What Is Coaching Supervision

Defining Coaching Supervision

Anyone who has thought about becoming a coaching supervisor will have asked themselves a variation of the following question: What does coaching supervision mean?

what is coaching supervision

Like coaching itself, there are so many individual definitions of coaching supervision, that it can be hard to pin it down. We have a sense of what it is for but until we train in it, we don’t typically know what lies behind the curtain!

The ICCS Definition for Coaching Supervision

“Coaching supervision is a collaborative conversation in which a supervisor and a coach reflect on the coach’s practice and wellbeing to help them develop and thrive as a coach whilst also ensuring the quality and integrity of their work for their clients, the systems they operate in and the coaching profession as a whole.”

Perhaps a simpler definition might be:

“To help coaches get better, be happier and become more effective for everyone involved.”

However, like most definitions, these leave as much unsaid as they say

This page aims to put that right for you!

To help you get clearer on what coaching supervision is, we will cover:

A Broader Description of Coaching Supervision

Both of the earlier definitions neatly describe supervision.

However, unless you’ve experienced it, it’s probably still hard to imagine what this looks like in practice.

So let’s start by breaking down the definitions above to try to make more sense of them.

The Focus of Coaching Supervision

Firstly, both definitions convey the fact that coaching supervision is about the coach’s work. It’s about their effectiveness as a coach and their lived experience of being a coach.

It is not, as some people mistakenly describe it, simply coaching for coaches. Coaching is typically client-led and agenda-free. Supervision by contrast explicitly concerns itself with the coach’s work rather than anything else a coach might bring.

For us to call something supervision, it must be exploring the professional dimension of the supervisee rather than other aspects of their life. That’s not to say that other aspects won’t come into supervision but it will always be through the lens of how it might impact the coaching.

The Key Stakeholders of Coaching Supervision

Another aspect captured by both definitions is that supervision is not only concerned with the person receiving supervision, but rather with all of the stakeholders involved. This includes the coach, their clients, the wider system in which the coaching takes place and the professional norms and standards of the coaching profession.

Unlike coaching then in which the client is at the centre of a coach’s concern, the coaching supervisor has an eye on all parts of the system.

This is often a surprising experience for coaches when they first train as supervisors since they have spent most of their coaching careers holding in mind the concerns of just one person - the client.

The Conversational Nature of Coaching Supervision

The other part the first definition has not yet touched upon is the conversational, collaborative and reflective nature of coaching supervision.

The word “supervision” can conjure up images and feelings of scrutiny, assessment, power, hierarchy and other such often-unpleasant concepts.

Nothing could be further from the truth in this case.

Coaching supervision is a safe environment and conversational space for growth, reflection and challenge between people working in the same field with, typically, a more experienced coach practitioner as a supervisor.

Supervision creates a space for a coach to consider their coaching practice from fresh angles, explore new ways of working, confront blind spots, unpick ethical dilemmas, unpack unresolved emotions about the work, notice relational challenges in the coaching and so much more.

The supervisor’s role is to expertly weave a conversation that ensures that the needs of the coach, both developmental and emotional are met, whilst at the same time, keeping in mind the wider stakeholders discussed earlier.

Over the years, this somewhat complex balance has been more clearly recognised as having three major functions - or areas of focus - and we’ll turn to these next.

Exploring Other Definitions of Coaching Supervision

defining coaching supervision
In the book “ Effective Supervision for the Helping Professions” by Michael Carroll, there was a striking definition of supervision from Sheila Ryan:

"Supervision interrupts practice. It wakes us up to what we are doing. When we are alive to what we are doing, we wake up to what it is, instead of falling asleep in the comfort stories of our clinical routines and daily practice…the supervisory voice acts as the irritator interrupting repetitive stories (comfort stories) and facilitating the creation of new stories.” (Ryan, 2004: 44)"

Michael Carroll, Effective Supervision for the Helping Professions

This definition of supervision focuses on the purpose of supervision rather than the process. When we define supervision by the process, it risks blinding us to new and creative ways to achieve the aims for which it is designed.

And whilst Ryan was writing from the perspective of homoeopathy, coaching supervision aims at the same thing.

Yet it is also far more than just avoiding complacency and comfort zones. It’s about enrichment, challenge, boundaries, ethics, client welfare, improved outcomes, systemic thinking, emotional release, new perspectives and putting things in perspective, ensuring professional standards, and much more.

In his foreword to “ In Love with Supervision” by Robin and Joan Shohet, Ben Fuchs describes supervision as:

…the practice and discipline of self-reflection and facilitated inquiry into the dilemmas that can arise whenever human psychology plays a part. In this regard, supervision can be seen as a lens, a way of looking at any situation and oneself; a way of being in the world; a way of seeing with new eyes.

Ben Fuchs in Robin & Joan Shohet’s In Love with Supervision

Indeed, a frequently used reframe of the word supervision by those involved in this field, in a bid to overcome the notions of hierarchy and power, is that of supervision; a higher way of seeing.

From a more prosaic, but more actionable perspective, we can think of coaching supervision as being a process of reflective practice within a collaborative relationship.

The coaching supervisor and coach (supervisee) explore the coach’s work through a range of approaches, lenses and subjects of inquiry in order to bring about better outcomes for the end-user, the system in which they are working and the coach themselves.

In a similar vein, Hawkins and Shohet in their classic book, “ Supervision in the Helping Professions”, describe it as:

“…a joint endeavour in which a practitioner with the help of a supervisor, attends to their clients, themselves as part of their client practitioner relationships and the wider systemic context, and by doing so improves the quality of the work, transforms their relationships, continuously develops themselves, their practice and the wider profession.”

Peter Hawkins and Robin Shohet, Supervision in the Helping Professions

This definition introduces a new element, namely the responsibility of the coaching supervisor to the profession as a whole.

Whilst coaching supervisors are not gatekeepers to the profession (this role could be said to be held by the coaching schools and the professional bodies), supervisors certainly do hold a unique position in attending to the ongoing quality of the work taking place in the profession through the close relationship they have to the coaches’ practice.

Bringing in the important relational dynamic within supervision, de Haan in “ Supervision in Action” describes it as:

"…disciplined reflection-in-relation wherein case history and principles are transformed into new possibilities for action and skills."

Erik de Haan, Supervision in Action

It is hard to overstate the importance of the relational stance in supervision and, far more so than in traditional coaching, the supervisor uses themselves and the quality of the emerging supervisory relationship as tuning-forks that chime with what else might be going on through the coaching system.

The 3 Functions of Coaching Supervision

There have been several attempts to clarify the main functions of supervision.
3 functions of supervision

One of the most commonly used, and the one that we adopted, is that of Inskipp and Proctor who devised the memorable triad of:

These three areas of focus enable us to understand the core purpose and aims of supervision.

The Formative Function

The formative function concerns itself with the coach’s skills and effectiveness and might lend itself to conversations around:

The Normative Function

The normative function is concerned with standards, ethics and codes of practice. Here, the supervisor helps the coach to consider where and how the coaching is encountering ethical dilemmas or to what extent the coach might be breaching accepted norms.

Conversations here might be around:

The Restorative Function

The third of these areas of focus - the restorative function - is concerned with the emotional wellbeing of the coach.

Like its cousins, psychotherapy and counselling, coaching can be emotionally impacting for the coach. Clients can bring challenges, difficulties, stories of loss, organisational stresses and much more.

This can leave a coach depleted and tired and even lead to burn-out and an increasing insensitivity as they develop a hard skin

Supervision offers a safe space to release some of this pent up emotion. It helps to recognise it, name it, normalise it and process it.

This is a key part of the restorative function. We can think of this as enabling the coach to come back to themselves.

Conversations here might include topics like:

Another take on the 3 Functions of Supervision

We came up with a way to think about these three functions that perhaps makes it somewhat simpler to understand.

How are coaching supervision and mentor coaching different?

A question that frequently comes up is what the difference is between coaching supervision, coaching and mentor coaching.
what is coaching supervision

We hope you’re already beginning to see some differences. But to make it clearer, we’ve put together this comparison table.

We do, of course, recognise that within all these disciplines, there are different ways of working and you may not fully agree with our summaries.

We are certainly not suggesting that every coach, mentor coach or coaching supervisor has to conform to these descriptions. Our aim has been to capture the commonly understood and generally accepted way of working in each area.​

Who Uses Coaching Supervision and When?

Now we’ve established what coaching supervision is, we might ask when a coach accesses it and what prompts them to seek supervision.

It would be fair to say that coaching supervision was a rarity not so long ago. Not many coaches, once qualified, sought out a supervisor.

Supervision has often been used with training schools teaching coaches but often this is focused on the competencies as is more akin to mentoring.

However, in more recent years, coaching supervision has been recognised as a vital part of a coach’s ongoing professional development.

This is partially a result of the growing normalisation of supervision within organisations who expect coaches to be supervised. But, it’s also a reflection of the growing maturity of the coaching profession and the desire for coaches to develop and challenge themselves and their work.

The reality now is that coaching supervision can be used throughout a coach’s professional lifetime, from the early days of their training right through to their being an elder statesperson of the profession!

Likewise, coaching supervision lends itself to all aspects of a coach’s experience. It is not a remedial approach but a transformational and developmental one.

Most professional coaching bodies now expect coaches to undertake supervision as part of their coaching credentials and their ongoing lifelong development and it has developed its own set of competencies as a profession.​

Who Becomes a Coaching Supervisor?

Now we know who uses supervision, we can ask ourselves who becomes a coaching supervisor.
what is coaching supervision

There’s no question that coaching supervisors would be expected to have a good level of experience as a practising coach. Whilst supervisors might not only coach within their supervision, it is certainly important that they have the experience that will inform how they supervise.

We suggest a coach has at least 250 hours of coaching experience. But in reality, most coach supervisors have considerably more.

But once that threshold has been crossed, what makes a coach want to become a coaching supervisor?

We think it comes down to four key areas:​

1. Transformational experience

Firstly, the very act of becoming a coaching supervisor is hugely impactful on the coach’s own practice. It tends to be a very transformational experience for coaches who begin to see their own coaching with a new level of depth.

2. Supporting other coaches

Secondly, a coach becomes a supervisor because they want to support other coaches in their growth and development. Chances are, they already do in a very casual manner, helping less experienced coaches overcome challenges or address questions.

3. Inspired to make a greater impact on the world of coaching

Thirdly, coaches who become supervisors do so in order to improve the quality of coaching that takes place in the world. They tend to be drawn to want to make coaching better and to see it have a greater impact in the world.

4. The natural next step for experienced coaches

Lastly, becoming a coaching supervisor is a natural next step for experienced coaches to add a new service to their practice.

Conclusion

It probably goes without saying that this page only scratches the surface of what coaching supervision is. There have been dozens of books written on the topic all with their own take.

What we hope we’ve offered you is a clear starting point to understanding what coaching supervision is.

If you would like to know more, why not read some further articles in our blog that cover some of the supervision models.

And if you’d like to become a coaching supervisor, check out our fully accredited coaching supervision training course.​

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