case, the supervisor and coach are left facing the question:

“Is this coaching or therapy?”

One might assume that a supervisor will state in no uncertain terms that this or that is therapy and that the coach is not following their professional standards.

But this is to misunderstand the role of a supervisor.

Whilst this may be (very rarely) the outcome of such a conversation, more typically the supervision will revolve around exploring key questions that come out of the originating question: “Is this coaching or therapy?” 

Some Supervisory Inquiries

Many questions spring from the first question and together the supervisor and coach can explore them collaboratively, recognising that they might reach agreement or difference.

Most obviously, one question is: 

What is the difference between coaching and therapy?

I make no attempt to answer that here as it’s been explored in many other contexts, nor is it the purpose of this article.  But what’s clear is that there is no one single answer that we can call upon to settle the matter for us.

Whilst, in the early days of coaching, the lines between coaching and therapy were often claimed to be clear and obvious, the truth has always been a great deal more complex.  

Indeed, I can recall early on, coach training schools admonishing coaches for talking about emotions as “that is for therapists!” It seems crazy now but the attempt to simplify the client into a task-oriented being was pervasive for some years.

Thus, when a supervisor and coach face this question, they face it together and they must explore the choices that support the coach in developing an ethical, sound response or to make decisions for the future if the issue has already passed.

With the question of what the difference is floating around unanswered, one could also ask:

Who decides what the difference is?

And, does it even matter?

Further questions might be:

  • What does the client want and what does that count for?
  • What does the coach feel able to do?
  • What are the risks? 
  • What are the benefits?
  • What might be lost in holding too firmly to a perceived boundary?
  • What might be lost in ignoring the perceived boundary?
  • Is the “therapeutic” topic ongoing or was it a one-off that just happened?
  • Was the coach aware and mentally “in control” or did they feel like the conversation was whipped away from them in some way?
  • Is the coach qualified beyond coaching to do this kind of work?
  • And, if so, does that need a new form of contracting?

These are not rhetorical provocations on my part but rather real questions that the coach and supervisor can explore together, potentially arriving at very different individual conclusions.

As you can see, the question of “is this coaching or therapy?” is not a binary one that results in a one word answer. 

This encapsulates the joy of supervision which is so often lost in the misperception of the word by a coach who has not yet experienced it.  Supervision is exploration not direction.

What happens when the coach and supervisor don’t agree?

I said above that the coach and supervisor might reach very different conclusions.

The coach might feel they it is perfectly fine to continue working in their manner whilst the supervisor might feel that it is no longer coaching and potentially even risky or unethical.

Again, there is no one answer to this.

What’s needed is a dialogue of navigating difference.

Unless the supervisor has genuine authority over the coach (which is extremely rare) for instance, because the coach and supervisor are working as part of a formal qualification or an internal coaching function in which the coach’s work can paused, then the supervisor can only advise and strongly recommend based on their own sense-making and ethical framework.

But coaching is not regulated and nor is psychotherapy or counselling.  In other words, the coach is legally entitled to do this kind of work and the supervisory relationship is one of consent and collaboration.

The process for a supervisor at this point would be to engage in a frank and clear conversation, sharing their concerns and then, making their own ethical choice about what to do.  

This choice might be about continuing to work with coach knowing that supervision remains useful even if this becomes a challenging block.  Or it might be that the supervisor must end the relationship and recommend they seek supervision from someone who can more effectively work with them.

Ultimately, supervision in a non-authority context comes down to exploration, collaboration, dialogue and choice.

The power of supervision in the normative function then is not one of authority but rather one of reflection and inquiry.

Author Details
Nick is the founder and CEO of the International Centre for Coaching Supervision and Animas Centre for Coaching. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a a passionate learner with a fascination for philosophy, psychology and sociology.
Nick is the founder and CEO of the International Centre for Coaching Supervision and Animas Centre for Coaching. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a a passionate learner with a fascination for philosophy, psychology and sociology.
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